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From the Rhône to the Rhine: Luxembourg City

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Our Airbnb in Luxembourg City was just a fifteen minute drive from the French border. I cant remember exactly how I was visualizing Luxembourg, but it wasn't the drab urban sprawl we encountered as we entered Luxembourg City from the south. We hadn't seen so much soulless modern construction since we had begun our journey. We might as well have been in a boring, industrial outer section of any major American or English city. At our Airbnb I was stumped for almost ten minutes when I was unable to find the promised keypad at the door of our apartment building. I had to review the check-in instructions and attached photographs several times before I realized that there was a second entranceway hidden behind a row of tall hedges. The apartment fit our initial impression of Luxembourg completely, a boring box in a dull building. At least it was clean.

I was eager to get into the old city because our itinerary had brought us there on June 23, the National Day of Luxembourg. The holiday officially celebrates the birthday of the Grand Duke of Luxembourg although neither the present Grand Duke or any who came before him were born on June 23. Regardless, this is the biggest holiday of the year in Luxembourg and includes a changing of the guard at the palace, parades, concerts, and fireworks. I thought it was really lucky that we were arriving on exactly that day and that it would be a great experience for the kids. We decided to walk even though it was a mile and a half to the palace because I figured we might run into some parades or other festivities en route. The Quartier de la Gare where we were staying was rather sterile except for a couple of blocks which had some unappealing ethnic restaurants and seedy little hotels. There was construction with blocked streets and ripped up sidewalks everywhere. When we arrived at the city's main artery, Avenue de la Liberté, I was surprised at how few people were in the street. The wide boulevard looked as though it had recently been swept clean. At one point things looked up when we spotted a fenced-off area with rides but when we got inside we realized there were only two. One was a rather lame spinning ride and the other was a carousel and the kids declined both to my secret relief.

We crossed the ravine just south of the old city via the Passerelle Viaduct which gave us our first look at some more interesting buildings and landscape. The old city was a much more attractive place than the area we were staying, with cobblestone and flagstone streets and some intriguing little alleys. Overall it was more reminiscent of Switzerland than France but without the colorful building facades.

We stopped by the Grand Ducal Palace where a security guard confirmed our growing suspicions that we had missed all the National Day festivities. The concerts and fireworks had taken place the previous evening and the parade had finished that day before our arrival. I found this quite annoying especially as our Airbnb host had also seemed to think the celebration would take place the night we arrived. Fortunately we hadn't built it up very much for the kids. I realized that if I had adjusted the itinerary to arrive in Luxembourg a day earlier we would have missed the amazing Tuesday night street party in Dijon which probably was more fun than the National Day would have been. Now that we didn't have to worry about missing any events we could turn our attention to finding something to eat. This proved more difficult than expected as the area we were in was rather heavy on bars and fast food and there wasn't an appetizing restaurant in sight. Eventually we sat down at an outdoor table at a cafe and had a light snack to tide us over until we could find a decent meal. The predominant language being spoken around us was English, although much of the time it seemed to be the default among large groups that only included a few native English speakers. The old city had a somewhat chintzy drinking and partying vibe which mystified me since the prices were far from cheap and Luxembourg didn't have any cachet with young travelers, at least as far as I knew. The incongruousness of it all reminded me somewhat of Gibraltar which was similarly dignified on the surface yet at the same time a little run down and filled with tacky pubs.

The old city exhausted whatever charm it had quickly and we soon found ourselves walking along the Chemin de la Corniche, the pedestrian trail along the ramparts. The old city is called the Ville Haute because it is built on a tall bluff called the Bock that overlooks a sharp bend in the Alzette River. Within the bend on the other side is a smaller bluff called the Rham Plateau which is occupied by old military barracks which have been converted into homes for the elderly and indigent. At the foot of the Rham is a narrow neighborhood along the bank of the Alzette called the Grund which is well known for its collection of bars and restaurants. The most prominent building in the Grund is the Église Saint-Jean-du-Grund which is attached to a large rectangular complex that was once a Benedictine abbey but is now a cultural center. The geography of Luxembourg City reminded me a lot of Bern although in the latter the old town was built within the river curve rather than opposite from it.

We wandered around for a while trying to find the entrance to the Bock Casemates, a network of tunnels built into the bluff below the fortifications. Despite all my research I had been unable to uncover any clear way of accessing the tunnels and I decided we would just figure it out when we arrived. Unfortunately it seemed that the location indicated on Google Maps was inaccurate and try as we might we couldn't find any indication of an entrance. We went as far as the Three Towers Gate and decided to give up on the Casemates.

We walked back through the center in search of a more solid meal for the kids and found that the city's main square Place Guillaume II was completely closed off for another huge construction project. We found a noodle place in the periphery of the square where we were able to settle the dinner issue, but by this point we had given up on finding any fun areas to explore in the old city.

At the southern edge of the old city is Place de la Constitution which is a popular gathering point in good weather. In the center is the Gëlle Fra war memorial and the balcony offers views over the Pétrusse Park which fills the ravine between the old city and Quartier de la Gare. On this particular evening there were few people around the balcony as storm clouds had rapidly moved in overhead and darkness was falling precipitously. As we watched lightning began to flash over the tower of the Spuerkeess bank building on the other side of the park.

From Place de la Constitution a path wound down into the park and it seemed like a reasonable way of crossing back to Quartier de la Gare, which sits on its own promontory called the Bourbon Plateau. There weren't any other people on the dimly lit path and I quickly began to feel rather creeped out. It was a strange feeling to have in Western Europe but the overall shabbiness and seediness of the central city made me wonder if any unsavory types might be hanging out in this dark, submerged park to waylay unsuspecting tourists. I was relieved when we came across a staircase that led up to the bicycle and pedestrian level of the Adolphe Bridge. We had seen this impressive arch bridge, a national symbol of Luxembourg, from La Passerelle earlier that day. It was a much more pleasant way to cross between the two elevated neighborhoods than picking our way through the dark, winding pathways of the park.

As we disembarked from the bridge in Quartier de la Gare we were greeted by the illuminated curved facades of the Spuerkees buildings whose Neo-Renaissance tower is a landmark of the city. It was a longer walk back to the Airbnb than we remembered but a friendly sign was there to remind us "You're not lost, you're here". There was one more uncomfortable stretch when we passed through that block of dingy hotels and then we were safely back in our apartment for the night.

The next morning we left for our day trip to the north of the country directly from the Airbnb. We returned in the evening just in time for dinner and thought that would be a great opportunity to check out the Grund. Unfortunately I didn't have a good handle on the city's layout at that point and once we had parked I led us up to the top of the Rham instead of down to the riverside neighborhood with the restaurants. We were surprised to find ourselves in the center of that old military barracks with not another person in sight. After failing to identify any restaurants in the area we crossed back over the Alzette near the Pulvermühle Viaduct, missing the Grund entirely, and were once again in Quartier de la Gare. We walked all the way back almost as far as our Airbnb. The restaurants in the gritty area were much busier than they had been the previous night but still didn't look appealing to us and eventually we settled on a Chinese restaurant for our second Asian dinner in Luxembourg. I wasn't too thrilled about that but the most important thing was that the kids got to eat after another long walk.

The worst part of the the whole thing was having to walk all the way back to the Grund to retrieve the car. At first I thought I could just take Mei Ling and the kids back to the Airbnb a couple of blocks away and then get the car on my own but then I remembered we'd left the apartment keys in the car. This time we walked back through the old city but it was just as dull as it had been the previous day. As if to put an exclamation point on the evening a ferocious downpour began just as we crossed the Alzette on the Grund Bridge. This route finally took us through that tiny area of restaurants and bars that we'd been unable to find earlier even though it was just a block from where we had parked.

Our last morning in Luxembourg fell on a Saturday and we weren't about to be denied a market even though our expectations weren't very high. This time we took the car and found some parking near the City Park on the western edge of the old city. The market was supposed to be in Place Guillaume but since it had been closed off for construction we knew it had been moved somewhere else. My idea was just to walk through the center but Mei Ling spotted an old couple with an empty basket and concluded they must be on their way to the market. After walking behind the couple at a snail's pace for four blocks I was getting somewhat impatient and skeptical but Mei Ling insisted we stay the course and sure enough we bumped into the market just a minute afterwards. As I expected it wasn't much of a market but it sufficed to provide for a light breakfast and some people watching. A short distance away in Place d'Armes a flea market was in progress in front of the neo-Gothic Cercle Municipal. Flea markets aren't generally our thing but since we were there anyway we let the kids browse through a few curios.

Ville Haute seemed much more lively and elegant on a Saturday morning than it had the previous two evenings. Perhaps all the locals had been staying home in the evenings after the National Day festivities and left the old city to the tourists and expats. Even the buildings seemed a little brighter although it was unlikely that they had cleaned up the entire neighborhood overnight.

We kept walking until we reached the Place du Théâtre at the northeastern corner of the old town. We hadn't come across this interesting square the previous two evenings. In the center there was a large tableau of bronze sculptures of circus performers. The square is adjacent to the Théâtre des Capucins which occupies a former Capucin monastery. There was another book exchange here which had a couple of English books the kids could read. We got our best impression of Luxembourg City on our final morning but it wasn't enough to make us want to ever return. Overall the city had been one of the bigger disappointments of the trip but thanks to the car we hadn't been trapped there for the full two days. If I was to redo the itinerary I would make the Ville Haute a three hour stop to get the feel of the old city and enjoy the views from the ramparts. We didn't find the city worthy of an overnight stay.

We were looking forward to Belgium but we had one final stop to make in Luxembourg. The small town of Esch-sur-Sûre in northwestern Luxembourg occupies one of the many sharp curves in the river Sûre as it courses eastward across the country before defining a large part of the border with Germany. The town immediately captivated us as we could see its layout of concentric circles of houses rising upward from the riverbank to a castle at the top of the hill. We immediately began our ascent of the road that spiraled upward towards the castle.

There has been a castle at the top of the hill since the tenth century, although since the seventeenth century the site has mostly been a ruin. Several towers are partially intact and the chapel has been restored which made the ruin quite interesting to explore. The kids of course rushed ahead fearlessly while I frantically attempted to keep up, unsure if there were any hazards that awaited the foolhardy.

The views of the river and surrounding countryside from the summit were spectacular. From the crumbling ramparts of the keep we could see a round watchtower standing on the highest point of the ridge behind the castle. A modern staircase led up the side of the tower but we couldn't see any clear way to reach it from the keep. Perhaps t has its own trail leading up from the town. One could only imagine how formidable this well-defended town must have appeared in the Middle Ages. I don't know if anyone ever had the gall to launch an attack before the castle was overrun by the French army in the seventeenth century along with the rest of Luxembourg.

It was time to move on to the fourth country of our trip. Luxembourg had been a scenic and interesting country for a short visit but there was no question that the small towns had been more rewarding than the capital. It would be interesting to see if this pattern continued in Belgium but I expected that we would find much more to keep us occupied in Brussels than we had in Luxembourg City.

Posted by zzlangerhans 18:32 Archived in Luxembourg Tagged road_trip family family_travel travel_blog grund tony_friedman family_travel_blog esch-sur-sûre ville_haute

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