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A Christmas Carol in the Velvet Cave

paper star decorationThe holiday season is picking up here in South Limburg, even if we haven’t had a single flake of snow. So to get into the spirit ourselves, Dan & I hopped on the train to Valkenburg and followed the Kerstmarkt signs to the Fluweelengrot (Velvet Cave) for their annual underground Christmas market.

The Velvet Cave is one of two marl caverns in Valkenburg dug in the early 11th century to provide stone for the Valkenburg castle which now stands in ruins above the modern town. The network of tunnels were used over the centuries as secret passageways, a hiding place during multiple wars, and a platform for fantastic murals and sculptures carved into the soft stone. Today the cave can be visited on tour (Dutch with an English pamphlet), but once a year this hidden place is transformed into a themed holiday market. This year the theme is “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens and as you walk through the market you will find large-scale dioramas depicting important moments in the story.

visitors to the kerstmarkt

A mix of wares hanging on the stone walls.

The Christmas market was both larger and somewhat more commercial than I could have ever imagined it would be. For our entry fee we wandered for one and a half or two hours viewing the various wares, Charles Dickens decorations, and inspecting the non-holiday art on the walls which peeks through the garland and lights. Some of my favorite items being sold were large decorative paper stars (which are popular in the Netherlands), wooden carvings by a Polish artisan, and impressive handmade clay dolls. Many more non-handmade items were also available including Christmas decorations, toys, and African statues. The most unique items we’ve found were fossils being sold in an alcove dominated by marl sculptures of prehistoric creatures.The passageways were absolutely packed with people visiting during the first weekend of this market.
1902 Royal Family Commission

1902 Royal Family Commissioned Charcoal Mural.

Almost more impressive than the Christmas market was its unique surroundings. The Velvet Cave is more narrow than the marl caves in Maastricht, but the artwork adorning the walls is nothing short of amazing. The route taken by the market leads you past a variety of murals and statues many of which were kindly not hidden away by vendors. Unfortunately the number of people visiting the market made photography of the large murals nearly impossible. Still the enclosed, natural environment lent a touch of magic to the experience of shopping for holiday gifts.
Holiday snacks were available inside and outside the cave including poffertje and gluhwijn (a mulled wine), but no oliebollen.
scrooge's tomb

Moody lighting around the Future Tomb of Scrooge.

In the end we tried some gluhwijn, but did not make any purchases since we’d been looking for handicrafts and most of the vendors were selling commercially made products. But the trip was still fun and I hope to visit again perhaps after the new year when I can be sure to get a good look at the cave itself. From a preservation and archaeology perspective I have to wonder what effect these markets, lights, and large crowds are having on the marls caves in their unique artwork.
We didn’t visit, but the Gemeentegrot (Municipal Cave) in Valkenburg also hosts a Christmas market this time of year. Each market costs 4 euros per adult or 1,50 euros per child to visit and the markets will remain open until December 22. Visit Kerststad Valkenburg for more information about their many Christmas activities. View more pictures in a short slideshow here.
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