I’ve always been drawn to little countries. You know, the sorts of places that are so small that there’s only room for two symbols on their television weather forecasts.
Perhaps it’s due to being Scottish or growing up on an island, but there’s something quite captivating about a small nation that exists independently and sustains its own government, identity and language when all its neighbours are significantly larger. Of course, it’s not an unusual concept in historical terms. You only have to go back as far as the 1800s to an era prior to the unifications of Germany and Italy, for instance, to find a Europe that was absolutely peppered with such micronations and city states.
In terms of Europe’s contemporary minnows I’ve been to the Faroe Islands, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg and San Marino, though in the case of the latter two it was less of a visit and more of a drive through on the motorway (en route, if I remember rightly, to Kosovo in 1999). They are fascinating places, their status often somewhat obscure and their existence usually a result of curious historical anomaly.
When I drove through Luxembourg, I recall stopping at a service station. This being the pre-euro era, I was amazed at how the cashiers were able to conduct transactions in multiple currencies, including those of France, Belgium, Germany and of course Luxembourg itself. Being something of a crossroads between some of Europe’s bigger powers, Luxembourg’s porous borders have been a great example of why aspects of European cooperation such as a single currency and shared approaches to migration and customs are immensely practical and important steps – in theory if not always in practice.
I was delighted a couple of weekends ago, then, to return to Luxembourg to see a bit more of the place. Nicole and I always try to go away around the time of our wedding anniversary, and it was my turn to organise this year.
The fun of our summer’s European overland journey fresh in our minds, it seemed natural to indulge our love of rail travel once more with a weekend trip to Luxembourg – achieved via a smooth and cheap triple-leg journey consisting of the sleeper to London (left), the Eurostar to Brussels, and the intercity train to Luxembourg.
Though on a practical note, the tickets are not as simple as one for each leg. The Eurostar to Brussels actually includes the price of an onward journey to “any Belgian station”, meaning that the majority of our Brussels-Luxembourg journey was already paid for and we only had to buy a small supplement for the remainder. See the ever-indispensable Seat 61 for more details on this.
Our base for the weekend was Luxembourg’s capital, Luxembourg City – one of a surprisingly long list of capital cities that share their country’s name.
On the face of it, Luxembourg City is a curious place. Clearly very rich, pretty and compact, it was also quiet during our time there. We learned that there are something like 100,000 people who commute over the border each day for work from France or Germany, leaving it strangely empty over the weekends, especially at this time of year. That made finding a hotel and places to eat all the easier in what is otherwise a quite expensive place.
Two things make Luxembourg City tick. One is international banking and finance, and the other is the European Union. The city is home to a great many financial institutions, plus elements of the EU including the European Court of Justice. As such, you’re never too far from a grand building that seems to be a major headquarters of something or other. Or indeed a rather understated building that’s home to a very overstated company… can you see the logo in the photo on the right?
This small city barely bigger than Inverness is also, of course, the seat of government for Luxembourg, and every second building across the city seems to be a part of the governmental or parliamentary infrastructure. Even on quite unassuming side streets you’re likely to see a sign for an administrative function of the government, or a political party’s offices.
The Grand Duke’s Palace is in a central location and while it is a beautiful building it doesn’t exactly stand out amongst its neighbours – except for the lone soldier on guard at the front, marching up and down in front of it to take occasional breaks from trying not to smile at tourists’ photos.
Indeed, that Luxembourg is a Grand Duchy (enabling the inevitable jokes about passing the Duchy on the left-hand side) was particularly to the fore when we were there. Barely a month before our trip, the Crown Prince had got married to a Belgian countess, giving the country a royal wedding that must have been a big event for one of Europe’s smallest monarchies. Evidence of the pride and celebration that accompanied the occasion still lingered.
Luxembourg wasn’t, of course, all about hunting down banks, governmental institutions, or Royal Wedding paraphernalia. That would be quite a hellish concept for a holiday.
There was much more to take in, incluing the beautiful sights, fascinating history, curious language, and of course the incredible food.
All of which I’ll explore in later posts.