The Maasduinen national park is one of Limburg’s best kept secrets

640px-Tussen_Wellerlooi_en_Twisteden,_meer_in_Maasduinen_2009-08-16_18.30Ask anyone if they know of a big nature reserve in the Netherlands, and they are sure to come up with De Hoge Veluwe National Park. However, National Park Maasduinen in the northern part of Limburg is definitely worth a visit as well.

Maasduinen National Park only officially opened in 1998 and is still an oasis of calm. Even in the sunniest of weather, you cab pass an entire day enjoying the peace and quiet of this area relatively undisturbed.

The park covers 4,500 hectares and is flanked by several picturesque villages. If you go to the main reception area in Well, you will find a touchscreen, offering you approximately 200 different hiking routes, as well cycling, mountain-biking, horse riding and other routes – organised according to theme: through the forest, historical, art and culture, child-friendly, villages and cities, wheelchair-friendly, scenic, etc. In short, there is enough to keep you occupied for days.

As befits a nature reserve, Maasduinen has a lot of wildlife – as well as Highland cows you may spot the long-horned Dutch land goat, a herd of sheep with their shepherdess, or a flock of geese. There are beavers, foxes, roe deer, bats, badgers, weasels. magnificent birds of prey and whole lot more.

Some of the routes lead you to and around Reindersmeer lake, created by sand and gravel excavations in the last quarter of the former century. Due to the uncharacteristic acidity of the water, which in turn is caused by the presence of pyrite (or fool’s gold) in the aquifers, the water is relatively free of organic material and nutrients. Consequently, the lake has a beautiful azure color and is crystal clear, allowing you to look straight down to surprising depths of some 10 meters.

Heather

The heaths that can be found spread across the park came about in the Middle Ages. The grazing of the sheep – whose dung was used as fertiliser – the mowing of the plants and the use of the turf hindered the growth of natural vegetation, so that the only plant that could survive was heather – fortunately the staple food of the local sheep.

In fact, there is something surprisingly moorland-like about the area; if you wander through the hills behind the village of Afferden, you could almost believe you were in the Scottish Highlands, with the arid, sandy ground, the crunch of the dry heath and lichen as you walk across them and the wide views (on a good day, you can see as far as at least 10 kilometers, meaning your eyes can make a trip across the border to Germany).

This is the one place in the Netherlands where you do not see at least five church towers, wherever you look. In fact, going around 360 degrees, you see only one. If you climb up the Lookout Tower, on top of one of these hills – it does a bit of a hula dance in the wind – this will extend your view even further.

Castles

People have been living in this area since prehistory; these were small groups of hunter-gatherers who did not leave much behind other than axes and spearheads. Then, over the course of time, fixed settlements arose, focused on agriculture, which meant that many parts of the forest were cleared to make room for farmland. By the time the Romans settled in the region, the agricultural importance of the area grew, so that the farms became wealthy estates that housed beautiful villas, while a network of roads connected the various villages. The region retains a feeling of wealth to this day.

For those of you who would like to go in search of a bit of history, be sure to visit Bleijenbeek Castle in Afferden; built in the 14th century, it has since been home to knights, dukes and field marshals. This imposing castle survived the many centuries that followed its construction, including attempts by the Spaniards during the 80 Year War (1568-1648) to destroy it. However, when 16 determined and invincible German parachutists took it over during World War II, putting a halt to the liberation of northern Limburg, the British RAF was forced to bomb it on February 22, 1945, turning it into the ruin it is now.

Arcen castle gardensIf it is gardens you are looking for, then visit Arcen Castle. This castle was built in the 17th century and the gardens occupy 32 hectares of the castle’s entire territory of 450 hectares. A visit to these gardens will take you through a rose garden, a water and sculptures garden, a vegetable garden and their mountain garden (Bergtuin), with steep rock-faces, narrow brooks, grottos and waterfalls – including the Netherlands’s largest waterfall.

A longer version of this article was published in the summer edition of the Xpat Journal.