We weren’t planning to go to Luxembourg that weekend. It just kind of turned out that way.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Paul and I visiting Dinant in Belgium. Dinant was truly lovely, what with its pretty buildings, river, cliff and fortress all clamoring for attention. We wandered around, forgetting about the freezing temperatures (I tell you, it seems like this European winter will never end) for a moment as well as more practical matters such as the fact that purchasing a baguette for lunch would require the use of the French language. But it was all dandy, because Dinant was so pretty.
The only thing was, once you’ve admired the riverside and finished your baguette, there isn’t a hell of a lot to do in Dinant. So we consulted Google Maps, and discovered that we were only an hour and a half away from Luxembourg. So, in that breezy, I-love-living-in-Europe-cos-everything’s-so-close sort of way, we decided to go to Luxembourg. Just like that.
This wasn’t the first time I had set foot in the world’s only grand duchy. I’d actually spent a night in a highway Etap hotel eighteen months ago when I was relocated down to Rome for work. The drive took three days and all I saw of Luxembourg was a bed, a shower and a strong coffee in the morning. This time though, I was keen to see something a little more… Luxembourgish.
You’re thinking I made up that word, don’t you? Well, I didn’t! Luxembourg actually has three official languages; French, German and Luxembourgish. No offence to any Luxembourgers, but the language sounds hilarious. It’s like they’ve just chucked a whole bunch of French, German, Dutch and even Spanish words in a bag, tossed them around and pulled them back out again, with some getting a bit messed up along the way. Hello is moien, yes is jo, thankyou is merci and goodbye is addi, just to name a few.
I didn’t really know much about Luxembourg before we arrived. I did know where we were going; its capital, Luxembourg City. I knew it was small. I knew that they were amongst the richest people in the world and the country was a tax haven. And I knew they had a couple of good cyclists, Andy and Frank Schleck. And that was it, really.
And, as we’d just decided to visit the country that afternoon, I hadn’t done any travel research. We didn’t have a map or even an app. So we parked the car and according to our parking ticket, we spent 153 minutes walking around Luxembourg City.
In my mind, I expected Luxembourg City to be kind of a cross between Bratislava and Monte Carlo. I thought it would kind of feel like a provincial capital, with all the trappings of a tax haven: high-end shops, celebrity chef restaurants and outdoor elevators. I was right on a few counts, but to simplify Luxembourg City like that would be, well, just wrong really.
Luxembourg City does not feel like a massive city. It does feel like an important one, what with the plethora of different accents you hear when meandering around, the glassy medium-rise buildings housing multinationals on the edge of the city and the stately palace plonked in the middle of the downtown. The population of Luxembourg City is around 100,000 – less than Dordrecht – but you wouldn’t think that, standing in front of the palace.
We covered the downtown area as dusk fell and the already freezing temperatures dropped, and we watched the Luxembourgers go about their business. One of my favourite travel books is Bill Bryson’s Neither Here nor There and he described the non-European’s initial fascination with Europeans and Europe perfectly; he would look at people on the streets and remind himself, ‘Look at that man there. He’s a Luxembourger.’ I do the same all around the world; I stare at people for perhaps slightly longer than the socially acceptable limit, just thinking about how their life differed from my own.
Luxembourg City’s downtown reminded me of Maastricht, or, at a stretch, parts of Vienna. It is elegant, tidy and obviously prosperous. But the people – of which half are actually foreigners – looked, well, normal. I didn’t see people decked out in the Prada sold down the street, or eating the Laudrée macarons that sit pretty in the nearby shop window. They looked like typical Belgians, French or Germans, all of which border the tiny country. I suppose in a way they are.
After a few wrong twists and turns, we made our way down to the Grund area. Luxembourg City is one of the hilliest cities in Europe and this is felt the most at the Grund. Here I was treated to an outdoor elevator – I was half-joking when I said I expected one – which whisked us down towards the Alzette River.
The city’s river is almost hidden due to all the aforementioned hills and the fact that Luxembourg City was heavily fortified for almost a millennium, but it’s here where the capital feels tiny again. There was hardly anyone about down near the river – well duh, it was a -5 Saturday night in late February – so it was easy to take in the city’s medieval roots.
We pottered around the riverside until we couldn’t feel our toes any more, and as we walked back to the famed outdoor elevator, I took a moment to reflect on the Grund. The area had been almost deserted, yet it didn’t feel dodgy at all. Mind you, this was right in the middle of town. It felt like Bruges in parts – meticulously preserved without a trace of modernity, yet lacking any human presence once the sun went down.
Instead, we were only left to guess where all the people were – tucked up inside the little houses and pubs that are sprinkled along the riverside, all glowing with yellow light that just screams gezelligheid. (Or coziness in English, but the word just doesn’t translate very well.)
We were hungry by then. It always happens when we’re in a new place; we wander around forever, taking photos and wrong turns until we’re satisfied with our wanderings but not with our stomachs. We found our way back to the downtown area and eventually found Place d’Armes, the main restaurant district. I’d been worried about restaurant prices in a city that boasts an average per capita income of over US$80,000 but I needn’t have worried. Luxembourg applies only a 3 per cent VAT (like the GST) on food, compared to 21 per cent in the Netherlands. We had a feast for less than fifteen euro each.
With our tummies full, and cheeks rosy red, we made our tentative steps back outside. It was bone-chillingly cold, pushing -10 now, so we headed back to the car. We made one final stop in the country; petrol cost fifteen euro less than over the three borders, so we lined up with the masses to fuel up.
And then we said addi to Luxembourg. We’d had a pleasant 153 minutes of subzero wanderings. I doubt I’ll be back, but now I know a few more things about the country. Like how there’s a really good Mexican restaurant on Place d’Armes.