Luxembourg (Sept 20-23)

And so, our next adventure commenced!

We traveled from Bristol straight after work and caught the train to London. It was a perfectly pleasant journey and we were shortly at Paddington, where we changed for Euston. It wasn’t far from there to the Premier Inn where we were staying the night, nor to the Ed’s Diner where we enjoyed nice burger for dinner.

The next day we commenced with breakfast at the hotel, which was better than we expected. Good coffee, fruit juices, a hot buffet, and eggs cooked to order. We both ordered omelettes, and were reasonably impressed; especially given the modest cost. After breakfast we headed to St Pancras, where we were to board Eurostar to… Brussels. Only my final destination couldn’t be Brussels, as we’d already done that. So sometime later I discovered that our first destination was in fact to be Luxembourg. Somewhere I knew very little of other than perhaps through Eurovision, or perhaps a banking scandal.

The journey itself was nice – Eurostar wasn’t very busy, and it seemed pretty quick that we arrived in Brussels Midi. We grabbed a quick bite to eat at a local sandwich store, stocked up on Euros, and boarded the next train to Luxembourg. For this section of the journey Greg had managed to snag cheap 1st class tickets, so we enjoyed a nice ride at a table in a specious cabin which never got too full. It also had huge windows, so we could enjoy the scenery as it blurred past.

We arrived late afternoon at Luxembourg, and caught a bus (the bus ticket was €4 for a day-rider; almost as expensive as First Bus Bristol I thought!) to the Melia hotel which was located about 15mins ride away in a small park along with the Philharmonic Orchestra building and the modern art museum (MUDAM). It was an impressive hotel to look at – it reminded me of the new Titanic building at Belfast and Greg of a Borg cube! When we checked in there weren’t many rooms ready – so we ended up being upgraded and given a corner room on 5th floor. It was rather splendid with several windows on two sides affording panoramic views over the city. 🙂

We dumped our stuff and headed straight out. Greg had a plan to visit a town on the southern edge of Luxembourg called Mondorf-Les-Bains. It was then that I discovered that our bus ticket wasn’t just for Luxembourg city – it was valid for all of Luxembourg. (First Bus can relax, their pricing clearly reigns supreme still; Luxembourg isn’t even a contender..). I need to add a geek-aside here – I had found a Luxembourg transport app on the App Store and decided to give it whirl. Not only did it show everything to me on English it was perfectly formed; streets ahead of the equivalent in Bristol. This app confirmed the next bus to our destination, the journey time, and even an icon which turned orange to warn that we should start walking towards the bus stop now if we wanted to catch it (with map supplied on hand in case). As a visitor it was great, and we didn’t worry about bus times any further that trip. Mondorf-Les-Bains was a pretty little town on the south border, only a few miles from France. Greg had picked it because of the well regarded spa, and so we were soon relaxing in one of many sauna’s, cleaning up and unwinding after our journey. As is typical we spent several hours there, and managed to fit in a couple of ‘aufgaus’s’, which this time around involved iced tea and then japanese bowls and incense. We headed back at about 10, much more relaxed, and headed content to bed.

The next morning we arrived at breakfast to find it less well organised than we had expected. It had a good amount on offer, but the staff were not particularly in evidence, many tables weren’t set or in some cases cleared, the fresh eggs (for boiling) clearly weren’t, and the bacon had run out. We enjoyed what we had, but Greg had a word with reception on the way out. Our first stop of the day was to Fort Thungen, which was a museum covering the history of the fortified city. It was housed within the old fort building itself, still making use of the famous Three Spanish Towers. I there learnt that it wasn’t so much that Luxembourg city had a fort, rather that Luxembourg city *was* a fort (and Fort Thungen was one small outpost forming part of the huge whole). For many centuries the city was literally fortified, making it the largest medieval fortress in Europe. It was situated in a rather fluid part of Europe, between the lands that would become France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. And at various times it was part of/allied/invaded by each of these, sometimes more than once. And it seemed that each time a major power successfully took it, they modernised the fortification and built it up further. This continued iteratively for a while, until the Treaty of London in 1839 which defined much of the present borders for the local powers. Within this Luxembourg ceded much of the southern section of the country to France, and agreed to dismantle it’s fortifications in order to be considered neutral in future conflicts. This turned out to be a watershed for the city, as in dismantling its huge military establishment somewhat of a renaissance was trigged, as what had become something of a strait-jacket for the city was removed allowing significant growth in terms of people and commerce.

We spent about an hour in the museum, before heading towards the old town proper. To get there we opted to walk, and took a very scenic path down from Fort Thungen. This wended it’s way down the side of the valley, zig-zagging down to the river and affording several photographic opportunities along the way. From the river we walked back up the other side of the valley, past the smart looking Youth Hostel and towards the Bock casemates which was to be our next stop. The casements were caves and tunnels built into the main headland where windows were opened up on either side, providing a commanding view of the valley to both sides, and allowing soldiers with cannons placed there a significant degree of control from this natural vantage point. Nowadays a few of the tunnels remain, explored by tourists, and it was interesting to realise that from within the headland we could descend all the way to the valley floor (which we did, before having to return the same way!). The casements only started to lose their military advantage when artillery improved, and for over a century were constantly manned with troops.

After the casements it was time for lunch, and so we wandered into the old town. We found a square just outside the cathedral, where a band was playing and food was being served. It turned out to be a German run roadshow for Alzheimers awareness, and so we sat in the sun enjoying the atmosphere whilst I ate a hamburger and local beer and Greg had bratwurst and a glass of local bubby (certainly different from typical British street food!), and we shared some excellent frites.

For the afternoon we decided to take a walk in the picturesque Petrusse valley. We purchased a large bottle of water (it was pretty hot by now) and took a path down from the old town towards the base of the valley. For me the valley was the defining characteristic of Luxembourg – it’s geography completely dictated the layout of the city and had been a huge influence on it’s history. Walking though it was delightful. The weather was warm, dry and sunny and we took a meandering route which exposed us to a good amount of the views available. The base of the valley was parkland, with a river running through it. It was remarkably quiet in terms of people, even though for a fair amount of the visit our route followed a marked scenic trail. We walked along the valley floor until our route took us along the an old city wall, wending up the side of the valley. We rose to the top following a path that others must have trod decades, or even centuries before us, and enjoyed more scenic views of the valley beneath us, by now bathed in golden early evening light. Quite beautiful and surprisingly peaceful, and really nice to find in the middle of a modern city.

We ended up at a local traditional restaurant for dinner. We arrived at 5:15, and they didn’t open till 6pm, so we found a bench in the setting sun to relax on; still warm enough to be comfortable in t-shirts. We returned at 6pm sharp and were seated, and considered ourselves lucky to get a table, as we heard them shortly afterwards telling a telephone caller that they only had one table for two left that evening, and were otherwise full. We ordered house speciality roast pig leg, after admiring a whole set of them spit-roasting on a rack. What we hadn’t realised is that they pretty much served the whole leg – it was a large meal, but very well cooked; crispy on the outside and succulent and juicy on the inside – wonderful! I had the seasonal dessert – strawberries and Chantilly cream, which turned out to be some of the best strawberries (and the largest serving) I’d had in a very long time. Greg enjoyed a tasty Tarte Tartin. We walked home from here, which was less than half an hour, and had the luck to just catch the end of a beautiful sunset. One of those where the whole sky seems to light up, and there are just enough clouds to bounce different colours of light off. We sat and enjoyed that from the edge of the old fort, before completing our walk back to the hotel.

At the hotel we found that a set of treats had been setup in our room – a half bottle of wine, some snacks and petit-fours, along with a note from the hotel apologising about breakfast! This note continued at breakfast the next morning, starting when after giving our room number the duty manager greeted us by name, asked about yesterday and apologised again. It was a completely different experience, where coffee and tea were brought for us, plates were cleared, the food was replenished; it was very much as we’d expected it to be the first time.

Our first stop the next day was to the Natural History Museum. It was relatively small by many standards, but very well presented. We rather liked it, as rather than having rows on rows of items to only be able to pay cursory attention to we were able to take our time and focus on the smaller number of exhibits. The afternoon was the museum of the history of the city (which was pretty much effectively the history of the country as well) – Musee d’Histoire de la Ville de Luxembourg. Some of this I included above when talking about the fort, and certainly the museum did a good job of covering this over three floors, including several large models of the city itself over time, which vividly illustrated how it changed and expanded; particularly the spectacular change from fortress to unfortified metropolis. The special exhibition was also interesting; called ‘Shop Shop Shop’ it focussed on the history of shopping and household consumerism in Luxembourg over time. This wasn’t a view we’d come across before, and it was an interesting alternative way to tell the story of the city. We returned to our hotel reasonably early that day, and visited the small sauna and steam-room to relax and wash away our exertions of the day. Before bed we enjoyed an episode of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (the original series with Alec Guinness, which I’d been inspired to buy after seeing the more recent movie), a few episodes of which I’d encoded onto my iPad prior to travelling.

Our last breakfast was the best of the visit – they’d added a fresh egg station where the Chef cooked Greg a splendid cheese omelette; very moist and with an interesting selection of flavourful cheeses. After that it was a bus trip back to the train station, and onwards to our next destination.

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