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Luxembourg City, a big capital for a little country


Luxembourg’s capital, as with all interesting European cities, boasts an imposing square as its central point. The vast array of P signs had helped me in to an underground car park within spitting distance of it (not that spitting would ever be tolerated in Luxembourg) and my next encounter with daylight was walking up the steps into the grandeur of the Place Guillaume II. I glanced at the map and made for the far corner, crossed in front of the classy, glassy Tourist Information Centre, then wandered down a stony passageway with a gourmet seafood delicatessen at its entrance. This was Europe at its very finest, and of course its very richest.

The Hotel Francais, my new home booked on the internet, was on La Place d’Armes, a smaller but no less charming square diagonally adjacent to Guillaume. It too brought a sense of space and splendour that rapidly dissolved as I moved indoors. The hotel reception area was small and cramped, the lift the size of a shoe box, the nondescript bedroom only marginally bigger. A world away from my bright, airy, and homely gaff on the Moselle, this the price of life in a city and every reason to get back onto those polished streets forthwith.

I walked for the next day and a half, and the more I paced, the more I marvelled at what has to be one of the world’s best-kept secrets. A unique city defined by the remnants of high walls that for so long protected it, built around and within two steep winding valleys almost at right angles to one another. A geographical conundrum, a weaving together of the old and the new, all encased within a one-way ring road that disappears in and out of a series of tunnels. Whether it was more confusing by road or on foot I had yet to decide.

My favourite spot without question was the pathway known as Le Chemin de la Corniche, perched high above the Alzette valley and looking down over the rooftops of Grund. Up here I knew exactly where I was and when the calf muscles started to tighten I could sit on the polished benches, pretend to be old, and just soak up those fantastic views.

It was up here that I came across the Museum of the History of Luxembourg, a five storey building cut into the side of the cliff with entrances at different levels. An absolute cracker: calm, spacious and almost empty (March has many advantages) and exactly what was needed to seek out answers to the many questions forming in my head. The glass lift was large enough to park a truck, the tea and cakes in the jolly cafeteria would alone have been worthy of the visit, and how cleverly the history of Luxembourg was presented.

It all started in AD 963 with a gent named Count Sigefroi of the Ardennes who built a castle on The Bock, the promontory above the Alzette just around the corner from where I was standing. A small town evolved around it, the fortress was constantly strengthened but this only served to convince Europe’s most rich and powerful that here was a prize worth nabbing. For several hundred years The House of Luxembourg managed to hang on under great men of the era such as John The Blind (visually impaired, not soft furnishings) but unfortunately the dynasty was shattered soon after his reign.

One of the first of the foreigners to take over was the Duke of Burgundy, who became known in history (though not in Luxembourg, I suspect) as Philip The Good. The Burgundians ruled in the 15th century, the Spanish in the 16th, Austrians 18th, Dutch and Germans 19th and the French a couple of times in between. Throughout all this turmoil the city’s fortifications were developed and then destroyed and Luxembourg’s plight was further deepened in the two world wars of the last century when the Germans marched over the river and occupied for four years each time.

Wow, some story, too much to take in really, but at least it made sense of all those big walls outside.

Walls that comprise up to twenty four forts as well as a network of concealed corridors and chambers that run for a total of fifteen miles. This secret world of caves and tunnels, improbably cut into the side of the cliffs, are known as the casemates, and they provided shelter for soldiers and horses while the deep dungeons served as kitchens, workshops and prisons. In the world wars they were again brought into play as air raid shelters and today, another hundred years on, these strange subterranean passages are protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the tourists of the world to enjoy.

Rapid Fire Europe book coverThough I can’t say I enjoyed it. Once inside it looked just like…well, caves and tunnels and rather than providing shelter the blasts of icy wind felt more extreme than the constant temperatures at street level. All of which contributed to my inspection being of a cursory nature and I can’t add a great deal on the cultural front other than to say I was happy to return to my shoebox, get the blood flowing again and plan for an evening of comedy down at Scott’s.

Extract taken from Ten Letter Countries.
9781780880754, £10.00, published 10th April 2012. Also part of  Rapid Fire Europe published August 2014.

The Ten-Letter Countries is an insight into the history, geography and politics of twelve fascinating countries through the eyes of The Alphabet Traveller. Each country David visited had 10 letters to its name. It follows on from his earlier adventure, The Four Letter Countries

Both books can be ordered from www.troubador.co.uk or www.alphabet-traveller.com

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