A summer holiday without having to go half way round the world: It’s probably not what you’re used to, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less enjoyable. You can find adventure anywhere, even close to home. And to be honest, these can sometimes be more surprising. To illustrate this, I will be crossing back and forth this summer through the province of North Brabant past places on the map that arouse interest. In the third part it’s the turn of the Land of Cuijk – well-hidden, but not to be missed.
La Dolce Vita. Living like a God in France. We all have our own vision of this statement, such as enjoying good company, good food and drink, and plenty of space in beautiful surroundings. Not having to board a plane or stare at a motorway for hundreds of kilometres, the good life in North Brabant demonstrates that like no other. And probably the biggest surprise of all can be found in the top northeast of the province. A region that few people have heard of but which appeals to the imagination with the UNESCO biosphere the Maasheggen (Maas Hedgerows), a rich Roman history, hidden valleys and forbidden areas. Time to put on my backpack and to discover for myself what the locals have known for a long time as Een Goei Leven (A Good Life) in the Land of Cuijk.
The drawbridge made it very clear that I had arrived: Landgoed Barendonk(country estate) in Beers, my base for two days in the Land of Cuijk. Tessa welcomed me by showing me round the grounds, after I had checked into my comfortable hikers’ cabin. The estate has been in family hands for 150 years, and nowadays is not just an imposing villa, but also a spacious nature camping ground with various types of accommodation, from hikers’ cabins to insanely wonderful ‘tiny houses’, with tepees coming soon. Wherever you sleep, you will be in beautifully natural surroundings.
I got on my bike for my first kilometres through the Land of Cuijk, taking with me some last-minute tips from Tessa and her mother Liesbeth. Today I would be cycling from Boxmeer via Overloon and back to Beers, a route that would take me right across the Maasheggen hedgerows. In 2018 this area was awarded the UNESCO Man and Biosphere status on account of its unusual interrelationship between man and nature in the oldest cultivated landscape in the Netherlands. The route network meandered beside the River Maas and treated me to varying beautiful countryside and sights.
One of these is the lock complex in Sambeek where you will also find the Meerstoel. I got a lunch from here to eat on my way. It was lovingly made by Janneke, who was raised in the former lockkeeper’s cottage and who now provides walkers, cyclists and other nature lovers with delicious home-made picnics. Perfect for enjoying it on the move, as I did, or on the terrace, or even better; on one of the picnic rugs that you can lay down next to the lock. My picnic bag also contained stroopwafels (syrup waffles), a traditional Dutch product that I missed during my travels in faraway places, which are produced from the oven in many unique varieties. Janneke bakes them freshly, using some weird ingredients such as sugar sprinkles, thyme or walnuts from the tree in her back garden.
Having grown up among the straight lines of the flat Flevopolder, an expanse of reclaimed land, this was cycling full of surprises. Boats and ferries sail up and down the River Maas and I passed by shoulder-high corn fields where now and again a church tower juts out from above them. Before I knew it I had cycled into the ‘Forbidden Area’ near Vierlingsbeek. This is a reference to the Second World War when all the residents in this area were evacuated during the Battle of Overloon. Places of remembrance and information signs in various locations remind us of the turbulent history in this part of the Land of Cuijk. They provide a poignant addition to the route that continues mostly through characteristic Maas villages, with lovely natural surroundings.
The next surprise awaited me in Overloon, where the cycle path suddenly took me right into a museum. Cyclists get a free glimpse into a hall full of military vehicles in the Overloon War Museum from a 3 metre high bicycle overpass. Breaking your cycle trip to visit the impressive museum is certainly recommended.
My route from Overloon took me slowly but surely back towards Beers. Slowly, because there were still a lot of beautiful things to see. They included the Heksenboom (Witch’s Tree) nature gate near Sint Anthonis, the extensive Molenheide heathland near Mill and the varying countryside of the Hidden Raam Valley. I zoomed through the countryside on my e-bike and as evening approached, I was back at Barendonk country estate. I took my first look at the family dairy farm, including young calves and an amazing demonstration of the milking robots. Guests at the country estate and even those passing by are always welcome to walk around the property, as they are at many other farms in the area. It’s a great way to become familiar with farming life in the Land of Cuijk as well as the delicious regional products that come from there. So that evening I enjoyed a chunk of farmhouse cheese and a glass of local wine from the Daalgaard vineyard in my hikers’ cabin.
The next morning I took my time over a large mug of Maasheggen tea to plan out my route for the second day. The Land of Cuijk certainly is quite undiscovered, and it’s bigger than I could cycle in just two days. I had to make some choices so I decided to leave aside the historic fortified town of Grave. Instead, I followed the Via Valentiniana to Cuijk to my finishing point in Boxmeer.
In Roman times there was an important transport artery beside the River Maas which led from Maastricht to Nijmegen. The route between Cuijk and Boxmeer has been reconstructed and you can follow the banners along the cycle path and the Roman helmets in the road surface. So not only do you get to find out all about Roman history and the many excavations in the area, but you can also cycle through a beautiful part of Maasheggen with its equally beautiful stopping-off places.
A good place to start is the Ceuclem Museum in Cuijk, where you will be introduced to Roman history in Cuijk and its surroundings. You can walk through the Roman garden from the museum to the Sculpture and Wildlife Garden (‘Beelden- en Heemtuin’). A few more steps and you’ll be standing on the Maas Boulevard; the start of a lovely cycle trip towards Boxmeer where you hardly ever lose sight of the River Maas.
Less than four kilometres further on there was a real eye-catcher waiting for me in the Land of Cuijk; St. Agatha is the oldest monastery in the Netherlands that is still inhabited. You have free access to the beautiful monastery gardens and during opening times you can take a look inside the monastery chapel and the exhibition in the adjacent Heritage Centre. An interesting fact; the monastery also houses several studios and a genuine monastery brewery. Nowadays five local beer enthusiasts brew monastery beer in the former stables, these include the Triple 1371 that is on sale in the gatehouse (‘Poortgebouw’) at the entrance.
The last few kilometres were in my sights as I cycled past fields full of flowers towards Boxmeer. Just as the terrace outside the Het Veerhuis in Oeffelt came into view, I decided to make a final stop to enjoy the views of the River Maas with a snack and a drink. And this is the place for a glass of homemade lemonade. De Aanmakerij is housed in the Veerhuis (ferryman’s house) and Maarten, the restaurant’s owner creates pans full of syrup made from natural ingredients such as elderberry and hawthorn. And wherever possible, these are picked from the Maasheggen gardens.
And maybe that’s where the ‘Good Life’ is to be found; in encounters with the locals, enjoying regional produce and of course the beautiful countryside that will encompass you everywhere in the Land of Cuijk.
Isn’t backpacking something you only do in faraway lands? No, absolutely not! Put on your backpack and discover how lovely and surprising North Brabant can be. Naline, Stop and Stare travel magazine, has been out on the road and shared her experiences with us. Curious? Then read on right now.