June 21, 2019: Daytrip to 54
I was in Paris for 10 days for my girlfriend’s fashion brand launch. She was busy during most of the days, but I had a lot of free time. I had already taken a day trip to Reims and was looking to go somewhere else. I noticed that Luxembourg City, Luxembourg was only a 2 hour 15 minute train ride from Paris. A new country? On a day trip from somewhere I already was going to be? Sign me up! I bought the ticket for 150 euros on the SNCF website.
The trip was very easy. At 10:15 AM, I arrived in Luxembourg, my 54thcountry. Luxembourg is about the same size as Rhode Island. So while it is a tiny country, it does have multiple cities and countryside. The capital city of Luxembourg City has 80,000 residents.
Luxembourg has one of the most interesting histories of any place I have ever been. The city is located next to France, Belgium, and Germany on a sandstone mesa at the confluence of two rivers. This was a very strategic location and many people wanted to capture Luxembourg. Over the years, new defensive structures kept being built so that by the 1700’s it was by far the most fortified town in all of Europe earning the name Gibraltar of the North. The walls were only breached once- in 1443 by surprise.
The town was so fortified that the Treaty of London of 1867 required the fortress to be taken down- it was too dangerous to remain in Europe. The treaty also established Luxembourg as an independent country for the first time – until then it had always been part of another country. A new monarchy was established and Luxembourg became a permanently neutral country. The monarch of Luxembourg is the Grand Duke, making Luxembourg the world’s only Grand Duchy.
Because the town was so fortified, the town could not expand and remained small. Once the fortress was destroyed, the city expanded rapidly and new neighborhoods were built.
Now here’s where the story gets interesting. Luxembourg leveraged its neutral status as a power broker. They promoted a unified Europe and signed trade deals with its much larger neighbors. Luxembourg became connected to the European railroad lines and the national train lines of the bordering countries. THEN, they passed laws limiting financial disclosures of companies based there. As a result, nearly all the financial institutions of Europe moved to Luxembourg. Today, Luxembourg is one of the largest world financial centers, a cargo hub, and the wealthiest county per capita in of Europe by far. It is the second wealthiest country on earth after Qatar.
There is a Luxembourgish language, but only about half the people speak it. Most people know French, German, and English (crazy)!
The train station is slightly south of the main part of the city. I spent an hour wandering around. I ended up in the Gund area at the bottom of the mesa. This trendy area has lots of restaurants and is connected to the top of the mesa by an elevator inside a cave. Ooooo.
I then walked around the mesa to reach my first stop: the Casement Bock- the country’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site. While the Treaty of London forced the massive fortress to be taken down, the foundations of the fortress remained. The Casement Bock is the foundations of the main gate, which is on a sort of peninsula on the mesa. Underneath what is now a road is a huge network of caves and tunnels. I wandered for about 45 minutes through the historic tunnels. The signs were all in German and French so I actually didn’t learn anything, but it was still cool.
I then walked over to Fort Thungen, an imposing castle with a museum on the history of the Luxembourg fortress. Most of the exhibits were in German and French but the major “timeline” exhibits had English.
Next to Fort Thungen is the MUDAM, Luxembourg’s modern art museum. The building was designed by I.M. Pei and was quite a stark difference from the medieval architecture that dominates the city. If you are under 27 and a student, all the museums in Luxembourg are free. I am 27 but was able to fudge a year. Modern art really isn’t my thing, but I still enjoyed the museum.
Next to MUDAM is one of the three headquarters of the European Union (others are Brussels and Strasbourg, France). As you would expect for a tiny power broker, Luxembourg is perhaps the most pro-EU country on earth. Membership in the EU gives Luxembourg access to the resources and financial markets of the other members while not having to pay for their problems. Visitors are not allowed in the building.
I was looking for lunch and stumbled on a heavily-themed fake medieval town development filled with bars and restaurants. I ended up eating at the Big Beer Brewery.
There I got a traditional Luxembourg meal: sausage with mustard, mashed potatoes and beer! Unfiltered. Yum.
I then walked on a 4.5 km historic trail along the remnants of the fortress walls. The trail was VERY well marked. The remnants are impressive but I really wish that the fortress was still here. That would have been cool to see.
It was now mid-afternoon and I had some time to walk around the city center. It felt like any other European town- a mix of old buildings and new. My highlights were the City’s history museum and a “scenic” glass elevator that transports people down the mesa. The city’s main sites: the Grand Duke’s palace and the cathedral were both closed in preparation for the Grand Duke’s birthday celebration in 5 days. Apparently that is quite the party.
On the outskirts of the old town was the City Park, which used to be where the massive fortress fortifications once stood. There is cool symbolism to turning a fortress into a giant park.
As I waited for the train, I grabbed a beer at the Rotondes development. This cultural center used to be a railway roundhouse. Now it has two concert venues, a couple bars and lots of street art. It felt like a token “cool” spot in Luxembourg. With that, I headed back to Paris, returning at 8:45 just in time for dinner.
While Luxembourg didn’t have any blockbuster sights like Reims, it was a very beautiful place with a unique history. I don’t think it has much of a draw for younger visitors due to the business-focus of the place. But if you’re interested in finance, small countries, and beautiful places, I think Luxembourg is a worthy destination. One day was enough for the city, but you could probably spend another day or two in the countryside which I did not get to see.