Located in the southern-most tip of the Netherlands along the River Maas, Maastricht is quite literally in the heart of Europe – surrounded by Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany and only an hour from Brussels and KÃ¶ln. Sure you know Maastricht as the ‘birthplace’ of the European Union and the birthplace of the European currency. But I bet you don’t know much more about this historically rich and culturally vibrant city (and one well-positioned to become European Capital of Culture in 2018). Allow me to edify you.
Maastricht: Culture in spades
Maastricht’s yearly Kunst Tour art route takes you on a journey to the diverse art galleries around the city. This nomadic Art Manifestation highlights the creative practices of the Eregio region, through contemporary art, sound art and design presented over three days, starting from the central location and newly renovated artspace Timmerfabriek in the old Sphinx factory, and branching out all over the city, including the squat art spaces and last year to a concert event taking place on a bridge!
The open studio-tour on Sunday allows you to visit artists in their working environment, and the “Best Before Euregional Sound Art Tour” is available for download, giving you an aural taste of the 2009 Kunsttour in 100 second clips. Organised by Intro in Situ, the workspace for music and sound that has been supporting experimental avant-garde musical experiences in the city for 25 years, with a regular concert series in addition to the specialised AudioScoop program.
One of the best spots for people-watching is at Cafe Zondag, with large window spilling light into the cosy interior, big wooden tables and a simple yet excellent menu of soup, salad, bagels, panini, quiche and cake – they all go perfectly with the laid-back atmosphere and chilled out music on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. It’s on the bustling main street leading into the centre from the railway station, this corner oasis is definitely one of the most comfortable cafes in town.
If you happen to arrive during Maastricht’s spring carnival, you’ll be treated to an entirely different atmosphere, as the the city shuts down all normal activities and the streets are crowded with festive Limburgers, with everyone from the smallest children to cool students and pillars of society get dressed in a variety of outrageous costumes and go a little crazy for three days.
Friends and communities get together in groups to form merry musical bands and parade through the charming cobbled streets banging on drums and tambourines, blowing flutes and whistles, and stopping for a drink every few bars along the way.
The carnival has developed it’s own musical tradition over the years, with a regionally specific identity and recognisable songs that give local characters and flavour to the distantly related schlager-style music pumping out of every doorway. My favourite was the classic, ‘ding-a-ling-a-ling it’s the Alps express,’ although new songs continue to be written every year.
I had the good fortune to join a local band comprised of extended family friends, who had been playing together for 25 years, although the band was disbanded in 1999 due to ‘artistic differences’ so now they meet in this once-a-year event to celebrate no longer playing together!
The Carnival stems from religious traditions celebrating the end of winter, fertility and birth, in which society is turned inside out and upside down, a reverse-world where the commoner becomes King and the green-grocerwoman is raised in the centre of town in a symbolic gesture of worship.
Artistic squatting in Maastricht
Maastricht has a surprisingly developed underground scene consisting of various well-established Kraak (alternative art spaces). The newest of these is Artspace Rondeel (ARM), an art propagator which hosts all kinds of performances, musical and dance events in a welcoming and open community space in the industrial hall of an old asbestos removal company.
Artists from near and far collaborate together to generate new ideas and diverse projects. The room can be transformed with the event, holding a series of experimental dance and sound nights inside a gigantic decommissioned hot air balloon, with the adjacent ‘Asbest Bar’ giving a post-industrial aesthetic to the friendly ambiance. Eco-development philosophies are also highlighted by the organisers of the space, in everything from the sprawling garden courtyard to a recycling-musical workshop and visionary schemes including ‘slow biking’ and ‘desert hope – holistic economical design’.
B32 ‘artspice exhibition space for young and starting artists’ is a more traditional gallery space, albeit found in the living rooms of the house at Bourgognestraat 32, where for the past six years a range of local and international artists have mingled and exhibited their works. Infinite World II, Short Term Eternity and Five Seconds Later are just some of the intriguing titles to be shown here.
The longest running alternative cultural space is Landbouwbelang squat, located since 2002 in an abandoned grain factory on the river promises a ‘cultural freezone’ – with a Monday night vegan cafe and eclectic series of parties, concerts and gigs including ‘The ska is the limit,’ the intriguing ‘petit cirque du Balkan’ offerings ‘a full evening of fanfare, gypsy music, Russian hits, ska, Balkan swingers, movies, and crazy tunes to swing out of the pan,’ and other assorted musical and cultural treats.
The unique Netherlands squatting laws mean that if a building is empty and remains unused for 12 months, and the owner has no tenant or contract starting, then it can be legally squatted. This 1971 law is based on the concept of ‘domestic peace’, meaning that a house can’t be entered without permission of the current user is also applied to squatters. The occupants are required to send a letter to the owner and invite the police to inspect the squat, which is deemed legally inhabited if there is a bed, chair, table and working lock on the door.
The experienced squatting community is highly organised and effective in running their spaces and events, with regular meetings, cafe sessions and kraak festivals. Although some squats are now legalised and the inhabitants pay rent – usually at much lower rates than commercial tenants – and negotiate agreements with the owners and local authorities to maintain and use the building for cultural purposes, as well as to live. The Landbouwbelang (LBB) discusses the reasons and motivations for squatting, which include not having to pay rent, plenty of space and freedom to inhabit an design the space in whatever ways the community of inhabitants decides.
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