Maastricht Carnival: to beer or not to be here

Why I love Carnival in Maastricht
Nowhere in the world have I come across the magic that is Carnival in Maastricht. The people, the music, the atmosphere, the sheer joy of life make it a magical celebration. Age, language, nationality and social status are all forgotten as everyone comes together for a wonderful three day party.

It reminds me of a gigantic British pantomime: everyone dressed in a colourful mixture of costumes, with music and singing. There is no script and no director, and yet each year it comes together beautifully.


My advice to anyone is that you have to experience it. Enter into the whole spirit of Carnival with and open mind and heart. Don’t try and understand it too much, just go with the flow. We Brits are known for having a stiff upper lip; this won’t work at Carnival as it will get caught on something as you squeeze yourself through the crowds.

My first impressions
As an English woman living in the Netherlands, my first taste of the traditions of Carnival was the Sunday before the 11th of November in 2004. This was for the choosing of the annual Carnival song, when people vote for the best new song written that year. I didn’t understand a word, so my vote was for the tune and not the words. I find singing la la la la to most songs worked well for me to start with and still does on occasion.

Friends and family from Maastricht will often try and translate the words and meanings of songs for me. This often results in hilarity for us all. The words don’t always have a meaningful translation. Once it was explained to me that a song was about cows dancing in an Alp meadow. My expression said it all.

The launch of the Carnival season
My next initiation to Carnival was on the 11th of the 11th. This is an important date for the people of Maastricht, as it hails the start of the Carnival season. The Carnival season is called the 5th season in the Maastricht area. The whole Vrijthof square is filled with people singing and swaying to the live music taking place on stage. I didn’t need to understand the words in order to get swept along with the atmosphere and spirit of music and beer on the day.


Having just got to grips to slightly understanding the Dutch language, I was completely lost when trying to understand anything that was said to me. Don’t let this deter you. Everyone was willing to try and speak English and if all else fails, facial and hand gestures work well in any language. I must admit that I did sneak away a couple of times in search of a good cup of English tea.

The drunk bands
I am lucky to be able to see Carnival through the eyes of the ‘drunk band’ ProBeerDers to which my Maastricht partner and I belong. He was born and bred in Maastricht and it is through his love of Carnival and Maastricht that I have been able to get an insight to the real spirit that is Carnival.

We live away from Maastricht, but return for family and Carnival events. I am known as the international member and as much of an oddity for the fact that I rarely drink beer. My capacity for tea is a source of great amusement among the band members.

Being part of the ProBeerDers gives me a chance to be part of a group of Carnival fanatics. They have welcomed me with open arms and embraced the fun and challenges of having an English member in their ranks.

Even though we are called a drunk band, I think this must apply to the music and the way we play it, as much as to the beer we drink. There are a number of drunk bands in Maastricht. There is no record of the exact number, but it is over 40. We can be seen playing traditional songs as we march from bar to bar. Each bar is treated to a number of songs played with great enthusiasm and gusto. The quality of the music luckily is not so important as long as the tune can be recognised.

It is then time for the band members to enjoy a beer or two. We chat with old friends or instant new ones before once again it is time to move on. Bands can vary greatly in size, with many avoiding the busier bars, due to the lack of space. Each band has its own colours and flag. We all share the love of making music. When two marching bands, both playing different songs, happen across each other, well … I can honestly say, I have never heard anything like it.

A development for the worse in the past few years is that bars seem to be playing their outside music louder and louder. This has made it difficult at times for passing drunk bands to continue to play.

The people of Maastricht
I find the people of Maastricht to be welcoming and happy. Age is no barrier to having fun at Carnival time. Young and old mix and celebrate together. From the youngest in a pushchair to the elderly, everyone joins in with the same enthusiasm and love of life, rarely seen anywhere else.

There are no social barriers. The fact that everyone is dressed up and keen to have a good time removes all of the usual inhibitions. Everyone meets on an equal footing.

No matter how full a bar is we are met with smiles as the band squeezes its way in. Our drums, trombones and the flag held high, we play our way through the door. This is where speaking English really comes in to its own. Calling out ‘make way for the English’ as I squeeze through usually has the effect of making people turn around and then I quickly move through the space.

The bars
During Carnival the bars are usually full to overflowing. Don’t let this put you off; there is always room for one or two more. The traditional music playing and the Carnival decorations all add to the spirit of Carnival. Everyone sings along and will make room for you. Our band carries a beer tray at all times, which holds up to 30 drinks, this is at least as important as our musical instruments.

To wear or not to wear
A very common mistake for people visiting Carnival, as I soon learned, is to dress up at the wrong times. On the Friday evening visitors from outside Maastricht can be seen in the town in full Carnival costume. It is very easy then to spot the non-locals. They then repeat this on the Saturday, another day when the natives of Maastricht don’t wear their Carnival costumes. Wrong again! On the Sunday, the first official day of Carnival, everyone is dressed ready for the festivities. It is often then that the visitors having got it wrong for the past two days decide to play it safe and wear their everyday clothes. They could not be more wrong! Once again they stand out in the crowds.

Strong shoes are a must, cobbled streets and busy bars are stomping grounds not style parades. Costumes should fit well or you are likely to leave half of it behind as you make your way through a crowd. They can vary greatly. Anything goes, from someone wearing a coat inside out to a working jukebox.

The Prince of Carnival
Each year a new prince is announced exactly four weeks before Carnival. His role is to lead the people of Maastricht to and through Carnival. This is the first opportunity of the Carnival year for the drunk bands to play en masse to the crowds. I find the traditions and speeches surrounding this harder to follow as a non Maastricht dialect speaker. I do however love to follow the Prince’s arrival at the railway station on the Saturday, the day before Carnival Sunday. His procession as the crowds completely cover him in paper confetti is hilarious.


And so to this year
Already Carnival activities are underway in Maastricht. Sunday 27th January will see the battle of the bands. Each drunk band along with a Carnival club official will entertain both the people of Wyck (on the East bank of the Maas) and themselves. They are then judged on the level of entertainment enjoyed by all. A barrel of beer, a trophy and a taste of carrot cake is then awarded to the winning drunk band.

Then we come to Carnival itself. I can’t wait. My costume is packed already along with my good walking shoes. Maastricht I am ready!

D’Artagnan’s death at the 1673 siege of Maastricht

horseIf you have the chance, on a sunny morning, to contemplate the medieval towers of Maastricht from Mount Saint Pieter, you will not find it hard to imagine yourself back in centuries past. Strolling down the hill towards the city, you might pass along cornfields, stroke a horse’s head over the barbed wire and pick a poppy flower from the grass. Your steps slowly lead you towards Aldenhof park, at the gates of Maastricht…

But suddenly a tall cast iron statue reminds you that this place was not always so quiet and peaceful. Indeed, in ancient turbulent times, these very spots once resonated with the thunderous clamour of weapons. The statue portrays the glorious musketeer Charles de Batz-Castelmore, better known as d’Artagnan, who perished in 1673 during the siege of Maastricht by the armies of the French king Louis XIV.

D’ArtagnanUn pour tous, tous pour un, read the chiselled letters on the socle – One for all, all for one. The bold eyes of the musketeer, who is drawing his sword, speak of firmness. The statue is a tribute to a noble man’s courage and contempt of death as he remained true to his king and comrades.

The myth of d’Artagnan

The name of d’Artagnan acquired world fame thanks to the 19th century novels of the flamboyant French writer Alexandre Dumas, who in a matchless style described the gallant conversations and splendid sword fights of his hero. The D’Artagnan romances, which comprise The Three Musketeers and its sequels Vingt ans après and Le Vicomte de Bragelonne celebrate the martial exploits of the French king’s elite troops in gripping merry ventures.

Dumas found the basis for his characters in a novel published in 1701 by a certain Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras. Dumas’ stories, on their turn, were a source of inspiration for countless other books, plays and films about d’Artagnan and his fellow musketeers Athos, Porthos and Aramis.

But d’Artagnan is not just a myth. In France, schoolchildren learn how the illustrious Lieutenant-Captain of the king’s musketeers was killed before the ramparts of Maastricht. Dumas’ famous three other musketeers truly existed too.

The reality of war
Yet, even though it successfully stirs interest, the romantic genre which brought so much success to Dumas is not suited to reproduce a correct picture of history.

DumasIndeed, the d’Artagnan romances do not report on the violent reality of war, with its aftermath of plagues and misery. They do not ponder much on the injustice that fell upon poor local peasants when passing armies would lay them under contribution, or when rough soldiers would quarter in their villages and tear down their humble dwellings if these happened to be standing in the line of fire.

Nor did Dumas describe the fate of the besieged citizens of Maastricht, who were forced to help dig trenches, suffered of starvation and were killed by cannon balls flying about. No word either about the beastly rage of mercenaries, to whose merciless hands a city would sometimes be abandoned if it surrendered only after a long siege.

But why should indeed Dumas have written about the miseries of war? His primary intention was after all to tell stories in which readers would dream away…


Who was the real d’Artagnan?

d'artagnanCharles de Batz-Castelmore, Count d’Artagnan, was born in 1610 or 1611 in the castle of Castelmore in Lupiac, in the French province of Gascogne. In 1627, like many young noblemen, he travelled to the court of Louis XIII in Paris. There he became commander of the ‘grey’ musketeers, named after the colour of their horses. In fact, they were the king’s lifeguards, and accompanied him everywhere. D’Artagnan accomplished delicate tasks at the service of the crown: he escorted important prisoners and carried secret messages. He married in 1659, fathered two sons, but divorced a few years later. In 1672, he became governor of the Flemish city of Lille, which had come under French rule only a few years earlier. Here, too, he had to act with tact and authority.

The young republic
In 1632, the Dutch prince Frederik Hendrik of Orange had conquered the fortified city of Maastricht from the catholic Spanish Habsburg king. From that moment on, the city served as an outpost in the hands of the protestant Republic of the United Provinces of the Netherlands.

ShipThe young republic entered its golden age. Ship owners from Amsterdam sent their vessels around the world and rapidly acquired enormous riches. Holland became a refuge for Huguenots and free thinkers of all kinds, and a centre of art and science. Established powers like England and France saw this bloom with a mixture of envy and disdain, and tried in turns to deflate the daring Dutchmen. But this was no easy task.

During two sea wars against England, the fleet of the admirals Tromp and de Ruyter remained intact with remarkable skillfulness. But in 1672, the ‘year of disaster’, the situation became threatening: there was much discord in Holland about the princes of Orange, whose prominent position did not seem to fit a republic. Now England, France, Münster and Cologne all at once turned against the United Provinces of the Netherlands.

The Sun King

Sun KingIn those years, the French Sun King Louis XIV was building his baroque palace in Versailles. He was the soul of the alliance against Holland. Yonder in that small country of frogs by the sea, those princes of Orange were thinking a great deal of themselves, weren’t they? But had they been anointed kings like himself, his very Christian majesty by the grace of God? Didn’t his marriage with the Spanish infante Maria Theresa give him more rights to lay claims on the Spanish northern hereditary lands? The Dutch were just peasants. A country without a king was not a real country. Even France’s existence depended on its king. “L’Etat, c’est moi”, declared Louis XIV.

The Sun King believed that the French speaking regions of Alsace and Wallonia belonged to France’s natural territory. He wished to shift the country’s frontiers to the Rhine river. So he declared war on Holland.

Around this time, the famous poet Jean de la Fontaine wrote a political fable for his monarch, in which he portrayed ungrateful frogs (the Dutch) rising in revolt against the Sun (the French King), who was warming them. In the final lines of Le Soleil et les Grenouilles, the frogs are warned to beware against provoking the sun’s wrath:

Car si le soleil se pique,
Il le leur fera sentir ;
La république aquatique
Pourrait bien s’en repentir.

(For, should the sun in anger rise,
And hurl his vengeance from the skies,
That kingless, half-aquatic crew
Their impudence would sorely rue.)

But there was however one problem for the French: to reach the Rhine, Louis XIV had to conquer Maastricht. And Maastricht was one of the strongest fortified cities of Europe.

The siege of Maastricht
SiegeThe thirty-four year old Sun King took personal command over the siege of Maastricht. He pitched his tents on the Louwberg hill, next to the church of Wolder. His renowned fortifications engineer Vauban organised the technical aspects of the siege, such as the construction of provisional circumvallations to avert any relief force, and trenches of approach towards the city. Their English allies were under the guidance of the duke of Monmouth, a natural son of King Charles II.

D’Artagnan was Lieutenant Captain of the first company of the King’s musketeers. He was to concentrate his troops’ assault on the Tongerse gate (Tongersepoort).

In 1673, the fortress of Sint Pieter, the High and Low Fronts and the Waldeck bastion did not exist yet. But the walls around the city had already been provided with large outworks. To the north of the Tongerse gate for instance, stood a seventy metre long and forty metre wide earthen hornwork, perpendicular to the wall and supplied with a hiding place made of stone. Before the gate, among other fortifications, the Dutch had built a brick covered lunette, which later became known as the ‘demi-lune des mousquetaires’. To the south, stood yet another lunette, next to the De Reek watergate, where the Jeker streams into the city. The city had also been provided with underground passages which helped the besieged garrison identify and undermine the trenches of approach.

The attack
AttackOn the night of Saturday 24 to Sunday 25 of June, 1673, the French army captured the advanced lunette before the Tongerse gate. On Sunday morning, however, the Dutch garrison reconquered it with the use of explosives. The young and unthinking duke of Monmouth now persuaded the sixty-two year old d’Artagnan to take part in a counter attack without sufficient cover.

The musketeer had hardly recovered from the battle of the previous night. As he passed a bottleneck, he was hit in the throat by a musket bullet. D’Artagnan fell and succumbed to the fatal wound.

The duke stepped across his corpse and recaptured the lunette. Within a few days, the French army was able to make a breach in the city wall. The siege of Maastricht had lasted only thirteen days when the city surrendered on June 30, 1673.

D’Artagnan had been loved not only by his fellow musketeers, but also by the king himself. On the evening of that fateful Sunday, Louis XIV wrote in a letter to his wife: “Madame, today I lost d’Artagnan, in whom I had every confidence”.

After the capture of Maastricht, Louis XIV ordered a triumphal arc to be erected in Paris to celebrate this glorious feat of arms: a sculpture on the Porte Saint Denis represents an allegory of the surrender of the Dutch stronghold.

The King further immortalised the siege of Maastricht in paintings, struck medals and built a scale model of the city of Maastricht and its surroundings.

But the glory of war turned out to be transient: Sic transit gloria mundi. Within five years after the conquest of Maastricht, Louis XIV was forced to relinquish the city again, as a concession to the Dutch stadtholder, prince William III of Orange, who married Mary Stuart in 1677 and later on became king of England.

Selexyz Dominicanen opens in Maastricht

There was much interest for Maastricht’s impressive new bookstore last Saturday afternoon.

Selexyz Dominicanen, as it is called, is located in the city’s old Dominican Church. After many months of renovation the magnificent building is finally ready for its new purpose.

Selexyz Dominicanen opens in Maastricht

Selexyz Dominicanen is the result of a merge between Maastricht’s Bergmans bookshop and the Academische Boekhandel. The name Selexyz indicates that the new bookstore also belongs to the same chain as Selexyz Donner in Rotterdam and Selexyz Broese in Utrecht, among others. One of the most attractive characteristics of Selexyz bookstores is that they (usually) offer a wide selection of books in English… and at first glance, Selexyz Dominicanen did not look disappointing at all in that department!

The upper floors, which are soon to become accessible to the public, will certainly offer a spectacular view of the premises. At the back of the church clients and visitors can sit and admire the beautifully renovated ceiling frescoes, while enjoying a nice warm cup of tea or coffee…

In order to emphasise the medieval origins of the Dominican Church, there was a small medieval market at the entrance of the building. Visitors were also entertained with fighting demonstrations and medieval music.

The Dominican Church is located right next to the entirely redesigned Entre Deux shopping centre and close to Maastricht’s famous Vrijthof square. The new bookstore will certainly contribute to attracting even more customers to the area.

It seems unbelievable to think that the beautiful church once served as a parking garage for bicycles!

Photograph by Olya via

Update 10 January 2007: View from the upper floors at Selexyz Dominicanen

On my first visit to Selexyz Dominicanen, Maastricht’s new magnificent bookstore, the upper floors were not accessible to the public yet. Now they are, and here’s what they look like.

Did you notice the cross-shaped reading table? Everyone is welcome to take a seat and go through some of the magazines and newspapers that are kept in the gaps that run through the middle of the table.

Selexyz Dominicanen also organises many literary activities (mostly in Dutch), such as interviews with writers or book signing sessions. Have a look at the bookstore’s website for the detailed calendar of events.