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.
Luxembourg is named after a Saxon fortress, Lucilinburhuc (‘little fortress’) built by Sigefroid, Count of the Ardennes, in 963 AD. Luxembourg's fortress, located on a rocky outcrop known as the Bock, was steadily enlarged and strengthened over the years by successive owners. Some of these included the Bourbons, Habsburgs and Hohenzollerns, who made it one of the strongest fortresses on the European continent, the Fortress of Luxembourg. Its formidable defences and strategic location caused it to become known as the ‘Gibraltar of the North’. Around the fort of Luxembourg, a town gradually developed, which became the centre of a small but important state of great strategic value to France, Germany and the Netherlands and the land was ruled for the following five centuries by the powerful House of Luxembourg. After its extinction, in 1437 (there was no male heir) and a brief period of Burgundian rule, the country passed to the Habsburgs in 1477.
Over the next 400 years various European nations have controlled this small country. Luxembourg was briefly a part of the Southern Netherlands, which passed to the Austrian line of the Habsburg dynasty in 1713. After occupation by Revolutionary France, the 1815 Treaty of Paris transformed Luxembourg into a Grand Duchy. It became an independent sovereign state in 1867, despite ongoing territorial claims by its neighbours and it remained in union with the Netherlands, who still tried to sell it at one point. It was also reduced in size.
Since the end of the Second World War, Luxembourg has become one of the world's richest countries, buoyed by a booming financial services sector, political stability, and European integration.
Luxembourg has been one of the strongest advocates of the European Union. It was one of the six founding members of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1952 and of the European Economic Community (EEC) (later the European Union) in 1957; in 1999 it joined the euro currency area.
Forests cover more than a third of the country - just over half of them have private owners. There are forest-covered hills, sandstone cliffs with impressive rock formations, the Schiessentümpel waterfall, tiny villages and the ruined castles of Beaufort and Larochette.
See what I did: Luxembourg - The Gibraltar of the North
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