LUXEMBOURG ~ PERFECT GETAWAY IN THE HEART OF EUROPE
The World’s only remaining Grand Duchy is a fascinating little gem to visit!
I first saw Luxembourg many years ago when I boarded a flight to Boston as a grad student with little time for tourism and even less money. But memories of the stunning natural beauty of the countryside and the medieval charm of the small yet cosmopolitan Luxembourg City lingered with me. So when we received an invitation to visit the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, I was eager to accept.
This small country throws a mighty punch. Not only does Luxembourg lie strategically at the crossroads of Latin and Germanic cultures, surrounded by France, Belgium and Germany in the heart of Europe, but it is the world’s only remaining Grand Duchy. Moreover, along with Brussels and Strasbourg, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is home to many important EU institutions, including the General Secretariat of the European Parliament, the European Investment Bank, and the EU Court of Justice. Impressive!
And so is the fact that this tiny country, with a population of under 600,000, has managed since receiving its independence just 150 years ago to develop from a relatively poor agrarian-based economy to a thriving economy with the highest per capita GDP in Europe based on the awesome trio of steel, finance and high tech industries. Not too surprisingly, Luxembourg enjoys a high standard of living and I was ready to experience that enjoyment.
The drive down on a Sunday from Rotterdam was easy and relaxing, and became strikingly green as we drove through the famous Ardennes region. After we settled into our hotel situated in the heart of Luxembourg city, we took a stroll outside and were delighted by the immediate sense of multi-culturalism. What were they speaking? … French? … German? No, it was Luxembourgish, a dialect of German spoken, not too surprisingly, mostly in Luxembourg. But, we did see both French and German on most signs and menus, and found English spoken in many places as well.
That day we had the good fortune to be arriving during the celebration of the most important religious festival in Luxembourg, the Octave Festival, which dates back to 1666 in honor of Our Lady of Luxembourg. Of course, a religious parade was one of the highlights of the ongoing celebration as were the family outings to Place Guillaume II, affectionately called the Knuedler by the locals, for the special Oktavsmaertchen (“Octave market”). Stalls were selling local artesania and culinary delights while restaurants were offering traditional dishes favoring the pig and local fish, along with locally brewed photo beer. Quite a sight to behold!
The next day we drove into the countryside with our excellent Visit Luxembourg tourism guide, Sandy, who made sure we understood and appreciated the natural beauty of her country as well as the historic and cultural significance of the sites we visited. Having already driven through the Ardennes into Luxembourg city, I was prepared for stunning views of the countryside, but I must admit, I was taken by surprise by the medieval fortifications and ruins we saw as we headed north out of the city.
We began our outing by driving to the town of Vianden situated in the Ardennes along the Our River. Dating back to the third century BC during the Gallo-Roman era when there was a small Roman castle on the site of the present castle, Vianden is renowned for many historical happenings over the 18 centuries or so of its existence, but perhaps nothing as poignant as being the last town in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg to be liberated from the Germans during World War II.
Our first stop in Vianden was to take the chair lift from an altitude of 230 up to 440 meters to enjoy the panoramic view over the romantic Our Valley. The sun was shining, the weather was warm, and the view over the countryside, which features the town’s main attraction — the Medieval Castle — was spectacular. We opted to walk versus ride down, and then meandered over to visit the Vianden Castle which was constructed primarily during the 11th through the 14th century.
Home for over four centuries to the Counts of Vianden, this Castle is one of the largest and most impressive feudal residences of the Roman and Gothic era in all of Europe. However, once the Counts of Vianden departed for the Netherlands in the 18th century following the Eighty Years War, this magnificent castle slowly declined over the next few centuries. During the latter part of the 19th century, the famous French author, Victor Hugo, resided in the castle for a short period during his political exile from France but, for the most part, the castle continued to deteriorate until 1977 when Grand Duke Jean of Luxembourg ceded the castle to the State.
The renovations are impressive indeed. Many rooms, in particular some of the bedrooms as well as the dining and banquet rooms and the large kitchen, are full of period furniture. I highly recommend you purchase the well-narrated audio guide for your visit as Vianden Castle is now considered one of the most important historical monuments of Europe.
Following our visit of the castle, we walked down the narrow old streets of Vianden to have lunch at the charming Auberge de l’Our situated on the Our River.
We sat outside overlooking the river, watched the pleasure boats and the ducks go by, sipped a lovely dry Riesling from the nearby Moselle Valley, and enjoyed the very freshly caught line fish.
Next on our agenda was a visit to the family-owned Pundel Vins Purs Winery in the commune of Wormeldange, one of the most important wine production sites in the Luxembourg Moselle renowned for its outstanding white and sparkling wines. The drive through this region is glorious, and the view over the Moselle valley from the hillside second floor terrace of the Pundel winery is simply spectacular … well worth the view, even without the complimentary wine tasting.
We learned that the tradition of wine-making in the Luxembourg Moselle dates back to ancient Roman times, and that this region currently produces nine different grape varieties: Riesling, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Auxerrois, Rivaner, Elbling and Chardonnay. In contrast to the neighboring German wine region of Mosel which has a similar varietal production, Luxembourg produces dry white wines more similar to the French wines of Alsace than the German Mosel semi-sweet and sweet varieties.
While we enjoyed the complimentary wine tasting open to the public on Mondays, we had the pleasure of sitting and chatting with Pit Pundel, the owner of Pundel Vins Purs. As Pit explained, Luxembourg produces sparkling wines under the designation of “Crémant”. If the designation is “Crémant de Luxembourg”, then the wine is awarded the label of Marque Nationale, indicating that only domestic grapes are used in the production. Pit offered us a serious wine tasting, starting with his Pinot Blanc, Riesling Pieteschwengert and Riesling Wormer Nussbam … each one dry and very drinkable, with or without the delicious paté and other nibbles to accompany the wine.
Next we moved onto a very limited edition of an absolutely delightful Folie à Neuf Cuvée 2016 (red label on the right in the photo above), followed by two Crémants de Luxembourg, a Riesling Brut & his Cuvée Speciale (2nd & 3rd from the right in the photo above) – both specialties of Pundel. The tasting was exceptional, and we were greatly impressed by the very affordable pricing in relation to the superb quality of the relatively young wine. Should you wish to order or purchase Luxembourg wine, you will be disappointed unless you live in neighboring Belgium or in Luxembourg itself. The locals manage to buy up and consume their country’s production. After having enjoyed the wine tasting, along with at least one bottle of local wine everywhere we ate, I can understand why.
Our day in the country was topped off by dinner in Luxembourg City at Brasserie Guillaume at the Place Guillaume II. A favorite of the locals with its mainly French menu and ambiance, this restaurant specializes in Canadian lobster and tartares. We selected a delicious platter of Breton oysters, followed by local market fish and, of course, a dry Riesling from the Luxembourg Moselle to accompany the meal.
The next day we spent our time visiting Luxembourg City, which we had previewed during the course of our first afternoon in Luxembourg. Once again, our devoted guide, Sandy, came to escort us, this time on a fascinating walking tour of the heart of the old city. It’s hard to say what was more captivating … the magnificent old buildings or the views from the famous Chemin de la Corniche (“the most beautiful balcony of Europe”) over the Alzette river flowing through the Lower Town and countryside below. But let me give you a brief historical outline of the multiculturalism that composes this dynamic little city and makes Luxembourg so unique …
Built upon the site of an ancient fort and eventually known throughout 18th century Europe as the “Gibraltar of the North” thanks to its awesome impregnability, Luxembourg City officially dates back to 963 when the House of Luxembourg came into power and ruled for the next 500 years. This strategically located parcel of Europe then came under Burgundian rule, and next was passed onto the Hapsburgs in 1477 and finally to the Spanish crown when it was transformed into a veritable fortress. After the Eighty Years War, the country came under the rule of the Southern Netherlands, was returned for a short period to the Hapsburgs, and was next occupied by revolutionary France. Finally, in 1815, the Treaty of Paris elevated Luxembourg into a Grand Duchy jointly controlled by the Netherlands, and in 1867, the country finally gained its complete and, undoubtedly well-deserved, independence.
With no time lost, starting in 1867 and continuing until 1893, the city underwent the dismantling of the majority of its fortifications built up over the centuries, yet many remnants of the city’s impressive defense still remain, including gates, forts, bastions, and the very famous Bock Casemates. So, good-by to “Gibraltar of the North” … and hello, newly independent little country aiming for a fresh start in the heart of Europe. The result of many centuries of varied rule, Luxembourg is a unique European melting pot of cultural, linguistic, culinary, and of course, great historical interest, and the vestiges of the past have quite an interesting story to tell. Ideal for a fascinating visit.
Where to begin? We headed for the Grand Ducal Palace of Luxembourg which was the City Hall from 1572 until 1795. With its 16th century Flemish facades, this palace is reputed to have the most beautiful facades in the city, as well as an absolutely magnificent interior. However, since we were there in May — which is a perfect time to visit to enjoy gorgeous early summer weather and smaller crowds — it was too early in the tourist season to take one of the interior tours of the palace which are offered daily from July 15th through September 3rd. Still, just simply walking around this city is a magical experience with absolutely stunning views from the Chemin de la Corniche as well as historic remnants and buildings with a fascinating story to tell.
From the magnificent and varied architecture to the charming squares, the seven museums including the fabulous Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean (MUDAM) designed by I.M.Pei of the Louvre Pyramid fame, the phenomenal array of culinary shops and restaurants, not to mention the fabulous boutiques which sell everything from locally made goods to Europe’s leading brands, this is a city with a welcoming personality where you can find much to inspire and entertain you. I managed to buy a pair of “comfy” Geox moccasins, the style of which is not available for sale in the U.S. , and some sinfully divine chocolates from the Chocolate House in the old city. But there were many more boutiques which seriously tempted me!
What would a day in the city be without a memorable lunch? Our experienced guide, Sandy, took us to Oberweis where we once again enjoyed our lunch al fresco. However, this time, after just one look at the magnificent array of artfully presented platters, we decided it was time to ignore the calories and indulge in some serious gourmandise in what is surely one of the most original Patisseries~Traiteurs we have ever seen. Coup de foudre! In this case, a picture is worth a thousand words. But just in case I haven’t been emphatic enough, let me underscore that we were in the flagship shop of Oberweis where a crown-topped coat of arms with the designation“Fournisseur de la Cour” proudly hangs over the entrance announcing Oberweis as a supplier to the court of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Indeed, the best of the best in the Grand Duchy.
So to make the obvious point … I would most definitely make sure when you plan your trip to Luxembourg that Oberweis is at the top of your list along with the Grand Ducal Palace of Luxembourg, Place Guillaume II, the Chemin de la Corniche, the Bock Casemates, and the Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean I for your visit of Luxembourg City. Plus, don’t forget to save time to visit the stunning countryside with its own unique allure, for hiking, biking, wine-tasting and most assuredly, medieval castle and town visits. After all, this is Luxembourg!
Hint as you tour Luxembourg City: Elevators exist to transport you between the Upper and Lower Town. Since it is a steep walk up and down from the Lower Town to the Upper Town, you may prefer, as we did, to walk down from the Upper town to the Lower Town, but to return via elevator. You just must know their locations … If in doubt, inquire at the Luxembourg Tourist Office on Place Guillaume II.
And one more suggestion … should you be inclined to dance the night away, I understand the hip and trendy city quarter to head to is Clausen in the Lower Town. Dating back to the 12th century, Clausen is one of the oldest quarters in the city and is renowned for its nightlife and breweries.
Many thanks to Visit Luxembourg tourism for this fascinating visit. As always, our focus at BonVoyageurs is on the joie de vivre we experience when we travel. All opinions expressed in our articles are our own.
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