While staying in Brussels, our last-minute decision to visit Luxembourg was almost a V8 moment.
Surely you’re familiar with the vegetable juice brand’s classic advertising campaign. An actor consumes a calorie-laden meal or a sugary beverage and afterwards berates himself with a slap to his forehead upon realizing he could have/should have drunk the healthier V8.
When we were still in Charlotte planning our itinerary for Europe, it somehow hadn’t occurred to us to go to Luxembourg. Perhaps we assumed we’d have plenty to do, see, and experience in and around Amsterdam, Brussels, and Paris, our chosen destinations. Bill had been to Amsterdam after he graduated from high school, and was eager to return. I’d never been there, and neither of us had been to Brussels. Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris was our point of entry to and departure from the continent, and, with Paris being one of our favorite cities, spending time there was essential.
Luxembourg was the missing piece, we determined over plates of beef tenderloin with choron sauce from the seasonally inspired menu at the improbably named Restaurant Le Mess. Within walking distance of our apartment in Brussels’ Etterbeek neighborhood, the light-filled Le Mess, we learned from our waiter, derived its name from the building – mess hall – where the military serves its meals. Unfortunately, our French wasn’t proficient enough to understand his explanation for the connection.
Our reasoning about Luxembourg was simple. The Benelux, a composite name, is a geographic, economic, and cultural grouping of three nations in midwestern Europe – the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. We were now in Belgium (the Be). We had just been to the Netherlands (the Ne).
Not going to all three Benelux countries when we were in reasonable proximity of the third seemed tantamount to sawing off one leg of a three-legged stool. Missing Luxembourg (the Lux) surely would have resulted in a bona fide and especially regrettable V8 moment.
The tiny (about the size of Rhode Island) Grand Duchy of Luxembourg was now on our calendar for the next day. Our visit to Luxembourg, the name for both the capital city and the country, would be a quickie, though, given the almost seven-hour round trip via metro and train.
Cue the second near V8 moment.
During dessert I suddenly remembered that Carla, a colleague from one of my former public relations clients when Bill and I lived in Pittsburgh, currently works at the U.S. Embassy in Luxembourg City. She and I hadn’t kept in touch since she moved a dozen years ago. Knowing the possibility of getting together was a long shot, I sent her a hasty email about our plans and asked if she were free for a brief rendezvous. Yes, she replied! She could meet us outside the embassy’s gate. For us to enter the embassy grounds she needed 24 hours advance notice to request security access. No matter.
Early the next morning, we were off. We’ve found trains to be an enjoyable, convenient, and efficient way to travel in Europe. The cars are clean and comfortable. Riders generally respect the privacy and preference for quiet of their fellow passengers. The few times we’ve booked first class the meals were tasty and served by friendly attendants. The old-world architecture of many of the main stations is quite grand and imposing, as was Centraal Station in Amsterdam and, we soon found out, Luxembourg Railway Station. Most importantly to Bill, who deftly handles logistics for our travels but doesn’t handle waiting all that well, trains almost always run on schedule.
Grabbing a taxi once we arrived in Luxembourg City, we rode to the quiet residential neighborhood where the combined embassy, ambassador’s residence, and consulate are located.
We’d read on the U.S. Embassy’s website some interesting history of the property. Prior to World War II, the residence, formerly a family estate, had been the German embassy. During the country’s occupation by Nazi Germany, Hitler’s appointed governor lived there. The U.S. bought the building in 1948 for its own embassy for $155,000 ($1.3 million today).
Because of our minimal time to sightsee, Carla urged us to walk along the Chemin de la Corniche, a pedestrian promenade described by guidebooks as “the most beautiful balcony in Europe” and a must-see for its splendid views. We said our goodbyes, and Bill and I were off on foot.
Strolling along the outskirts of and within the city center we saw that Luxembourg City presents an intriguing dichotomy. It’s a dynamic blend of contemporary architecture, high-tech buildings, and an elegant pedestrian area dedicated to upscale shops selling luxury brands all mixed with vestiges of ancient fortresses and historic structures and monuments.
Less than 30 minutes into our exploration, Bill gave the city his ultimate sign of approval – “I could live here.”
We found our way to William Square, which hosts the town hall with the tourist office, the Hotel de Ville, and a massive equestrian statue of William II, a former king of the Netherlands and grand duke of Luxembourg.
It happened to be market day, and the place was especially colorful and lively. While Bill bought a bag of warm honey-roasted peanuts from a kindly vendor to munch on during the train ride home, I scooted over to the adjacent Notre-Dame Cathedral, which dates to the early 1600s, to admire the stained glass windows.
Across the square was the Renaissance-style Palace of the Grand Dukes. We watched the solitary solider on guard marching back and forth. Unfortunately, our timing was off for touring, as the palace is only open for public tours in the summer when the royal family is away.
We saved the best for last. Carla was right about the Corniche. The Corniche winds along the Alzette River valley on the ramparts built by the Spanish and the French in the 17th century. The views were truly magnificent. From this vantage point we could see clearly how the old part of the city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is perched atop a hugely steep and forbidding, seemingly inaccessible rocky outcrop. It overlooks the valley and the town of Gund far below.
We continued walking up the Corniche to the Bock Promontory. This was the cradle of Luxembourg. The wall of rock was a natural fortification, and is where Count Sigefroi built the original chateau in the 10th century. Thanks to its outstanding strategic position, the city was one of the largest fortresses in Europe, earning it the title “Gibraltar of the North.” How ironic that despite the city’s natural defenses successive European powers claimed it over the centuries.
All too soon it was time to depart.
These stone markers, or bornes, commemorate the Liberty Road — the route the Allies traversed during World War II from the D-Day landing in Normandy on June 6, 1944, to the liberation of France, Belgium, and Luxembourg months later.
That two-feet tall red, white, and blue monument poignantly reinforced our country’s shared history, both then and now, with Luxembourg – the final validation of our decision to come here for the day.