We ventured out after dark, leaving our quirky hotel room at Kaboom for the sparkling main street of Maastricht. This would lead us over the Sint Servaasbrug bridge and into the main square, Het Vrijthof, for Magical Maastricht, the city's Christmas market. The streets were more or less free of cars and bikes, but shops along the way were busy with pedestrian traffic picking up sweet treats and little gifts for upcoming Sinterklaasavond.
We read that Magical Maastricht is the largest Christmas market in the Netherlands. We wanted to explore it early in the season before the charm overstayed its welcome. In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas is celebrated by families from the arrival of Sinterklaas near the end of November up until Sinterklaasavond on December 5th. When Sinterklaas leaves the country, preparations for Christmas begin. It's not a longer holiday season than in Canada where the Christmas decorations are overtaking department store shelves before Halloween has even passed, but the Netherlands has less patience for the commercialism of the season.
Neither of us quite knew what to expect. The Christmas spirit has quite eluded us for a couple of years in a row, reeling from a family member's cancer diagnosis in 2013 and then grieving her loss in 2014. The past two years we were exhausted and weary, and Christmas was one more thing to endure with a smile but a heavy heart. Now in a new country, we are without a legacy of Christmases passed. We have none of our handpicked and gifted decorations. We will miss our marathon baking day. We will be empty chairs at family gatherings. We are left to discover, what is Christmas to us now?
Maastricht's market was surrounded by busy restaurant patios which all contributed to an overwhelmingly Italian aroma. It was a chilly ten degrees, but patrons roasted in everything from parkas to t-shirts under red heat lamps. No one looked the least bit uncomfortable.
We turned into the market and were hit by the smell of damp wood, fried dough and roasting meat. A ferris wheel presided over the festivities. This was a good start.
As it turned out, there wasn't much "Christmas" at this Christmas market, besides one vendor named "Mirakels." There were stalls selling leather goods, jewelry, wool, skincare but clearly stuff was beyond the point here. All around us were people just enjoying an evening out and congregating near the ice rink for drinks and small bites with friends and family. There was no buying frenzy, no gluttonous rush for indulgences, no panicked gift-seeking eyes.
We wandered in and around the market for some time just enjoying the lights, grabbed dinner on a restaurant patio and took a ride on the ferris wheel.
We were having a wonderful time, but our evening felt incomplete somehow. I think the large scale of Canadian everything has dulled our senses to some of the finer things in life. A Chistmas market without anything Christmassy to buy? A Christmas market so small you can walk through it in ten minutes? A Christmas market without hordes of frantic people? It's just not quite Christmas without being overwhelmed.
We left the market down a side street and explored a little further. It was absolutely stunning the way that we could turn any corner and find the most beautiful lights and decorations. Sometimes the streets were so quiet these displays seemed to be placed there just for us to enjoy them.
That was exactly how we felt coming upon this smaller square adorned all over with glowing orbs. It was a magical moment just impossible to pass on through, and we settled down on a restaurant patio for a drink with a view.
Magical Maastricht might not be Europe's best Christmas market, on account of it being pretty lean on the Christmas part, but it is magical. The whole city centre is a place to wander and explore and enjoy.
In the morning, we realized that we were very close to Valkenburg, a touristy little town we had visited in May, and which has a Christmas market in its underground caves. We decided to check it out on our way back to Haarlem.
Upon arrival at Valkenburg's train station, we realized that Valkenburg doesn't just have an underground market. The entire town transforms for Christmas with markets and special events throughout town, and street signs direct the way along the "Kerstroute" (Christmas Route). We spent six hours there and we didn't even see everything.
Ours were some of the only coloured heads in a sea of grey, but streets were full of shoppers, diners and tourists. This small town populated by seniors somehow seemed more bustling by day than Maastricht.
We followed the Kerstroute through Santa's Village, Santa's Gift Factory and Kerstmarkt Gemeentegrot. Many of the market stalls were similar to what we found in Maastricht, with a few more Christmas baubles between them, but their sprawl throughout the town centre was more impressive.
The star of Valkenburg's Kerstroute is the Kerstmarkt Fluweelengrot in the underground caves. Last time we were here, we took an eerie tour in almost complete darkness. This time the cool, damp-smelling, sandy marlstone caves were lit, decorated and full of vendors.
We have no idea how big this market was, but the tunnel seemed to go on forever, punctuated by decorative scenes to look at, cave art to admire, merchandise to buy, samples to try and refreshments to drink. Even though it was a single path in one direction, sometimes we ended up browsing completely alone.
Here again we found moments that seemed made for us alone. No hassling, no frenzy, no worries. When we emerged from the caves, the sun had long gone down. We bought fresh waffles by the roadside that burnt our hands and warmed our bodies for the journey back home, while a new kind of Christmas lit a fire in our hearts.