Luxembourg City, Luxembourg
I arrived in Luxembourg knowing almost nothing about the unusual city and country that share the same name. To me, the place was a weird enigma as I had never met anyone from Luxembourg during my repeated tours of Europe and I didn’t know anyone who had ever visited Luxembourg. I knew that these oddities were undoubtedly due to Luxembourg’s tiny population and landmass size. It’s one of the smallest countries in Europe and judging by the rudimentary map on the back of my Lonely Planet Europe on a Shoestring, the entire country appeared to be only slightly larger than Euro-Disney.
A drunk Scotsman that I met in The Hague informed me that Luxembourg was a grimy, car making, industrial city. I visualized Detroit with super narrow streets. Yuck! As my train approached Luxembourg City, I snapped out of my train nap and took a look around. Usually, arriving in any capital city in Europe, trains tend to be at least partially to mostly full of backpackers and commuting locals. Despite being early in the afternoon, high tide for backpacker arrivals, my train was nearly empty. This did not help the growing trepidation within me that there was a very clear, unpleasant reason that I had not heard about people visiting Luxembourg in the past. Was it really a gray, unattractive shit-hole? I started to brace myself for two horribly unpleasant days that could very well transpire with me mostly confined to the hostel, drunk on cheap wine in single serving drink boxes from the lobby vending machine. I slapped myself, causing the few people on the train to look at me with visible concern. What was I thinking? I was a freelance (with emphasis on the word “free”) travel writer and I had a duty to cover this city to the best of my abilities whether it was the utopia of my dreams or the polluted, disagreeable equivalent of Berlin. I only had 36 hours to crack this mystery and document it before I was forced to backtrack into Belgium, so I was going to damn well put my head down, be quick like a cat and sober like a Shaker to maximize my time there. Despite failing in both respects I still got the job done.
View of Luxembourg City
To my immense delight, Luxembourg City was not an industrial wasteland. On the contrary, it was the most beautiful and scenic place I had seen outside of Norway. The Old City turned out to be small enough for me to walk the entire circumference and the length of the surrounding valley in a casual 40 minutes. While I was timing the aforementioned foot trek and enjoying the countless postcard-worthy vistas, I saw in the distance what looked like patio umbrellas with the word “Strongbow” (my preferred brand of cider) on them. The heat hadn’t been bad that day, but nevertheless I concluded that it had to be a hopeless fantasy driven mirage. As I got closer and closer and the “Strongbow” name got larger and clearer, I started to pick up my pace gradually until I was almost at a full sprint by the time I burst into the bar. Not only did they have Strongbow, but it was on tap! I immediately forgot my quest to unlock the mysteries of Luxembourg and ordered a 510 ml glass (pint) of cider. It was the most welcome taste to cross my lips in weeks. Even better than I had remembered. Wanting to get back to exploring the city, I finished it off rather quickly and got up to leave. As I careened into the table next to me I realized that I had not eaten since my early breakfast back in Maastricht, The Netherlands and that European Strongbow was a bit stronger than the stuff I consumed in the States. The cider had gone straight to my head and as I slumped over a chair I owned up to the fact that my productive day had been moronically cut short.
Despite returning to the Strongbow bar three times in the next 24 hours, my goal to traverse Luxembourg City was easily achieved in lieu of its compact size. I was eventually forced to reluctantly admit that the scenery around the city probably surpassed my beloved Salzburg in the sheer number of picturesque settings. Luxembourg City is surrounded on two sides by the incredibly steep Pétrusse and Alzette Valleys, which have enormous fortifications carved into them that protected the Old Town portion of the city from foreign invaders for centuries. The Bock Casemates on the eastern side of the city, which can be toured for a shockingly cheap US$2, are cut right into the stone embankment like a giant ant farm and they are as amazing as they are hugely complex. Claustrophobic tunnels lead to tight spiral staircases that lead into rooms deeper in the embankment, that lead into yet more tunnels and rooms. This extraordinary 14-mile-long underground network totaling 131,200 square feet of bombproof rooms was slowly chiseled into the solid rock embankment over the course of five centuries by successive foreign rulers with builder-engineers from Spain, France, Austria and Germany. The fortification became so huge and impenetrable that it was referred to as the “Gibraltar of the North.” Sadly, most of the intimidating Casemates were either sealed up or destroyed as a result of the Treaty of London in 1867. At the pinnacle of it’s existence, the fortifications could house 35,000 soldiers and their horses! Additionally, it was equipped with artillery workshops, kitchens, bakeries and slaughterhouses. The mere 10% of the Casemates that remained after the Treaty of London were still so strong and durable that they were used as bomb shelters in World War II.
Luxembourg is not cheap. The country had the highest per capita GDP in the entire world in 1997 and accordingly the standard of living is a smidgen steep. The nightly rates at the hostel/hotels won’t dislodge your jaw, but you will easily pay the same amount for your dinner as you did for your accommodations if you eat anywhere but the grocery store. It’s no Norway, but one needs to come to Luxembourg mentally prepared for budget traumas like US$2.50 for a dainty, eight ounce, ice filled glass of Coke. The wealth in Luxembourg City shows itself in several not-so-subtle ways. Expensive, fast cars careen through the city and around the fortifications, pricey, fine dining experiences far out-weigh the affordable alternatives and the locals are tanned and well dressed. Even the Luxembourg chapter of the Hell’s Angels hangs out at a high-priced bar – the Strongbow bar as it so happens – and keeps themselves clad in fresh Harley Davidson leather and adorned with intricate, pricey tattoos.
View of the Grund
Ascending and descending the grueling, steep embankments around Luxembourg City took its toll my legs early on. While the Old Town and much of the city’s attractions are at the top, my hostel and the Strongbow bar were at the bottom. Walking up, carrying only myself and my tiny day-bag, would leave me spent and gasping for air, and the return trip would push my quadriceps to the failure point, requiring the aforementioned frequent “rest stops” at the Strongbow bar to recuperate and medicate. With the repeated trips that I made up and down the valley every day, the sensation of my calves being close to exploding started to become a routine feeling. Then, late in my stay, with an accompanying sharp slap to the forehead, I discovered the Grund Lift. Luxembourg City has installed a free elevator to take people from the cobblestone, scenic, nightlife festooned Grund area at the bottom of the Valley up to the Old Town, probably in an effort to keep less stout tourists from having heart attacks while climbing that hideous hill. The elevator’s base is hidden deep in a tunnel – that coincidentally empties out right next to the Strongbow bar – where tourists are quickly and painlessly shipped up to the edge of the Old Town near the Citadelle du St Esprit. I had observed continuous groups of people going in and out of the tunnel while I sat nursing my drinks and waiting for my thighs to unclench before I finally decided to investigate and subsequently found belated deliverance.
Two easy days in Luxembourg City is pretty much all the time you need to traverse every street in the Old Town and the surrounding, leafy valleys twice at the most leisurely pace you can achieve while still managing forward motion. Even if you get ambitious and tack on visits to the Palais Grand Ducal and the impressive Musée d’Histoire de la Ville de Luxembourg, you will still have time for two gelato stops per day and probably a nap.
The short time commitment needed for Luxembourg City leaves those with the inclination and free time the opportunity to take in the numerous attractions outside of the city. The castles, plateaus, valleys and rivers of the northern Ardennes region are spectacular and accordingly a little overrun with gawking tourists. Despite having a land mass slightly smaller than Rhode Island (OK, so it’s a bit bigger than Euro Disney), Luxembourg has somehow managed to squash in an astonishing 3,100 miles of marked walking paths, with the Müllerthal region in particular sporting much raved about trails in addition to copious cycling and rock climbing options. If you are looking for a more low impact activity, the nation’s small, but busy white wine region in the Moselle Valley has a multitude of surprisingly affordable tours and tastings to enrich your enjoyment of the beautiful countryside.
Unlike most European capitals, Luxembourg City is not drenched with a daunting list of tourist activities. Nevertheless, what may seem like a trivial, pricey, out-of-the-way stop, is in reality a beautiful, friendly, historically significant locale and, bragging rights aside, is well worthy of a stopover.