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Dear fellow travellers
Do you not find that some towns have instant appeal? That's how we feel about Maastricht, a medium-size city tucked away in the southernmost part of the Netherlands - a region called Limburg. It's forty years since the last of the Limburg coal mines ceased production, after a long period of decline.
Anticipating the need for economic restructuring, the Dutch government started a major programme of investment in Maastricht in the 1970s. This year, the city's university marks the 40th anniversary of its foundation in 1976. Nowadays, visitors to Maastricht would barely credit that the town once relied very much on mining and allied industries.
For 135 years, Maastricht was also an important centre for ceramics, although the main factory producing tableware closed in 1985. Today, the one-time ceramics quarter finds new life as a residential and commercial district - and some locals would have you believe that the Avenue Céramique really is the gateway to the Mediterranean.
Therein lies the secret of Maastricht's considerable appeal. This is a northern European city which strongly plays the southern card. Listen to the way in which residents style their home city and you would think that Provence was just half an hour away on a local train. The Café Zuid in the Céramique district oozes "that southern feeling" (their words) with a menu that takes in tapenade and tapas.
Head over the River Meuse to the heart of the Old Town and you are more likely to find old Maastricht staples on the menus. One regional speciality is zoervleis (literally 'sour meat'); that's a slow-cooked cut of beef or horse meat marinated in vinegar and apple syrup and served with French fries. Another tasty local product is the semi-soft Rommedoe cheese - so pungent that you'll catch the whiff of the cheese from far away.
Maastricht has reinvented itself, shedding its old industrial image, and styling itself as a cosmopolitan, multilingual city that supports higher education, research and the creative sector. The old Dominican church is now a bookshop, while the nearby Basilica is not so liturgical as it sounds. It was never a church, but rather a stylish café in a plum spot in the Old Town. But Maastricht still has working churches aplenty, including two Roman Catholic basilicas. This southern part of the Netherlands has a much larger Catholic population than elsewhere in the country.
Maastricht secured its place in the European imagination by hosting the negotiations which led to the creation of the European Union (which replaced the European Community). The Maastricht Treaty was drafted in the city in early December 1991 - an event that will be recalled in a series of commemorations next month. It was this treaty which paved the way for the EU with the euro as its common currency. Maastricht has used its connection with the eponymous treaty to assert its credentials as a truly European city, albeit one that is still proudly Dutch. And it's that buoyant mood - strongly international and liberal - which underpins Maastricht's reputation as a city which cannot be ignored on the European stage. It's what makes the city such a nice place to visit.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)