Last December, we returned to our home in Germany to spend the holidays with our family. Like every magical Christmas spent in Germany, I visit as many Christkindlmarkts or Christmas Markets as I can. Some are the same, some are same same but different and some are just unique, like this one.
|Singing Christmas Tree on the Left|
Our home is very close to the Dutch and Belgian borders, especially Holland, so hopping back and forth between the two countries is easy and doable on a bicycle in good weather.
The beautiful little town of Valkenburg, clustered around the only hilltop castle (ruins) in The Netherlands is the self proclaimed "Christmas Center" of Holland. This charming excursion is an hour train ride away from where we live in Germany. Valkenburg means "Falcon Mountain". The town showcases live falconry exhibitions in milder weather.
Over the years, I've made several visits here in summer and spring but had never been in the dead of Winter. It had been on my list forever to check out Kerstmarkt Fluweelengrot, a most unusual Christmas market nestled in the caves beneath the castle ruins.
Unfortunately the weather that day was gray and rainy. I did not let it stop me. Nothing comes between me and a Christmas market, but it did come between me and the quality of my pictures. A good reason for a return visit in the future.
First a little history about the caves, the castle and the town because they are fascinating and worth a visit sans Santa. Dating from the 11th or 12 centuries, the caves are located beneath the castle ruins. They maintain a 53 degree temperature all year round. For the visitor, they are warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
Any time of year, the tour of the passages and caves underneath (Velvet cave) are an unforgettable experience. There are 3 miles of passages and the tour covers 800 meters. Layer and layers of history are presented in the caves. You will find fossils, charcoal drawings, murals, carvings, sculptures, signatures of US WWII soldiers as well as a memorial to them from the locals. There is also a hidden Catholic chapel from the late 1700s when the French exiled the pope tucked within the labyrinth.
Over 1,000 years old, Valkenburg a lovely place to spend a day. The castle ruins themselves have been destroyed and rebuilt several times over the last centuries. Whomever occupied the castle controlled commerce in Germany, Holland and Belgium. The ruins are well maintained with signs showing the original purpose and rendering of each part (stables, bakery, etc.). Most of this is hidden by the stalls and vendors during the Christmas market so it's worth it to come back off season for further exploration.
The caves have been used for everything from knights to sneak up on attacking enemies to a hideout for the town's citizens and American soldiers during the World War II German occupation.
According to the Castle's website, The proceeds of the Christmas Market go to the organizers, Valkenburg Castle Foundation. This allows the foundation to maintain the Castle Ruins and Velvet Cave with no government subsidies. So when you visit the underground revelries, you are also supporting a piece of Dutch history.
When you first stroll into town, a short walk from the train station, there is a small Christmas market in the center encircled by beautiful shops selling lovely gift items.
Upon arrival I found myself ping ponging between the market and the shops.
I bought a fun, kitschy purse, then ate a banana white chocolate waffle. Obviously things were off to a good start.
When walking around Valkenburg, you will hear a smattering of languages Dutch, French. German and sometimes even English.
The whole town is decked out for the holidays. Lining both sides of the streets leading up to the castle are cozy cafés. The weather was mild. People were clustered under outdoor heaters and fireplaces drinking lumumba or glühwein and noshing on hearty snacks.
Oops. Looks like Santa had too much glühwein.
The limestone caves are also showcase local artisans who carve and sell tschotchkes from its walls.
So now back to the star of our show, the actual Christmas market in the caves. I will admit I am a Christmas market snob. I've been to so many and seen so much of the same merchandise it could make my eyes cross. Now when I see cheap crap from China, I cringe and walk on. Previously mentioned Kitchy purse purchase aside, I like to focus my purchases on local and/or handmade items or foods.
|Crepe Stand, local mushrooms adorably packaged and doggie refreshment stand.|
60 vendors are tucked into every nook and cranny of this vast underground space. The first few minutes in the caves, I was quick to judge. There was a lot of crap and people hawking what seemed like infomercial products.
I started to pick up the pace just to get out of there sooner, but soon found some real finds revealed themselves tucked in between all the commercial department store products.
Hand made slippers made out of sheep wool crafted by a Polish artist. For ten euro I could not resist a pair.
These handmade reversible skirts were unusual.
I'd never bought tulip or flower bulbs at a Christmas Market before. What a unique idea. I guess maybe not so much for Dutch people.
These hand made votive holders from a glass artist caught my eye, as did these ornaments that were composed of a mix of plexiglass and crystal.
Carved boxes are a staple of any Christmas market but I found these to be particularly lovely, especially the King and Queen of Hearts versions.
How about some Indonesian Christmas cake?
Probably my favorite corner. Fresh syrup waffles? I couldn't get in line fast enough. This two euro caramel miracle was itself worth the five euro admission price to the market and the 15 minutes I stood on line to get in. This stand also had syrup waffle liquor for sale. Reluctantly I had to resist. Too hard to get it back to the States.
Fine handmade chocolates with festive messages written in Dutch would make a lovely gift.
They did a great job installing a cafe nestled in the heart of the caves featuring an enticing menu. I was tempted to stop for a coffee but I bravely pushed on.
I passed a photo studio, where you could don a festive hat and have your picture taken in a giant sled.
The theme of the Christmas market was Santa's Cave. Throughout the market various tableaux were created to depict Santa and his elves at home.
My favorite set up was santa in the shower.
After emerging from the caves it was time for one last lap around this lovely town before reluctantly heading to the train station to get back home to Germany.