A medium-sized town in the southeastern Netherlands, Sittard nestles in a strange pocket of land that borders the German municipality of Selfkant, in North Rhine-Westphalia, and is also very near Belgium. You can actually pass from the Netherlands into Germany simply by walking across a street1 - a small border post being the only sign that Sittard is divided across two countries! Because of the close proximity to Belgium and Germany, many of the locals speak not only the native Dutch, but also French and German fluently. As such, the town is wonderful for seeing how different European cultures mix in a friendly and open manner.
Sittard has an ancient history, dating back to 5000 BC. During recent archaeological excavations, it was discovered that the town had some of the oldest farming settlements in the country. These settlements had between five and 15 medium to large dwellings, where 50 to 150 inhabitants lived along the brooks and rivers in the area. The fertile land and abundant supply of water was an insurance of life for agricultural and cattle-herding communities, but after approximately 400 years the settlers moved on and other cultures utilised the land. Even the Romans left their mark upon the area, archaeologists finding two Roman sarcophagi and a very beautiful statuette of a cockerel in more recent years.
Sittard was first recognised in census documents as early as 1157, but local legend has it that the town was given its name by Charlemagne. The story goes that when visiting the area he asked a local woman, 'What time is it?' She replied that it was around half past seven in the evening, and he answered: 'That late?' - the French translation being si tard. In all likelihood, the name derives from de Siter - a fertile piece of land between Geleenbeek and de Rode Beek.
Sittard received (as the only town inside the modern-day borough) a charter from the Duke of Limburg in 1243, and soon became a centre for commerce, religion, industry and cultural life. In 1400 the town was sold to the Duchy of Jülich in Germanland, and remained in its possession until 1794, even when it was conquered in 1632 by Prince Frederick Henry and later when much of it was destroyed during the Franco-Dutch wars in 1677. From 1794 - 1814, Sittard was occupied by the French during the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, then after 1814 the town was annexed back to the Netherlands although during 1830 - 1839 Sittard joined the Belgian Revolution and as such came under the jurisdiction of Belgium.
On 1 January, 1926, the first of the region's coal mines came into operation, and the character of the area changed from agricultural to industrial in only a few decades. Then, in 1933, when the Nazis came to power, many German Jewish citizens fled into the Netherlands. Unfortunately, when the German Army invaded in 1940, Sittard was one of the first towns occupied, and in the summer of 1942 much of the Jewish population in the town were deported to detention camps. Sittard was liberated by the United States Army 2nd Armored Division in September of 1944.
After the Second World War many large manufacturing companies made the town their base, assisting in bringing new life and economy into Sittard. These included SABIC2 and DSM (Dutch State Mines); when the coal mines closed in 1973, DSM remained. The SABIC European head office in Sittard is an impressive building, sitting like some curled up metallic and glass armadillo.
Things to See and Do
The original city centre of Sittard still retains much of its 16th and 17th Century charm, including half-timbered houses, a tall domed rotunda, numerous statues and a very green City Park. There are many other places of architectural interest, such as the already mentioned SABIC building, but also the churches in the town are of note, particularly:
- St Peter's - This Gothic style church was built in the late 14th Century, and was extended over time. The tower was added in the 16th Century, but when a fire destroyed the top in 1857, architect PJH Cuypers redesigned it, and it was rebuilt from 1859 to 1861. The current spire was added in 1875, and while the church is slotted in between more modern buildings, it is still an imposing structure.
- St Michael's - Built during 1681 - 84, St Michael's is a Baroque construction that was actually a brewery in a former life, but was destroyed by fire in 1635.
- Our Lady Basilica - Built in the late 19th Century, the church was a pilgrimage site for Father Jules Chevalier's 'Our Lady of the Sacred Heart' fraternity, and remains so.
Eating & Drinking
The Market Square in the city centre has many little cafés and restaurants, but possibly the major attraction would be the 'Café de Gats', which dates from 1530. Also dotted around are 'Bufkes' (sort of like the Dutch equivalent of a 'Subway' fast-food restaurant), where you can pick up a cheap sandwich, or even a hot meal like soup or Grillworst (sausage). There are also a number of pubs around the town, each one having a friendly and unique atmosphere, while further afield is the Wanenberg Winery.
The Market Square is also the location for a fantastic local market, which sells the usual fare such as fresh vegetables, fruits, bread and meats (in particular fish and game), but also an array of fabrics and dressmaking paraphernalia like buttons, zips, press studs and the like. Everything is reasonably priced, and the stall-holders are very helpful and knowledgeable about their wares. If you drive, parking isn't too much of a problem - but you have to be careful because some of the Pay & Display machines only take tokens, which are hard to come by; fortunately, most of the car parks in the town have machines which take euros.
The French occupation of Sittard during the Napoleonic years brought about large changes in the organisation of local government. Many local laws were exchanged later in 1851 for the more general French practice, with the council at the head of the community. In 1982, to improve the quality of local government, the national government passed a law to amalgamate the area around Sittard into one borough. The new borough, called Sittard-Geleen in the province of Limburg, is compiled from the following towns and villages; Born, Buchten, Holtum, Bicht, Obbicht, Grevenbicht, Geleen, Sittard, Broeksittard, Limbricht, Einighausen, Guttecoven and Munstergeleen, with a combined population of around 97,0003.
Sittard is a little off the beaten track, but a pleasure to visit if you get the opportunity. You can access the town from the major highways, and by bus or train, with regular services running from Maastricht, Roermond and Heerlen. You can also cycle into Sittard if you like; it's a popular method of transportation in the Netherlands. You'll fit right in when you cruise through if the pannier needs stocking, and your buttocks are a trifle saddle sore.