My train from Brussels to Luxembourg takes me diagonally south east through Belgium to Arlon and the border. After the concrete and graffiti that is Brussels, the rolling hills of the Ardennes, with clumps of forest. And red brick houses with white mortar and black capped roofs.
Luxembourg was one of Europe’s greatest fortified sites, and it is a melange of gates, bastions and forts with dramatic views over gorges. It’s also one of the three EU capitals (its website boasts about this) and, as such, houses the General Secretariat of the European Parliament, the European Investment Bank, the Court of Justice and the European Court of Auditors.
Luxembourg is another city with a striking mix of old and new architecture. The Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with the fortifications, is a mix of part of the Basse ‘lower down’ and haut (upper) areas. The Basse Grund area contains eighteenth and nineteenth century neoclassical houses, hotels and museums, with spires and ornate windows, a meandering river, prettily reflecting the bridges and bright window boxes. The sweeping panoramas from here, to the precipitous ramparts and across this area from up top in ‘the high town’ are the impressive parts of my wanderings.
The Chemin de Promenade along the edge of the Haut City is alternatively and grandly known as the Balcony of Europe. The fortress around which the city developed and which gave it its strategic importance was up here. The network of battlements and casemates has expanded over hundreds of years to fill much of the steep hillside. There are 17 kilometres of underground tunnels cut out of the solid rock. Much still remains and the tunnels were used as air raid shelters during the two World Wars. It absolutely is the Gibraltar of the North.
The churches, palaces and monuments are so pristine it’s hard to tell what’s recently restored and what’s simply recent at times. Sadly, they’ve been stripped of much of their character. And restoration continues apace; it feels as if the whole of Luxembourg is being refurbished. New tram lines, new trees, new cabling. There are JCBs, pipes and barriers on every street, making navigation even more difficult.
I’ve obtained a self guided walking tour from the information office, but the map is tiny and the instructions dire. I’m trying to supplement it with Google, which is choosing the most obscure and arduous routes possible, down into Basse and up the steep cobbled streets or zigzag steps, rather than across the much more direct viaducts across the gorge. There's a pedestrian/cycle way slung under the lofty Adolphe Bridge. The view over the edge is dizzyingly petrifying - I doubt I will repeat the experience.
To the north, stretching out above the high town are immaculately manicured parks, designer goods shopping, multitudes more restaurants and the ‘modern architectural gems’. The latter are mainly to be found in the new borough of Kirchberg, where there are 154 banks taking advantage of Luxembourg’s low tax rates and New Europe, including the oddly unimpressive European parliament building. There are plenty of Luxembourg tricolour flags waving and grandiose baroque and neoclassical structures along all my routes. If you don’t count the noise of the JCBs it’s all very quiet and calm here. Even the market on the Guillaume Place is subdued. Maybe it’s the influence of Covid-19; I suspect it’s always like this.
To the south, are the edgier urban areas, the station and multitudes of small bars and restaurants. This cosmopolitan area is where I’m staying. Although the whole of Luxembourg seems to be a melting pot of ethnicities.
Today, a bus tour of the highlights of the country. Mainly more castles. I shall soon be castled out. It’s misleadingly called a hop on hop off bus. Even though it's a tour. And there’s the usual new normal customary greeting - a splash of sanitiser. There are four of us on a small bus with a capacity of 20. So it’s a peaceful visit, but then, as I’ve said, Luxembourg is peaceful place. I’m accompanied by Gangaram from Mumbai and his wife and small son - it's’' the first lengthy social interaction I’ve had on these travels. Masks don’t encourage conversation.
Forests (mostly privately owned) cover more than a third of Luxembourg, so it’s not surprising that most of our drive is on hilly roads lined with trees. First Mullerthal - Miller's valley. A short hike along a limestone eroded valley with small waterfalls and caves in an area known as Little Switzerland. It’s pretty, if not hugely exciting and it bears absolutely no resemblance to Switzerland at all, as far as I can see.
Next, two castles at Beaufort - one medieval (there’s about fifty percent of it left to explore) and one Renaissance. The old castle, a small square-shaped fortress on a massive rock, with the remnants of a moat, was begun in the eleventh century. It changed owners and was expanded over the years until.1639, when Johann Baron von Beck, governor of the province of Luxembourg on behalf of the Spanish King, bought it. It is thought that he added a wing with large Renaissance style windows in the main tower and the northwestern cannon tower. but he was obviously dissatisfied with that, as in 1643 he ordered the building of a new renaissance style chateau, on the same site. The old abandoned knights' castle slowly decayed, and was even used as a quarry.
But then, in 1850, the Luxembourg government declared the castle a cultural heritage. The new palace was restored. Today, it is swathed in scaffolding, as like the rest of Luxembourg, it’s being refurbished, even though it's already been considerably repaired.
The ancient town of Vianden is famous as the site of multiple battles in World War II. It was the last place in Luxembourg to be freed from the Germans in February 1945. It's also known for its 11-14th century medieval castle, perched on a crag. The building once belonged to the Counts of Vianden, and has, of course, been heavily restored. As well as the picturesque castle, Vianden boasts a chairlift up the gorge and numerous restaurants alongside the river. I prove that it’s impossible to fit all three into two hours. Lunch and a superfast castle visit ( very steep approaches, not a huge amount to see inside and lots of flights of stairs) make me late back by five minutes.
Echternach is the last stop. The town dates back to Roman times (there was a large villa here), but it developed around the Abbey of Echternach, which was founded in 698 by St Willibrord, an English monk. It's main claim to fame is the dancing procession of Echternach, which takes place in the saint's honour, annually on Whit Tuesday. St Willibrord is actually buried under the altar of the parish church of St Peter and Paul.
Our guide tells us that Echternach is the oldest town in Luxembourg. Make that the oldest before it was restored. Eighty percent of Echternach was destroyed during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, including the huge brick basilica. The church is now on its fifth incarnation. Or maybe it’s still the oldest; as I’ve already pointed out it’s hard to know what has been restored and what is actually new. The Abbey's basilica has survived, (sort of it, has been mostly rebuilt) and is today surrounded by the eighteenth-century abbey (now a high school). Many of the houses here are also currently under restoration. They were built post war, to replicate the seventeenth and eighteenth century houses that were destroyed then. Fortunately, there’s an interesting genuinely medieval town hall. The bombs missed that. Though the powers that be have added a new one alongside it.
San Marino is another tiny white spot on my map. When we drove to Tuscany in the 1990s I couldn’t persuade Chris to go that little bit further. So I’m planning on a day trip to visit San Marino from Rimini. You catch a bus from the station every half hour. I hope.
However, I’m having a bad day and things are not improving. I've arrived at Rimini and San Marino airport from Albania, but there are no taxis to be seen, just a long empty stretch of tarmac with the word Taxi written on it. I track down a bus and don't even have to pay, as the driver doesn't speak English and wants to leave while I'm scattering my belongings everywhere. He just waves me on. I'm headed for Rimini station and a bus to San Marino, but I have no idea where the station is, so thank God for Google. I've just missed the San Marino connection, of course and they go every 90 minutes.
I've been emailing Andy my Travel Counsellor travel agent in England to tell him about my tribulations. He replies that I'm like a cockroach, indestructible. I'm not sure that's a compliment. And I finally scramble on the bus to find that someone has lifted my purse while I was waiting. All my cash and cards. I’m now a destitute cockroach.
I can’t do much except stay on the bus and call the bank. They say Visa can send me emergency money. I spend most of the next two hours wandering around San Marino trying to talk to banks on my phone, which isn’t very easy as the signal keeps disappearing. The Italian phone system doesn’t even recognise the so called Italian visa emergency phone number, so I’m onto the UK one, though I’m pretty sure the folk talking to me are not in the UK. I’m promised a return call in three hours and some money in a bank somewhere.
I’m rushing round, as I’m not in the mood to visit San Marino. Lonely Planet says that a day is plenty to do this micronation justice, in any case. The famous UNESCO heritage medieval settlement is perched very high up indeed, on the top Mount Titano - a couple of castles with three towers and a little walled town. There’s a larger section down below called Dogana, but no-one is interested in that. There are no borders, no customs, just a little sign.
There are amazing views from the top, hills sweeping away into the distance, some crenellated arches, several swanky restaurants, some narrow cobbled streets livened up with a few flags, shops that smell of new leather and a couple of churches. I can’t go in the restaurants as I haven’t any money and I can’t go in the castles as I haven’t any money and I can’t go in the museums because - well you got the idea. Lonely Planet also says there is a curious lack of intimacy here and they’re right. All these stone buildings are too pristine, too perfect. Though I suspect it feels even less intimate for me today. And it’s very difficult to navigate, because of the hills and steps. None of the maps seem to bear any relation to reality.
On the third attempt I find a police station and file a report, with the aid of some pantomiming. The policemen are kind, but vexed that the insurance company don’t mind whether it's an Italian or a Sammarinese (as I’ve discovered they’re called) report. ‘We are a different country’, they say. I know, that’s why ‘I’m here. They are fascinated by my passport. I think they are bored and have decided that I might at least provide some entertainment. ‘You have been to a lot of countries. You went to Iran and you didn’t get robbed there? You went to Pakistan and you didn’t get robbed there? You went to Russia and you didn’t get robbed there? But you went to Italy and you got robbed there?’ Hysterical. Good job they didn't notice Uruguay.
It’s roasting hot - 36 Celsius in the shade - and the Italians/Sammarinese aren’t very good on sob stories. It obviously doesn’t help that I can’t speak Italian and not many of the locals understand English. There’s no consul here to ask for help. The British diplomatic service also lump San Marino and Italy together. The bus company give me 5 euros for a free ride back to Rimini (my ticket was in the purse), but not until I’ve cried all over the little man, and a café supplies water, for my bottle, on request, again after waterworks. I’ve got a cracking headache: heat, stress and dehydration. Now I have to try and work out how to get back to the bus stop.
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