On the border of France, Germany, and Belgium lies Luxembourg, the world’s only remains Grand Duchy (being ruled by a Grand Duke or Duchess), and my third tiny country bordering France that I’ve seen in my three months here. I loved Andorra. I hated Monaco. Where would Luxembourg rank?
I arrived in Luxembourg City, the capital, most populous city, and center of pretty much everything the small country has to offer, in a bad mood. Six hours on a train from Lyon is never fun – although when the TGV hits 300 km/h it gets pretty exciting – and to top it off, I had a family crisis back home that I felt helpless about. I was feeling guilty being away, agitated at myself for leaving my sister to deal with it, and both restless and tired from the train ride. This was the recipe for a terrible trip!
But I got off the train and walked the short distance into the old city, over a bridge spanning the Peitruss River, and the beauty of the city captured me. My breathing slowed and heart beat a bit more steadily as I gazed at the copper – I think – towers and domes of the old buildings, wandered cobblestone streets, and climbed along the edge of the plateau overlooking deep canyons and the historic fortifications. “This is an incredible place, and I need to learn more,” I thought to myself. And so I created a brief itinerary focused on learning all I could about this magical city, its history, people, and food.
The iconic towers of Luxembourg with these tops, what I believe are copper.
(Note: with everything I had going on back home, I certainly didn’t see as much as I normally would in a 48 hour stop like this. While Luxembourg and I will likely need a reunion to finish business, I would not change a thing. Family comes first, even when I am an ocean away.)
A logical first stop was the Luxembourg City History Museum. Built partially into some old ruins buried in the rock of the plateau and partially as a modern building with panoramic views above, the exhibits are informative – if slightly confusing date-wise – and fully trilingual in English, French, and German.
The museum traces Luxembourg back to prehistoric times, but the history really starts in the year 963 when the area and its Roman-era fortifications built on plateaus overlooking deep canyons carved by the rivers Alzette and Peitruss was purchased by Count Siegfried. Over the centuries, it was controlled by the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, France, and Prussia, before gaining independence in 1815 (and the Prussian garrison withdrawing in 1867 with Luxembourg’s promise of permanent neutrality).
A bust of Grand Duke Adolph, who founded the current monarchy, at the museum.
For most of these 750 years, the city was basically a fortress surrounded by a small village providing services for the soldiers garrisoned here. Fortifications were so intricate and seemingly inviolable that it was dubbed “The Gibraltar of the North.” With conflict ever looming between Prussia and France, neither side wanted the other to control the garrison so with the 1867 Treaty of London and neutrality assured, Luxembourg finally governed itself, and approximately 90% of the fortifications were dismantled. (Neutrality didn’t help a ton as the country was conquered by Germany both in World War One and World War Two, though in WW1 the Grand Duke was allowed to remain and rule.)
The Luxembourg Holocaust memorial
Following World War Two, Luxembourg was one of the founding members of the European Coal and Steel Community (which it also hosted), the EEC, and the EU, as well as NATO. Today, Luxembourg hosts many of the European offices, with a huge modern development built to house both official structures and residences for European governance.
The modern European quarter can be seen on the next plateau.
As a result of this centrality within Europe, and the country’s famously lax banking laws – 143 banks from 27 countries are located here – both the population and GDP per capita have soared. The city is now home to about 120,000 people (more than one in six within the country), and Luxembourg as a whole boasts the top GDP per capita of any nation on the planet, at more than $115,000. This in turn has led to a housing boom (and crisis, as purchase prices more than doubled between 2005 and 2015), and the small nation of less than 600,000 inhabitants needs to import nearly 200,000 cross-border workers each day.
From the Alzette River it is easy to see the levels on which Luxembourg is built.
The entire city is incredibly walkable, although with only a couple of elevators going down into the lower city (called the Grund), that can be a challenge for those with mobility issues. But wandering the streets is easy. Surprising to many, myself included, is how close the Grand Ducal Palace is to city life. It simply feels like the largest house on the block, although it is patrolled by a few fancily marching guards and connected by bridge to the parliamentary chambers. Today, Grand Duke Henri is the wealthiest European monarch, with a net work over $4 billion. His powers are also fairly extensive. Although laws can only be passed by the elected legislature, known as the Chamber of Deputies, the Grand Duke can dissolve the entire body at any time to call for new elections.
Part of the Grand Ducal Palace with the coat of arms on the gate.
One area that is, unfortunately, not easily accessed is the Casements du Bock, remnants and reminders of the vast fortress complex that existed here before the city itself. A maze of passageways and antechambers, it is easy to get lost (and I did). However, the views from cannon positions – some with antique cannon still at their posts – shows the beauty of the area, and how difficult it would have been to conquer.
Cannon emplacement at the Casements du Bock.
Culture in Luxembourg is a mix of French and German – as would be expected geographically – although French seems the dominant language. French food likewise dominates the place. Living in France, I wanted to try something different. In the Grund is Brasserie Bosso, a German restaurant serving schnitzel, spaetzl, and a variety of traditional fare. For more Luxembourgish food, try Am Tiirmschen, behind the Palace. I had smoked pork with beans and dumplings. A bit on the pricy side but oh so good.
Luxembourg is a cute city, and likely equally as cute a country, though I didn’t have a chance to explore the rest. I hope to return soon!
Thank you to Visit Luxembourg for providing me with a Luxembourg card that allowed me into many of the sights!
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