THE people of Maastricht claim that their town has been invaded by the French so many times that they have developed the Gallic spirit of joie de vivre. Eating is a passion, and while people here, in the Dutch tradition, work hard, ``they make fun of it,'' according to my guide, who is a native of the city and an enthusiastic local booster. Maastricht has all the accouterments of charm: Renaissance row houses - some as narrow as a sentry box; medieval city walls so massive that the houses look flimsy by comparison; and geraniums, red and pink, decorating many a second story. The town also has two Romanesque churches and an assortment of Gothic ones.
Not all the charm is ancient. This is a city of artists, and modern sculptures adorn its traffic-free cobblestone squares. One modern statue of a Pan-like dancing man with a sly, ecstatic expression represents the spirit of the people of Maastricht, the guide explained.
Maastricht is the oldest city of the Netherlands. The Romans selected this spot as the best place for a bridge across the river they called the Mosa. (Maastricht comes from Mosae trajectum, which means ``place to cross the Maas [or Meuse] river'').
Until the 19th century, the Maastricht bridge was the only one for miles around, attracting plenty of would-be conquerors - French, Dutch, and Spanish. Over the years the city was besieged 21 times, sometimes successfully; Louis the XIV conquered the city, then Napoleon, and Maastricht was briefly the capital of the ``Department of the Lower Meuse.''
After Napoleon's defeat, Belgium and Holland united, but separated again in 1839 after nine years of more fighting. Maastricht remained a part of the Netherlands, and became the capital of the province of Limburg.
Maastricht is on a wattle-shaped piece of land that dangles down from the rest of the country. A nice feature of this is that the city is close to everything; it's five minutes to Belgium on one side, and about the same to Germany on the other, which makes it a popular touring and convention center.
It's also a big modern city (pop., 115,000) and has long since spilled out beyond its 13th-, 14th-, and 15th-century walls. But stay within the city walls, in the old part of town. Maastricht is second only to Amsterdam in its number of historic buildings, with some 1,450 monuments protected by law. No medieval buildings remain except for churches and cloisters, which were always made of stone. At that time, private houses were built of wood, and most often caught fire and burned down. Sensible 17th-century city fathers finally forbade building with wood at all.
Thus, much of the old part of the city dates from that period. My guide said that you can deduce the status of the 17th-century family that built the house from its fa,cade. Wealthy people wanted houses of expensive, hard stone from Belgium, while the merely middle class made do with local brick and limestone. People with houses of hard stone were known as ``stone rich,'' she said.
The most striking buildings in Maastricht are the two major churches. The guide and I focused on the O.L. Vrouwebasiliek, a medieval cruciform church that doubled as a fortification before the first city wall was built.
The outside is severe, a tall, narrow, essentially windowless slab of heavy stones - no Gothic fripperies here. There are two towers with businesslike shooting holes. You enter through a Gothic chapel on one side. Within, serene Romanesque arches are lightened and given a more jubilant feel by a vaulted Gothic ceiling.
The other big church, St. Servaasbasiliek (circa AD 1000), has the only Gothic portal in the Netherlands that is painted as it would have been when it was first carved. I like the nobility of the bare stone, but the painted figures are interesting to see. There's also a hagioscope, a window low in the church wall, so that people with the plague could stand outside and hear the services.
The treasury of St. Servaasbasiliek is full of handsome objects. The most impressive is the bust of St. Servatius himself, donated by a 16th-century Duke of Parma. The duke, while besieging the city, destroyed one of the church's reliquaries. Smitten later by pangs of conscience, he replaced it with this one. The ducal purse must have been considerably depleted by this jeweled bust, about life size, with its solemn silver face, neat gold beard, and golden tas-sels.
The countryside around Maastricht is unusual for the Netherlands, since it's a bit rolling rather than as flat as your kitchen floor. A few feet of elevation mean a lot to people here. It's nice to see a broad, brown Dutch house silhouetted on the top of the occasional hill, while on the slopes, brown and white Dutch cows get a rare bit of exercise.
All the higher parts of Limburg have caves underneath, said my guide. You can take a tour of the caves of Mt. St. Peter, 200 miles of tunnels, with some 20,000 passages, all excavated marl, a combination of sandstone and limestone.
Our guide led us by kerosene lantern, which made strange shadows on the pale-yellow, gouged-out walls.
The caves have been a tourist attraction for years: Napoleon, Voltaire, Sir Walter Scott, several princes of Orange, and other notables signed their names on the walls here.
In times of war, Maastrichters put these caves to use. During the war with Napoleon, farmers lived down here, cattle and all, for what must have been a dark and clammy three months, as no telltale fires were permitted.
During World War II, the caves again came in handy; arms were smuggled, the wounded were nursed, and airmen and resistance workers concealed here.
When Nazi soldiers, rightly reluctant to explore this labyrinth on their own, demanded guides, Maastrichters swore that no one knew the way through the caves, said the guide. Many of Holland's great artworks were safely hidden here, as well.
After centuries of acquisitive people passing through, the people of Maastricht know how to hang on to their treasures.
If you go
Hapag-Lloyd Tours and Bavarian Travel Service is offering special rates on seven-day tours to Maastricht this summer, with several Wednesday departures from cities in the United States for only $379 plus air fare. Contact your travel agent for details on this or other tours to the area.
Information is also available from the Netherlands National Tourist Office, 576 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10036, or by calling (212) 370-7360.