Topographically, Luxembourg City is a diverse place considering its size.
The city grew up around a gorge through which the Alzette and Pétrusse rivers flow, and the high and low parts (la Ville Haute and la Ville Basse) are separated by imposing cliffs, the gorge crossed in several places by huge bridges (like the one above).
While the low town is quieter and has fewer of the main attractions, it’s still compelling in its own way and makes for an interesting, meandering and surprisingly long walk. I’ll explore all that in my next post, and stay in la Ville Haute in this post.
The “big ticket” items, in as much as this little city can have “big ticket” items, include the beautiful railway station, the main retail centre, the big city squares, the Ducal Palace and other governmental buildings, the fortifications, and the beautiful Old Town, all nestled within comfortable walking distance and often over huge bridges that render great views.
The compact size of Luxembourg City is its best feature – it is big enough to be interesting, yet small enough to be done on foot; and densely-packed enough to be full of interesting nooks, crannies and side streets, yet open enough to have some nice panoramas and photo opportunities.
It’s famous for being a centre of European institutions and being a major financial centre, so of course there’s a lot of money about. Houses are big and impressive, the streets are wide and clean, and the cars are usually pretty nice with of course a range of different European registration plates.
Though for a rich place with inevitably nice cars, there were a surprising number of buses trundling the streets, and the city also has its own answer to the Boris bikes – not that, in such a walkable city, you’d need them.
But there’s something quiet and unflashy about the wealth: unlike the slightly more brash feel to the two Swiss cities I’ve seen in recent years, Luxembourg feels (whether correctly or not) like a place of grand old money rather than over-confident new money. It could be the fact that many workers commute in for the day or week, leaving the place quite quiet at the weekends.
In fact, a friend told me the other day she was astonished that I managed to take so many photos without people in. Partly that’s my style (I hate portraits and “action shots”) but mainly it’s an easy feel to achieve on Luxembourg’s quiet, though far from desolate or boring, streets.
There is a large shopping district just to the east of the old town, a mix of designer clothes shops and classy-looking bars, and while the prices of the plush, designer goods in the windows are jawdropping, there’s still a contented ambience about the streets that doesn’t feel brash, opulent or showy in its smartness.
The old town itself is a delightful example of what a central European city can be: a lovely historic feel, plenty narrow and winding streets, and a feel of neatness that doesn’t totally remove a sense of character.
And like the best European cities, it’s got oodles of history.
The story of Luxembourg City, as we meaningfully know it, started in the 10th century with the consecration of a church near the site of a Roman-era road intersection, and the construction of fortifications that were of course modified and expanded over time.
Remains of the fortifications can often be found in innocuous areas far from the centre, sitting preserved in small sections in parks or between grand and modern buildings.
As you’d imagine of a tiny little country in the face of Europe’s various waves of conflict and occupation, Luxembourg came under the rule of everyone from the Spanish to the Austrians to the Dutch, and it was in fact the Dutch from whom it gained its modern independence, when a quirk in the Dutch royal succession allowed for the creation of a separate Grand Duchy that of course continues to this day.
The fortifications are key to the city’s character, and wandering the best preserved parts of the battlements shows you the extent to which Luxembourg City must have been a well-protected place. Beneath one promontory at the heart of the historic centre lies the famous casemates, caves which were closed at the time of year of our visit. No matter, though – much could be gleaned of the city’s history just from exploring the streets.
Though for the keen, the Musée Dräi Eechelen was a comprehensive (and free) way of delving into that fascinating history. Several rooms were packed full of paintings, maps, models and other exhibits that take you through the different eras of the country and city’s stories, an entertaining and informative animated video brings things into the present era, while even a trip to the toilets is a walk through history, taking you down a long, narrow corridor carved through the cliffs.
There was clearly a grandeur, a wealth and a pristine beauty about the city, but I was surprised and intrigued to see a not insignificant underbelly. There were more than a few homeless people begging on the streets, while an underpass beneath a major road junction was home to edgy graffiti and gangs of youths engaging in the cliched urban activities of breakdancing and wearing their caps squint.
The graffiti was a curious matter of note in the city, much of it exuding the sorts of radical, countercultural vibe that seems at odds with Luxembourg’s feel.
Though frankly if I was growing up in the city and destined to be either a banker or an EU administrator, then I’d probably want to rebel too…
I’ve got more Luxembourg posts to come, but in the meantime here is my photo set.