It’s difficult 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 scatter about the landscape, its thick forests and gentle farmlands and its hearty, quietly sensible culture, the little nation offers everything for a truly European holiday within its borders.
Charming Little Luxembourg
Almost everyone who has watched the recent 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 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. In fact, its so prettily perfect that most people have trouble believing that it can possibly exist in real life — at least, until they visit Luxembourg.
A fairy-tale come to life
Even though Luxembourg itself is as real as any other country, there is an inescapable are of ‘Genovia come to life’ about it and it’s not difficult to see why. The country is so small that on most maps of Europe, its name can’t fit in the borders of the country. Luxembourg measures just 51 miles by 32 miles and its entire population is a miniscule 450,000 — less than the population of many major cities. It remains steadfastly a Grand Duchy, the only one in the world.
The country itself is beautiful. There are farmlands pretty enough to make Turner drop his paintbrush; there are the almost obligatory wine valleys, which produces bottles of wine fine enough to make a French winemaker worry; more scenic castles than a wolf can howl at and enough mountain ranges, forests and meadows to make an ardent hiker think he’d died and gone to heaven.
Culturally, Luxembourg seems to mix the very best of French and German traditions together with their own native customs to produce a culture all their own — one they love so much, their national motto is ‘We want to remain who we are.” Despite the strong national pride, Luxembourg’s social tolerance and economic strength are so enticing that fully 30% of its residents hold foreign passports. Despite its small size, Luxembourg is one of the richest countries in the world, with one of the highest standards of living in Europe.
Yes, in many ways Luxembourg is the real life version of Genovia, with one important difference — it is far more interesting, complex and enchanting than the cardboard and paste movie fantasy. The modern Luxembourg is an idyllic place, so peaceful and unassuming that Cabinet Ministers list their direct lines in the telephone directory and the Grand Duke Henri, paramount ruler of the Duchy, can often be seen doing a spot of shopping along with his missus.
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. A 17th-century bridge here; an 18th-century mansion there…there is an abundance pretty scenes 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 properly 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, as well those of almost any other squabbling state around. This turbulent past has bequeathed on the country an amazing 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. This most famous of Luxembourg’s castles 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 completely 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. Originally 23 km wide and almost 40 m deep, most of it is dismantled or sealed off, except for a 13 km 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. A popular attraction, these ancient tunnels have been revamped, removing the unpleasant ‘dripping, dank dungeon’ feel so common to tunnels. You can also opt for a guided tour, as the network is not for the claustrophobic or those who have difficulty in reading maps. The casemates are a UNESCO World heritage site.
Another good place to see castles is 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. 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 region 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 the car they drove in. Of course, most of the inhabitants of these seemingly antiquated hamlets enjoy a modern 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 little bit of land almost completely 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 modern life has to offer without destroying the country or the heritage that makes it so unique. Its people enjoy one of the highest standards of living in Europe, which is very high indeed. A Luxembourger expects to buy quality goods and it shows in the merchandise stocking even the smallest grocery store shelves, but 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 the delicious local cuisine.
Though not the cheapest European country, Luxembourg is still quite 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 hours away.