by Peer Boselie, Sittard-Geleen and regional archives
In the city of Sittard-Geleen in the most southern part of the Netherlands, about 20 kilometers north of Maastricht seems little place for green. When you approach the city one can see at first glance a lot of industrial activity. Indeed, VDL Nedcar, the immense Chemelot Campus and several other industrial areas partly determine the identity and provide many neccessary jobs for the nearly 100,000 residents of the city. Of course, in the still largely rural former municipality of Born, and in some rural fringes of Sittard you can still expect the green countryside, but in the centers? Sittard is an old city, where normally traditionally little green is present, the old mining city of Geleen has in particular a lot of industry. Only insiders know that in Geleen most streets and neighborhoods have a very green appearance, and Sittard has many green oases in the middle of the city.
Sittard is a very old, relatively small city. Archeological findings of semi-permanent habitation go back to 5500 years BC (lineair ceramic), there was since 1299 a chapter with the oldest choire stalls in the Netherlands (ca 1380-1400) and you an find the first Basilica-Minor of the Netherlands here, of which the first stone was send by the pope himself. These facts were not known to most readers probably, so you could call this hidden heritage. But thats not why I am here for. No, almost every city has secrets like these I suppose. A secret more interesting is my goal today: the secret gardens of Sittard.
In and around this small and ancient city-center there is a large number of striking green structures. With this we mean not only places like the beautiful and monumental city park. No, we mean mainly other publicly accessible gardens, parks and flower beds, places that you can see, all too often not recognized for what they are, lost, forgotten gems. Places like these there are many in Sittard… They always were there, but now are brought in context with each other. The connections are made by linking themes and „identities“ of various locations with one another. Together they are like a tableau vivant of 24 gardens and parks, jointly telling the history of the city at a radius of 1000 meters from the Market square…
Idea and execution
The idea was born in my mind as I walked three months on the Camino de Santiago in 2010, but it was not till the beginning of july 2012 that I wrote the concept of an article and gave a lecture followed by a brainstorm in one of the gardens itself. The same evening we had a collective of about 25 people. One of the main aspects of our collective is of course guided tours along the gardens. We have our regular free walks every month (we even have ‘groupies’ 😉 ) but also many reserved bookings. Further we realized signage, a booklet with history, explanation and excursions and a childrens booklet. At some places the story of the location is better visualized. And finally: we have a yearly Festival. Each thirt Sunday in June, about 30 performances, and a total cost of less then 1500 euro each year because everybody works for free…
The Secret Garden Collective is now part of the Sittard Historic Association (Vereniging Sittards Verleden), an active historical society with over 400 members, and we are pleased that the project that started in July 2012 with an initiative of one person has had so many results already. We are proud of the tourism innovation-prize that we won in 2014. We thank wholeheartedly the province of Limburg, the municipality of Sittard-Geleen, Rotary Sittard and other sponsors, without whom it had all been impossible, but most of all of course the dozens of volunteers who ensure that this project is becoming a success!
Sittard, the story of the city
Walking is often done using thematic guidelines and opportunities. We use the historical stories and the many legends of the city. In obvious places (sometimes several) identities associated with each other are put into context: the Stadstuin for example tells the story of the Ursuline sisters, but part of the garden is also a memorial garden for the gruesome murder at the Jews in our region during the Second World War. Fort Sanderbout also tells a double story of war and peace, but for centuries is has been the Jewish cemetery. The glacis tell the story of war and destruction, but also of peace and reconstruction, of ancient allotments, of bleachingfields and kissing couples, of water and protective measures. The St Rosa Chapel tells the story of St. Rosa, but also tells stories of the plague, dysentery and the Bokkenrijders, a legendary gang of thieves and murderers, who swore their Godless oath at a severed hand there… In every garden of course the stories of people who have lived there enrich the concept..
Telling the history from the ‘backside’ of a monumental house or convent gives new possiblities. The story itself comes more foreward, the monument is less important. A new target-group is reached, not only people interested in history, but we also see stressed or depressed people, or people just having need of quiet, walking, silence and reflection. We see a growing demand and need for what perhaps might be the cheapest prevention and an inexpensive (part of the) cure for some of these diseases.
There are people who play with the idea of growing ‘forgotten vegetables’ and ‘forgotten fruit’ in a part of the ancient allotments in the future. Also a medieval herb garden could be developped. After all, this is the region, where the Dutch farming history begun soms 7500 years ago! The idea aboit a historical garden comes not only from a historical perspective but is also modern from a sustainability and environmental requirement, and corresponds well with the in our time (actually again!) emerging ‚urban agriculture‘ on vacant plots of land and the need for people to do in their immediate neighborhood something to the balance in the world. Working together with schools ánd restaurants is logical, to make it longevous.
There are a number of gardens or other places where the story of the city has become less clear. Sometimes the location could be better visualized to honour the historical situation. This can be a very small corner, or a larger object like the Sanderbout-fortification or the reflection-garden.
Ursuline garden / reflection garden
In the year 2016 the ‘city-garden’, donated to the citizens in 1993 by the city-council, on the occasion of the celebration of 750 years of city rights for Sittard, is transformed into a ‘Reflection-garden’, with elements of the liturgical year and the pilgrimage history of Sittard. This ‚city garden‘ was realized in the former yard of the convent and boarding school of the Ursulines, where at a small cemetery, the sisters are still buried. A historical ‘berceau’ of pears is leading to the monument erected shortly after the war in memory of the Jews, murdered by the Nazis. New green elements are added to intensify the locations history. Schools and restaurants (herbal garden!) are our partners. In this way we can let more and more people discover this small gold mine, where wood, plants and flowers unveill Sittards history…
Sittard Secret Garden Team
Peer H. M. Boselie, Chairman
 Peer H.M. Boselie, De geheime tuinen van Sittard; Het verhaal van de stad vertelt aan de hand van groene oases, Sittard, Historisch Jaarboek voor het Land van Zwentibold, 2012, p. 131-147
Coming soon: Read more about these amazing gardens in our example of a meditation in the Jardin d’Isabelle!