“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien


"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."



The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."



Friday, April 6, 2012

Luxembourg

“This is a country, but the city is the country.” These words from Mahmet, the manager of the Brasserie Guiliaume, an upscale restaurant and bar in the city center, pretty much sum up Luxembourg.

The country of Luxembourg is only 120 square miles, about the size of an average county in the states. These 120 square miles encompass a smattering of small villages and Luxembourg City, which, with 250,000 of the country’s 350,000 people, dominates the duchy, the last remaining monarchy in Europe.

“Luxembourg is small enough that most people know each other,” Mahmet continues, “You see the same people on the streets each day and you get to feel comfortable with each other. It’s a good place to live.”

And a great place to visit. An intriguing mix of old world castles and fortifications, and modern glass and steel high-rise bank and business buildings, Luxembourg was once the most heavily fortified country in the world and the imposing 700 year-old stone fortifications still bear evidence of that past history. The city embraces rows of massive stone casements, towering block walls, gun emplacements, and arched bridges. All of these man-made fortifications sprout from near-vertical natural stone bluffs that enhance the imposing character of the battlements. The result is a city of breathtaking historical beauty, a fairytale scene of cathedrals, stone revetments, and natural escarpments. At practically every turn an open vista over the deep gorge that bisects the city centre presents itself. The River Alzette tumbles through the Grund, or valley, smack in the center of the city and the soaring stone bridges that span this small waterway add even more scenic beauty to the city.

Luxembourg is a tiny chip of land bordered by Belgium, France, and Germany and as such is a crossroads of cultures. I asked a bartender at a restaurant if most Luxemborgese speak French and he took great umbrage with me.

“No! We speak Luexmbourgish, not French!” he indignantly huffed.

To my untrained ear, it certainly sounds like French, but who am I to argue? The French influence is definitely strong, most signs and menus are in French and the French culinary influence is prevalent. Listen to the people talking in the shops and streets and you’ll hear a polyglot of French, German, and Portuguese (about 14% of the population is Portuguese) and the restaurants are a happy smattering of French, German, Spanish, Greek, and Italian. In all of my European travels, I have yet to visit another city which is more cosmopolitan and varied.

The city is tourist friendly. All of the city attractions are concentrated in a small area near the city centre within walking distance. Locate in a hotel near the centre and stroll through the city. The streets are the typical narrow winding cobblestone affairs and traffic is heavy so don’t bother using a car to get around.

The central point of the city is the Palace de Duchy, the home of Luxembourg’s royalty, the very popular and dashing Duke and Duchess of Luxembourg. The palace is a grand building with a mustard colored façade and black iron gates with gold-gilded coat-of-arms. A lone color guard stands sentry at the palace entrance.  You can walk within meters of the palace—a disconcerting lack of security given today’s terrorism inclined world. The palace sits amid a mélange of shops and restaurants so you can combine shopping and eating with your sightseeing. Just down the street is the Place Guilliaume, an open cobblestone square dominated by the equestrian statue of Grand Duke William II and surrounded by shops and the city courthouse.

Walk east from the palace, through the walls of the fortifications to the Grund bridge, a wide road that sits atop a massive stone wall and winds slowly down to the Alzette River. About halfway down the road is an entrance to the wall. You can tour the innards of the fortifications, a winding maze of narrow and dank tunnels that the city’s defenders used in the Middle Ages. There were reportedly 29 kilometers of tunnels and passageways in the original fortifications and some 17 kilometers still remain. You won’t want to walk all of them but do take a tour. Be forewarned; the passageways are tiny and dark so you will need a flashlight and if you are claustrophobic, forget it.

If you like good food, you have arrived in gastronomic heaven. The international flair of Luxembourg offers a smorgasbord of diverse tastes. I recommend To Kastro, an excellent Greek restaurant in the depths of the fortifications near the palace. Apart from the excellent food (try the spiced lamb), the atmosphere is unique, located as it is in the bottom of the ancient fortifications. Vaulted stone ceilings and massive stone pillars surround you, with muted lighting throwing shadows against the contours of the walls and ceilings. Prefer Italian? Try Come Prima or Piu de Prima, both located in the same fortifications. Both of these establishments are run by Italian families and the food reflects its authentic origins. Come Prima’s appetizer bar is worth the visit by itself—the sun dried tomatoes are unlike anything I have ever tasted. I could have left happy after eating my fill of them—but, of course I didn’t—and was glad I stayed to try the seafood linguini, with fresh shrimp and mussels in a light cream sauce.

Just around the corner is Los Amigos, a casual understated Spanish restaurant with a widely varied menu. We tried, but we couldn’t find a bad meal. One evening as we headed back to our hotel, we stepped into Bodega, an unassuming family run bar near the Place de Armes to catch a quick dinner and stumbled onto an exceptional and huge meal of lamb and beef kebab and Cordon bleu. I also recommend the Brasserie Mousel Cantine, at the bottom of the Grund bridge. There the Scheinhaxe (fried and roasted pig leg) is rolled out on a huge platter. I felt like Henry VIII, gorging on one of those huge legs of meat. The Cantine is next door to the Mousel Brasserie, one of three major breweries in Luxembourg, and you can venture into the premises and glimpse the making of Luxembourg’s favorite brew.

If you have a car and tire of the city’s charms (not likely) you are within an easy drive of Germany, France, and Belgium. Drive an hour north into the Ardennes Forest (take the back roads through the villages and mountains) to Bastogne, the site of the Battle of the Bulge. Visit the Bastogne Historical Center, a museum dedicated to the battle, and walk through the city square, where a monument to American General McAullife (who uttered the famous “Nuts!” when the Nazis demanded his surrender) and a battle-scarred vintage World War II Sherman tank dominates the square. Also nearby is a WWII Allied cemetery where General George Patton is buried and, like all American military cemeteries in Europe, it is immaculate with gleaming white crosses in precise rows on a neatly manicured field.  In sharp contrast, just down the road is a Nazi WWII cemetery with dark gray stone crosses gloomily shadowed by shade trees, and a large mass burial mound dominating the landscape.  Depressing.

Not into WWII history?  Drive an hour east into Germany to the city of Trier and walk down the hauptstrasse where an array of shops and restaurants await. Or drive an hour south to Nancy, across the border in France, and check out the fine arts and history displays in the Musee Lorrain and the grand architecture in city centre.

Walk or drive, but don’t miss Luxembourg. Rarely mentioned as a European tourist destination, this country is an often overlooked gem.

(A version of this article originally appeared in the Nashville Tennessean)

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