The first time I ever visited Valkenburg was in December 2004, when I went there with Lance, my aunt, and my cousin to see the Christmas markets in the cave. Valkenburg is very festive at Christmas, but it's also a lovely town...one that I wanted to visit again. I haven't had the chance to do so.
I have an assignment to write an article about Valkenburg's caves for Geotimes, a publication of the American Geological Institute. So I went with my friend Christine today to do the tour of the cave. I chose to visit the Fluweelengrot (Velvet Cave), which is the same cave that I visited the last time. I wanted to see it without all the booths set up that were selling tacky Christmas tchotchkes. It was like I was seeing the cave for the first time.
There are also the Municipal Caves, but we opted out of taking that tour.
I have to say, the atmosphere was entirely different. You have to take a guided tour...it would be very easy to get lost in the caves, and in fact, two teenagers did get lost in them and died. The tour guide wanted us to imagine what that was like, and he turned out all the lights. Pitch blackness swallowed us, giving us the sense of what it was like to be trapped inside the cave.
Aside from a few lights here and there, and some candles, the cave is mostly unlit. During much of the tour, we were swathed in darkness (which is why some of my pictures came out weird...I waited until after the group had moved on before pointing my camera on something I couldn't see and clicking). The tour was in Dutch, but we had the benefit of a paper that explained everything in English, and the tour guide and one of the other tourists were both very helpful in explaining things to us in English.
My favorite part was the chapel, where secret masses were held during the French occupation of Valkenburg. There are also some beautifully elaborate carvings and paintings, which were generally done by the light of a candle or a small oil lamp. Many of the images in the cave were done 100-150 years ago. At one section, you can see the names and silhouettes of the American GIs carved into the stone...they hid in the caves with the locals during the waning days of World War II.
Some of the local buildings were made from the marlstone mined from the caves. The castle is the most prominent (no photographs of that...it was covered in scaffolding), but I noticed that one of the local churches was made of that material too, as were several other buildings scattered throughout town.
The tour took about an hour, and afterwards, we had lunch (I don't really remember the name of the place, but lunch wasn't anything really special anyway...good, but standard stuff). We did a little bit of browsing in the shops. I bought some chocolates at De Babbelaer Chocolat & Sweets, and then we left.
Other than the driving to and from (always a pain for me), it was a great day. Perfect weather (although it's chilly in the cave, so bring a sweater)...couldn't have asked for better.
I'll post a link to the article once it's published.
(Disclaimer: Some of these pictures had to be seriously retouched because of how dark it was in the caves. The colors represented in the photos are not necessarily how the images appeared in person, but probably more accurately represent what the images actually look like with the benefit of full light).