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Golden times 

On an afternoon in early 0ctober 2016, I was having lunch with my friends, George and Adrian when we came up with the idea of travelling to see one of cycling’s spring classics. We usually enjoy a ride together to coincide with the classics, the gather in the pub to watch the race, but venturing to mainland Europe to see one in person was new territory for me. By the time we’d emptied our plates the idea was gathering steam, so I booked a table in Blackfriars for that evening where we could have a planning session.

Later, gathered around a table by the window, we checked our calendars and quickly decided upon travelling to Maastricht for the weekend of the Amstel Gold Race. As quickly as the beers flowed that night, Operation: Amstel took shape.

I took an unlikely organisational role, setting up the Trello board and filling it with to-do’s and ideas as they came to mind, George booked the appropriate flights, and Adrian found us quality bars to visit and a place to stay on Air B&B in the days that followed.

In fact, the whole thing came together so quickly and was so far ahead of us that, over the winter, it was easy to forget that we’d be kicking off the spring in style.

However, when the eve of our trip was finally upon us, we got the bad news that our Thursday afternoon flight out had been cancelled. George got on the phone to KLM and the best they could do was either flights on Friday or at 6 am on Thursday. We’d all booked the afternoon off anyway, so, despite the very early start and logistical issues of getting to the airport in the middle of the night, we decided on taking all of Thursday off to go with the early option.

Ade, Rob, Jenny and George in Falstaff

Ade, Rob, Jenny and George in Falstaff

This turned out to be a masterstroke. We were tired, obviously, but the excitement of the outbound journey kept us all in good spirits. The flight, then trains went like clockwork and we were ordering lunch in Maastricht at a friendly bar, called Falstaff, a good six or seven hours before we were even supposed to arrive.

We had plenty of time to kill before checking into the accommodation, so we made our way there at a leisurely pace via a couple of other quintessentially European beer cafés.

The house belonged to a lady called Piekel, an artist and it was a beautifully decorated home. The light green shades and accents of the living room and kitchen area came together with appropriate furnishings, showing a well-considered – almost effortless – approach had been taken to the decor. Piekel was lovely, too, and we all immediately took a shine to her and her home.

It was almost a pity we wouldn’t be spending much time in such relaxing surroundings during our stay. After settling in we took a well-earned nap, which didn’t feel like wasted time, given that we were still hours ahead of schedule. The rest set us up for an evening of exploring on a beautiful spring evening where we wandered somewhat aimlessly through the quaint, narrow streets and a lovely park – Stadspark – that we happened upon.

Jenny, George, Ade and Rob in Café Frapé

Jenny, George, Ade and Rob in Café Frapé

We visited a place called Café Frape where the host, an older gentleman called Peter, would serve us beer in a humble, friendly manner as charming as the surroundings. Despite our intention to try as many different places as possible, I knew that we’d be back at Café Frape over the course of the weekend. No matter how foreign the location, I find there are some places where you just feel a belonging.

We brought the night to a close in a very large bar called De Gouverneur. They served great beer (as seemed to be the case everywhere we went in Maastricht) and fantastic food. The ribs, in particular, would have me coming back for more in the days that followed.

Friday

We weren’t in a big hurry to get going on Friday morning, which was just as well considering there was only one shower between the four of us. I was particularly slow off the mark and took my time recording some updates for the vlog on the way to meet the others down at a café by the market.

The market itself had somehow been constructed overnight and filled the massive main square of Maastricht. You could buy anything and everything, from carrots to chorizo, pizza to Pixar movie merchandise. I thought about getting gifts there, but I didn’t really see anything authentic that I thought would make a particularly thoughtful gift.

After a wander around the stalls, we spent a while sitting outside at a bar where a very knowledgeable young server kept us from being thirsty for a couple of hours.

We would then cross the river to an area recommended to us by Piekel, where Adrian and I explored for a bit whilst George and Jenny visited a museum. We got up to the usual mischief that comes with being slightly inebriated, such as finding mildly amusing things hilarious, trying on hats in a vintage clothing store, and scouting out bars to potentially visit when we regrouped.

Rob and Ade at Cafe Frapé

Rob and Ade at Cafe Frape

Quickly running out of enthusiasm for aimless wandering, we recrossed the river to visit Café Frape where, once again, “uncle” Peter brought us a carefully curated selection of beer. Sitting outside this time, we chatted as the world went by and it made for a superbly relaxing afternoon.

After a while, a cyclist sat by us outside and we struck up a conversation, discovering that Beth was from Wisconsin, loved beer and cycling and had come to tour the Netherlands on a shoestring budget. I couldn’t help but envy her current lifestyle a little. Curiously she didn’t know that the Amstel Gold Race would be taking place that weekend but, when we told her about it, she seemed enthused and we agreed to say hello again if we spotted each other on the day.

George and Jenny had rejoined us by this point, so the four of us crossed the river yet again to visit a bar that Ade and I had found, called Take One. This turned out to be the low point of our entire weekend and that included me, then Ade, taking ill on Saturday.

Honestly, every single bar we visited had welcomed us like special guests from afar and we enjoyed excellent customer service everywhere. Except at Take One. The older couple running it came across as abrupt and just plain rude. Upon asking for something “dark and chocolatey” I was dismissively told by the lady behind the bar that “dark is not a flavour,” so I ended up just choosing something at random from the list. Half an hour later when the man came to serve us at our table he seemed to revel in lording over the fact we didn’t have the vocabulary to ask for the type of beer we wanted. I wanted to leave at that point but, despite the awkwardness, we reluctantly stayed for a second beer – leaving as soon as we were done.

Disheartened at our streak of excellent bars coming to an abrupt halt, we retraced our steps across the river to find somewhere to have dinner. It was easy to forget it was Easter Friday and most of the bars and restaurants were mobbed, but we eventually found one where we could get a table.

After the meal, George walked Jenny home while Ade and I set off to find a bar with some good music. We didn’t go very far before finding De Duke, a blues bar with an incredibly good sound system, a great choice of beer and a barman who was super friendly. I loved it there and it quickly joined Café Frape at the top of my favourites list.

Unfortunately, due to communication lag, George didn’t come to meet us as hoped, going to De Gouverneur instead. Reluctantly we left De Duke and went to meet him there for a few beers more and another serving of their delicious ribs.

We then made a late night even later by stopping in a couple of bars on the way home, eventually traipsing in at after one in the morning. Not the best move for our Saturday plans!

Saturday

I awoke bleary-eyed to a dreary day and feeling a little bit under the weather. With some trepidation I went with the others to Café de Tribunal, hoping a hearty breakfast would sort me out. It wasn’t especially hearty and it didn’t really perk me up any, but I hoped I’d feel better as the day wore on.

After breakfast, we made a detour to the square to see how the setup for Sunday was progressing. Disappointingly there wasn’t much to see, but given how quickly the market was set up I imagined they were pretty efficient at setting things up and tearing them down so there was no rush.

The return tickets from Maastricht to Valkenburg weren’t that expensive but seemed almost pointless. Nobody checked them on either of our trips between Maastricht and Valkenburg and swiping them at the station seemed almost voluntary.

Valkenburg is, apparently, the oldest station in the region and I really liked the architecture of it. I wanted to have it in the background of a vlog update, but due to feeling out of sorts that didn’t happen until the next day.

I’m not even sure what was wrong with me – I just felt progressively worse. For the whole time we were in Valkenburg I traipsed around after the others and my mood matched the damp and cold weather. I tried my best to shake it off as we walked the steep path of the Cauberg, watching the sportive riders ascending the slick road with varying degrees of success.

Ade, Jenny, George and Rob at Biercafé de Grendelpoort

Ade, Jenny, George and Rob at Biercafé de Grendelpoort

The summit is where we would enjoy the race the following day, so after getting the lay of the land there we made our way back down into Valkenburg. Adrian and I found shelter and plenty to quench our thirst in Biercafé de Grendelpoort, whilst George and Jenny went for coffee elsewhere. We’d stay for one more when they rejoined us, but a rowdy crowd was getting rowdier in the bar and we left to look elsewhere for lunch.

Wandering around the town we didn’t find anywhere that enthused us, but as we walked I half-heartedly recorded some filler footage for the vlog. Returning to the station I was aware of the others having hushed conversations as I lagged behind, obviously concerned for my well-being. I didn’t want to throw a wet blanket on an already damp day for the others so, once off the train in Maastricht, I contemplated heading back to the house to try and sleep off whatever was wrong with me.

Before we crossed the bridge over the river we reminded Jenny of the vintage clothing store we had discovered the day before. This is supposed to be more her thing than it is ours, but she seemed a bit underwhelmed by what was on offer – almost as if Ade and I had a lot to learn about vintage clothing stores! I, on the other hand, was enthused to find that the hat I liked from the day before was still on the shelf. In a moment of spontaneity, I bought it and immediately put it on, deciding that the hat would be my thing for the remainder of the weekend.

Rob & that hat

Rob & that hat

My new hat seemed to have unexpected rejuvenating powers and I gradually began to swing back to my old self whilst we enjoyed excellent service by the river in Servaas Café. So much so that I’d totally snapped out of it by the time we left and made a much happier vlog update as we stepped outside, delighted to be feeling better.

Crossing back over the river to a very busy Café Frape, the atmosphere there, coupled with friendly service from uncle Peter and a hilarious game of “humdinger” carried us into the evening in high spirits.

With Easter weekend in full swing, we were given colourful boiled eggs from a large demijohn style jar atop the bar. I noticed the locals playing a game similar to conkers where they’d bash their eggs together and the winner was the egg that didn’t crack. We had our own short-lived round of that before snacking on the eggs with a dash of salt. Delicious!

We eventually bid our farewells to uncle Peter and went to De Gouverneur for dinner. It was here that Adrian began to look positively green and blamed the egg he’d eaten. He couldn’t get past the halfway point in his dinner and I felt pretty sorry for him, given my own sickly start to the day.

Having made a pact to retire early we finished up at De Gouverneur and found our way to De Duke on the way home, hoping that Ade and I hadn’t oversold the place. It turned out to be as lively as we’d first found it and we enjoyed a great end to the evening savouring the fantastic music and beer. My rejuvenating hat also conjured up some mad skills on the air drums and bar piano – to the point where the barman asked: “if I played!”

“Only Rock Band on the PlayStation, my friend!” I told him and we shared a laugh.

If there were three bars I could take back to Glasgow, De Duke, De Gouverneur, and Café Frape would sweep the board, no question.

Ade was really suffering by this point and the man is a trooper, so we knew he was in a bad way. I’ve seen him force his way through the second day of an ale festival when the Norse god of Alcohol (Aegir, apparently!) would be queasy at the thought of drink, but this was different and it was definitely time to call it a night.

Back at Piekel’s, mugs of green tea in the dining area took the chill off us before bedtime. Ade would be up much of the night guzzling water in an attempt to recover for race day.

Sunday

Sunday morning would be cold but dry, which was better than forecast. Eager to secure a spot in the square for the team presentations, George & Jenny were up and out sharp. Ade & I would lag behind and join them as the team cars and coaches rolled in to park around the square.

Right away we scored free hats from a promo girl, although a quick look at the merchandise stand revealed that items had been priced to gouge and we’d be better sticking with the freebies.

The crowd in the main square at Maastricht

The crowd in the main square at Maastricht

As the square and surrounding area quickly filled we sipped coffee at the table team Jenrie had secured at Bistro FAB. Crowds formed around the main stage and by the open sides of the team coaches, with fans eager to catch a glimpse of their favourite riders as they emerged. I was quite taken by how enthused and upbeat everyone was and the growing anticipation of the start was palpable. To our dismay a coach parked in our line of sight, so we decamped to a spot by the railings at the foot of the ramp that led to the main stage.

The teams would assemble just in front of us, sporadically throw freebies into the crowd, then ride their bikes up the ramp to be introduced by the master of ceremonies over the PA system. Unfortunately, he did this in Dutch so, after a while, it became a bit of an earache to be bombarded with loud commentary I didn’t understand. For a break from this, I made my way off into the periphery to record some shots for the vlog and made a few attempts at an update. Doing so had me amazed at the size of the crowd – it really was impressive just how many people had gathered in the square.

After taking in the early festivities we moved with the throng to find a space upon the Wilhelminabrug – the bridge that the peloton would cross during the neutralized start on their way out of Maastricht. If the scale of the event wasn’t obvious beforehand, the swelling crowd, circling helicopters and procession of event traffic made it clear that the race is a pretty big deal in this area.

We watched as the men’s peloton and then the ladies’ as they went by at probably half race pace, then set off for the station bound for Valkenburg. The train was a lot busier than it had been the day before and when we alighted at Valkenburg station it was safe to assume that everybody who alighted was heading in the same direction we were. Weaving through the streets to the Cauberg, we passed bars already filling with revellers.

After the tight, left-hand corner at the foot of the Cauberg, there was a waffle & coffee shop. The manager of which had assembled a busy team of staff to deal with the constant stream of customers delivered as a result of its fortunate location by one of the crossing points. To keep me going for the imminent walk up the hill I bought a waffle and a latte and ate that whilst Adrian recorded the peloton’s first pass of the day on my camcorder.

On that footage, George can be overheard saying that the field “weren’t even trying yet.” It looked like they were trying to me! Even if the race hadn’t kicked into a high gear yet, the pace compared to that of the amateurs in the damp conditions of the Saturday was very impressive.

Once the field had gone by we set off up the hill, soaking in the atmosphere as we went. The crowds were so dense that we switched to the right-hand side, as it seemed easier going over there. We were about two-thirds of the way up when Adrian spotted Beth leaning against the railings. I stopped to say hello and asked her what she’d thought of the day so far and Beth seemed enthused with the experience. We talked for a couple of minutes but the others had pressed on so, to avoid getting left behind, I said I’d see her at the top and left her to it.

Ade, George, Jenny, and Rob at the summit of the Cauberg

At the summit, there was the expected selection of sponsor stalls, a large screen for watching the race, and a DJ booth blaring out Euro-dance at an alarming volume. Amstel had a well-staffed stall selling expensive half pints (if that) of their beer and the usual junk food you expect to see at this kind of event.

We checked out the Shimano truck, inspecting all the shiny kit that I’ll never likely see on my bike and each of us took the complimentary cycling hats they had on offer. I asked a Shimano rep if I could have a couple extra hats for my kids and he was very helpful, pulling out a box from under his desk that contained slightly different hats in a children’s size.

The weather looked like it might just stay dry and there were plenty of outdoor seats in the form of long, picnic style benches, which we grabbed one of and used as our base. Taking it in turns to fetch a new round of drinks, we whiled away the rest of the afternoon trying to follow the race on the screen and on our phones. The men’s and women’s pelotons would climb the Cauberg numerous times during the course of the race and, when an approaching helicopter indicated that their arrival was imminent, it was good to go to the roadside and cheer as the field went by.

Late in the race, we took a spot by the fence and I got some great footage of the riders and support vehicles passing close by. As soon as the penultimate pass was made we set off down the hill, finding a good vantage point on top of a wall to watch them pass for the final time. It was hard to know what was going on, such as who was in the lead group and how big the gaps were to those giving chase, but that’s the price you pay for being on the ground at these things – you forgo the luxury of live updates for the experience of seeing the field up close.

We’d make it down to the overflowing bars just in time for the end of the race, watching a small TV from outside a busy bar on the pavement. The rousing atmosphere created by the seemingly knowledgeable, yet drunken fans was a good exclamation mark on the experience of being there for the event.

Opting to head back to Maastricht in short order we set off for the station shortly after the race was over. The plan was to go somewhere for dinner and relax for the rest of the evening and I was so tired I was happy with that. It had been a very long day.

Back in Maastricht, most places were really busy – again as a result of the holiday weekend – so it was a bit of a traipse to find somewhere suitable. We had a drink in a bar called De Pieter and bumped into our host, Piekel. She asked if we’d had a good time and we confirmed that we had in as upbeat a tone as could be mustered that late in the day.

Eventually, we got dinner in a place called Café Forum, which appeared to show movies on a massive screen at the back of the bar. As with everywhere in Maastricht, the beer selection was great but I was less enthused with the food menu and I just had a small bite to eat in the end.

By this point, I was watching the cash flow closely as well. Four days of eating and drinking had really taken its toll and, thanks to forgetting that the others had given me cash for the train tickets, I had already spent more than I intended to. Given that the beer was so good in the area, my preference was to eat light and instead savour more of the ale on offer.

With that quest in mind, I left the others to go and record some content for the vlog down by the river, hoping to stop by Cafe Frape one last time.

The riverside was as I’d hoped; the water gently rippling in the calm spring air, with the lights of the town reflecting off the shimmering surface as dusk fell. I found a pontoon that allowed me to get close to the water and summed up the day – my mind already thinking ahead to the final beer that Uncle Peter would serve me.

Unfortunately, when I got to Cafe Frape, it was not only closed – it looked practically mothballed. All of the furniture had been stacked up and there wasn’t a bulb, LED or trace of life to be seen through the windows. Disappointed, I trudged back in the direction of Piekel’s house hoping I wouldn’t disturb the others if they’d turned in by the time I got there.

A quick check of Google Maps to get my bearings revealed that the others had stopped off at a previously unvisited bar on their way back, and I picked up the pace so I could rejoin them at Stadscafe Lure. It was essentially one for the road, as we were all happy but exhausted after a memorable weekend in Maastricht. Somehow we managed to pick the most convoluted route back to Piekel’s though, winding through streets and crossing a narrow bridge on the way. Still, it was good to see some different parts of Maastricht as our time there drew to an end.

Monday

We woke to a chilly and damp morning that matched the mood of things winding down for the voyage home. George and Jenny were up and out before us, so Adrian and I walked along the bus route hoping to catch both them and a bus at every stop. It was hard to discern when we could expect one from the holiday weekend timetables and we were practically in town before we got one. Truth be told we would probably have saved time just walking from the house to the station!

Once aboard the train, I watched wistfully as we hurtled through the green countryside and Maastricht disappeared into the distance. I made up my mind there and then that I’d try to visit Maastricht again one day. Hopefully, before it changes too much and, with a bit of luck, whilst the blues is still playing in De Duke and before Uncle Peter calls time on tending the bar at Cafe Frape.

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