Who knew this was possible? I surely didn’t. The Netherlands has hills?! Let alone being above sea level. When I received the email about the exchange student weekend trip to Maastricht that would include a stop at Vaalserberg, the hoogste punt (highest point) in the country, I had to see it to believe it.
A couple of weeks before I had seen and stood on my first dike in the northwest of the Netherlands. This was my first trip to the southeast and it promised quite the opposite to reclaimed land. I didn’t notice, however, much of an incline as our vans passed through ‘s-Hertogenbosch (I tried sounding out the name in my head and was relieved to find out many refer to the city simply as Den Bosch) and Eindhoven. Then we arrived in Maastricht.
The first stopping point on our trip was Sint-Pietersberg, a modest hill, by my standards, at 561 feet. Astonished by the appearance of a hill, a majority of the group took advantage of being up “high” and began taking picture after picture of the city “below.” Then we proceeded to go under the hill. Not only was this hill a spectacle above ground, it was one below ground too.
There are a large number of mining tunnels underneath Sint-Pietersberg Hill – 20,000 give or take. Originally used for mining of marl by the Romans, the Zonneberg Caves and the North Caves’ use morphed over the centuries and were most recently a shelter during World War II. Today, they are used for tourism. (Facts in this paragraph come from http://www.maastrichtunderground.nl; the broad interpretations are mine.)
The next morning our group headed to Vaalserberg, home not only to the highest point in the Netherlands but also the Drielandenpunt (Three-country point) where the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium come together. I had never been to the Four Corners in southwest US so this was also something I looked forward to. As we made our way to the summit, I again didn’t recall feeling like there was much of an incline. Even the summit was quite level. But the bricked-over bump with the marker stated that this was it, the highest point in the Netherlands, standing tall at 1059 feet.
1059 feet!? I was driving on the Massachusetts Turnpike this past weekend and I passed a sign that stated I was at the highest point on I-90 east of a town in South Dakota and that was 1724 feet. My local ski area in the foothills of the Adirondacks has a summit of around 1800 feet. Places I think of as small or low dwarf Vaalserberg. But a highest point is a highest point regardless of how low it might be. Slightly disappointed and not yet admitting to negative comparison thinking, I made my way to the Drielandenpunt marker.
I love geography, particularly boundaries and official lines. Being able to legitimately touch three countries at one time was very exciting for me. I waited impatiently for my turn amongst my group and other tourists. When my turn came (I may or may not have butt in front of some people), I posed happily for my picture. Then I climbed up the tower (in Belgium) in order to see more of the three countries. Unfortunately it was a foggy day and I couldn’t see too far. Germany was the most exciting with forests leading up to the city of Aachen. Belgium had train tracks and the Netherlands had a hedge maze.
As the vans made their decent back to Utrecht through Eindhoven and Den Bosch, I finally got over my disappointment and began to appreciate where I was earlier that day. In a country that has fought the seas for centuries, with 20% of its land sitting below sea level, and 50% being less than a meter above sea level, standing at a thousand feet is a pretty rare and special place to be.