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Thorn

48km (33 miles) N of Maastricht; 42km (29 miles) SE of Eindhoven

Early morning mist from the Maas sifting through cobblestone streets adds a ghostly air to the village's whitewashed buildings, which seem to float free from their foundations. Thorn (pronounced Torn), dubbed the "White Village," looks almost too good to be true, as if it has been specially treated to preserve the graces of a bygone age. For centuries, the village was ruled by women, abbesses of a cloister founded in 992. The nobility of the Holy Roman Empire sent their daughters here to be educated in the ways of a Christian life.

Whether they succeeded or not is uncertain -- there were back doors to each of the cottages where the girls lived -- but Thorn itself has brought its own uplifting presence safely down the centuries. The old center of the village seems like a page torn straight out of a history book, with its white walls, cobblestone courtyards, and wall-mounted lamps. It's reason enough to be diverted off the highway before the day gets fairly started, and stroll through the streets, sniffing the wood-smoke-scented air, freshly baked bread, and a timeless atmosphere that will struggle later to cope with tour-bus crowds.

The nearest rail station to Thorn is Weert (on the Amsterdam-Maastricht line), from where buses connect to Thorn. By car, leave A2/E25 southeast of Weert, and drive southwest.

Valkenburg

13km (8 miles) E of Maastricht

Southern Limburg occupies the highest ground in the Netherlands. Nestled among gently sloping hills where lush forests alternate with pastures unfolding toward the Geul River, Valkenburg is best known for its spa, casino, and a ruined fortress up a steep hill that still seems to guard this bustling small town. Surrounded by parks and farms constructed in Limburg's characteristic half-timbered style, this is where the action is in summertime. Folks generally come to Limburg to unwind, but the pace is faster in Valkenburg. Even the Geul races through town, as though it's just gotten away with the casino takings. Out of season, Valkenburg is more like a ghost town of last summer's dreams.

Getting There -- From Maastricht, there are up to four trains every hour, and two buses an hour from outside Maastricht rail station. By car, take A79 northeast.

Visitor Information -- VVV Valkenburg is at Theodoor Dorrenplein 5, 6301 DV Valkenburg (tel. 0900/9798; fax 043/601-6640; www.vvvzuidlimburg.nl). The office is open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 5pm, and Sunday from 10am to 2pm.

What To See and Do

Some of Valkenburg's most intriguing sights are hidden. The rocks beneath Valkenburg are like Swiss cheese -- for centuries (beginning with the Romans), people have excavated the soft marlstone for use as building material. Nowadays six caves are open to the public.

Valkenburg After Dark

Holland Casino Valkenburg, Kuurpark Cauberg 28 (tel. 043/609-9600. www.hollandcasino.com), on a hilltop across from Thermae 2000, offers French and American roulette, blackjack, and mini-punto banco. A separate area has slot machines of all shapes and sizes, plus two restaurants, two bars, and reception rooms. For an entire evening's entertainment, sit down to a dinner show. Note that a dress code is observed (jacket and tie, or turtleneck, for men; dress or dressy pantsuit for the ladies), and you need your passport to show you're over 18 years of age. The casino is open daily (except May 4 and Dec 31) from 12:30pm to 3am. Admission is 5€ ($8). Wednesday is "ladies day," and admission is free for all female visitors.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.