The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg - Europe in miniature
43 people found this review helpful
Luxembourg is so small that it only has one proper urbanised city and they didn’t think it was worth giving it a separate name. The country really is small, barely half the size of Norfolk, so it’s not surprising that most travel guides merely include it as part of the Benelux countries (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg).
But forget size, Luxembourg is one of Europe’s most overlooked and underrated destinations. It’s nearer to London than the Scottish border and is a surprisingly easy drive from the UK and just four hours from Calais, with no border controls.
Squashed between France, Germany and Belgium tiny Luxembourg used to be much larger in its eventful past. An indication of its strategic and economic value is the regularity of foreign invasion, having been occupied by the Romans, French (twice), Dutch, Austrians, Germans (twice) and the Spanish. Now its one of the administrative centres of European Union which made one joker say to me ‘and they’re all back here now.’
My prior knowledge was limited to its Swiss style international banking and contributing the eurocrat word Schengen (a small town on its southern border where Europe agreed its reduced boarder controls) to our vocabulary. On a per capita basis Luxembourger’s have the highest income in the world and more Michelin stared restaurants than anywhere else.
Natives of this well educated country are trilingual in Luxembourgish, French and German and most speak passable English but it can be very confusing for visitors as natives often switch between languages in mid conversation.
Count Siegfried of the Ardennes founded modern Luxembourg in 963; he built a castle on the rocky plateau that became the city and eventually the country of Luxembourg. Regular threats from expansionist neighbours led to the city increasing its fortifications until it became known as the Gibraltar of the north. Bizarrely, extensive defensive underground passages known as ‘Casemates’ were hollowed out of the sandstone plateau, not by the Luxembourger’s but by Austrian invaders as a defence against French invasion.
The city of Luxembourg has all the cultural and leisure facilities of any modern European capital but with the virtue of being exceptionally small and easy to explore on foot.
But Luxembourg is essentially a country of small towns and hamlets so it’s real character is found when you get outside the city. Nowhere is much further than an hour’s drive and the landscape is amazingly varied for such a small country.
The northern third of the country, called Eisleck, has the most dramatic scenery. It's part of the Ardennes, a forested plateau with cliffs and valleys extending into Belgium and France. The southern two-thirds of the country is called Gutland (Good Land), which includes the Mullerthal known as little Switzerland due to its towering rock formations, bubbling streams, hiking trails and little hamlets. Another part of the Mullerthal is the wine-growing Moselle Valley, a shared border with Germany to the east. The extreme south is called the Land of the Red Rocks due to its extensive iron ore deposits.
Luxembourg was devastated in WWII during the ‘Battle of the Bulge’– Hitler’s last desperate bid to stop Allied forces crossing into Germany. But after the war they choose to restore war torn communities rather than bulldoze them and shoehorn people into future high-rise slums as Britain did. The capital city is full of modern developments and international hotel chains but devastated towns and villages now eerily match old black and white pictures of pre-war Luxembourg.
The villages of Echternach and Diekirch in the northeast were in the forefront of the ‘Battle of the Bulge.’ The villages were shot and bombed to pieces but to the casual observer they appear to be timeless communities. Even the demolished medieval Abbey in Echternach has been restored to its original condition and except for the preserved bullet holes and the hillside bunkers you wouldn’t know such a disaster had happened.
A plethora of post war military flotsam has been collected into three museums dedicated to the Battle of the Bulge. The national museum in Diekirch is full of abandoned WWII military hardware but even more fascinating are the personal accounts and recollections of allied soldiers about life and experiences during the battle. Many are terrible but one recounts the delivery of 10,000 turkeys from America for Thanksgiving Day and amusing attempts to cook them without any kitchen equipment. Similarly there are stories from German soldiers but most of them were demoralised like the frightened 16 year old – who just wanted to go home – these were Hitler’s last reserves that he threw into the Ardennes offensive.
The Moselle valley on the eastern border with Germany is a stunning sight as it meanders through vine and tree covered hillsides and it’s at its glorious best in autumn when the grapes are ripening. Luxembourg Moselle wine has a wonderful fruity flavour but is not as sweet as German Moselle; sadly it’s rarely exported so the Moselle most of us taste invariably comes from France or Germany. Picturesque villages like Remich and Grevenmacher nestle between the river and the vineyards but the ideal way to enjoy the Moselle is on one of the many river boat cruises that can be picked up from any number of riverside villages.
The country is littered with castles, many are just ruins and some are better described as Château’s but one of the biggest and most impressive feudal residences from the Romanesque and Gothic periods is the castle at Vianden. It embodies everything you might imagine about a European castle. Perched high up on a crag, towering over a small hamlet of ‘peasants’, slightly decaying, towers with witch-hat roofs and of course its own prison.
Vianden has a typical European castle history; the Romans were there first (around 40 AD) but only traces remain of their buildings. The castle proper was started in 11th century and continually rebuilt and expanded through to the 16th century. Then during the 19th century it was allowed to deteriorate until it was restored to its former glory towards the end of the 20th century.
If you’ve already seen the great cities of Europe or if you don’t want to keep packing up and moving on – Luxembourg is Europe in miniature. With a World Heritage city, small friendly towns, a beautiful and varied landscape and a fascinating history – Luxembourg should not be overlooked – even if it is hard to find on the map.
43 people found this review helpful
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