It starts with that linguistic babble in the market square. You think you are hearing French, but upon listening more closely you realize it isn't. But then, it isn't really Dutch, either -- despite many familiar sounds. The dialect, spoken there every Wednesday and Friday by the beaming and energetic women who hawk their produce, is a curious mixture of the two, with a few words of German tossed in. And that is but the first of many anomalies of Maastricht.

Yes, this city of 115,000 on the banks of the Meuse River -- or Maas if you prefer -- is in the Netherlands. Indeed, with a pedigree going back more than 2,000 years to the days of Augustus Caesar, and Roman ruins to prove it, Maastricht is Holland's oldest town. But there is little about it that seems Dutch.

Windmills? Dikes? Polders reclaimed laboriously from the sea? A latticework of canals? Tulips? One searches in vain for such cliche's of Holland in and around Maastricht.

Instead, it is a mighty fortress of a town, its skyline punctuated by the turrets of its medieval walls and the belfries of nearly a dozen Romanesque and Gothic churches. The atmosphere and architecture are Burgundian. It is a city of wine, not beer. Dutch pragmatism and orderliness seem to give way to a live-and-let-live spirit, to a southerly joie de vivre that finds its happiest expression in a profusion of sidewalk cafe's and terrace restaurants circling shady squares and lining narrow cobblestone streets.

And it is a city surrounded by topographical features one least associates with Holland -- mountains. Well, "hills" would be the more accurate and appropriate term, since the steepest of them rise scarcely more than 1,000 feet above sea level. But with a little imagination, and appreciation for what the rest of the country looks like, one can understand why they are called the "Dutch Alps."

A look at the map makes one wonder why Maastricht -- and the Dutch province of Limburg, of which it is the capital -- is even a part of the Netherlands. A long, crooked finger, Limburg -- only 850 square miles in area, smaller than Rhode Island -- pokes southward toward the Ardennes, bounded by Germany on the east, Belgium on the west.

But Dutch it is, for it was the garrison of Maastricht that voted with guns in favor of William I and the House of Orange in 1830, when the Belgian provinces of the Netherlands rebelled against Dutch rule and declared their independence. For nine years, until 1839, while a general loyal to William ruled the town, Maastricht remained a point of contention between Brussels and The Hague.

To be sure, there are still some who say it is a miracle that Maastricht has remained Dutch. But what pro-Belgian feelings may still linger in this corner of Europe -- where borders and customs barriers have virtually disappeared and where three currencies are legal tender -- they seem at most to be but another ingredient of the unique blend that makes Maastricht so rewarding.

Considering the wars and conflagrations that have ravaged around it and in the Low Countries, it is a miracle that a town such as Maastricht still exists. Its rich agglomeration of art and architecture, spanning many centuries, is perfectly preserved, and it abounds with Old World charm. Not only is it a haven of elegant living, but it lies just far enough off the beaten tourist track to make its amenities all pleasantly affordable.

Moreover, Maastrict is small and compact enough to be explored leisurely in a day or two. At the same time, it is conveniently close to the more glitzy spots. From Brussels or Cologne, for example, it is an hour's drive or train ride; from Amsterdam, just a little over two.

That Maastricht really can trace its origins to the legions of Augustus, who ruled from 27 B.C. to 14 A.D., is evidenced by its name -- a derivative of the original Latin, "Mosae Trajectum," or "Crossing of the Meuse." The Roman bridge, replaced in the 13th century by a "new" one that remains in use today, formed a vital link in the Roman network of roads between Gaul and bustling towns, such as Cologne, in Germany. The Meuse River was also an important transportation artery in this northernmost region of the empire. Maastricht itself developed as a small trading post nestled around the bridge on both sides of the stream.

Until about the year 200, like other Roman settlements, it was not fortified, and relied for protection on the line of defenses along the Rhine, about 50 miles east. But in the 3rd century, as Germanic tribes from east of the Rhine attacked more frequently and broke through those defenses to plunder and burn settlements in the hinterland, the larger and more important of them began fortifying. So did Maastricht. It was turned into a castellum -- a fort -- surrounded by a wall with massive round towers and a dry moat.

Excavations near today's St. Servaas bridge, between the river and Stokstraat, have produced a fairly complete picture of how the Roman town, with its stone public buildings and half-timbered private houses, looked. The most interesting finds are in the Bonnefanten, the municipal museum of art, archeology and local history.

Attacks and raids across the Rhine by the various Germanic tribes also may have been what prompted St. Servaas, the bishop at Tongeren, in the Belgian part of Limburg, to abandon his residence there and seek refuge in Maastricht. Christianity had been formally tolerated in the Roman empire since 313 and the conversion of Constantine the Great, who had been reared in Trier, the "Rome of the North," 50 miles south of Maastricht. Servaas, who is believed to have come from Armenia, played a major role in the Christianization of the area in the second half of the 4th century. After settling in Maastricht, he established his new diocese and a basilica on the grounds of what is today Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, the Church of Notre Dame.

Though nothing of Servaas' original church remains, the present one -- built largely between 972 and 1143, with additions in the 13th and 14th centuries -- is impressive enough, especially its so-called Westwork. This is a massive, forbidding, almost windowless fac ade, flanked by two round turreted towers, that rises cliff-like above Onze Lieve Vrouwenplein, a picturesque, tree-shaded, cafe'-lined square at its base. The unusual architectural style was borrowed from some of the Romanesque cathedrals along the Rhine. Fine works by a number of late-Gothic German and Flemish wood sculptors can be seen in the chapels and side altars.

Curiously, however, the Vrouwenkerk is not the most important church in town. That distinction is claimed by St. Servaaskerk, the St. Servatius Cathedral, built over the bishop's grave, at the edge of the Vrijthof, an even larger and more popular square.

Servaas, who died in 384, was buried along the Roman road, outside the castellum walls. After his death, hagiographers invented and embellished stories of his achievements, attributing numerous miracles to him. Around 530, more than a century after the last Roman troops had left and Maastricht had fallen under the rule of the Franks, one of Servaas' successors, Bishop Monulphus, erected a church over the grave, and a community of monks and canons grew up around it. St. Servaaskerk became increasingly important, especially when Charlemagne showed an interest in it.

During much of Maastricht's history, the two churches, St. Servatius and Notre Dame, were bitter rivals, with the canons of St. Servatius holding the upper hand. At one point in the 15th century they prevented Notre Dame from displaying relics. They also had a monopoly on selling indulgences. That may explain why it is so rich in works of ecclesiastical art, and why its treasury is so worth visiting. Among the gems of craftsmanship are a gold and silver 12th-century reliquary shrine containing Servatius' remains; a crozier, walking stick and portable altar said to have belonged to him; a jewel-studded 10th-century crucifix with a carved ivory figure of Christ; and a silver bust of Servatius made in the 16th century.

Another remarkable church in this city so full of them is St. Janskerk (St. John's), Protestant since 1632. Its filigreed, 14th-century Gothic steeple rises to a height of 230 feet, dwarfing the adjacent four Romanesque towers ot St. Servatius.

But why are the spire's normally gray stones panted a garish brick-red? I sought an answer at the Tourist Office. Though no one seemed to know why, it was apparently often daubed with oxblood in the Middle Ages, I was told. Last year a conservator of landmarks decided that the tower should again look the way it did in medieval times. Oxblood being unavailable, he chose a modern acrylic. The paint job, I gathered from the conversation, has stirred considerable local controversy.

A monument of a completely different type, and one of Maastricht's most popular attractions, is St. Pietersberg, the 356-foot hill 1 1/2 miles south of the city center, from which Louis XIV directed his artillery barrage in 1673.

The hill is made of soft, chalky tuff stone, a diluvial residue from the era when this region was the bottom of a sea. The stone has been mined and quarried since Roman days, and the hill is burrowed by a 20-mile-long labyrinth of 20,000 tunnels, galleries and manmade caves. During the many sieges of Maastricht, and also during World War II, burghers used these passageways and tunnels as hideouts and shelters. Some of their provisions and supplies can still be seen.

So can the inscriptions left in centuries past by miners and visitors. Indeed, the soft stone walls are like pages from a huge autograph book of history, with signatures dating from the Dark Ages and including those of such luminaries as Voltaire, Napoleon Bonaparte, the Duke of Alba, Sir Walter Scott and the Prince of Orange. Since every tourist is invited to add to the record, it is probably the only place in the world where graffiti is encouraged. There are one-hour guided tours of the northern system of caves, with as many as four each day during the high season, one each on Saturdays and Sundays in late fall and early winter. (A piece of advice: Don't leave the tour. Four medieval monks are said to have tried it, lost their way, and never got out.)

Fort St. Pieter, at the hill's northernmost point, was constructed as part of the city's fortifications in 1701-1702. The original cannons are still in place in the shell-proof galleries.

From the time of the Duke of Parma's siege in 1579 until well into the 19th century, Maastricht's principal role in the turbulent Austrian and Spanish Netherlands was as a garrison town, its rule changing frequently and its peace periodically interrupted by wars between Catholic and Protestant forces and between the French and Hapsburgs. Fort St. Pieter is but one of several defensive systems and outworks built in those times. Others among them are the Linie van Du Moulin and the Casemates, both also open to visitors.

Above all, Maastricht is a town for leisurely strolling and soaking up the atmosphere of past centuries. Start with the town's medieval wall. Much of it -- even pieces of the Roman one -- remains intact.

One of the best views of the city is from the St. Servaasbrug, the 13th-century bridge linking the district of Wijck on the river's right bank with the warren of narrow, cobblestone streets in the Old Town.

The city's face is like a patchwork quilt of architectural styles -- Romanesque, Gothic, baroque, rococo, neo-classical and 19th-century -- all perfectly preserved and integrated into the life of a modern town.

One of the most charming streets on which to spend a leisurely hour or two, shopping, browsing in galleries and antique shops, or violating all principles by stopping in at the Chocolaterie de Vree, is Stokstraat. In the Middle Ages many of the city's markets and administrative buildings were located on this lane and the little streets intersecting with it. Later Stokstraat became a fashionable residential street, the fac ades of its medieval buildings remodeled in the styles of the 17th and 18th centuries. In the 1960s these buildings were beautifully renovated.

A city of anomalies? Yes, dozens of them. Dutch it is, but so different from every other town in Holland.

John Dornberg is a free-lance writer who lives in Munich.