We didn't plan on going to Valkenburg, but we were staying at Kasteel Wittem for our 11th dating anniversary and we heard Valkenburg was the local place to go for pubs and people watching. It turns out there was a lot more to see and do, and we were surprised and disappointed to return home to our Netherlands Lonely Planet guide and see this charming place described simply as, "an over-commercialized tour bus destination." That's a travesty to us! We had such a lovely time there, so we'd like to introduce you to the real Valkenburg.
We had no idea how far Valkenburg was from Wittem, but it seemed like walking distance, so we planned to head out for a stroll in the morning, see a few sights and grab dinner and drinks in town before making our way back to our hotel. It turned out to be a beautiful walk, even if it was about three times longer than we expected!
On the way, we came across the castle garden of Kasteel Schaloen in Old Valkenburg. The entire attraction had nothing to do with the castle itself, but with the former kitchen garden turned herbal and historical garden and a 300 year old water mill. We impressed the volunteers at the entrance with our rudimentary Dutch and proceeded to walk around the garden which was fascinating in and of itself. The English guide was quite different than the Dutch signs throughout, but I think we got the gist of most things, which ranged from plant types and natural history to historical practices and legends.
A large part of the park has been designed as a sanctuary for birds, with plant life providing food for them throughout the seasons. We also learned about the practice of bee-keeping. Over 9000 bee masters are active in the Netherlands, and 300 of those are located in this area of South Limburg.
The water mill housed a small educational exhibit and opened out into a romantic landscaped garden and the castle itself.
We continued on our way into Valkenburg, rushing a little to find the Velvet Cave before it closed, and we managed to get ourselves into the last tour of the day. The tour, like everything else in the area, was in Dutch, not English. Despite all of our travels throughout the world, this is the first time we've ever had to go on a tour when we didn't understand the language, and made us appreciate how difficult travel can be for people whose first language is not English. All in all, I think we did quite well in the darkness of the caves with our kindergarten level of Dutch, and later read the English "description" of the tour to fill in the blanks. Even if we couldn't have understood a word, we would have been impressed.
The caves are made of marl, formed over thousands of years from marine skeletons. This marl was used to build houses, churches and castles. In 1853, to make the caves into a tourist attraction, they were decorated with drawings by covering the walls with charcoal and then scratching out the drawing into the marl below. Many of these drawing depict stories and historical events.
In September of 1944, about 600 people from Valkenburg sought shelter in the caves from the heavy fighting that took place in the area just a week before Liberation from WWII. It's not the only time the caves offered a safe haven. In 1794, Catholic priests were forced to conduct their services in secret here.
These caves are sort of like a fun house, but it was only in 1993 that two young boys snuck in, broke their flashlight, got lost, separated and died from hypothermia, dehydration and fear. True story, be careful out there kids!
The caves were an escape route for the castle ruins above, and it was there that we went next. Brian, of course, was going out of his mind. Three castles in one day! Mind blown.
After a long day of walking and exploring, we went in search of a restaurant terrace our hotel bartender/concierge had recommended, and ended up walking ourselves clear out of town when we tried to figure out how to get into a brewery that was apparently undergoing renovations. So we walked back to town centre and found ourselves an amazing patio overlooking a building which used to be...a castle.
We continued to dilly dally in town before catching a bus back to our hotel because it was beautiful and we were happy. Valkenburg is clearly one overnight stop on a longer tour, as our Lonely Planet alluded to. But like many such places, it isn't ashamed of what it has to offer. We love these quaint, small town oddities because one of the greatest things about travelling is the weird, unexpected and just-a-little-bit cheesy experiences that aren't on everyone's bucket list. If you're stopping in Valkenburg, maybe you don't expect much - hell, we were expecting nothing - but we had an amazing time anyway.
Valkenburg is a real life example that if you are genuinely looking for an adventure, you can find it anywhere! Sometimes it's worth throwing out that Lonely Planet Guide to see what hidden gems you can find on your own!