Maastricht: Carnival Capital of The Netherlands

Maastricht might have been more well-known since Maastricht Treaty, which is responsible for Euro and European Union establishment. However, let’s focus on the cultural side of the town rather than politics and European economic crisis. Maastricht is the  capital city of Limburg province, the southern part of the Netherlands. Together with Noord-Brabant and Zeeland, also in southern Netherlands, Limburg is a Catholic cultured region.

In terms of carnivals, probably The Netherlands is not something that cross your mind at the first place. But actually, The Netherlands has various kinds of carnivals and festivals held in its major cities. Including the Catholic culture-based carnival celebrated mainly in southern Netherlands, resembling that in Italy and Brazil, where Maastricht is the carnival capital of the region. The parade takes place in main streets where famous landmarks are located, namely Bonnefanten Museum, Museum aan het Vrijhof, St. Janskerk, Stadhuis (Town Hall), St. Servaasbasiliek, Helpoort, Natuurhistorisch Museum and Onze Lieve Vrouwebasiliek.

Each year in February (or March, depending on the date of Easter), there’s a big event called Maastricht Carnival or Vastelonavend in Meestrecht in Dutch to celebrate the last day of eating and drinking fancily before the 40 days of fasting until Easter. It officially starts from Sunday (unofficially Saturday) to Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. All participants usually have singing, dancing and music performances, and also create elaborated costumes, giant puppets, facial and body make-up. The three-day-carnivals are public holidays. Shops, schools, banks and offices are closed.

When I attended the carnival in 2007, I was in the final year of my study period in Amsterdam. I didn’t regret at all traveling 2.5 hours from Amsterdam by NS train just watch the parade. Did I say that some other cities in The Netherlands have carnivals too? That’s correct. Nevertheless, Maastricht is the main carnival town in The Netherlands where Catholic religion is the foundation of the festive event.

Meanwhile, what happened in Amsterdam and other cities in northern Netherlands on the same days? Nothing, really. The northern part is more protestant-oriented and normally they don’t celebrate religious events as lavishly as the CatholicsAmsterdammers did their daily routines on those Monday and Tuesday while the fun parade was still on in Maastricht. Amsterdam has a lot of festivals held several times a year, but there’s no such carnival with costumes, giant puppets and marching bands.

Still having Venice and Rio in my bucket list for the next carnival destinations, Maastricht Carnival was something worth to visit. My friend and I only came on Sunday, the first day of the carnival. Yet it felt like a breeze of warmth in the middle of chilly winter. Using only the first generation of Canon digital camera and old Samsung mobile camera (they were new at that time), images speak louder than words for such event. Nothing pretentious about them, nothing but fun, fun and fun!

JUST ABOUT TO START

It was approximately10.30 am. Maastricht Central Station and it surroundings was quiet, not as many people as expected. I was a bit worried that we were at the wrong place and time. Several minutes later, I started to see some people with their costumes walking towards the central station exit door, passing in front of the station, standing in the middle of the street chitchatting and rehearsing. It was a relieving sight, signifying we were in the right track. Participants or non-participants, both party dressed up as striking and colourful as possible. We didn’t expect the carnival goers wore outrageous costumes too, not only the performers. It was our first time ever to attend a carnival like this.

Bunch of weirdos on street. Get used to it!

Dragging a puppet to the main street. However, I didn’t see them anymore during the parade.

Yes, we’re ready!

LET’S GET IT STARTED!

“Star” is a symbol of Maastricht flag. A carnival theme that will never be outdated.

Carnevale di Venezia was the main inspiration of many participants.

Happiest toddlers of the day!

Vlaamse friets met knoflooksaus (fries with garlic sauce). Nice costume. But texting during the carnival parade, seriously??

This was my favourite giant puppet in the carnival. Look at the details on the left side. There were two dolls hanging on its waist. Weren’t they cute? And the early bird Santa Clauses dragging the puppet? Probably North Pole was still too cold for them.

These fellas were the most professional performers of the day.

No matter who you are, what you are or what you believe, carnival gathered everyone in a cheerful and peaceful way. Squeezing among the crowds was something inevitable, could be tiring and troublesome. Still, I’d rather be one of the crowds than just watching the crowds. I loved the atmosphere and the excitement of Maastricht people with this event.

END OF THE DAY

Family Portrait – everyone celebrated the carnival, from toddlers to senior citizens. After a long walk being the centre of attention, it was time to capture a living memory with a camera.

The party was nearly over. Nobody wanted it over, indeed.

They needed a break, too.

Glasses and bottles of beers were scattered especially right outside the restaurants and bars. A friend of mine got an idea of taking  empty glasses of Gulpener beer on street as a free souvenir. We haven’t heard brand before in Amsterdam, so it was fun to do and nobody noticed what we did. I should take the bottle too, but my backpack was too heavy. I was glad that there were no stinky streets as it has less portable toilets, trashes were much less than those in Amsterdam on Koninginnedag or Queen’s Day (check my older post for this subject), it was a saver place for an outdoor event and more friendly people in the neighbourhood.

I haven’t really seen the town itself, but it is actually a beautiful place to visit. For once in a lifetime, spare some of your time to join the crowds. Get some costumes if you can. As the old saying, the more the merrier!

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Koninginnedag Amsterdam Remembered

I’m just about to start finishing the last sequel of Penang post. But before I know it, it’s already a countdown to April 30 when this post was written. I guess I need to put it off and switch my subject related to April 30 for now. What’s so special about it anyway? No worries, the answer won’t be my birthday 😉

Every year on April 30 is koninginnedag (queen’s day) in The Netherlands to celebrate their queen’s birthday. April 30 refers to Queen Juliana‘s birthday, the mother of Queen Beatrix. Although she passed away in 2004 and her daughter now reigns the country, the date of koninginnedag remains unchanged. It is probably the most joyful day for Dutch people in 365 days apart from spring, summer, winter and Christmas holidays.

I joined the crowds for 6 consecutive years in Amsterdam with a group of friends until I left in 2009. I have to thank my friend who captured these wonderful pictures. I borrowed his camera to snap my favourite objects, too. Even though I wasn’t there this year, I believe these pictures taken between 2002 and 2009 still represent the Dutch tradition of celebrating the national festive holiday until now.

ORANJEGEKTE PEDESTRIANS 

Main streets for public transportation are strictly for pedestrians, especially for koninginnedag. Therefore, trams and buses have to use alternative routes and adjust their schedule. Metro (subway) is more effective to reach distant locations, but walking is the best way to enjoy koninginnedag. It is interesting to be on street, mingling with oranjegekte – the crowds wearing orange t-shirts, hats, scarves and jackets. Also, find some more orange colour on their hair, face and body. Or Dutch flag colour (red-white-blue) on cheeks and foreheads. Residents decorate buildings with orange – the Royal Dutch colour – attributes. Schools, offices, department stores, boutiques are closed.

FLEA MARKETS RULE!

Flea markets rule on every corner and main street in Amsterdam, whose vendors are ordinary people in the neighborhood from children, adolescents, adults to senior people. So forget about shopping at Zara, G-Star or Diesel on that day – they are closed. Weeks before queen’s day, participants need to make a reservation to get the spot to spread their carpets, build a tent or stall. Exclusively on queen’s day, reservations are free and government does not collect taxes from sales income. They sell used personal belongings they want to get rid of. Basically, it’s just the way to participate this special occasion for fun. Earning some euros is a plus.

The golden rule for shopping on koninginnedag: cheap second hand goods. Plus high quality or branded equals to perfect. Take your time to walk browsing each stall, including those on the alleys. Surprises are coming to your way.

My favourite “hunting field” was near the border of Amsterdam – Amstelveen, whose inhabitants are high-paid expatriates, mainly Japanese and upper class local people. Frankly speaking, Japanese “trashes” (read: used belongings) are the best so far. Their goods are too good to tosh in trash, some are even in nearly perfect condition. They sell unique things, such as original merchandise from Japanese airline companies, ANA and JAL (I believe they actually got them for free), Japanese comics, magazines, anime toys, posters and dolls. Take tram 5 or metro 51 to get there, stop at AJ. Ernststraat station, and walk a bit further to the left side.

My other favourite “hunting field” was antiquities somewhere at Beethovenstraat. In reality, I never purchased anything from there since my apartment was too small. Decorating a place with old stuff without a proper plan means collecting trashes. Moreover, I was a foreigner who never knew where destiny would take me after graduation. Having experience with antiquities is an advantage when it comes to value and originality. I have a fond of them, minus the expertise. The same tram 5 take you there, stop at Beethovenstraat. Suppose there is no tram, just follow tram 5 railway on foot instead.

My best second hand deals from various locations: Miss 60 mini skirt (€5), Morgan camisole (€2), Disney Babies baby clothing for my nephew (€15), Pikachu (of Pokémon) handkerchief (€0.70), fluffy anime key chains and dolls (€0.10 – €0.50), Nijntje (Miffy) toilet seat cover (€5).

Shopping on queen’s day seems very cheap, but it might end up with bringing other people’s trashes you don’t need. And what if you get snacks and drinks from one stall to another? You’ll be surprised how much you spend in one day. €100 or more? Could be! I tried my best to reduce impulsive buying behaviour to save money.

Nonetheless, not all flea markets sell second hand goods. Quite a lot of vendors offer factory outlet garments, branded good fractions, low end electronic gadgets etc. I call these people “the opportunists” and most of them are immigrants from Turkey, Morocco, Eastern European countries to name a few. Besides, some souvenir shops – especially in Damrak – and independent retailers selling special priced queen’s day related items, from clothing, accessories to non-permanent paints.

MERCHANDISE GIVEAWAY

Join the crowds earlier before streets are too packed with people. Nice stuffs from flea markets are easier to get before noon as well as free merchandise from huge corporations along the way. I got an orange balloon crown from Staatsloterij, a Dutch lottery company, that came with a lottery number I could send to the head office for free. But damn, I didn’t win it ;(

Others got lion paw-shaped sandals from ING, “mad hatter” style hat from Heineken and many more. None of them was precious, indeed. Generally, the crowds love the idea of getting stuffs for free, although within a couple of hours they might dump them on street or garbage bin. I like collecting things, so I still keep the one I didn’t blow at home.

However, in the end, it depends on your luck.

Somebody climbed the pillar to reach the queen’s head at Vondelpark. She was wearing Staatloterij’s balloon crown.

STREET FOOD AND BEVERAGES

Apart from selling second hand goods, residents open stalls selling various kinds of food and drinks. Amsterdam is a multicultural city, street food is not limited to only Dutch food. Chinese spring rolls, dumplings, rice box, Dutch poffertjes, Indonesian loempia’s, fried noodles, German bradwurst, Spanish churros and Turkish kebab. Here, earning euros is mandatory if not just a plus.

Restaurants, cafes, bars in the city centre usually operate to boost their sales. In fact, many restaurants even purposely build stalls outside their outlets selling special set menus to attract floods of passing crowds. Big supermarket chains like Albert Heijn in touristic areas are open. I prefer buying drinks from supermarkets because they are cheaper than stalls. Opening beverage stalls on queen’s day is usually profitable. Vendors can charge you double when drinks are served cold.

PERFORMING ART

Non-famous musicians try to promote their albums by having live concert on street while displaying CDs or DVDs to sell; music school students put their skill to the test by playing music instruments; residents practice singing and dancing skills in public; amateur DJs and bands entertain crowds voluntarily; amateur gymnasts demonstrate acrobatic movements; unknown street actors do pantomime; etc. Koninginnedag is the right moment to show performing art capabilities. A lot of them put a glass or a can beside them to get some tips, except amateur DJs and bands on stage.

Muziek, dans, biertje! Keep the party rocking!

At Teasers Amsterdam, all the girls do not only become oranjegekte and dance on the table inside the bar, but also entertain crowds outside.

All nationalities participate on queen’s day, including Indian musicians. I think I had seen these guys more than once…

Dutch bands and singers are in concert in Museumplein free of charge for public. It usually starts after lunch, but I preferred coming after 5 pm since the A-Lists show up later. As the old saying, save the best for last.

Strike a pose with trashes in Museumplein

After the concert, trashes are beyond imagination. Same story for other areas in Amsterdam. For certain people, it’s a blessing in disguise for extra money. The government needs more street sweepers to clean the city back to normal overnight.

GAMES AND KERMIS

Besides selling food and second hand goods, residents create games where everyone can join. It requires a small amount of money to join. The games tend to be simple and low cost.

Throw the white helmet guy with eggs and get the reward

I don’t know who organized bungee jumping at that time, but I believe a corporate provided this game since it should be handled by professionals and safety is the biggest concern of all.

Kermis at Dam Square

Unlike other games held by individuals or corporate, kermis is not held solely on queen’s day. Amsterdam has it four times a year regardless the nation’s public holiday. Kermis is derived from two Dutch words: kerk (church) and mis (mass). It was originally a market to celebrate a patron saint consecration day. Nowadays, people from big cities neglect the religious meaning of the event. Nonetheless, the fun stays forever. Merry-go-round, haunted house, roller coaster, sling shot, bumper car, you name it. Taste assorted peanut and pop corn flavours, suikerspin, bradwurst, vlaamse frites, oliebollen, waffles after the rides.

CANAL BOAT TRIP

How about fun ride along Amsterdam canals that stretch for hundreds of kilometers by boat? Otherwise, just watch oranjegekte in action instead.

URINARY ODOUR

The most inconvenient part of queen’s day is the toilet. The picture shown above is the most common and practical portable toilet available in Amsterdam as it doesn’t waste a lot of space. However, I really despise it because only men can use it and the smell is OMG hell on earth!!! Urinary smell contaminates fresh air since it has no door and you cannot flush it!!! Portable cabin toilets with a door and a flusher are mostly found in the outdoor music concert in Museumplein.

The queue is freaking horrible. Some guys who can’t hold it any longer either pee-pee on the grass, behind the bushes or even on corners of the street. Toilet rates at Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s and Burger King increase, sometimes double, every queen’s day and the queue is also like hell. But at least a bit cleaner than the open air portable toilets. Many restaurants’ toilets are suddenly unavailable for a day with the announcement “GEEN WC” or “NO TOILETS”. It is so understandable why they do that for the sake of their customers’ convenience.

Amsterdam Centrum was my daily dose, I passed same routes everyday to go to work and school. I remembered main toilet locations and rates, including the free of charge ones. My favourite toilet spots on queen’s day were Pathé de Munt Cinema and NH Grand Krasnapolsky Hotel in Damrak because they were free all year long. I pretended as a Chinese or Japanese hotel guest at Krasnapolsky, hanging a camera on my neck, and sneaked into the toilet immediately. A few McDonald’s flagships had free toilets at that time, except on queen’s day. Anyways, when nature called and things were inevitable, I directly went to nearest toilet regardless the rate.

EPILOQUE: LAST BUT NOT LEAST….

Every year on koninginnedag, I spotted a lot of ducks with their new family members (read: cubs), including in the river in front of my apartment. Was it just a coincidence?

I found the mommy duck and her cubs in their nest somewhere on the side of Amsterdam canal. Littering in their nest is the sign of ignorance of other living creatures living side by side with human beings.

So, my dear friends. Several things to remember: beware of pickpockets, hold your breath when necessary, spend your money wisely, don’t get drunk and ruin other people’s happiness, check tram and metro schedules and please litter in provided garbage bin when available.

Enjoy queen’s day responsibly. Lang leve de koningin! Long live the queen!