Ever dream of having breakfast in Germany, lunch in `f Luxembourg, cocktails in Belgium and dinner in Holland? How about all in the same day? It can't be done, right?
Wrong. I dined in all four countries during a single day trip from the Dutch town of Maastricht. And I managed it all on only a half tank of gas.
The oldest city in the Netherlands, and which lent its name as site of negotations for a European treaty on monetary union, Maastricht (population 117,000) makes an outstanding travel base for excursions into neighboring nations.
Nicknamed the "balcony of Europe" because of its strategic location, Maastricht is situated astride the Meuse River on Holland's southern border. From there, it takes about five minutes to walk to Belgium, 20 minutes or so to drive into Germany and about two hours to travel to the capital of Luxembourg. Even Paris is only four hours away.
But convenience aside, Maastricht is a destination in its own right. An architectural delight, Maastricht boasts medieval ramparts, a carefree university-town atmosphere, beech-shaded cafes and the largest number of historically protected buildings in Holland outside of Amsterdam.
Those who embark on this kind of adventure must accept the fact that they'll be unable to spend a long chunk of time in any one place. Viewed both as a novelty and as a scouting exercise for future trips to Europe, however, the trade-off can be worthwhile.
Though ambitious, my goals were simple: to visit four countries and be back where I started by sundown, which, during summer, occurs roughly around 8:30 p.m. in the Netherlands.
There was just one small problem: I was petrified at the thought of driving abroad.
To prepare, I visited the local tourist office (called the VVV throughout the Netherlands), selected a good area map of Southern Limburg, covering the province in which Maastricht is located as well as portions of neighboring countries, and brushed up on European rules of the road.
Nonetheless, I was so nervous that, after having handed me the keys, the staff at the car rental agency practically had to shove me out the door.
Fortunately, Europe's byways generally are well-marked, so I had no trouble finding my first stop: a tiny, highly recommended German village called Monschau.
My only real surprise was that border officials never asked me to slow my car or display my passport when I passed from country to country. Other than that, driving proved to be far more civilized than the exercise posed by my daily commute through Los Angeles.
Monschau is a dainty music box of a town nestled close to the Belgian-German border, 60 minutes' drive southeast of Maastricht. Because of its proximity to Belgium, even the parking meters take Belgian francs.
At the bottom of a valley obscured by evergreens and castle ruins are Monschau's several hundred half-timbered houses and other immaculately kept 16th- through 18th-century buildings nestled along a stream favored by trout anglers.
Mindful of my budget, I ducked into a bakery for breakfast and asked them to recommend a local specialty. I left with a tasty horn-shaped fruit and creme-filled wafer called a Monschau Dutchen.
After an hour and a half of puttering around this Hansel-and-Gretel-like village, I mapped out the next leg of my journey: lunch in Luxembourg. Before starting off, though, I made a stop at the Monshauer Glashuitte (Monschau Glassworks), located in the municipal parking lot.
The glassworks' Christmas ornaments are the best buy. Bavarian glass-blown birds were about $5 each, for example, while a boxed set of four blown-glass Christmas ball ornaments cost about $10.
From Monschau, I hit the road again, backtracking briefly before slicing south through Belgium in order to get to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, my next destination.
It took me almost two hours to get to the Luxembourg border, though the densely wooded scenery of the Belgian Ardennes made the journey pleasing. Belgian francs are legal tender in Luxembourg, but the reverse is not true; so, at the border, I only exchanged a limited amount of money into Luxembourg francs. Free English language tourism brochures helped me decide where to go next.
Mitt-shaped Luxembourg is surrounded by France to the south, Belgium to the north and west, and Germany to the east. The entire country spans a tad less than 1,000 square miles. The capital city of Luxembourg is located about a two hour's drive from Maastricht, but I remained reluctant to tackle a capital, even one located in a postage stamp-sized country like Luxembourg.
Instead, I drove through the hilly, heavily forested Luxembourg Ardennes in search of two villages that looked particularly interesting in the tourism brochures that littered my front seat.