Luxembourg: "Gibraltar of the North".
A light drizzle falls as we leave the train station, hail a taxi and cross a massive bridge. Beyond rises an awesome panorama of medieval stone fortifications fronted by massive gates, often described as the most imposingly city site in Europe. Soon we're in the old city of clean cobblestone streets, neat, quiet squares and stately buildings. We're atop the Bock, a promontory that juts dramatically above two river valleys and has been declared a U.N. World Heritage site. The Grand Hotel Cravat's (www.hotelcravat.lu) manager greets us saying, "We carry the sun in our hearts, although it rains two-thirds of the time." His family, the Cravats, have owned this hotel for nearly a century. Its Old World charm and high standards show it.
We cross the street to the Place de la Constitution as the sun breaks through the clouds. In the center of the square rises an obelisk topped by the gilded Goddess of Victory holding a golden wreath. Below, the red, white and blue Luxembourg flag flutters over the statue of a fallen Luxembourg soldier. A plaque reads, "This is to remind us of the brutal act of the Nazi occupation. In destroying this monument on Oct. 21, 1940, they turned it into a symbol of our freedom."
In 1980, while excavating under the bleachers of the city's football stadium, the lost statue was unearthed. It was repaired and returned to its former glory.
Luxembourg was the only country during World War II to stage a general strike against its Nazi occupiers; Hitler executed its 21 leaders, drafted its young men into the German Army and 3,800 perished on the Russian front. One of the nation's heroes is U.S. Army General George Patton, who is buried nearby. Beneath the square flow two rivers and beyond, rising above the trees, is the turreted Luxembourg State Savings Bank where Gen. Omar Bradley had his headquarters in 1944.
This quiet capital city is a combination Camelot and fortress that grew up around a 10th century castle on the Bock. In the 19th century the city was called the Gibraltar of the North. For more than 400 years the best builders and engineers of its conquerors--the Burgundians, the Spaniards, the French, the Austrians and the German Confederation--added to its defenses: three walls surrounding a ring of 24 forts, 16 other defense works and a honeycombed network of 17 miles of underground casemates.
Although Luxembourg City is not large, it is complex. Built on three great rocks, it is cut by two rivers, the Alzette and the Petrusse, and deep, wooded ravines. The Grund, or lower town, is the freshly painted home of the city's nightlife. Across the Alzette Valley rise the modern buildings of the European Centre and its European Union (EU) officialdom on the Kirchberg Plateau. The city is second only to Brussels for EU bureaus and departments. But all the charm resides in the old city. Once a Roman crossroads, the area centuries later bristled with fortifications. Then in 1867, when Luxembourg became an independent state, the Congress of London agreed that this fortress should be dismantled to maintain peace between Bismarck and Napoleon III.
Some 90 percent of the fortifications were demolished in 16 years. Blowing up the underground casemates proved impossible without destroying parts of the city so entrances were blocked. Today those fortifications are pleasant parks and promenades, and much has been restored or preserved--several of the original 28 gates, the Citadel of St. Esprit, with its gardens and views of the Grund, and the remains of the interior castle. We begin our visit in the damp, cool, cavernous casemates that once housed kitchens, slaughterhouses, bakeries and thousands of soldiers and their horses. During the world wars 35,000 people used them as bomb shelters. Today they are filled with information and drawings and often open onto breathtaking panoramas. Back in the sunlight, we stroll along the Chemin de la Corniche, a scenic path hailed as Europe's most beautiful balcony that encircles the town and offers vistas of the river valleys below. From this promenade, towers of the financial institutions dwarf the spires of Notre Dame, a 17th century Gothic cathedral. The cathedral, a gem of art and architecture, is the scene of a national pilgrimage during the two weeks beginning on the third Sunday after Easter. Within its crypts lie the romantic heart of Luxembourg, the last resting place of John the Blind (1296-1346), count of Luxembourg and King of Bohemia. John, a gallant cavalry man, led his armies fighting for the French at the battle of Crecy in 1346. When the battle was nearly lost, John chained himself to his horse and, with 50 of his knights, charged the English line. All were slaughtered.
As an ironic footnote, John's motto, "I serve," and his heraldic symbol of three feathers, were adopted by England's Black Prince and today the feathers are on the coat of arms for Britain's Prince of Wales, Prince Charles. Traditionally, newly married couples visit the tomb following their wedding ceremonies. Close by stands one of Luxembourg's most historic buildings, the Grand Ducal Palace, formerly the town hall built during Spanish rule in the 1570s. King Louis XIV of France stayed here after his armies captured the town in 1687 and Napoleon Bonaparte rested here on the way to the Battle of Austerlitz. The building, used only for ceremonial occasions, offers a stunning display of Renaissance architecture and Moorish carvings.
The Grand Ducal royal family, an offshoot of the Dutch royal family, took up residence here at the end of the 19th century. It came into being as an independent dynasty in 1890. Unpretentious, industrious and attractive, they enjoy widespread popularity. When the country was occupied by the Germans during World War II, the royal family fled first to France, then to Portugal and in London set up a government in exile. The palace is not far from fish market square, where elegant 16th and 18th century burgher's homes have been restored and refurbished to display collections from the state museums of decorative and popular art. This mixture of traditional heritage, recollection of past conflicts, castles and yet the most modern of European amenities, make the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg a most intriguing destination. Luxembourg may be one of the smallest countries in Europe but, as we shall see, it offers fine roads and hotels, comfortable country inns, well-run restaurants and a wealth of scenic and cultural attractions. Luxembourg is a remarkable destination.
Luxembourg City's History at a Glance
963 A.D.: Count Siegfried of the Ardennes builds castle at Luxembourg City, taking advantage of its natural defenses.
1400s: Burgundians conquer and rule the duchy for 60 years.
1460: Duchy passes peacefully to the Spanish who rule it for 181 years.
1684: Troops of Louis XIV beseige the city and France rules it for 13 years.
1715: Returned to Spanish by treaty.
1715: After War of Spanish Succession the duchy is given to the Austrians. They rule 80 peaceful years.
1794: The city surrenders to the French revolutionary army.
1815: After Napoleon's defeat, the Congress of Vienna founds the Netherlands and makes Willem I Grand Duke of Luxembourg and King of Holland.
1815: Prussian garrison arrives in the city.
1831: West Luxembourg ceded to Belgium.
1839: By now one-third of Luxembourg's territory has been ceded to other nations.
1866: Treaty of London declares Luxembourg neutral and 90 percent of its fortifications are demolished.
1900s: 70,000 Luxembourgers emigrate to the United States.
1944: Liberated by U.S. Army's 5th Division on September 4. Battle of the Bulge begins on December 16.
If You Go
Luxembourg's main tourist season runs from May through October. Spring and fall are the best times to visit. Temperatures are moderate. Pack a thin raincoat and a thick wallet as Luxembourg offers good value, but is expensive. The Grand Hotel Cravat's (www.hotelcravat.lu) overflows with Old World charm. This was our big splurge. The Luxembourg card (www.luxembourgcard.lu) offers free admission to more than 50 attractions and free use of public transportation. A one-day network ticket offers unlimited travel by train or bus. The Luxembourg City Tourist Office offers a "Walk through the City" brochure that we followed for three leisurely hours. For further information go to www.visitluxembourg.lu , www.ont.lu , or www.agendalux.lu .
Part Two of this article will appear in the February 2011 issue of The World & I Online.
Harvey Hagman is a freelance photojournalist, travel writer and international correspondent. He is a frequent contributor to The World & I Online.
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|Publication:||World and I|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2011|
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