It’s challenging to find a country that epitomizes the idea of ‘Europe’ more than Luxembourg. With its gracious city, filled with beautiful buildings from earlier centuries, its forbidding castles scattered about the landscape, its thick forests and gentle farmlands, and its strong, quietly sensible culture, the tiny nation offers everything for a genuinely European holiday within its borders.
Charming Little Luxembourg
Almost everyone who has watched the Disney movie ‘The Princess Diaries 2: the Royal Engagement’ has been charmed by the country of Genovia, which forms the enchanting backdrop for the hilarious adventures of the ‘ugly-duckling-turned princess’ protagonist.
The fictional land of Genovia is one of the picturesque mountains and idyllic farmlands, vast castles and clean, charming cobblestone streets. Elegantly dressed, thoroughly modern royals and simple, good-hearted citizens populate Morovia’s beautiful, historic towns. There are flowers everywhere, brilliant sunshine — in short, Genovia is the perfect fairy-tale land. But, unfortunately, it’s so prettily perfect that most people have trouble believing it can exist in real life — at least until they visit Luxembourg.
The Casements of Luxembourg
Walking around Luxembourg City can sometimes feel like a stroll around a fairy-tale book illustration. The city is filled with charming views, and everywhere there is a sense of history, as it is scattered with relics from a previous age. For example, there is a 17th-century bridge here, an 18th-century mansion there.
Pretty scenes are abundant even along the quietest streets. One of the more popular sights is the Notre Dame Cathedral, a magnificent Gothic cathedral known not only for its architecture but also as the home of the royal family vault, the royal treasury and the large sarcophagus of John the Blind.
The treasury can also be viewed on request. Luxembourg City is small to match the rest of the country, and its small size makes it very easy to see the city on foot so that each charming scene can be adequately appreciated.
Luxembourg wasn’t always peaceful, largely thanks to it being squashed between France and Germany. In ages past, it was almost regularly overrun by French and German armies and those of virtually any other squabbling state around. This turbulent past has bequeathed on the country a fantastic abundance of castles and an impressive military history.
Luxembourg earned itself the name ‘Gibraltar of the North’ in honour of a particularly formidable fortress that protected Luxembourg City. But, unfortunately, this most famous Luxembourg castle is no longer around, having been dismantled in 1867 after everyone agreed to leave the country alone in the Treaty of London.
That is, the dismantling began in 1867 — the castle was so well built that it took 20 years to do the job, and it couldn’t even be done entirely because removing parts of the fortifications would have collapsed the city itself.
The last remnant of these fortifications is the casemates, an underground labyrinth designed to house thousands of soldiers and horses and the bakeries, kitchens and slaughterhouses necessary to sustain them. Initially 23 kilometres wide and almost 40 metres deep, most of it is dismantled or sealed off, except for a 13-kilometre section still open to the public.
The labyrinth was often used during the medieval age and in WWI and WWII, served as bomb shelters for 35,000 people. As a result, these ancient tunnels have been revamped, a popular attraction, removing the unpleasant ‘dripping, dank dungeon’ feel familiar to tunnels.
You can also opt for a guided tour, as the network is not for the claustrophobic or those who have difficulty reading maps. The casemates are one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Another good place to see castles in the famed Valley of the Seven Castles, more accurately known as the Valley of the Eisch River. This small area northwest of Luxembourg City boasts one of Europe’s most spectacular concentrations of castles.
Outside the City
To the east of Luxembourg City lies Moselle Valley, Luxembourg’s Wine Country and a lovely place to spend a day or two. Like all such country, it is covered with vineyards, among which a pleasant hour or two can be spent sampling the produce.
Moselle wine is well regarded throughout Europe. The Riesling is the king of the region’s wines and is best taken with a meal of fresh-caught trout or ham, which can be savoured in the local inns. However, there are plenty of other wines to be had, and even a novice wine taster is welcome to sample the delicious wines.
The northernmost region of Luxembourg is the Eisléck or Oesling, and it is here that the ardent outdoorsman is most likely to find his heart’s desire. The area is blessed with winding valleys, deep rivers, verdant forests and almost every other essential ingredient for a spectacular view.
Countless people have exhorted the region’s beauty, and perhaps the best measure of its attraction is the huge crowds of admirers it draws every year, who come to picnic, hike, ski or simple gawk at the scenery.
Another of Luxembourg’s charms is the towns and hamlets that litter the landscape. Many of them make an effort to preserve their history and appearance, and for the traveller, this often results in the surreal experience of driving through a village where the most modern object seems to be the car they went in. Of course, most of the inhabitants of these seemingly antiquated hamlets enjoy a stylish and comfortable lifestyle, but you wouldn’t know it from the ancient facades of the houses.
There are countless such villages scattered around the country, but for sheer postcard prettiness, the best place to go is the market town of Esch-sur-Sûre, located in the north of Luxembourg. The little town is built on a bit of land, almost surrounded by a loop of the River Sûre, and the view from almost anywhere along the banks of the river is sublime.
Europe in miniature
There’s a lot of fairy-tale charm about Luxembourg. Yet, it sits comfortably in the modern world, embracing the best that everyday life has to offer without destroying the country or the heritage that makes it so unique. As a result, its people enjoy one of the highest living standards in Europe, which is very high indeed.
Of course, a Luxembourger expects to buy quality goods, and it shows in the merchandise stocking even the smallest grocery store shelves. Still, the prices for such high-quality goods are often surprisingly reasonable.
Luxembourg also has more Michelin-starred restaurants per square mile than any other country in the world, as well as an abundance of small, excellent diners serving delicious local cuisine.
Though not the cheapest European country, Luxembourg is still relatively affordable to visit. Also, it serves as a convenient jumping-off point for a European tour, with the border to the surrounding countries never more than a couple of hours away.
Luxembourg: Things To See and Do
Grand Ducal Palace
The unpretentious residence of the Grand Duke is set in the heart of Luxembourg City and is a symbol of the nation’s independent identity and legislative power. Tours are available during the summer months.
Casements of Luxembourg
The underground casements (a labyrinth of defensive passageways) are left of the castle that once stood on the Bock, the promontory overlooking Luxembourg city. The casements are impressively durable and were used as bomb shelters during World War II.
Museum of the History of the City of Luxembourg
Tucked away in a group of four restored noble dwellings, this charming museum reveals the many changes the city and its people have undergone since it was first founded in the 10th century.
Chemin de la Corniche
A walkway is known as ‘the finest balcony in Europe’; the charming walkabout takes the visitor down from the Bock to the city below and showcases some of the most gorgeous views and the surrounding countryside.
The Old Town
The old quarter of Luxembourg city is centred around two squares, the Place d’Armes and the Place Guillaume. Much of the city’s historical sites are located in this area, from spectacular mansions, museums, and other monuments, and the best way to view them all is to walk around the area.
Notable among the dead in this cemetery is American General George Patton, who died in a traffic accident. The graves of 5,000 American soldiers who died in World War II are also here, and the site has become the focal point of annual pilgrimages by veterans and families.
Named after the Austrian commander-in-chief of the fortress, the tower was built-in in 1732 as part of the city defences. Today, only the three-round buildings, the so-called Three Acorns, and the foundation walls remain good. Now, it is home to the respectable “Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean.”