Twice a European City of Culture, and home to medieval casemates and the Hotchocspoon, there's much more to Luxembourg's capital than you'd think, says Thomas Breathnach
Published 19/02/2011 | 05:00
When it comes to Benelux getaways, Luxembourg City has long played the bridesmaid to its lowland sisters Amsterdam, Brussels and trendy Bruges. But two gongs as European City of Culture later and this town of bankers and Eurocrats has an added verve.
With museums, concert halls, and a revamped clubbing scene, all in a fairytale backdrop, I'm in the Grand Ole Duchy to see what else there is to sing about.
Following a silhouette of budding orchards and rolling farmland, our old locomotive pulls into the capital, salutations of "Moein" (hello in Luxembourgish) chiming from the platforms.
The city's location, perched on a rocky salient 70m high, makes a dramatic impression. From the old town pierced with steeples, cliffs plunge down into river valleys and gorges, spanned by mighty bridges and viaducts. Old-world dwellings in pastel shades of blue and yellow contrast with the brutalist architecture of skyscrapers in the far distance.
It may be known as 'Gibraltar of the North' due its history as a defence settlement, but there's an instant hint of Bern here, and even a suggestion of Cobh.
Luxembourg is divided into 24 expansive quarters and bustling gares. The first we encounter reflects its complexion as a cosmopolitan European heartland. A group of Portuguese immigrants -- who make up 15pc of the population here alone -- spills out from train platforms on to the affluent streets. Across the road, a German couple are filling the boot of a VW Jetta with the spoils of a cross- border booze trip. Yes, this is the EU utopia of open markets and Schengen Agreements all right.
With attractions triggering little in the line of household names, we make a beeline to city tourism to get the lowdown. Once the clerk gets his survival story of a St Patrick's Day spent in Dublin out of his system, he procures us with the local must-sees -- number one being the casemates, Luxembourg's medieval underground village.
The casemates, situated by Bock Cliff, are a 17km honeycomb of military tunnels first carved out in 1644 by the Spaniards and later by the Austrians, both of whose empires once reigned here. In their heyday they accommodated thousands of soldiers, as well as horses, artillery, slaughterhouses, kitchens and bakeries. Now the eerie passageways provide a marvellous insight into medieval times, while also offering fine views over Grund Valley from the canon embrasures.
We amble around the subterranean maze which echoes with the voices of children -- presumably enchanted by the local legend that the ghost of the medieval maid Mélusine still knocks around here. Forget Disneyland Paris, this is the Haunted Mansion meets the History Channel for just €2.
No trip to Luxembourg would be complete without a visit to the Palais Grand Ducal, home to the duke himself. Inconspicuously tucked along Rue de Marché aux Herbes, the Flemish renaissance structure of ochre sandstone and fairytale turrets is impressive, if a little palatially modest.
Outside the building, a guard stands stationary by his sentry box, feeling the force of the tinkering rain. Whatever the Luxembourgish for "another flipping tourist" is, I think I just saw it in his eyes.
The palace itself has a chequered history, having formerly been used by German soldiers, as a tavern during the Second World War. Peering into the ornate state room from which the incumbent Duke Henri vu Lëtzebuerg delivers his annual Christmas message, it's somewhat incongruous to imagine it's the same spot where Nazis lashed back tankards of pils during the years of occupation.
As the rain begins to bucket down, The Chocolate Company, a gourmet chocolatier located opposite the Grand Palais, appears an inviting refuge. The artisan café, set in a cave-like chamber, boasts 'box seats' overlooking the palace. We pull up a pew to peruse the menu, which ranges from white chocolate with strawberries and pink pepper to straight-up Ghanian dark, 85pc proof.
But speciality here is what is pitched as "the iPhone of hot chocolates". The Hotchocspoon is a thick chunk of chocolate wedged to a wooden spoon and served with a mug of piping milk -- DIY chocolat chaud at its finest.
If calorific beverages are enough to set off the guilt, fear not: Luxembourg City has the layout of a high-gradient Stairmaster.
Orientating oneself around its labyrinthine network of multi-storied lanes is so time-consuming that the city has installed a number of elevators around the old town, which can transport you from Ville Haute to Ville Bas in a jiffy.
Les Rives de Clausen is Luxembourg's revamped nightlife district, located deep in a gorge beside the purling River Alzette. Despite some initial map-reading difficulties, the baseline of thumping Europop and pink light installations hueing the sky finally guide us towards the vibey quarter.
Formally the site of an old brewery, Clausen is now home to several clubs and restaurants, with themes ranging from Brazilian (Agua de Coco) to The Flintstones (Le Bar Wilma). We begin proceedings at the too-cool-for-school IKKI lounge.
White-slacked financial types and designer ladies guardedly sip Moët -- it's not really a case of Moeins-all-round here. IKKI does provide the scene for a personal first, however: the toilet cubicles here feature futuristic LCD floor advertising. Clearly innovation in this city doesn't just stop at the Hotchocspoon.
As the evening progresses, we hop from one finely décored venue to the next, where prices are reasonable and DJs lively. Local attitudes here do appear a little aloof, but we eventually find favour in Le Palais bar and join some Portuguese breaking it down to a remix of '(Won't You Take Me To) Funky Town?'
Funky town Luxembourg ain't, but at night, emerging to castles, forts and churches gleaming under moonlight, this is certainly one city which has romance under wraps. The sparse population and absence of mass tourism means, for the most part, this duchy is your own demesne.
You may just lose yourself in Luxembourg in more ways than one.
Need to know
Luxair flies from Dublin to Luxembourg City from €118 return, including taxes and handling fees (0044 8003 899 443; luxair.lu).
We stayed at the stylish Hotel Simoncini (6 Rue de Notre Dame. Tel: 00352 222 844; hotelsimoncini.lu) which offers rooms from €50pps. This boutique hotel, with clean-lined designs, adjoins a city gallery and is minimally adorned with sculptures, poetry prints and artwork.
FIVE GREAT THINGS TO DO
Take a river cruise passing hamlets and fertile valleys, before sampling some sparkling crémants or zesty rieslings at Bernard Massings winery in Grevenmacher (€7 tour includes three sample flutes; bernard-massard.lu).
Visit the Musée d’Arte Moderne (below), a geometric superstructure situated in the European quarter. Bring your thinking cap for the Mickey Mouse at Auschwitz exhibit (€5; mudam.lu).
Hang out at summer in the city, Luxembourg’s annual season of open-air events this across the city, including street theatre, markets, city safaris for children and an array of music. And they’re all free (summerinthecity.lu).
Savour the flavours of Judd mat Gaardebounen, smoked pork neck with broad beans, the unofficial national dish of Luxembourg and one of the regional specialities on the menu at Am Tiirmschen (32 Rue de l’Eau; amtiirmschen.lu).
Chill at the Phil, one of Europe’s most exquisite concert halls whose contemporary curves of the auditorium make for exceptional acoustics — perfect for the regal sounds of Wagner or Luxembourg’s finest, Pascal Schumacher (tickets from €10; philharmonie.lu).