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From the Rhône to the Rhine: Northern Luxembourg

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Luxembourg is a small country but there's still quite a lot more to it than the capital city. We decided to spend our full day in Luxembourg visiting some of the towns and castles in the northern part of the country. Luxembourg emerged as a national identity as far back as the tenth century, but over the next millennium the region was passed back and forth between the neighboring powers of France and Germany like the prize in a tug-of-war. Once the leaders of Western Europe finally sat down to hammer out their differences peacefully at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 Luxembourg was formally awarded permanent independence along with Switzerland. As with other small European countries, the culture and language of different areas of Luxembourg varies substantially depending on the proximity to one of its larger neighbors. Before our arrival I was unaware that the country has its own language, Luxembourgish, that was considered a dialect of German until 1984. Luxembourgish is an official language of the country along with French and German and more than two thirds of the natives speak it at home. I wasn't about to spend much time studying phrases in Luxembourgish for two days in a country where practically everyone also speaks French and German but I did learn that "moien" means good morning, similar to the German "morgen". However, the terms for "thank you" and "good bye" are more similar to French.

The first stop of our day trip was the Friday morning market in the town of Ettelbruck, close to the center of Luxembourg. It was a small collection of trucks in the town's pretty central square but there was a rotisserie and a baker, enough for a decent breakfast. It was early but there were barely any other customers. I noticed Spenser jiggling another one of his incisors and helpfully removed it for him, his second lost tooth in a week.

We walked around the center of town for a short time and discovered a few intriguing streets, but there wasn't really much of interest beyond a glimpse of regular day-to-day life in rural Luxembourg. We noticed right away that the town was much more colorful and vibrant than Luxembourg City, more like Switzerland had been. There were no tourist attractions in Ettelbruck and everyone else in town appeared to be locals.

Bourscheid Castle was just a few minutes north of Ettelbruck. There are several medieval castles in Luxembourg and I had done quite a bit of research to be sure we were visiting the ones that were in the best condition. Bourscheid is firmly within the northern region of Luxembourg, a tall plateau named Oesling which is contiguous with the Ardennes Forest. From the hilltop castle we had some wonderful views of the lush, rolling countryside around us.

The castle fell into ruin in the nineteenth century but in 1972 it was acquired by the government and partially restored. It is still a ruin but has been rendered safe and accessible, and there are several portions that have been reconstructed to semblances of their former majesty. The remnants of the thick, imposing walls testify to the enduring craftmanship of medieval stonemasons.

The most completely restored medieval castle in Luxembourg is Schloss Vianden, close to the German border. At the heights of their power in the thirteenth century the Counts of Vianden rivaled the Dukes of Luxembourg in territory and influence. The restoration was conducted in stages beginning in 1851 and was only completed in 1990. The castle looms impressively from the top of a hill that is accessible via a cobblestone path. The interior of the castle didn't distinguish itself much from the other medieval castles we had already seen on the trip. I was starting to realize that the most rewarding part of visiting a castle was the view of it from a short distance.

We drove down into the small town which was composed primarily of two streets. A chairlift ascends from one end of the town to another hilltop even higher than the one that hosts the castle. We walked across the River Our to the northern end of the town from where we could see the rear side of the castle atop a ridge.

The kids had been on plenty of chairlifts when they went skiing so they weren't too fazed by this one. There wasn't much at the top except for a small restaurant and the views of the castle and the town. It's possible to walk down to the castle and then all the way to the town but since we'd already seen the castle we completed the round trip with the chairlift. We walked back along the main street until we reached the best-reviewed restaurant in Vianden and had a decent if unmemorable lunch.

Our original plan was to complete our tour of the country in Echternach, the oldest city in Luxembourg and reputedly one of the most beautiful. However, as soon as we got back on the main road the skies opened up with the most furious downpour we had experienced on the trip thus far. It was all we could do to see a hundred feet in front of us on the road. As alluring as Echternach seemed, it didn't make any sense to stop in that kind of weather at a town where we had no plan except to walk around. Instead we pressed onward over the border to the ancient German city of Trier. I didn't even have notes for Trier since I hadn't expected we would make it there but I did remember enough from a couple of articles I had read to have some idea of where to go. We crossed into Trier over our old friend the Moselle from Metz and then approached the entrance to the old town via the wide boulevard Nordallee which ran alongside a narrow park. Remarkably the rain stopped just as I finished parking. The rows of classic German residential buildings along Nordallee were colorful and elegant.

The entrance to the old town on Nordallee is marked by one of the most remarkable structures I've seen in Europe. When people think of Roman ruins Germany does not typical come to mind but the Roman empire did extend into the Rhineland as far as modern day Köln at its height of power. Trier was an important city named Augusta Treverorum and contains almost all of the preserved Roman structures in Germany. None of these is as remarkable as the Porta Nigra, a towering remnant of the vast defensive walls of the Roman city. The Porta Nigra was saved from destruction by its incorporation into a medieval church that has long since collapsed into the dust of history. Only the towering gate remains, growing more incongruous with every passing century as its surroundings change and modernize. I can only imagine the expression on the face of a citizen of August Trevorum passing through that gate to see cars whipping by on the Nordallee and the bland expanse of the Spielbank on the opposite side. The Porta Nigra name dates from the Middle Ages when the sandstone first began to undergo the dark discoloration that is much more pronounced on the inner face. If the gate had a name when it was part of the original Roman walls it is lost to history. I was shocked that although I consider myself reasonably familiar with Western Europe I had never heard of Trier or the Porta Nigra before doing my research ahead of the trip. It is truly a remarkable and breathtaking sight in a very unexpected place.

As we passed through the gate into the old town the rain began again. We had our raincoats but we were hoping to see and photograph the town in slightly better weather so we made a stop in an ice cream cafe for hot chocolate. It was a bright, upscale place which made it all the more surprising to find a vending machine selling sex toys in the restroom. Condoms I could understand in a bar or club, but vibrating penis rings in an ice cream cafe seemed a little much. Fortunately our kids aren't at an age where they pay any attention to that stuff or I might have had to spend the rest of the afternoon on uncomfortable discussions.

The old town was fairly compact with the main attraction being the Hauptmarkt square that showcases some of the most beautiful and well-preserved medieval buildings in Germany. The city has done a wonderful job of incorporating restaurants and other modern businesses into these invaluable old buildings, maintaining the vitality of the city center without compromising the historical atmosphere.

The Trier Cathedral is the oldest church in Germany although only a small part of the current structure was built in the fourth century. Large sections were subsequently added in Romanesque style although Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque elements are also present. From the outside the enormous cathedral displays a patchwork of shapes, materials, and colorations as though it had been constructed by a child with an enormous collection of blocks and a short attention span. Despite its motley appearance the cathedral is quite dramatic and beautiful.

I briefly toyed with the idea of returning to Echternach now that the weather was better but the truth is we were exhausted and couldn't really bear the thought of walking through another old city. In fact we were so eager to get back into Luxembourg City for dinner I completely forgot our plan to stop at the monthly Strassen food market to the west of the city. Fortunately there would be no shortage of opportunities in the coming days to add to the growing list of markets we had visited on the trip. Overall we felt that we had probably been fortunate that rain had driven us all the way to Trier because it was a remarkable city that it would have been a shame to miss.

Posted by zzlangerhans 12:04 Archived in Luxembourg Tagged road_trip family vianden family_travel trier travel_blog bourscheid tony_friedman family_travel_blog ettelbruck

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