Luxembourg: The Little Wonderland
IT’S AMAZING HOW MUCH HISTORY AND BEAUTY YOU CAN FIND IN THIS TINY COUNTRY.
I had traveled past Luxembourg many times, an easy thing to do after all, it being one of the smallest countries in the world, the second smallest EU-state, measuring a mere 82 kilometers long and 57 kilometers wide. From the capital, also called Luxembourg, to the borders with France and Germany it’s a mere 30 minutes, to Belgium the grand total of 15 minutes’ drive. But this time I head into the country, because for a tiny country, there is an enormous amount of history and beauty to be found.
The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg started as an independent duchy in around 900 AD, and had its first fortified castle built on top of a previous Roman one. With close German links, the duchy prospered happily until it was conquered in the mid-1400s by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. This resulted in severed links with the German traditions, but brought in French culture and language. There followed subsequent eras of Spanish, Austrian, and once again French occupation, among others. Seems that at one time or another everybody wanted that strategically placed fortress for themselves.
Then in 1815, the Congress of Vienna, which ended the Napoleonic wars, reshaped Luxembourg, reducing its size, and left it under the rule of William I, Prince of Orange-Nassau, bringing a little Dutch influence. Finally, in 1860, Luxembourg gained independence, and was left with a strong national identity, but a confusing language. French and German are spoken widely, the newsagents in the city offer both countries’ newspapers and magazines, but then there is also Lëtzebuergesch, or Luxembourgish, an unusual mix of both French and German with a little extra Flämish-sounding something thrown in. The locals say “Mir wëlle bleiwe, wat mir sinn,“ which means something along the lines of we want to stay the way we are.
The long-standing multiculturalism of Luxembourg is still very much evident today. Of the just slightly more than 500,000 inhabitants some 46 percent are foreign, coming in to work mostly for the bank, finance, and iron and steel industries that make up the main stay of the Duchy, with an amazing 168 nationalities living and working in the small state. In Luxembourg City, two thirds of the population are foreign, and each morning and night, some 150,000 people commute from surrounding Belgium, Germany and France to work in the little capital.
"The many nationals and cultures living together make up Luxembourg’s mentality," says Désirée Nosbusch, a TV personality and actress from Luxembourg,. About her native country, she says, “Those who are from here, or have lived here for a while, become known and recognized quickly. It is a country where everybody claims to know everybody. Its long and varied history and culture make Luxembourg a welcoming country.”
To get an overview of around 1,000 years of history in 100 minutes, I embarked on the Wenzel Walk, a walk that takes you around the old UNESCO-listed city center on foot, up and down, across bridges, following roughly the city walls. To not lose your way, pick up either a map or engage a local (human) guide at the Tourism Information Office by the bustling twice-weekly market place Place Guillaume II, or even just connect to the free inner-city Wi-Fi.
Head for the starting point at the Bock Promontory, past the Royal Palace, then follow the little golden crowns on the pavement guiding the way. The Bock Promontory itself is riddled with tens of kilometers of tunnels, and along the walk you’ll see scant remains of the ancient castle, the imposing Castle Bridge, romantically huddled houses along the river Alzette, public vegetable gardens and bee hives, moats, and medieval bridges and old lock systems. Plus, the views across this city with its quite unique mix of ancient to modern architecture are truly amazing.
Talking about bridges, Jos Goergen, a true Luxembourg native, tells me there are more than 100 bridges in Luxembourg City alone, and many more in the countryside, spanning the countless valleys. He suggests going to either the Corniche or the yard of the MUDAM Modern Art Museum, which combines old and new architecture superbly, for the best views of Luxembourg and its surroundings, including some of those bridges.
Taking a note of his suggestion, I head into the pedestrianized old city center, where the numerous restaurants reflect the country’s multicultural scene, and where you can get everything you desire, from pretty much every corner of the world. But, with Luxembourg cuisine being heavily influenced by German and French cuisine, and mostly reflecting farmers’ rustic and hearty meals, as Jos explained to me, I opted for the bustling daily market to taste the local specialty of gromperekichelcher, not something easily pronounced. These little fried potato cakes with onions, garlic and herbs, not unlike the Swiss Rösti, are superb and not too heavy, as I was planning on a hot chocolate and local cake at the famous Patisserie Namur later, which Jos wholeheartedly recommended.
Luxembourg’s size and the compact nature of its old city make it perfect for a leisurely dose of history, culture, shopping and great food. And for a trip into the surrounding countryside, such as the pretty Moselle Valley on the border with Germany, public transport in Luxembourg is cheap and easy and connects from the main train station in Luxembourg City with the remainder of the country, in short and convenient schedules.
Luxembourg turned out to be a perfect location for me, and instead of a country often overlooked or driven past, it is a worthy destination in its own right. I suggest you see it too.