Luxembourg City, Luxembourg
Airport Rating *****
Reception of locals ****
Every so often I will type in 'Everywhere' into the departure form on Skyscanner and search for the cheapest tickets abroad. Tickets can be as low £15 and combined with a stay in a hostel, you can have a weekend away cheaper than a meal in London. It also gives me a chance to go to places I wouldn't usually consider and Luxembourg definitely falls into this category.
A small city with a big history
At less than 1,000 square miles, Luxembourg is one of the smallest countries in the world, and it's population is less than half of England's second city, Birmingham. It's location and history mean that it has constantly shifted between German and French influence, and its existence as a sovereign state is due to its long position as a small Duchy in the heart of Western Europe.
That being said, it is also one of the richest countries in the world when it comes to per capita income, long the home of Europe's wealthy elite due to its location, its position as one of the EU's capital cities, a strong financial sector and fairly loose tax rules.
The capital of the country is Luxembourg City which has a population smaller than even the small town in the Midlands where I grew up. However, don't let the size fool you, the city has an impressive history and as heavily fortified city in the 18th century, it gained the title of being the 'Gibraltar of the North'.
It's not a country, or a city that is at the top of many people's travel lists but I had a few days off work and I used Skyscanner's 'Everywhere' function to look for the cheapest trip available.
The airport is surprisingly poorly connected, despite the city hosting a number of EU institutions, most notably the European Court of Justice. I had to wait 30 minutes to catch a bus into the city, although a broken ticket machine meant the trip was free. It was something I learnt very quickly, connections within the country between cities on rail are very poor.
To keep costs down, I had booked myself into a hostel. It's been a few years since my last hostel stay, but the Youth Hostel in the middle of the old town was incredibly cheap, and my Croatian roommates were very friendly. The bus trip to the city centre was less than 30 minutes, and it was another 30 minute walk to the hostel. It was here that I discovered the topography of the city - incredibly hilly. Now, it isn't quite San Francisco, but a 30 minute walk through Luxembourg City, is completely different to a 30 minute walk in Manhattan, or London.
Europe's most beautiful balcony
After dropping my bag off, I walked the short 5 minutes from my hostel to Le Chemin de la Corniche, also known as Europe's most beautiful balcony, and what a sight!
The balcony is a narrow path, or promenade along the Alzette Valley and the ancient fortifications built by the French and Spanish that made this such as important city during the middle ages. The Corniche overlooks the old town, or Grund, quarter of the city as well as the 17th century spire of St Jean du Grund. Honestly, it's one of those views I will never forget and, in its own way, was every bit as good as the view of Rio de Janeiro from Cristo Redentor, of the Manhattan skyline from Hoboken, or Santiago from Cerro San Cristobal.
The walk from Le Chemin de la Corniche to the old town in the valley below is fairly short, you can do it in 5 minutes at a quick pace, 15-20 if you want to enjoy the views. By the time I had left Luxembourg City, I must have done the walk at least 5 times, day and night.
Grund is one of the oldest parts of the city and has a unique, almost idyllic charm. The bars and restaurants were fairly busy when I went but the narrow streets, old architecture, and river views were jaw dropping. Looking up you can see the walled fortifications of the city, whilst a bridge that crosses the Alzette River is a favourite for photographers.
I spent the best part of an hour walking around this particular quarter of the city, and it's not easy. Each side of the valley has steep hills, but when you have scenery this spectacular, you completely forget about everything else. If you want to, there is a small green 'mini train' for tourists, but I always find walking the best way to explore a new place.
Old meets new(ish)
From Grund, I walked about 30 minutes to the Pfaffenthal Lift located in the historic Pfaffenthal neighbourhood. The lift rises more than 60 metres from the ground from a roughly 9 metre overhang above the valley. Tucked away in a small side street, it can be easy to miss, but it's well worth the trip. As the lift rises from behind a small building, its a strange feeling watching the ground below you move further away through the glass sides.
The lift wasn't particularly busy, which surprised me a little as its a nice attraction that is free of charge, in fact, at the top of the lift on the overhang footbridge, there were only three of us. The view is very nice without being particularly spectacular. However, it's still something I would recommend to anyone visiting Luxembourg City, just because its a cool concept that works well!
From there I took a long walk through the commercial centre of the city which looked similar to any other European city. The walk eventually got me to the Gelle Fra, a monument to the war dead. Unlike most European monuments to the World Wars which are plain obelisks, this had a golden statue on the top which I learnt was a representation of the goddess of victory, Nike. The obelisk isn't particularly tall, but the statue of Nike holding a golden laurel wreath looked particularly good on a sunny day with the sun shimmering in the background. It's a monument that would be more emotionally moving if it wasn't surrounded by the type of commercialism that was missing in other parts of the city.
A short walk from the monument is the Notre Dame Cathedral. a 17th century Roman Catholic Cathedral built in a late gothic style. The cathedral, whilst not nearly as impressive as its Parisian cousin, is still beautiful - the twin spires on the outside giving it a similar appearance to the Tyn Church in Prague. I had a walk around the inside before a group of youngsters all stopped and looked at me. At this point I became aware of their curiosity but that curiosity turned into something more sinister. From their Slavic-type language, I figured they were eastern European or Balkan in origin, and those suspicions were confirmed when I overheard the term 'mussalman' a term referring to a Muslim not used so much in Western Europe.
They left the Cathedral laughing, and its normally something I wouldn't react to, but being a little hangry I decided to go follow them out. The laughing soon stopped as I stared at the group with my rbf (google it). I then walked into the group, staring at the women and men alike. No one spoke a word, some of the women looking at the floor, the men shifting nervously. I walked away without so much as a finger raised or a word said. I'd done what I'd set out to do, make them feel a little stupid and a little nervous. They'll think twice before laughing at the next Sikh. Sometimes I feel the 'turn the other cheek' behaviour Sikhs have gotten used to only encourages certain types of behaviour against us.
I'd been walking for the best part of 5-6 hours but I hadn't eaten in about 16, however, I continued my walk, taking in the Place d'Armes and the Luxembourg town hall which again is pretty without ever being overly impressive.
I reached the Palais Grand-Ducal or Palace of the Grand Duke, a 16th century building where the Grand Duke entertains foreign dignitaries, think the Luxembourgish (yep, thats a word) equivalent of Buckingham Palace. I enjoyed the history, and the single guard doing a solo march was fun to see, but as with Buckingham Palace, there's also a sense of 'that was it?'. I guess I'm not really sure what I expected.
Casemates du Bock
Next on my list were the Casemates, tunnels within the fortifications of the old town, first dug out by the Spanish in 1644 and expanded later by the Austrians. The cost to enter is a fairly cheap €6 and I happily paid that to the helpful guy behind the desk, giving him a €20 note and receiving a €10 note and €4 in change. If you think I'm being very specific about a random detail, remember it, I will revisit this later.
The Casemates are very cool, you walk down into the underground and suddenly you are in a labyrinth of tunnels, sometimes very open, and at other times so small that you have to crawl through them. Parts of the tunnel, especially those in the interior aren't for those with claustrophobia or a faint heart. It can get pretty hot and the steep and narrow steps make some of the climbing and descending particularly difficult. Most of the tunnels were ordered to be dismantled, blocked or destroyed as part of Treaty of London between Prussia and France in the 19th century, but some sections couldn't be demolished without damaging the wider city and therefore remain.
Walking around the tunnels and looking at the open entrances, some with cannons in place, I really got a feel for just how impressively fortified this city was, its a wonder anyone was able to conquer it and I understood the phrase 'Gibraltar of the North'.
After about an hour, I headed back to town via another stop in the Grund. After eating my first meal in 24 hours, I decided to tip the waitress the €4 change I had, only when I looked I had 4 x 5o cent pieces, or €2 - I had been short changed in the Casemates. The fact I had been given four coins made me feel it was a purposeful thing rather than a mistake.
Technically, I hadn't lost anything, the waitress had, but I decided to head back to the Casemates three hours later and take it up with the person who short changed me. I walked in, the assistant looked up and I told him he had short changed me. A look of panic came over his face and he apologised profusely, but he quickly composed himself and said he would "check the system" and count his change, if he was over then he would return the money.
At this point I knew I wasn't getting the money, here was a case of information asymmetry, he could check it and no matter what came up, he would say "nope, this is telling me everything is good" and I'd have no way of validating it. I decided to let the charade continue, and eventually he reappeared and said "nope, this is telling me everything is good". We both knew what was happening so I let out a smile, he sort of smirked back, I guess this was my fault for not concentrating more carefully when the transaction occurred. It wasn't me that lost the money, but the waitress, and it certainly wasn't something I felt like pushing after a tiring day of climbing hills - but definitely a word of warning to others.
A city in a day
My visit coincided with a heatwave, just as my trips to Chicago and San Francisco had. At times, the lack of shade made it uncomfortable, and if you've read my blog before you'll know when I start walking, water and food become forgotten, something that I'm actively trying to work on.
By the time I walked through the grounds of Neumunster Abbey for the fifth time I was incredibly tired. However crossing the river at night was even more beautiful than the day, the streetlights lighting up the narrow cobbled pathways. I felt like I had stepped back in time 500 years. I walked back onto the balcony and across Chemin de la Corniche once more, again the lights giving it a very cool yellow glow before heading back to my hostel.
I was sharing with a couple of people from Croatia and we spoke a little about their adventures as well as what Croatia is like. I still hadn't made plans for the next day and I asked them whether I should catch the one hour train to Trier in southern Germany, or a one hour train/bus north to Vianden. Both recommended Trier, as had a couple of the other locals I had spoken to, and therefore I decided to check it out. I'll write about my trip in my next article.
Would I recommend Luxembourg City? If there is an offer, then yes. If you are in a neighbouring city such as Brussels, Cologne or Paris and want to take a day trip, then again, yes. However, you only really need a day, two at most. Le Chemin de la Corniche is nothing short of spectacular and that alone warrants a trip, but other places such as Grund and Pfaffenthal are also places I enjoyed. In terms of scenery, you'll be hard pressed to find a capital city more beautiful but it is small.
I did want to add something on my airport experience. On my return journey, the airport security found my salai wrapped in a towel in my bag. They asked to see it so I explained what it was. Usually I take a plastic one with me, but this was metal. They took the salai and deliberated on a decision between four of them before returning the salai and wishing me the best for my journey. 90% of the time no one really finds my salai but if they do, chances are they will try and keep it. These guys not only found it, but after studying it they let me proceed which is something I greatly admired. Yes, you do get stares in the city as its ethnically very homogenous, yes sometimes people will try and scam you out your money, but it's one of the safest capital cities on the planet, and a relatively trouble free place for a Sikh to visit.
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British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.