Tuesday, March 6, 2007

An evening in Maastricht

Stopping for a look on Bredestraat. Photo: JH.
It is seven o’clock in the morning on Wednesday as I write this entry from the small city of Maastricht in the Netherlands. I am sitting in my very post-modern room overlooking the courtyard of this ancient monastery that was converted two years ago into a hotel called the Kruisherenhotel, by a historically conscious hotel Dutchman named Camille Oostwegel. This is the second year we’ve stayed here, as it is also our second visit to the European Fine Art Fair (known as TEFAF) which opens tomorrow (March 8).

A full moon over JFK
If I were in New York, I’d still be fast asleep, having been up the night before until two preparing this day’s Diary. However, just having crossed the Atlantiic, my clock was turned upside down. Last night I hit the sack before midnight, (6pm New York time) too exhausted to think about anything.

We flew via KLM business class, and although I am not trying to plug the airline, which I’ve traveled on only once before, KLM is wonderful. Maybe it’s the Dutch, who are a very hospitable people when it comes to looking after their guests, and maybe it’s the airline management also but KLM does not disappoint or leave you wary of modern management. The equipment is well-maintained, clean and efficient and the host staff is courteous, warm and friendly, patient, thoughtful and yet unobtrusive. Business class is, of course, a big plus (and lxuury) for long flights if simply because there is room for the body (a long frame -- 6’4”), not only to fit, but to stretch out.

At the airport (Schiphol) we missed the driver who had been ordered for us and finally had to hire a taxi to drive us to Maastricht. It was a 214-kilometer, two-hour ride through pouring rain, going at the European speed (between 70 and 90 mph) in the back of a small Mercedes. The countryside is flat, green with lots of what looks during this season as barren land constantly crossed and re-crossed by canals, ponds and man-made narrow channels marking off what may be farmland.

Driving through the countryside
Our driver was a young Turkish man who owns the taxi with his brother (purchased new in 2005 for 70,000 euros and now clocking a quarter million km). There was American rock-and-roll on the car radio, turned down, and the occasional use of the cell phone with sometimes barely a hand on the wheel as we moved along down the crowded motorway at 70 to 90 mph. JH dozed off for most of the trip although I was unable to, kept alert by the speed we were traveling and by the occasional heaviness of our driver’s eyelids which I could see in the rearview mirror.

Whenever it looked to this possibly panicking eye that the driver might be getting a little dozy, I would loudly ask him questions about himself, his native land, his family and anything else I could think of to keep his brain working. He was an interesting fellow -- in his 20s, fluent in three languages including his not-bad English which he’d learned entirely from his three years driving a taxi in Amsterdam. And always missing his native country which he visited once a year (3600 km drive). So 330 euros (!) later we safely arrived at the Kruisherenhotel.
Left: The courtyard at the Kruisherenhotel after the rain.

Below, l. to r.:
Walking past the Cathedral on our way to Cafe Sjiek (right).
Last night after a couple hours napping and some work at the computer we decided to go out of the hotel to get something to eat. I had been told on our first trip here that there was almost no place in Maastricht that you couldn’t get a good meal, so we asked the hotel’s attractive hospitality manager, Mildred Snackers, for a recommendation for something casual. She recommended a place called Cafe Sjiek (pronounced sheek, like chic) which she said was kind of a brasserie/meeting place/ tavern/ restaurant. She pulled out a map of the city and showed us how we could get there in a fifteen minute walk.

In New York if someone says a “fifteen minute walk,” I think taxi. However, being a tourist, the idea of a walk seemed more interesting. There was a light rain falling when we left the hotel. The streets in this older part of the town are brick/cobbled and quiet with the exception of our footsteps, and of people, mainly students from a nearby university, bicycling hither and yon (occasionally talking on their cells or smoking a cigarette as they pedaled along).
Hundreds of unchained bikes line the streets
This is a city that was created by the Romans (with some Roman walls still standing), the highest (although not very) elevation in Holland, and basically unscathed by all the wars and occupations (including the Nazis -- the German border is very nearby) throughout its history. And so it is full of archiitecture from the ages and eras and remains beautifully and pridefuly maintained. To the American eye, so used to the old as derelict to be replaced by the very new, and devoid of community or ethnic tradition, all of it is a splendid wonder, even on a quiet, dark, rainy and cold March night.

JH with his Digital couldn’t resist catching some scenes of our brief foray. Bicycles everywhere, parked outside the bars and restaurants, NONE with security chains, mind you.

The Cafe Sjiek sits in a narrow old three-story building on Sint Pieterstraat. You walk into a bar with a very friendly and industrious bartender. The place was uncharacteristically uncrowded (although still busy). We sat at the bar while waiting for a table. JH ordered a house beer which he pronounced very good. I had a glass of vodka and the bartender showed us the menu, translated some of the items on it and recited the daily specials. I ordered the Sole Meuniere (last one left) along with a salad topped with a warmed local cheese. JH ordered the Sea bass and also a salad topped with veal bits. Excellent. Total bill, without gratuity: 79.50 euros.
Above, left and below: Scenes from Cafe Sjiek.
Robin Berben, owner of Cafe Sjiek.
We met the owner, Robin Berben, a Maastricht native, who got involved in starting the restaurant about twenty-five years ago with some partners and today remains the sole owner. Berben whose English sounds British to these American ears, reminded me of the consummate restaurateur -- friendly, congenial, laid-back in his approach to his clientele and yet all business.

He talked with us about TEFAF which briefly brings a lot of visiting dignataries to the town from all over the world. He recalled Robert Noortman who with his wife was a host at a dinner we attended on our visit last year.

Noortman was the consummate European businessman in appearance, an art dealer (Rembrandt, etc.) and one of a handful of enterprising dealers who created The European Fine Art Fair a quarter century ago. A one-time airline pilot, thrice-married, who liked to race Ferraris in the Mille Mighia, he was enormously successful and had a major impact in European art dealing. Last year he sold his business out to Sotheby’s for cash and stock. Shortly thereafter he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and several weeks ago, he died suddenly of a heart attack at age 60.

Noortman made a vivid impression on meeting on at the large dinner party at his baronial lodge outside Maastricht last year. Dealers are almost always collectors also, and his house was filled with art objects, antiquities, paintings and beautifully bound books. He was the very picture of a sophisticated and cultured business tycoon, tall, sleek and imposing as you might imagine a modern European aristocrat (whether or not he was one officially, I don’t know), exuding self-confidence, financial power and the pleasure of personal achievement. His legacy to his community, the city of Maastricht was transformational and lasting.

Last night at Cafe Sjiek, Robin Berben, remembered traveling with Noortman to Mille Mighia last year, and how the man, on his cell phone driving in his car, purchased a major painting being auctioned at that moment at Sotheby’s in New York. Two days later, on the same cell phone, again driving in his car, Robert Noortman sold the painting to a grateful client, and continued on his pleasure trip.
Navigating the winding streets of Maastricht.
Roman walls still stand (and serve a purpose).
A cappuccino to end the night back at the hotel bar.