Travel

Thursday 31 July 2014

Good things in small packages in Luxembourg

Luxembourg may be synonymous with investment banks, but it also a country rich in culture, natural beauty and charm.

Anne Cunningham

Published 10/05/2014|02:30

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The unexpected Luxembourg
The unexpected Luxembourg
Old meets new at the Mudam.
Old meets new at the Mudam.
Luxembourg on the map.
Luxembourg on the map.

'There is no such thing as a little country. The greatness of a people is no more determined by their numbers than the greatness of a man is by his height."

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I'd like to think that Victor Hugo wrote these lines in Vianden, a Luxembourg village of such intense beauty, it snatches the heart right out of you and demands you return to claim it.

Hugo returned to Vianden for long and short stays, and his painting of Vianden Castle depicts a deep affection for the place which no visitor could fail to understand.

Contrast the ancient majesty of Vianden Castle with the masterpiece of contemporary architecture that is the Philharmonie, Luxembourg's national concert hall, and you get a feel for the teeming cultural diversity that throbs in the heart of this tiny, but eminently beautiful country.

The Luxembourg Tourist Office has surpassed itself in downplaying Luxembourg as only being – as one Luxembourg official put it – "a collection of investment banks". Of course the country is highly dependent on its financial sector, and on its status as a major EU hub. But there is so much more to Luxembourg than the high-jinks of high finance or lofty European politics.

Our mission was to explore what Luxembourg Tourism has branded "The Unexpected Luxembourg".

And we were enthralled. Luxembourg city – the safest city in the world, by the way – is a charming, romantic, ancient and modern melting pot. The Romans took a shine to it back in the day, and it has suffered occupation by a dizzying array of European powers over the centuries, finally gaining its independence in 1839. The fact that Luxembourg ever gained her independence at all, given her location, is a testament to the courage and tenacity of her people.

It's Friday night and the joint is jumping. The coolest bars, restaurants and clubs are situated just behind the Palace of the Grand Duchy (Luxembourg is a monarchy), and while this particular old duchess (moi!) sloped off at a reasonably respectable hour, the night was only starting to simmer in these trendy, cosmopolitan hotspots. If it's nightlife you're after, you won't be disappointed.

Shopping fiends won't be disappointed, either. In the cobblestoned pedestrian streets of the city centre, there's everything from the humble souvenir shop to the exclusive Chanel shop, with Louis Vuitton across the street, and every name and price range you can think of in between – all sitting comfortably side by side. There are of course several shopping malls nearby, too.

The fortress walls of the Old Town (one of Luxembourg's three UNESCO treasures) point skywards, and a stroll along the old Corniche path provides a panoramic view from what native author, Batty Weber, called Europe's most beautiful balcony.

A walk through the Cavemates – a labyrinth of interconnecting secret passages cut into the fortress walls – offers a unique slice of local history. Emerging out into the sunlight, the cityscape around Neuminster Abbey on the banks of the Alzette river is exquisite.

In the heart of the Luxembourg city is Place Guillaume, a picturesque square full of restaurants and bistros with more than a soupçon of Parisian cafe culture about it. You could sit here all day long, nursing a glass of wine or a coffee, and just watch the world go by.

The Saturday morning market here is definitely worth a visit. You can buy your vegetables for dinner and pick up a piece of antique crystal or a bonsai tree just a few feet away. I loved it. And while Paris has its La Defense district, Luxembourg equally has its ultra-modern Kirchberg district. It's where you will find the Philharmonie hall already mentioned.

 

Another complete knockout of modern architecture in Kirchberg is the renowned Mudam; the modern art museum. Designed by multi-award- winning architect Im Pei (he of the Louvre's glass pyramid fame), it's built on the ancient site of Fort Thungen, and this location caused much controversy at the development stage.

It's a triumph, in my humble opinion. It neither compromises nor overshadows the ancient fortress. Difficult though it is to believe without seeing if for yourself, the new museum actually enhances the old site; this is a perfect symbiosis of old and new, and Pei's use of natural light throughout the Mudam is phenomenal.

There was much more to see, and so we headed off to the village of Remich, in serious wine country, and to the vineyards of Caves St Martin. This is the home of Crémant, a sparkling wine which by all accounts gives the best of French champagnes a run for their money – at a fraction of their prices.

We found ourselves in another labyrinth of caves, wine cellars cut specifically for the purpose of the winery in 1922. The tour was an entertaining experience, made fun by our hostess Anne (another one!).

Then there was the best bit of the tour – the wine tasting. Those who know their wines were impressed with both the quality and the cost.

Caves St Martin is situated in the beautiful Moselle region of Luxembourg. We stayed overnight in the eco-friendly luxury of Hotel de l'Ecluse – a most unusual haven of peace, chic and modernity, which boasts a balcony with every room. On one side, the balconies overlook the sloping vineyards and the all-natural outdoor pool. The other side overlooks the meandering tranquillity of the Moselle river.

This small hotel – only 35 rooms – is the cat's pyjamas, and their restaurant, Pier 29, is deserving of its popularity.

Day three and it's up north to the Ardennes. The scenery here is spectacular, and it's here I fell for the beautiful village of Vianden with its amazing chateau on the crest of the hill. But there are lots of other attractions here too: forest parks, the famous cable car, and the Military Museum in nearby Diekirch is well worth a visit. This is the location of the Second World War's historic Battle of the Bulge.

One-third of Luxembourg is natural forestland, so if an outdoors holiday is your preference, then you're in for a treat. With six superb golf courses, almost 800 kms of biking trails, dozens of hiking trails, all of them carefully graded from beginner to advanced, an airport which is literally minutes from the city centre, a vibrant and picturesque capital city with a nightlife second to none and a pan-European cultural aspect hard to find anywhere else, Luxembourg is sure to become the next big thing for Irish tourists seeking a new holiday destination.

Need to Know

Luxair have re-opened their Dublin-Luxembourg route and return flights start at just €149. This land of three official languages — French, German and Luxembourgish — has a unique charm, with its confluence of cultures. The size of the city and indeed of the country means everywhere is |only a short distance from everywhere else. That in itself is so |attractive, especially if you’re interested in a family holiday. The kids won’t have time to say “Are we there yet?”

No matter what kind of a holiday you’d like, Luxembourg has it all. To discover the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg for yourself, see visitluxembourg.com

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