‘Mir wëllebleiwewatmirsinn’ means ‘we want to remain what we are’. This refers to Luxembourg’s history of ownership by foreign powers and their wish to remain independent now and in the future.
The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg may be known for just being a hub for EU organisations and companies that are seeking to benefit from its favourable tax policies, but there’s far more to it than meets the eye.
Luxembourg was actually named after a Saxon fortress. Its foundations stem from 963 AD when it was created as the County of Luxembourg by Sigefroid, Count of the Ardennes. The Count built a fort on the site; the ancient Saxon name Lucilinburhuc (‘little fortress’) symbolised its strategic position. As the years passed, the once little fort became a major fortress. Around the fortress, a town gradually developed which was a small but important state of strategic value to not just France but Germany and the Netherlands as well. That plays out today in that most Luxembourgois are fluent in four languages (Luxembourgish, English, French and German) and the country playing a mediator role between larger countries – often France and Germany.
La Corniche, Luxembourg
The moment I heard about the ‘Corniche’ – memories of living in Doha, Qatar filled my mind. Specifically, memories of jogging (usually in the middle of the night to escape the desert heat) along the Doha Corniche with a view of the city’s fantastic skyline, which inevitably ended up at the Karak stand at the end of my jog to get a steaming cup of the Arabian twist to masala chai.
The moment I stepped onto the Luxembourgish Corniche, I realised why it was called Europe’s most beautiful balcony by Luxembourgish writer Batty Weber. La Corniche was built in the 16th and 17th centuries and it follows the city walls erected by the French and the Spanish along the Alzette Valley, linking the rocky outcrop of the Bock to the lower parts of the Holy Ghost Citadel. There are stunning views of the Grund (lower town) as you stroll around the pedestrianised old town, with plenty of benches to sit down and read or drink coffee and just watch life go by.
Notre Dame Cathedral
This is the only cathedral in Luxembourg. A fine example of gothic architecture with renaissance influences, this originally began as a Jesuit church in the 17th century. The King of Bohemia, Count of Luxembourg and deceased members of the royal family can be found buried in the crypt. The cathedral was sadly closed – so I couldn’t go inside to experience its calm and solitude, however I was mesmerised by one of the entrances – with extremely intricate sculptures both on the door and around it.
Luxembourg definitely has multiple sides, especially when it comes to art. Its home grown graffiti artist Eric Mangen has several works around the city and stresses that art must remain “alive” and elusive. The country is actively promoting and integrating urban art into public spaces by providing street artists with spaces to work and express themselves freely, with even a city urban art committee set up in 2013 to commission and oversee new projects.
There’s also a street art festival that now takes place in August each year called Streeta(rt)nimation where the city transforms into an area of magic and wonderment with lots of shows taking place.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that the ‘street vibe’ translates into other aspects of life. Luxembourg is one of the safest countries in the world. You have less chance of being shot at in Luxembourg than in any other country in the world according to a UN survey!
Magical scenery while hiking: Mullerthal Trail 2
There’s plenty of opportunity to hike across beautiful scenery. I chose the Mullerthal Trail 2: between Echternach and Berdorf in the east of the country (easily done within a day, including the bus ride from Luxembourg City to Echternach). I made a brief pitstop in Echternach for lunch and enjoyed how in a matter of just an hour’s drive, the language on the streets had changed from French to German (Echternach is very close to the German border). Nevertheless, as I went into a shop to ask for directions, the owner in classic Luxembourgish style, was able to respond in French, English, German and Luxembourgish. I continued to be blown away.
It was a very sunny day in May, but the tall trees (after the initially steep ascent in Echternach) made for a very cool hike through the wilderness. The Mullerthal region is dubbed Luxembourg’s ‘Little Switzerland’ – a region of breathtaking natural beauty as you wind through crags, towering sandstone rock outcrops, caves, cross streams and walk under the protection of unimaginably tall trees.
There are quite a few exciting stops along the way, like the Labyrinth – an exciting maze of rock masses, formed as a result of erosion of the soft sandstone rock when the sea over this region receded and water started flowing over this land several centuries ago. Doesn’t take much to believe that you’ve jumped into a whole new fantasy world!
After getting quite lost along the way and backtracking for the better part of an hour, I also passed Presdigstuhl – with several rock formations that you can climb using metal staircases for some incredible views of the forest while standing on a rock balanced over a working road!
Contemporary art at MUDAM Luxembourg
MUDAM (the Museum of Modern Art) is a great place to come to stroll about, relax and absorb another dimension of art (this time contemporary) or just sit and read in its airy, light-filled cafe. The MUDAM cafe is also a hit for Sunday brunch, along with La Table du Pain (for their bread, Parisian vibe and value), and Brasserie Le Neumunster for a free jazz concert at 11am before brunch. My favourite was Cathy Goedert – although popular for its savoury and sweet pastries, it does a fabulous brunch with excellent fresh juices. I was sad to read later in the summer that the restaurant was closing down.
The $100 million MUDAM building was designed by the famous Chinese-American architect Ieoh Ming Pei who’s renowned for his world famous Louvre Pyramid. Once I realised that it was the master of the Louvre Pyramid who designed the MUDAM, it was easy to see some subtle similarities between the two structures.
There are many works by Luxembourgish artists like this one below housed in the MUDAM – “Many Spoken Words” – by Su-Mei Tse. From a basin, dark black ink gushes out into a garden fountain expressing “the idea of the whole process of language: the way an initial thought or idea develops first into spoken language and then into written words”. I’m still waiting for the connection to dawn upon me.
One of the most envied fortresses in Europe: Casemates du Bock
“If they could speak, they would tell gloomy stories of long ago when Luxembourg was one of the most envied fortresses in Europe.”
An incredible underground military defence system that at one point was 27km long, over several storeys. It’s primarily due to this that Luxembourg is often called ‘Gibraltar of the North’. It’s not often that you come across an underground tunnel network that can protect close to 35,000 people during a bombardment (it was used as a bomb shelter in World War II)
Its origins stem from the fortress that Count Siegfried built in the 10th century. As time went on, the Bock became very important to dominating the Rhine’s west bank and establishing a position of power across the French-German border – so the site’s defences were grown and improved as it passed through different owners.
The physical casemates (fortified gun emplacements) were actually started by the Spanish in the 17th century, extended by the French and further built upon by the Austrians to be much more than cannon perches.
The network of tunnels reach depths as low as 40 metres below the fortress above, and apart from the gun emplacements, also included stables, workshops, kitchens, bakeries, slaughterhouses, a freshwater well and barracks for soldiers at one point in time.
With the perpetual neutrality of Luxembourg following the 1867 Treaty of London, the demolition of the Bock was ordered. And while it took 16 years to complete, the casemates couldn’t be demolished without destroying a part of the city – so a 17km network of underground tunnels still remains.
It was quite illuminating to learn about Luxembourg’s past with its powerful military defence system and envied fortresses – given my impression of Luxembourg today as the centre of diplomacy. It was also a very powerful and humbling message for a country to stand so strong behind its commitment to neutrality that it went about demolishing such defence systems. Interestingly for me, it brought back a lot of memories about the Cu Chi tunnels close to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam where the Viet Cong (a guerilla communist group) based their operations against the Vietnamese government and American forces a few centuries later in the 1960s. Fascinating how certain patterns and ideas appear in vastly different parts of the world at different time periods taking on slightly different guises.
One evening I wanted to listen to classical music, so looked for the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra – one of the country’s foremost orchestras. After a search yielded nothing that evening, with no major concerts happening in the Grand-Duchess Joséphine-Charlotte Concert Hall (the city’s temple for classical music), I went for a walk in my neighbourhood (Hollerich). That’s when I came across the Conservatoire de la Musique de Luxembourg (Luxembourg Conservatory of Music) who were having a Symphony Orchestra concert with their students in the auditorium. With a free evening, and enticed by the fact that they were playing Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, I decided to go.
I stopped off at Restaurant Sushi-Bar Wayoxi-Sarl which was doing an all you can eat sushi meal for just EUR22, which is a real steal in Luxembourg at dinner. But given my rush, I just had 7 pieces of sushi and a glass of local sparkling white wine (local wine here is a must try), and the kind proprietor decided to only charge me half price! Gulping down dinner I headed to the Conservatoire in time for the concert. Founded in 1906, the Conservatoire has over 2600 students from over 60 countries. With just over 100 or so people in the auditorium, it seemed more like a concert for family and family, but the student orchestra poured its heart and soul into bringing out Tchaikovsky’s beautiful melodies and melancholy. For a group of teenagers to perform such a heavy work is no easy feat – and the passion and emotion that they managed to convey was truly heartfelt. I was so moved, I wrote to the Conservatoire afterwards 🙂
I certainly left Luxembourg with vastly different impression to the one I had when I entered. Given how small it is, and the breadth of transport connections, a good hike is never far away. And the people are incredibly helpful (in any language!) – although a simple ‘Moien!’ (Hello) will go a long way in starting any conversation with a smile.