Friday afternoon we drove from Cologne to Maastricht, in the far southwest corner of the Netherlands. It is a historic city and seemed to make a good stop on the way to France. Best yet, we got to sleep in a Gothic monastery! We stayed in the Kruisherenhotel, an ultra-modern hotel built inside a 15th-century church and monastery. Our small, pretty hotel room is in the monastery and overlooks the cloister. The reception, restaurant, and lounge are in the church, which is amazing! You can read a book on a plush modern sofa in a former side chapel, right across from a medieval altar. Magnificent! I wonder if I can find a medieval stone altar for our house...
We had dinner in the hotel restaurant, because it was raining outside and how often do you get a chance to dine under a medieval vault? But it wasn't that great of an experience, sadly. It turned out to be a very fancy restaurant with seriously high prices, and although the food was really good (David had fish on risotto and I had quail with saffron pilaf), the staff seemed nervous and uptight while trying very hard to be fancy, the service was really slow, and we weren't totally sure if we were acceptable in our travel clothes. So we were glad to be done.
However, we did sit near a group of well-dressed British ladies, one of whom took a call from her husband that we really enjoyed overhearing: "Hello, Dahling, are you on your way to the country? I've just had my first sip of wine in Maas... Mastr... [looks to her friends for assistance] Where are we again?" Later, she laughed so hard she snorted. Loved it.
Maastricht as a whole was nice, but David and I independently came to the same conclusion: it feels a little too much like Belgium, which it closely borders. It was remarkably different from the Dutch cities of the north we're more familiar with, like Amsterdam, Leiden and Delft - less orderly, less bicycles, less friendly, and less English spoken (everywhere else, they speak it enthusiastically and like natives).
As far as my work goes, however, Maastricht has one major thing going for it: the oldest church in the Netherlands. I visited it Saturday morning while David explored the rest of the city. It's called St. Servaas and apparently some of it dates from as early as 1000. It's a really impressive Romanesque basilica in the German style, with twin towers and round apses at both ends. It also has a really good treasury, with room after room displaying some seriously great medieval stuff. That was a nice surprise.
The other highlight of Maastricht for me was the Selexyz Dominicanen, a Dominican church transformed into a bookstore! They sure know how to put their disused churches to good use in Maastricht. It was my two great cultural loves brought together in one place - quite a memorable experience! And I think they did a great job of preserving and using the old church.
This afternoon we had planned to drive from Maastricht to Reims, France, which is home to one of the best Gothic cathedrals in France. However, the French are currently getting totally out of control with nationwide strikes, because of a government proposal to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 (imagine!). Public transport has been interrupted for days, but since we have a car we thought we were fine.
But now the oil refinery workers have joined the strike so there are major fuel shortages. About 10% of gas stations are now empty, fuel supplies to the main Paris airport may even run out soon, and people have started panic buying. And every few days, about a million workers take to the streets to protest. There was one today and another scheduled for Tuesday. Oy vey. (Here's the latest from the BBC.)
Since there are nice things to take pictures of throughout Europe, and we are, after all, the bosses of our little company, we quickly decided France is not worth the hassle of tangling with protests or waiting for hours at a gas station. So we turned around and headed back to Germany.
We haven't totally given up on France yet, however; we'll stay in western Germany until mid-week, when there is going to be a vote on the pension reform bill in the Senate, and see if things improve. If they do, we'll probably start a revised French itinerary then. Otherwise, we'll spend our remaining time in Germany, Switzerland and Austria instead.