Today we went on a tour of the caves beneath Sint Pietersberg Hill. Initially I was not very excited because I heard the caves were man-made and as we all know The Netherlands is not very famous with mountains, so I pictured a couple of small caves built in an attempt to fool tourists in Maastricht into paying for one more “attraction”. But after going there I was extremely impressed and can say the caves are definitely a MUST SEE SIGHT while in Maastricht.
There are 20 000 man-made tunnels which, if put together, would extend to 200 km. Currently only 8000 of those tunnels are left. The limestone hill was formed about 70 million years ago from animal skeletons and shells deposited at the bottom of a sea.
The Romans were the first ones to discover the limestone as a building material. Those Romans… is there is anything they haven’t discovered… They discovered that the limestone, even though soft when left to dry, becomes a perfect building material.
Lots of houses, the inner fortification of Maastricht and the Sint-Janskerk (the big red church on the Vrijthof Square) have been built using the limestone from the caves. By sawing blocks of limestone out of the Sint Pietersberg Hill thousands of tunnels were created and eventually the so-called caves. And strangely enough the tunnels are currently 10 meters high and supported by pillars. In the past the tunnels have been used for people to escape from Belgium to the Netherlands and vice versa during the wars.
What I found most astonishing is the fact that history has left its marks everywhere around the tunnels. You turn around and you see writings on the walls dated 1785. There are beautiful chalk drawings, some of which are more than 200 years old.
During the World War II, the caves beneath Sint Pietersberg Hill played a major role in the defense plan of the city. An evacuation plan for Maastricht residents turned the caves into a place that could house around 45 000 people. The caves had not only a well and primitive toilets, but also one protestant and two catholic chapels, and a bakery with five ovens. When walking around the dark cold tunnels for half an hour I did think that if the bakery would have been open I wouldn’t mind grabbing a snack!
An executive evacuation decision was never made, and eventually only a couple of thousand people took refuge in the caves for 10 days in 1944.
It does not sound like a long time, but when you feel the coldness and 98% humidity, then you would reconsider the insanity of the idea of people living in the caves.
Furthermore two major events took place during those 10 days and both were commemorated on the walls: a dog died and a baby was born. Those events were noted in the history of the caves by a small plate for the dog Flokki and a drawing for the baby born.
There is also a contemporary picture of the man born there hanging on the wall. And the lucky man celebrated his 50th and 65th birthdays in the caves.
Also the caves were the place where a very special fossil of the Maastricht Monster Joe was found. Maastricht residents prided the monster and tourists from all around would come just to see it. Unfortunately the French took the monster during the occupation and it is now displayed in the Natural History museum in Paris. The monster is still a painful topic for people from Maastricht and a point of debate between France and Holland.
My recommendation: Grab a sweater and go visit the caves beneath Sint Pietersberg Hill!
About the author:
My name is Maria and I am from Sofia, Bulgaria. I recently graduated from Colorado College with a bachelor degree in International Political Economy. In 2010 I studied abroad in Maastricht University and I loved it so much that I had to come back. I am currently interning at the Center for European Studies at Maastricht University. I get to meet students and work with them everyday and I love it.
CES students are bright and eager personalities from all around the world who attend classes at all faculties of Maastricht University through the comprehensive CES programme of their choice. Programme topics range from ‘Business & Economics in Europe’, 'European Culture & Arts', 'Psychology & Neuroscience in Europe', 'EU Politics, Policy & International Relations', ‘European Society & History’ and 'European Law & Human Rights' amongst many others.