“Luxembourg? Why Luxembourg?” everyone asked … well, everyone I told I was going to Luxembourg. It certainly is not on the normal tourist route and to be honest I had chosen it for 2 reasons, 1. there was a cheap flight the weekend I wanted to go away and 2. I had not been there before. Pretty simple really.
This time I was flying Ryan Air out of Stansted. Another budget airline, another budget airline airport which was packed but again I had paid a little extra for fast track security (no explosive moisturiser this time) and priority boarding and in just 10 minutes more than it takes to get from Christchurch to Wellington, I was in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg – declared as such by the Dutch king in 1815. (Only one left in the world apparently.)
I always think New Zealand is small, but Luxembourg beats us hands down, with a population of only 595,000 and a land mass of 2,590 square km. Luxembourg is a tiny land locked country surrounded by Germany, Belgium and France.
Again, my ‘not such a backpacker’ move was to get a cab to the hostel – this time a very expensive one! Almost 35 euros to travel not much more than 20 minutes! Still it meant I was at my accommodation within about 35 minutes of the plane touching down rather than well over 1 hour if I had taken the bus … at 10pm, ever minute is a minute closer to bed 👍🏻
Sadly, upon arrival at my hostel, my dreams of being in bed by 11pm were shattered when I was told that I had cancelled my reservation??? 🤔🤔 oh, and they had charged me a euro 15 cancellation fee!
This was odd as it was still showing in my booking app as a live, confirmed booking! To top it off, they were also fully booked for the weekend 🙇🏻♀️
Thankfully, UK mobiles are generally free to use throughout the EU ( well not technically free but you can use your normal minutes/data at no extra charge) so I got straight on the phone to the booking agent who confirmed that I had a reservation there … they then spoke to the guy on the front desk who confirmed his records showed it had been cancelled … not really much point them arguing about it though as there was no bed anyway!
Thankfully, the agent at booking.com found me alternative accommodation – a much nicer hotel in a much more central location (of course also much more expensive – but they would reimburse me the difference in cost). They would also reimbursement the cancellation fee I was charged, and the taxi to get to the new hotel. Given that it may not even be there fault, I was pleased with the customer service. I even received the refund within just a few hours of submitting the receipts on Monday!
So, an hour later than planned (without having to make my own bed like it seemed I had to do in the hostel) I was tucked up in a cosy bed with a view over the old square (Place D’armes), thankful the story had a happy ending👍🏻
In Luxemburg most people speak French, German and English (which they learn at school) and some also speak Luxembourgish (a Germanic language) so I was raking my brain for snippets of my long ago learnt French but all that would come in to my head was Spanish words, even thank you in French escaped me and all they came out was gracias 🤦🏻♀️. The amount of times I said ‘si’ rather than ‘oui’ over the weekend was embarrassing! But with almost everyone speaking English it wasn’t too much of a problem.
On Saturday morning, I was not up as early as I normally am but I still beat most people 👍🏻 and definitely almost all of the tourists. I love wandering around first thing in the morning when the local people are going about their lives … walking dogs, setting up market stalls, getting their morning groceries. The market spelt amazing – a combination of baking pastries and cheese – so many amazing cheeses!
All the walking tours here (free or otherwise) are in the afternoon, so armed with a map from the tourist office and an app with a walking tour on it I set off on my own to explore. To be honest I struggled following both maps so just picked out the places I did not want to miss and found them. It was relatively easy to walk around much of the old part of the city, as long as you didn’t mind a hill or two!
I have to say, if Luxembourg is not on your ‘list’, you need to add it! It is beautiful with the city sprawled out along the river and on towering ramparts above it – just stunning. And that was just after my morning’s explorations which took me to visit the 17th century Cathedrale Notre Dame, the now much extended, 1573 Royal Palace which now houses the Grand Duke’s office and the Place D’Armes, where I am now staying 👍🏻.
Around 11.30 and having already walked 8km it was time for coffee and a rest before joining an official walking tour called the Wenzel Walk, run by the Tourist office. The walk is only run on a Saturday afternoon so I was lucky to be able to take the walk through the upper and lower towns and through the fortifications.
The guide was an elderly Luxembourgish gentleman who was very interesting and had lots of great information to share. Apparently, of the total population, 48% are foreigners (with 16% being Portuguese). I was even more interested to learn that there are 200,000 people who commute from neighbouring countries daily for work. Part of the reason for this is the high cost of living in the city where most of them work in either the banking/financial industry or in one of the mainly EU organisations based here.
The Wenzel walk took me through 1000 years of Luxembourg city history and the name pays tribute to Wenceslas II, Duke of Luxembourg (also Duke of Bohemia) between 1383 and 1419, during which the Wenzel wall around the city was built.
We first walked through the city passing St Michael’s church, first built in 987 and therefore the oldest religious building in the city. Oddly, it still has a canon ball stuck in the tower apparently from when the French attacked the city.
We then reached the Bock Promontory. Walking along the top of the defence walls provided a breath-taking view along the Alzette valley and the suburb of Grund which runs along the valley floor.
The defence walls and bridges that we see today date back mostly to the 15th century but there is history of defences in the same places long before that and have been rebuilt throughout the centuries by the Spaniards, French, Belgians, Austrians, Dutch, Italians and Prussians!!
After admiring the views, we went underground in the Bock Casemates. 23km of underground tunnels, some dating back to the 10th century. Initially they were part of an immense underground military defence system, but over the years have been used as a prison, a hospital and in WWII 30,000 people sheltered in the casements.
The walk continued past the earliest castle walls and through the suburb of Grund before talking a lift back up to the main part of the city (much better than hiking back up the steep hill again)!
I really enjoy these walks tours, not only because they are always so interesting but I also enjoy the mix of interesting people that I meet. On this tour alone there were Colombians living in Milan, Dutch living in Belgium, kiwis living in the UK 😁😉 (that’s me of course.)
After 15 km of walking I was exhausted by the end of the day and was happy to retire to my central, private room (still can’t believe my luck there) with my dinner (a very large slice of cake) and an early night.
Sunday was my day to be adventurous and venture out of the city on my own (to be honest there we no tours going where I wanted to go ). I was well prepared as always and had got the details I needed from the tourist centre and had worked out the timetables I needed for the train and the connecting bus to Vianden, a town in the north east of the country, near the Germany border.
I arrived at the train station in good time for my planned train only to be told that there were engineering works and buses were replacing trains … ok, that’s fine … but they are not running on the same schedules and I had missed the hourly bus by 5 minutes!!! So not fine and it takes almost twice as long as the train – bit of a planning fail there!
I almost was not going to go, but I had already checked out of my hotel and I did not need to be at the airport until 7pm so still had plenty of time (as long as I timed the return buses properly) so there was really no point hanging around the city for the day.
After a long wait (at least there was a café open so I could get a coffee though oddly skimmed milk does not seem to exist here), I was finally on my way. First stop was Ettelbruck where I changed bus. We passed through beautiful countryside, much of which was very similar to country side in New Zealand, though the quaint old houses were definitely less kiwi. Some of the houses were probably older than New Zealanders European history!
So, I arrived in Vianden about 1.5 hours later than planned but I arrived nevertheless and still had 3 hours to explore. That said, given that this is one of the main day trips they recommend from the city I am not sure why they don’t put on buses running directly there 🤔
Vianden was a quaint town, with a population of only 1,800 people and its main draw is a large castle perched on a hill above the city.
The castle was built between the 11th and 14th centuries and became the seat of the counts of Vianden. It was further developed until the 18th century but with the departure of the Counts of Luxembourg to the Netherlands it slowly deteriorated. In 1820, William I of the Netherlands sold the castle to a local merchant who in turn sold off its contents and masonry piece by piece, reducing it to a ruin.
That said, the chapel in the castle was restored in 1849 by Prince Henry of the Netherlands, and during one of his visits to the town Victor Hugo (French poet) lived in the castle for three months in 1871. He actually came to the town four times including the stay in 1871 after he had been expelled from Belgium. At the time he wrote “Vianden, embedded in a splendid landscape, will be visited one day by tourists from the whole of Europe, attracted both by its sinister but magnificent ruin and by its cheerful and happy people.” I think he was right!
In 1977, the castle was finally given back to the State, and finally large-scale restoration work could take place. Today it is a great site with good information and a very informative visitor centre taking you through the history of the castle and town.
Vianden is also remembered as the site of multiple battles in World War II and was the last place in Luxembourg to be freed from the Germans in February 1945 when the Americans completed Luxembourg’s liberation.
After visiting the castle, I walked a little further up the hill behind the castle to the cable car station – unfortunately the cable car doesn’t start running till Easter, but the view from the station over the castle and down to the town below was worth the extra effort.
Back down in the town, I had time to explore some of the back streets before starting the journey back to the city.
After a semi successful day on public transport I decided to get the bus to the airport – firstly I was now staying just a few minutes from the bus stop (rather than the 15 minutes from the place I was supposed to be staying) and 34 euros is just a little too much to pay for laziness!
The bus to the airport took me through the shiny EU city on the hill, with 2 buildings like book cases on each side of the road .as you enter and of course flying the 28 flags (soon to be 27) of the EU. Such a contrast to the old town that I have spent most of my time and I actually wished I had had the time to spend a little more time exploring that side of the city.
I had managed to walk another 14.5 km on Sunday, I certainly got some exercise in during the course of the weekend. Just goes to show how good travelling is for you 😂
What a fabulous weekend in lovely Luxembourg.