Luxembourg, The Great European Add-on
By Jules Older
Photos by Effin Older
When my fellow Americans tell me they’re about to visit Australia and New Zealand, I say, “Choose one or the other, not both.”
For their European trip, I give the opposite advice. “While you’re in Paris/London/Amsterdam, think about saving some time for Luxembourg.”
Here’s the difference. Australia and New Zealand are 1,500 miles apart and occupy huge amounts of territory (Australia is roughly the size of America; New Zealand runs from glacial to subtropical). Luxembourg is another story. It shares borders with France, Belgium and Germany, shares currency with the Eurozone countries, and is connected to most of Western Europe by highspeed rail.
And that’s not all. Luxembourg is tiny — smaller than Rhode Island, with a population half the size of San Jose. It’s the world’s last Grand Duchy, its awash in history, and is, after oil-rich Qatar, the richest country on the planet.
It’s safe, stable, multilingual — and, since World War II, it’s a nation that loves Americans.
That affection was won by General George Patton and the American Third Army in December, 1944. In the final, decisive engagement of the war in Europe, the Battle of the Bulge, the Americans defeated the German invaders and returned Luxembourg’s Boulevard de la Liberte from its imposed name, Adolph Hitler Strasse.
Today, in addition to the National Museum of Military History www.mnhm.lu/www/usa/index.php, Luxembourg is home to the General Patton Museum www.patton.lu . While both are impressive, for the power to evoke emotion, both pale beside the American Cemetery www.abmc.gov/cemeteries-memorials/europe/luxembourg-american-cemetery where, beneath seventeen acres of manicured lawn, lie the remains of more than 5,000 GIs and their commander, George Patton.
The Nazis were hardly Luxembourg’s first experience with foreign invasion. Since ancient times, they’d been overrun by the Spanish (twice,) Austrians, French (twice), Prussians, Germans (at least twice) and a few others. From early days, the response was to build fortifications, above and below the rocky ground of Luxembourg City. At one point, the fortifications occupied more acreage than the city, itself; Luxembourg was known as the Gibraltar of the North.
Today, those defensive walls and underground tunnels, called the Casemates, are among the country’s leading tourist attractions.
These days, the Luxembourg Army is made up of 1,000 men and women, though, in keeping with European Union requirements, that may increase to 1,500. The country has one (1) tank; when they wanted to stress test the safety their new bridge, they had to call on neighboring Belgium to roll sufficient tanks across it.
Luxembourg has an openly gay prime minister and in 2014 overwhelmingly approved legalizing same-sex marriage. Women in Luxembourg have had voting rights since 1919; by contrast, Switzerland waited until 1971 and Liechtenstein, until 1984.
Luxembourg has universal health care, which extends to workers who live in other Europe countries.
As a result of some combination of wealth, experience with invasion, high wages and universal health care, Luxembourg is among the safest nations on Earth. It even feels safe. When a huge crowd is in the main square watching and event like the World Cup on a giant screen, you don’t worry that if you scream for the wrong team, bad things will happen to you. Luxembourg pretty much defines good vibe.
It’s far from cheap, but bargains may be found. Luxembourg’s youth hostels are rated the finest in the world, and outside the City Center in Luxembourg City, restaurant, hotel and almost all other prices significantly drop. Public transport is comfortable, reliable and reasonably priced. (Actually, it’s often free. I’ve watched bus drivers say no when passengers try to pay.) And the compact city is made for walking.
Here’s a Luxembourg moment. I strolled into the Luxembourg City History Museum and asked the woman at the desk, “Is this a good time to visit the museum?” I expected her to tell me about tours or special events. Instead, she said, “It is such a nice day out. Why not take a walk on the Corniche and visit us another time?”
That’s just what I did. Both the Corniche, an ancient pedestrian walkway overlooking the oldest parts of the city, and the museum, a stunningly handsome new building whose exhibits capture a thousand years of history, were time well spent.
What’s the best time to visit Luxembourg? June, July and August are the warmest, sunniest months. But December 2014 will be the anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. That’s the perfect date for military-history travelers to make a pilgrimage.
In Luxembourg, June 23 is National Day, the rough equivalent of the Fourth of July. But if you’re picturing girls in braids and dirndls, folk dancing and the occasional oom-pah band (as I did), think again. On the 23rd, there’s a military parade, a gaggle of fascinator-wearing royals, uplifting speeches and Te Deum sung in the Catholic Cathedral. But the night before, the entire country comes to town to par-tay till dawn to the high-volume sounds of German techno, American rap, Caribbean rhythm and every other beat-driven music on the orb. Unless you’re ready to rock through 4 a.m., best bring your earplugs.
To escape the bedlam — and it’s a loud but very safe bedlam — maybe head to Remich on the Moselle River. There, you can dine alfresco in the sunshine, tour the wine caves, enjoy the sight of vineyards from a tour boat… and maybe even listen to an oom-pah band.
That’s just what I did.
If You Go
The Luxembourg Card For free public transport plus free entry to museums and other attractions for eleven Euros a day, cheaper by the group or several days. http://www.visitluxembourg.com/en/luxembourg-card
Navitours Boat tours, short and long, by the vineyards on the Mosel River. http://meetings.visitluxembourg.com/meeting-point/navitours
Youth Hostels firstname.lastname@example.org
Wi-Fi Hotspots free Wi-Fi at cafes and restaurants. http://www.wificafespots.com/wifi/city/LU–Luxemburg
Jules Older is an award-winning writer and filmmaker who, with photographer Effin Older travels the world from San Francisco.