A Travellerspoint blog

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Liège and Maastricht


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My initial choice for a stop between Luxembourg and Brussels was Charleroi. It made sense because it was one of the largest cities in Belgium and fairly close to the direct route between the two capitals. The funny thing was that when I began my research according to the usual internet searches hardly anything came up. No travel blogs, no magazine articles, just some cursory lists of museums and buildings. At first this intrigued me as I thought we might have a chance to discover a cool city that had been overlooked by international travelers. A closer look at my resources soon revealed that in fact Charleroi is a decaying, poverty-stricken industrial city that is ignored by tourists for good reason. It's always possible that the city has some redeeming features and hidden gems that make it worth visiting but on our quick sweep through Belgium there were too many better candidates. Instead I chose Liège which seemed to have more than enough for one night including a highly regarded Sunday market.
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The route to Liège took us through the Ardennes, a vast forested region renowned for natural beauty as well as the horrifically destructive battles that were fought there in both world wars. We only had time to stop in one of the famously beautiful villages of the region and I chose La Roche-en-Ardenne. The town seemed to have all the features emblematic of the Ardennes: a bucolic setting within a bend of the River Ourthe, a hilltop castle, brick and half-timbered houses. What my research didn't tell me is that the town is a massively over-developed tourist trap, a fact accentuated by our misfortune of arriving on a Saturday afternoon. The parking areas were so packed we had to find a spot on one of the roads leading out of town. A town square was completely filled with parked motorcycles and the streets were buzzing with stereotypical tourists with loud clothes and telephoto lenses. I suppose we weren't any better than they were but ideally we like to see the locals outnumbering the tourists when we travel. Here it wasn't close. Walking across the Ourthe into the old town was still quite enjoyable as we could see the reflections of a row of attractive townhouses distorted by tiny ripples in the glassy surface of the river.
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The main street of the old town was lined with ice cream shops and inexpensive restaurants with insipid menus. The flagstone streets and the stone houses didn't look more than fifty years old. In general the stone facades looked more like artificial siding than the genuine article. It was a significant contrast from the authentic antiquity of the towns we had visited in France and Luxembourg. The town had a little bit of charm but overall it was an unconvincing reconstruction of what had been largely destroyed in the second world war. The main exception was the eerie ruin of the medieval castle that could be seen hovering above the town on a verdant hillside.
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We had lunch in a butcher shop that doubled up as a bistro called Maison Bouillon & Fils. I thought it would be a good way to get to know the rich local cuisine but we didn't find much that appealed to us outside of the charcuterie which was somewhat uninspired in itself. Mei Ling referred to it afterwards as "that cold cut place". The restaurant was pretty but insubstantial, a description that applied equally to the town as a whole.
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Although we don't usually do museums Ian was curious about the World War II museum with a large tank in front of it. I found it as depressing as anything else related to war. World War II probably takes the cake in terms of the worst suffering humans have managed to inflict on each other in any particular episode of history. I learned that La Roche-en-Ardenne suffered far more damage from American artillery than German during the war but there haven't been hard feelings about it. It was part of the operation to trap the German forces in the Ardennes and was considered a necessary evil.
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After the museum Ian and I met up with the others who had been sitting on the main street having ice cream. Two hours in this town had been more than enough and we strolled back across the Ourthe towards the car. A line of bright red kayaks extended around the bend in the river. La Roche-en-Ardenne was certainly a charming place but it wasn't the kind of experience we look for when we travel. I expect we'll return to the Ardennes in a few years when we are road tripping through northern France and give it a more thorough evaluation.
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I had taken note of a wildlife park close to town as a possible diversion for the kids but when I reviewed it again it seemed too small and limited to be worthwhile. Fortunately I came across something I'd missed previously, an amusement park for kids called Parc Chlorophylle. It took us about half an hour to get there on narrow roads passing through forested areas, allowing us to feel the natural atmosphere of the Ardennes more than the highway we had been on earlier. The park was a slightly confusing place with several different sections. At first it seemed to be just a large playground but eventually I realized that there was a long trail that led to several different interactive play areas, some of which were quite elaborate. It was probably the most fun the kids had had since the games at the Bastille in Grenoble.
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After staying at Parc Chlorophylle until it closed we had a late and somewhat complicated arrival in Liège. Sometimes in Europe dealing with an Airbnb can feel like playing an escape game, albeit one in which the goal is to get into a hidden room rather than to escape from it. In order to reach our apartment we had to locate the parking garage in back of the building but we could not activate the gate without the key. I had to walk up the ramp, locate our personal garage and figure out the trick to lifting the door, retrieve the key and activate the gate, drive back up the ramp and maneuver the car into the narrow stall, and then clamber out via the ten inch gap that was created when the car door was pressed against the garage wall. After this harrowing experience we could now pass through the remaining doors between the garage and the elevator to the apartment.
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Our building was in a blue collar mixed residential and commercial neighborhood called Longdoz across the river from the city center. The neighborhood's ethnic and immigrant character with a profusion of restaurants reminded me of Brooklyn or Queens from my home city of New York. We were so frazzled after the complicated arrival that we didn't consider attempting the walk to the center for dinner, especially considering the number of restaurants on our street. We eventually settled on a Vietnamese place that turned out to be average at best.
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In the morning we packed up and went through the reverse of the complicated process we had gone through to park the car in the garage. I had designed our itinerary so that we would be in Liège on a Sunday morning for Marché de la Batte. There has been a market at the La Batte section of the western bank of the Meuse since 1561, which makes it the oldest market in Belgium as well as one of the largest. We were a little anxious that the disruptions of the COVID epidemic might have put an end to the market but as soon as we crossed over the Meuse from the river island of Outremeuse we could see a lengthy row of white canopies. Parking was already quite tight but fortunately we were early enough to find a spot a couple of blocks inland. On our walk to the market we passed the colorful Saint Bartholomew's church, an icon of Liege. The church is an exemplar of an obscure style of Byzantine-influenced architecture known as Ottonian after the medieval German emperor who favored it. In the square at the base of the church is a playful bronze sculpture by Mady Andrien depicting a group of small people heading to parts unknown under the watchful gaze of a cluster of giant bishops.
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The market was stretched out for about a kilometer of the boulevard that ran alongside the Meuse. It was crowded but not packed and we were able to shop and converse with the merchants without feeling harried. There was a strong immigrant presence here and many North African food specialties. Extensive excavations on the inland side of the boulevard and endless construction barriers added to the gritty feel of the market. The stalls weren't as pretty as in the French markets where every item was always laid out perfectly but the quality was amazing, especially the plump, sweet cherries we couldn't get enough of. The other impressive feature of the market was its extraordinary length. It was over a kilometer from the Pont Saint-Léonard where we started to the Saucy footbridge where a final cluster of stalls filled a parking lot.
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We walked out onto the footbridge for a look back at the market from above. In the other direction highrises lined the banks of the Meuse. We had crossed this river close to its source days earlier when driving from Langres to Nancy. Since then it had passed through the renowned French cities of Neufchâteau and Verdun before turning eastward at Namur in the Ardennes and now we were standing above it in Liège. The river would turn again to the north and pass through the Netherlands before eventually joining the Rhine as it emptied into the North Sea. I loved to familiarize myself with these rivers and the way they connected the different cities and societies of Western Europe throughout history.
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We had no desire to return to the car through the market so we raised our hoods against an annoying but not unexpected drizzle and turned inland towards the city center. The streets of this older neighborhood contained an interesting mixture of classical apartment buildings in Germanic style and more modern edifices. Some of the most impressive buildings such as the Prince-Bishops' Palace and the Hotel de Ville house the municipal government.
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The old town of Liège abuts a steep hill which was once topped by the fortress that defended the city. The most famous way to ascend the hill is via the Montagne de Bueren, a 384 step staircase that was built in the late nineteenth century and commemorates a futile battle fought four centuries earlier by locals against the Duke of Burgundy. I wasn't expecting the kids to be up to the climb but to my surprise they tore off ahead of us and maintained a pretty steady pace for most of the ascent, although they were exhausted for the last few flights. The stairs were adorned with inspirational messages such as "Thank you for visiting without screaming" in four languages. It was amazing to see the city recede below us every time I turned around. I'm not sure what I expected to find at the top but a solitary bench and a dull residential street didn't seem worthy of the climb. The fortress atop the hill was long ago demolished and replaced with a large hospital.
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Between the staircase and Saint Bartholomew's several alleys called impasses course northward from Rue Hors-Château and dead end in courtyards at the foot of the hill. The entrances to the impasses were nothing more than doorways that led into fascinating narrow cobblestone paths that were heavily overgrown with ivy and other wall plants. The rural atmosphere was completely different from anything else we had seen in Liège.
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To my regret we hadn't spent any time in the neighborhood of Outremeuse. Outremeuse once referred to the entire area on the right bank of the Meuse but a short canal known as La Dérivation resulted in the formation of a large river island that co-opted the name. The area was originally dominated by tanneries and mills but is now largely residential with some gritty areas and a growing reputation for hipness. The southern end of the island is occupied by Parc de la Boverie which contains a fine arts museum by the same name. A footbridge crosses over the park and then the Meuse to the Guillemins neighborhood of the left bank. Underneath the bridge enormous geese patrol the grass around a pond with a central island. We walked past the museum hoping to see the confluence of the Meuse with the Ourthe at the southern tip of the island but eventually our progress was stopped by the gated entrance to a boat club.
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Liège had been a worthwhile overnight stop. Before moving onward to Brussels we would briefly cross into the Netherlands to visit Maastricht. The Dutch province of Limburg forms an odd southeastern projection of the Netherlands that seems as though it should be part of Belgium. The strange configuration of the border came about when the military garrison of Maastricht remained loyal to the Netherlands while the rest of the southern half of the country seceded to become Belgium. Even though the general population of Maastricht wished to join Belgium an arbitration by the Great Powers resulted in the city and surrounding areas remaining with the Netherlands. Once we arrived I amused myself by surprising everyone with the news that we were no longer in Belgium and making them guess which country we were now in. They had no clue but the kids were impressed when I reminded them they had now been in four different countries in four days.
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In a departure from our usual routine I had scheduled a tour of the Waldeck Casemates, a network of tunnels that was once part of the city fortifications. Our tour wouldn't take place for a couple more hours but I thought it might be a good idea to identify the starting point ahead of time. My instructions indicated that the tour company office was located somewhere within the Waldeck city park. I tracked down the pin on Google Maps and it put us in front of a locked, unmarked red door set into a weird brick wall in the middle of the park. This seemed like it couldn't be right but we walked around the entire area and there was nothing resembling an office or a kiosk. Since our SIMs didn't allow us to make calls there was nothing to do but continue onward to the city center and hope that we would find our tour guide when we returned. The walk was longer than we expected but it took us through some interesting streets.
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We were quite surprised by how crowded and energetic the pedestrianized center of the city was. I had never heard of Maastricht as a travel destination yet most people in the center were quite obviously tourists. It reminded me somewhat of the unexpected energy we had found in Metz and Trier. I had the feeling that many of the visitors were from neighboring regions of Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands on a weekend getaway.
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There were two impressively large open squares in the old town. At the southwestern corner of Vrijthof were two enormous churches that I first thought were a single structure with diverse architectural elements, something like the Dom of Trier. The red Gothic belltower belongs to the church of St. John while its dignified Romanesque neighbor is the Basilica of Saint Servatius. Both churches were originally Catholic and performed complementary functions in medieval times, but during the reformation Saint John was claimed by the Protestants. Apparently the relationship between the two institutions has not always been harmonious but we didn't see any arrows being shot from one building to the other. Vrijthof felt rather barren but it is an important square for festivals and the annual Christmas market. At Markt the star attraction was Maastricht's seventeenth century city hall, a stone behemoth in Dutch Baroque style. True to its name Markt contained several large market stalls selling cheese, sausages, coffee, and snacks but these were clearly the daily tourist shops. The real market takes place every Wednesday and Friday morning.
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We had to hurry back to the Waldeck Park to be in time for our Casemates tour. When we reached the brick wall there were several people standing in front of it, one of whom was obviously the tour guide. After providing us with some background he unlocked the red door in the wall which was the entrance to the casemates. I'd never heard the term casemates before and now we had encountered it in both Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The term has a somewhat obscure origin but may be derived from the Greek word chásmata, meaning gap. Casemates are fortification walls that contain spaces for gun emplacements or human movement. Maastricht was extensively fortified during the late Renaissance period as it occupied an important strategic position at the crossroads of the great European powers. Many of these walls and embattlements were destroyed over time but several long sections of casemates remain and were used as bomb shelters during World War II. As we explored the dark tunnels I tried to impress on the kids what it must have felt like to hide underground as bombs detonated overhead, never knowing how or when this terror and destruction would end. Of course they couldn't begin to conceive of it having never known anything except peace and security.
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For a more complete picture of Maastricht we drove to the Wyck District, a historic neighborhood directly across the river from the city center. The area is renowned for its immaculate classical architecture and energetic street life with upscale boutiques, cafes, and galleries. The intersecting streets Wycker Brugstraat and Rechtstraat are the best for browsing and people-watching. At the end of Brugstraat the medieval stone St. Servatius Bridge allows pedestrians and bicyclists to cross the Meuse between Wyck and the city center. The bridge was undergoing some unsightly construction during our visit but it was still interesting to look out over the Meuse for the second time that day. We had now seen two fascinating cities in two different countries in the same day that were birthed from this storied river.
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Over the last few days we had discovered some amazing cities off the beaten track in Western Europe, from Nancy to Maastricht. All of these cities were well-deserving of being visited and we had seen some stunning places whose existence we might otherwise never have been aware of. For the next week however we would be on a well-worn tourist path from Brussels to Amsterdam. Would we be able to find the souls of these legendary cities amid all the commercialism and hype as we did in Osaka and Los Angeles, or would we be met with the frustrating superficiality that we encountered in Paris and Vienna? It was time to drive onward to Brussels and find out.

Posted by zzlangerhans 02:30 Archived in Belgium Tagged road_trip family ardennes meuse family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog la_roche montagne_de_bueren la_batte outremeuse Comments (0)

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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 Comments (0)

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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 Comments (0)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Lorraine


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Lorraine is another region of France that lost its political identity with the territorial reform of 2016 that merged it with the culturally disparate areas of Champagne and Alsace to form Grand-Est. This might not be as tragic as it first appears because Lorraine was never homogeneous. Most of the region is firmly aligned with French culture but the northwestern area was often controlled by Germany and only became a permanent part of France after Germany lost it at the end of World War I. Many denizens of the department of Moselle still speak German and German dialects and their cuisine is more Germanic than French.
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We would be travelling longitudinally through Lorraine affording us the opportunity to see both sides of this interesting region. It was still a substantial drive from Dijon and I wanted to be sure we weren't missing anything on the way. It was rather difficult to find anything worthy of a stop in this relatively untraveled part of France but I eventually settled on the town of Langres. This walled city sits on a limestone plateau in an area without strong regional identity in the far southeastern corner of the region of Champagne. Langres is far closer to Dijon and Nancy in location and character than it is to the epicenter of Champagne culture around Reims and Épernay, yet is not considered part of either Bourgogne or Lorraine. Couple this with the city's remoteness from any points of interest to international travelers and it was unsurprising that we had the town's antiquated center entirely to ourselves on an overcast Wednesday morning.
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We walked through one of the seven gates under the ramparts into a stunning network of antiquated streets and squares that surpassed anything we had seen in Bourgogne. It was as though we had walked into a parallel universe where tourism did not exist yet all the atmospheric cafes and quirky boutiques that go along with tourism were still there. The businesses were modern but the stone buildings which housed them looked like they hadn't changed in hundreds of years.
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We soon came upon Rue Diderot which opens into a wide cobblestone square watched over by a bronze statue of the city's most famous native son. The writer and philosopher Denis Diderot was born in Langres in 1713 and received his early education there although he spent most of his life in Paris. The square is fronted by some of the most majestic buildings in the city. A couple of blocks further down Rue Diderot was the Romanesque and Gothic Cathedral of Saint Mammes, once the center of a major regional diocese.
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We were stunned by the unexpected magnificence of Langres. Perhaps the surprising beauty and vitality of the old town was due to the fact that the walled area is still the dominant portion of the city with only a few scattered modern communities built around it. The businesses are viable due to the patronage of the townspeople who live in a high concentration in the center and don't need to rely on outsiders who will never return. Another interesting feature of Langres is that the entire town can be circled by walking the ramparts of the ancient walls. We only walked for a short segment but it was enough to provide another fascinating perspective on this remarkable city.
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Our final stop in Langres was the Mill Gate, the entrance to the old town that one sees upon arriving from the southern direction. The elaborate stonework above the double arch celebrates France's victory over Spain in the Thirty Years War in the early seventeenth century. A steady drizzle had begun falling but I decided to check my Geocache app again and got a hit on the other side of the traffic rotary, at the northern end of a narrow park called Promenade de Blanchefontaine. Once again we were completely unsuccessful in locating the cache but the tree-lined promenade was quite beautiful. It would have been nice to have followed the path through those stately trees but the rain was coming down harder and it was clear our time in Langres was coming to an end. As annoying as the rain was, it marked the end of the unpleasant heat wave we had been suffering through for the last week.
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Langres was a great reminder that even the best guidebooks can't be relied on to catch every city worth visiting. Sometimes a town's invisibility on the tourist radar is the precise reason it's such a worthwhile destination. The extra work I had done studying everything on our route had certainly paid off in this instance. My research had turned up nothing else between Langres and Nancy so we drove the remaining two hours uneventfully. We had an immediate positive impression of Nancy, a sophisticated-appearing city with remarkable classical buildings. Our block was lined with these beautiful rectangular buildings with narrow balconies and ornate masonry. Because of city traffic we were a little late to meet the person who was there to let us in to the Airbnb apartment. She was very flustered and I tried to tell her to just give us the key and go but she insisted on showing me every last detail of the apartment, albeit in a very rushed and stressful way. The apartment was partially renovated with relatively modern kitchen and bathroom, but it still had the classic Victorian high ceilings and squeaky wooden floors, along with second floor views of that magnificent row of apartment buildings across the street.
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We were just a short walk from Grand Rue, the central road of the old town center. On the way we passed through two ancient gates, the seventeenth century Porte de la Citadelle and the renovated Porte de la Craffe, originally built in the fourteenth century. Rue Grande was filled with energy and lined with intriguing buildings from different eras. The shades of beige were somewhat reminiscent of Dijon but the style of architecture was quite different and most buildings had typical French plaster facades instead of stone. An ornate spire towered above the other buildings and we followed it to discover the Gothic revival Basilica of Saint Epvre which had spires, windows, and stone carvings packed into every square inch of its exterior.
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The restaurant we had chosen was all the way at the far end of the old town so it was quite a relief to find that they had a table available for us. We had chosen Le Bouche à Oreille because they offered typical food of Lorraine and we would only be spending one night in the region. The interior was intentionally kitschy with paintings and kitchen equipment covering every inch of the walls and ceiling. It was kind of like eating at your crazy grandmother's house. The food was reasonably good with the star attraction being chunks of beef attached to a spiked metal ball suspended from a post. I assumed it was a local specialty but afterwards I tried to look it up and found no reference to it anywhere. The kids were entertained and I was glad we had found ourselves a French dinner after eating ethnic food on our two nights in Dijon.
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According to my research the main sight in Nancy was Place Stanislas, the only UNESCO World Heritage site in northeastern France. I was expecting a nice square surrounded by distinguished buildings but once we passed through the gilded gate at the southwest corner my jaw dropped at the opulence around us. Aside from the elaborate gilded wrought-iron gates at each corner there was a breathtaking arch at the northern face called Arc Héré that honors Louis XV, the reigning monarch at the time of the square's construction. The square was originally built by the Polish Duke of Lorraine, Stanisław Leszczyński, to honor Louis XV and was named Plaza Royale. It's an interesting story how a deposed Polish king became a popular and influential Duke of Lorraine. In the early nineteenth century the anti-monarchal sentiment engendered by the French Revolution ultimately resulted in the renaming of the square after its original architect. The statue of Louis XV that originally graced the marble pedestal at the center of the square was also replaced by one of Stanislas. The buildings surrounding the square have a pleasingly uniform and distinguished appearance and include an opera house, an art museum, and several hotels.
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I was truly amazed to come across such a magnificent place in Lorraine that I had never heard of. I can't think of a single other square in France that approaches its extravagance, although I've seen some that are similar in Germany and Austria. Place Stanislas would be much better known if it was in Paris or Lyon but I was glad to experience it without being crushed by tourists. We walked back towards the Airbnb through Parc de la Pépinière, a well-manicured city park with a large variety of impressively tall trees. The park is another creation of Duke Stanislas who clearly left an outsized mark on Nancy over his thirty years in office.
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We felt satisfied that we had made the most of our limited time in the old town. After a pleasant night in our Victorian apartment we made a beeline for the Marché Central at Place Charles III not far from where we had eaten dinner the previous night. This was a passable market although it was relatively empty and there were a lot of resellers. There was a decent little restaurant inside where we combined a few hot dishes with some food we had bought at the market. We didn't linger long because we had a couple of other markets to get to that morning, or so we thought. Place Charles III was not anywhere near the same league as Place Stanislas but it did have the beautiful baroque facade of the Saint Sebastien Church on the western side as well as a cool book exchange in a shady spot.
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A short walk from Place Charles III was an even larger baroque church, the Nancy Cathedral. The cathedral was constructed by the Dukes of Lorraine in the early eighteenth century in the hopes of competing for regional status with the enlarging Kingdom of France which was steadily absorbing neighboring states. The central third stage was originally supposed to have been a majestic dome but cost considerations interfered.
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I still had several markets on the itinerary that morning. The first was a large organic produce market in the southern suburb of Vandœuvre-lès-Nancy. My research had indicated that it was a daily market but when we arrived the site was deserted. I could no longer find my source that advised a daily market and it now appeared that it was only a thing on Friday evenings and Sunday mornings. That was a little frustrating but there was still plenty for us on the itinerary that morning. We headed east to the weekly market at Dombasle-sur-Meurthe. These weekly markets in small towns are highly unpredictable and this one turned out to be rather unimpressive. Fortunately we hadn't had to drive far out of our way and it was just an hour to our next stop in Metz.
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As we drove into Metz we had our first encounter of the trip with the Moselle, an important Rhine tributary that is important to the history of northeastern France and is legendary among connoisseurs of Riesling wine. Within the city the Moselle splits numerous times, forming several large river islands that contain historic sections of the city.
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The area of immediate interest to us was the daily covered market which is adjacent to the city's revered cathedral. We parked in the convenient garage adjacent to the market and got inside the U-shaped building right around lunch time. It was an unexceptional mid-sized covered market but the small Spanish-themed restaurant inside was quite good.
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The Cathedral of Saint Étienne appears vast but it isn't even one of the ten tallest cathedrals in France. Part of the reason for its imposing appearance is the way that the edifice is situated such that while the immediate surrounding area is clear, it can still be seen to tower over nearby buildings from whatever perspective it is viewed from. The most unique feature of the cathedral is its vividly ochre coloration due to the use of local Jaumont limestone in its construction. This stone has been used to construct buildings throughout Metz giving the city as distinct an appearance as Burgundy stone confers on Dijon.
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Although I'm not disposed to spend time inside churches and cathedrals I let the kids convince me to walk through the interior. Although the cathedral itself is not particularly tall the nave is unusually high and well-illuminated via 6500 square meters of stained glass, the largest display of any church in France. The French poet Verlaine described the nave as the Lantern of God in the nineteenth century and the nickname has stuck. The windows have continued to be updated over the centuries with an important addition by renowned artist Marc Chagall in the 1960's.
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From the cathedral we worked our way south into the commercial center of the old town. This area was quite crowded which surprised me as I hadn't thought Metz would be a particularly touristic city. Many of the buildings had a similar ochre color to the cathedral although for most it seemed to be a coloration applied to the facades rather than from Jaumont stone. The ground floors of the buildings were occupied by expensive designer boutiques and upscale restaurants.
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A turn to the west brough us to Quai Paul Vautrin on the bank of the Moselle. Across from us was Île du Petit-Saulcy, the smallest of the inhabited river islands within the city. At the southern end of the island was the Protestant church Temple Neuf which appears medieval but was actually constructed at the beginning of the twentieth century. The church's construction in Romanesque Revival style was quite controversial at the time. Between the church and the wedge-shaped edge of the island is the Jardin d'Amour which contains beautiful tall trees in various shades of green. It only took a couple of minutes to cross over the island to its much larger brother Île du Grand-Saulcy. The buildings on either side of this narrow branch of the river between the islands appeared to rise straight out of the water in a manner reminiscent of Venice.
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We were tempted to continue our exploration onto Île du Grand-Saulcy but we knew time was running short if we wanted to be settled in Luxembourg before dinner. We regretfully turned back to the center but I couldn't resist another shot of the cathedral rising above the buildings lining the bank of the Moselle.
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We decided to sit down for sorbet instead of walking up to the old Colline Sainte-Croix neighborhood north of the cathedral. We retrieved the car before driving through the last area of interest for us in Metz, the Quartier Impérial. During the final years of German possession of Lorraine the authorities decided to develop this district south of the center in an effort to make Metz more German in character. The most remarkable examples of turn-of-the-century architecture were on Avenue Foch where it was impossible to find a place to pull over, but we did get to admire a few buildings up close on one of the side streets.
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It was somewhat disappointing that we didn't have more time to walk around Metz since it was unexpectedly one of the most interesting and attractive cities we had visited in France. Had I known I would have spent a night there but it's hard to construct a perfect itinerary in unfamiliar regions. It wasn't something that we needed to dwell on because in an hour we would be in Luxembourg, a mysterious little country that I was quite curious to learn more about.

Posted by zzlangerhans 22:59 Archived in France Tagged road_trip family lorraine family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog langres Comments (0)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Dijon and Bourgogne


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The morning market of Dijon is only operational four days a week but has a reputation of being one of the best covered markets in France. The Thursday market is a scaled down version which only leaves Tuesday, Friday and Saturday but there was no way we could be in Dijon on the weekend. I had therefore reduced our planned three night stay in Lyon to two so that we would be in Dijon Tuesday morning. We were excited and optimistic as we headed into the old town via one of the narrow lanes that extended northeast from our Airbnb. Almost every building was constructed from the beige limestone known as Burgundy stone, giving the old town a distinguished and homogeneous appearance that was unlike any of the French towns we had visited before.
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Eventually we came across a colorful, good-sized market hall in the center of an open square with fruit and flower vendors lining the outer walls. There were only stalls in the square directly around the market building without any spillover into the surrounding streets so the scene lacked the riotous energy that we've felt in places like Versailles and Sète. Indoors the style was clean and modern with the usual array of vendors selling cheese, fresh meat, and preserved food. It was a perfectly decent market but there was very little to distinguish it from others and the atmosphere was somewhat sterile. At this point I was scratching my head trying to understand what exactly evoked such rapturous accolades of a place that seemed to be quite ordinary. The only conclusion I could come up with was that Tuesday was probably not a full scale day either and we would have had to come on a Saturday to see the market at its best. We searched in vain for a bistro inside the building but all we found was a small coffee stand that served some light snacks. Fortunately one of the options was escargots so we were able to have a light breakfast before moving on.
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Dijon's center was quite pretty thanks to the stately brown limestone buildings with an occasional half-timbered facade interrupting the pattern. Some of the wider avenues had a few more chain stores and fast food outlets that detracted a little from the area's character so we tried to keep to the side streets. One of the obligatory stops for visitors to Dijon is La Chouette, an owl carved into the stone outer wall of the Église Notre-Dame for reasons lost to posterity. Local legend claims that those to touch la Chouette with their left hand shall be granted a wish. La Chouette has become a symbol of Dijon and an owl graces the plaques that mark the tourist trail around the old town.
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Dijon has been the European epicenter for mustard production since the thirteenth century. However the term "Dijon mustard" is not protected and currently most of the condiment sold under that name is produced elsewhere in the world. Only a few manufacturers remain in Dijon and they are required to use locally grown brown mustard seeds and local white wine rather than vinegar. We dropped into one of the city's famed mustard houses, Moutarde Maille, to taste some different varieties. I can't claim to be a mustard connoisseur so the different varieties largely tasted the same to me. They came in cute colored pots so we bought a small one to have as a souvenir.
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One of the best things about morning markets is that they give us motivation to get out of our accommodations early in the morning. It was still quite early in the day and we felt like we had absorbed enough of Dijon, so it was clear that it was time to get out on the road for a day excursion. I had several smaller towns within a half hour of Dijon on my itinerary and in the unlikely event that we had any time left over I had some back-up options further afield.
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Our first stop was Le Cassissium on the outskirts of the small town of Nuits-Saint-Georges. I hoped that this small museum of black currant liqueur attached to a factory might be similar to the Vivanco wine museum in Rioja, which had wowed us with its beautiful rural setting and spectacular design. Unfortunately Le Cassissium turned out to be a bland building in a nondescript industrial neighborhood with nothing of interest in the surroundings. We already knew from the reviews to avoid the overlong tour so we just took advantage of the free tastings. The sweetness of the liqueur was so overwhelming that Mei Ling and I could barely stomach a couple of samples. The kids were more excited by the rows of colorful non-alcoholic syrups but we had to put a halt to that before we found ourselves dealing with three diabetics. This had clearly been a mis-step but fortunately we were able to extract ourselves after losing only half an hour.
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The center of Nuits-Saint-Georges was much more appealing than Le Cassissium. Most people stop here because it's a major destination on the Burgundy Wine Route but we had no winery visits planned for this trip. Aside from the fact that it's hard to entertain the kids during a wine tasting, neither Mei Ling nor I is a fan of Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. We do love small French towns, especially those that occupy that middle ground between mundane and touristy. Nuits-Saint-Georges had one busy little square with some outdoor cafes and outside of that there was just a small network of quiet streets lined with a pleasant variety of colorful buildings.
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There weren't many restaurants to choose from and we decided to settle the lunch question immediately. The restaurant we chose was full except for a large empty table in the front that we looked at hopefully when the owner came to greet us. She ignored the table and told us she couldn't take us at the moment and we would have to return in an hour. That didn't seem too awful and we weren't terribly hungry yet so we agreed and set off to explore the rest of the town center. We found that if we walked just a couple of blocks the cafes and stores disappeared entirely and were replaced by more utilitarian buildings. The pretty tiled sidewalks gave way to concrete and asphalt. It was a different atmosphere but still interesting to see.
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One hour hadn't seemed like a long time but it was really tough to drag our walk out that long, especially as the temperature had once again risen into the nineties. We finally gave up and returned to the restaurant fifteen minutes early where the smiling owner welcomed us to the same large table she had denied us earlier. Perhaps the kitchen had simply been too busy to accommodate us at the peak hour, but based on prior experience I suspect our initial denial was a reproof for not having made a reservation. The food was good and the kids powered through their second large order of snails that day. Somehow Cleo and Ian never get tired of eating snails. We repaid the owner for sending us on a walk by declining dessert in the restaurant and then having cakes in a pâtisserie before we returned to the car.
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I had an idea that we might walk from Nuits-Saint-Georges to the hamlet of Vosne-Romanée through the vineyards but the long stroll before lunch and the rising heat eliminated that from consideration. Instead we drove fifteen minutes south to the larger town of Beaune, which is considered the wine capital of Bourgogne. Beaune has been a center of viticulture since the city was established by the Romans two thousand years ago. I felt a little guilty as we passed the Arch of Saint Nicholas and secured a prime parking spot on the main street of the old town, knowing that we would not be contributing any tourist dollars to the town's prime industry. We took a short walk through the energetic shopping streets of the antiquated center, absorbing the elegant atmosphere of distinguished hotels and intimate tasting rooms in the typical beige shades of Bourgogne.
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Beaune's main tourist attraction is the Hôtel-Dieu, a former hospice that is now a museum. The building is famous for its roof of colorful glazed tiles in geometric patterns. These tiles have been a status symbol in Bourgogne since the thirteenth century and Hôtel-Dieu is one of the greatest exemplars. The roof can only be seen from the interior courtyard and we decided to settle for a photo of the less colorful outer wall, having already seen several tiled roofs in Dijon. We passed by a few other architectural highlights of Beaune such as the Basilique Notre-Dame and the city hall before taking our leave of the city.
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We traveled a little further afield to reach our final destination of the day trip, the medieval town of Châteauneuf-en-Auxois. The route to this isolated hilltop hamlet took us along one lane roads through rolling green hills and the occasional vineyard. As we approached Châteauneuf we were surprised to see a large group of deer clustered inside a fenced-in field. Someone was obviously raising them for meat. We pulled over for a closer look and the curious deer ambled over to the fence. I remembered we had some packaged chips in the car and figured it would be fun to let the kids feed the deer. It was going well for the deer at first but then a couple of donkeys came galloping over from the far end of the field and scattered the deer to the periphery. The deer clearly knew from experience not to tangle with the donkeys but they were still adept at eating the chips right under the donkeys' noses. It was a pretty unique experience that we weren't at all expecting to have while driving in the French countryside.
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The castle of Châteauneuf was an alluring, dreamlike vision atop a gentle hill. We parked in a near-empty gravel lot at the summit and walked through a stone arch into the town. There was a steady drizzle which we were able to ignore as we came prepared with raincoats. The masonry of the buildings looked to be hundreds of years old yet they appeared warm and inviting. Unlike in Yvoire and Pérouges the homes looked like they were lived in by people who had regular jobs outside of the tourism industry. There were many more signs of true habitation here than in the other medieval towns. The town was so small that we could see the surrounding countryside through the gaps in the buildings from virtually any point.
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The 13th century stone castle dominates the southern end of the town. It had just closed when we arrived which didn't trouble us very much as we had already been inside quite a few medieval castles and the hour was growing late. A drawbridge across a dry, grassy moat led to a closed door between two imposing cylindrical towers. Behind the castle we had unobstructed views of the patchwork of fields in the valley below us.
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It was amazing how much there was to see in the tiny village. Every building had its own individual character but they all shared a rustic and authentic beauty that made us wish we could wander through the quiet little streets for hours. One gourmet shop was too beautiful to resist and we spent a pleasant half hour browsing through all kinds of local delicacies from fruit preserves to liqueurs.
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Once back in Dijon we deposited the car at the Airbnb and set back out into the old town in search of dinner. We had left the rain behind at Châteauneuf and there were many more people in the streets than there had been the previous evening. There was an almost electric vibe in the air and there seemed to be a sense of anticipation among the pedestrians we passed. We passed a tiny Korean restaurant and impulsively decided to try it rather than seeking out Burgundian cuisine. It was pretty cool to sit out on the main drag of the old town and watch a growing number of people streaming back and forth. When I went inside to use the bathroom I saw a more bizarre restaurant kitchen than I could have ever imagined. It looked like a regular apartment kitchen that had been enlarged but it was still nowhere near large enough for the amount of cooking that was going on inside. Every single stove burner had a steaming pot on it and every inch of counter surface was covered with teetering stacks of pots, pans, and any conceivable kind of kitchen implement. It looked like a scene from a Dr. Seuss book. I was tempted to take a picture but I was worried my action would be misinterpreted.
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By now I had figured out from flyers posted on the lampposts that Tuesday nights were music nights during the summer in Dijon. Several bars and restaurants on the main street had set up canopies outside and bands were beginning to warm up their instruments. It seemed like the entire center of the city was beginning to transform into a giant street party. Things began happening very quickly after that with impromptu musical performances on the sidewalks, people in bizarre costumes, and a generally riotous atmosphere descending. We encountered a large group of people folk dancing in a small square and Mei Ling and the kids were pulled into the mix of it. One guy somehow managed to execute some rather impressive turns with a large dog standing on its hind legs, which stunned me so much that I forgot to take any pictures until it was over. The crowds grew so thick that it became hazardous to keep exploring with the kids so we kept to one particularly entertaining block. Suddenly lightning flashed across the sky and a steady rain began to descend on the revelers. I still had our raincoats in my backpack which saved us from being soaked and we began to make our way back to the Airbnb. The downpour hardly discouraged most of the partiers and it seemed to excite some into new heights of ecstasy as they threw themselves around to the rhythm of whichever band they happened to be closest to. It was an amazing ending to a fulfilling day of exploration of this legendary region.
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On Wednesday morning Les Halles was closed but my research had uncovered a weekly market called Marché Port du Canal. Dijon was the first French city we had stayed in that wasn't built on a river but it is adjacent to the Canal de Bourgogne, a manmade waterway that provides one of the two ways to cross France from the North Atlantic to the Mediterranean. The canal was originally constructed in the early nineteenth century for purposes of shipping but is now only used by private boaters and pleasure cruises. The port may have once been a busy commercial hub of the city but on this drizzly Wednesday morning there was very little activity. There was a small market mostly based out of trucks and few customers. However there was a rotisserie, fruit vendors, and a friendly Congolese lady cooking West African food so we were able to create a rather interesting breakfast.
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There were a few smallish cruise boats moored at the side of the peaceful, greenish canal but the only sign of life was a group of rather listless ducks. After lunch I had the idea to try out an activity I'd kept in reserve for slow days. We had experimented with Geocaching in Miami with mixed success but we had never had time to try it away from home. My app identified a cache in the small park next to the port but try as we might we were unable to locate it despite the GPS showing that we were practically on top of it. But even we couldn't miss finding the enormous bronze "winged dream" sculpture that celebrates the architect Gustave Eiffel who was born in Dijon.
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We probably would have missed the last highlight of Dijon if we hadn't been fortunate enough to select an Airbnb just a couple of blocks away from it. The International City of Gastronomy and Wine was an enormous complex of exhibition spaces and food shops that had opened just a month before our arrival. I hadn't come across it at all during my research but its ultramodern design had immediately caught our eye when we first drove into Dijon. The most dramatic architectural feature was the suspended oblong of the Ferrandi culinary school which appeared about to crush the busy cafe underneath it.
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Inside we purchased surprisingly inexpensive tickets that included access to four separate exhibitions on French cuisine. It turned out to be a good deal since the displays were well-designed and entertaining. Mei Ling and I could probably have spent the rest of the morning in there but the kids were tearing through so quickly that we could barely absorb any of the copious information that was being presented.
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The City is a renovation of the seventeenth century Hôtel-Dieu of Dijon, and many of the original architectural elements remained in the vast complex. In the center of the development was a collection of cafes and gourmet food shops that we had practically to ourselves. It was essentially the same products that were available at the morning market except at a much higher price point. We didn't make any purchases but it was hard to resist the colorful and appetizing displays.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 02:33 Archived in France Tagged road_trip family family_travel travel_blog beaune nuits_saint_georges tony_friedman family_travel_blog chateauneuf_en_auxois Comments (0)

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