When I was invited to spend a weekend in Luxembourg, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew very little about the country – that it was one of the founder members of the EU, location of several multinational companies, and that it was one of the wealthiest countries in Europe.
The time we spent in the country was a lovely surprise – Luxembourg City, the capital, is a vibrant and multicultural place, with a young population and a lot to offer in terms of music and culture. Despite being tiny, the country offers mountains, hills and stunning views – and dozens of castles.
I’ve been thinking about what to write for a while. A city guide? We didn’t really spend enough time in the capital. Best places to see and eat? Not very original. So, with this post i have attempted to time-travel, exploring the history of the country through that of six Luxembourg castles, plus one (surprise!)
Luxembourg Fortress – the birthplace of the country
If there ever was the perfect location to build a city, that must be Luxembourg City’s. It stands at the confluence of two rivers, the Alzette and Pétrusse, and it’s surrounded by hills and canyons, making it a natural fortress. Looking at the city from the walls of Luxembourg Castle, you can imagine what the first tribal settlers thought. There is water, there are mountains all around us – we will be safe.
The location of Luxembourg has been of strategic importance since Roman times. Present-day Luxembourg lies between Gallia Celtica and Gallia Belgica, and it was conquered by the Romans led by Julius Caesar in 57 BC.
Luxembourg Fortress was actually built in the high Middle Ages by a local lord, on the location of a former roman fort. The Luxembourgish name of the country is ‘Lëtzebuerg’, meaning ‘little castle’. In fact, a city developed over the centuries around the fort, and it became the capital of Luxembourg, originally a Dutch province, of great strategic value because of its position between France and Germany.
The fortress was expanded over the following nine centuries. It changed hands several times – from Luxembourgish lords to the Spanish, French, Austrians and Prussians – and each new owner made their own additions and improvements. The fortress became so strong and impregnable that it was known as ‘Gibraltar of the North’. It was mostly torn down in 1867, after France and Prussia nearly declared war over it the previous year. At the same time, Luxembourg was declared neutral.
Nowadays, you can walk around the city following Chemin de la Corniche, developed on the location of the former fortress walls. Part of the walls survive, and from the highest point you can see the whole of the ancient nucleus of Luxembourg city lie before you – little houses with grey roofs, the river Alzette and its valley, trees and gardens with flowers in bloom.
To learn the secrets of Luxembourg’s impregnable fortress, it’s possible to visit a network of underground passages and tunnels into the surviving sections of the wall known as casemates. At the height of the fame of Luxembourg Fortress fame in the 18th century, the casemates were in fact an ‘underground’ city within the city walls – they accommodated 1200 men and included kitchens, bakeries and other workshops. They were also used a bomb shelters in WW2, accommodating up to 3500 people.
This tiny castle is one of the oldest in the country, dating back to the high Middle Ages, two hundred years before the first Luxembourg Castle was built. Like many other castles around the country, it was originally built in Romanesque style and improvements were added over the centuries, like the round defensive tower and castle walls, dating back to Gothic times.
Very little is left of it, as it was demolished in the 17th century after being conquered by the troops of Louis XIV. You can still walk on the walls and see the village below, built on the banks of the river Sûre. Some village houses were built adjacent to the castle walls, and as such escaped demolition.
Despite not there being much to see, it’s a place full of atmosphere. Tourists are few and far between, and you can feel like an old castle guard, patrolling the rampart and protecting the lives of the villagers below.
Vianden Castle – a medieval wonder
Out of all castles in Luxembourg, Vianden is the one that comes closer to my medieval fairytale castle fantasies. Part Romanesque part gothic, built in slate, Vianden castle towers atop a hill over the city of the same name.
The golden age of Vianden was the 13th and 14th century, when the castles of Luxembourg were ruled by local lords. The counts of Vianden built the castle over a period of 300 years, and made it one of the most beautiful and wealthiest residencies in Western Europe.
The castle was restored to its former glory in the 1980s, after having fallen into disrepair. I just said Vianden is the most ‘medieval’ of all the castles we visited in the country. That is partly because of its appearance, and partly because when we visited, the Vianden Medieval Festival was in full swing.
The courtyard and interior of the castle were crowded with stalls selling medieval-inspired merchandise, like wooden bows and swords, and even ‘medieval bonbons’.
We saw a belly-dance show in the ‘Byzantine Room’ and a falconry show on the castle battlements. Locals seemed to take the medieval excitement seriously and we spotted a few of them in full period gear – a lady even took her ‘unicorn dog’ along. Cheesy? Maybe. I did love the Medieval Festival. It was a fun local celebration, unpretentious in its simplicity, that manages to bring visitors back to the castle’s golden era.
Bourscheid Castle – home of three families
From the Middle Ages until Luxembourg’s conquest by French revolutionaries in 1794/5, the country was ruled by local lords, each reigning over their piece of land from the height of their castle. When a lord died without descendants, their relatives would take over – sometimes fighting for the castle, other times simply living together.
The castle of Bourscheid in the northern part of the country is an example of this. When Lord Bourscheid died without sons in 1512, three families moved in. Each of them built towers and keeps, and expanded the living quarters within the walls.
The castle now is mostly ruins, but it’s still possible to get an idea of how it was. Unlike many others, Bourscheid wasn’t near a village, and so it was an ‘autarchic’ castle, with everything produced on site – from weapons to wine, bread, pottery and more. Part of the original pavement survives ,with tracks left by centuries of chariots inching their way on the steep incline atop with the castle stands.
We also learned a funny anecdote about Bourscheid. During one of many sieges, the castle people were about to starve – all that was left within the walls was a cow and a sack of grains. They decided to feed grains to the cow, butcher it and then throw its stomach over the castle walls. The army below, that was also tired and starved after months of siege, saw the grain-filled stomach and retreated, thinking that food supplies must still be high and so the castle able to resist for a long time, if even a cow can be fed grains during a siege.
Clervaux Castle – the Battle of the Bulge
Similarly to Vianden, Clervaux Castle dominates the village of the same name from above. However, it doesn’t have the same graceful, fairytale middle age appearance. It was originally a Romanesque stone castle, but what we see today is largely the product of reconstruction, after the original Clervaux Castle was destroyed during WW2.
During its lifetime, the castle changed hands several times. One of the owners were the De Lannoy family from Belgium. Another branch of the family, from Leuven in Belgium, were ancestors of the American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt – ‘Delano’ is said to be a contraction of ‘De Lannoy’.
But back to wartime Luxembourg. The country had been declared neutral since 1867. Yet, Hitler invaded in 1940 – the little country’s strategic importance at the end of the French Maginot line made it a target. The country was occupied by Nazi troops for 5 years. Liberation began short after D-Day in 1944, but it was delayed until 1945 by the Battle of the Bulge, the German offensive launched in December 1944.
Clervaux Castle was near some of the fiercest clashes of the Battle of the Bulge. It was hit by heavy artillery that the Germans had developed during their final attempt against the Allies, and it was left a burned-out shell.
Nowadays, the castle has been rebuilt, and its whitewashed silhouette once again towers above the village. It’s well worth a visit for the museum dedicated to the Battle of the Bulge, and because it houses a permanent exhibition of models of other Luxembourg castles, so it’s a great place to visit to plan your visit of castles around the country.
It is also well known for the permanent exhibition ‘The Family of Man’ by Edward Steichen, that sadly we didn’t have time to visit.
Pretty much all castles we visited so far were located somewhere above the town or village they were built to protect, on a hill or a rock. Wiltz castle, instead, was pretty much smack-bang in the centre of town. It’s actually the third castle ever built in the village of Wiltz, after the previous two were destroyed by sieges and wars.
The Wiltz castle we see today is one of the youngest in the whole of Luxembourg, built in Baroque and Renaissance style between the 17th and 18th century. It took nearly a century to be completed. In summer, it’s worth visiting for the Wiltz festival, featuring music and theatre performances on the castle gardens.
The interiors of the castle house a small exhibition dedicated to the Battle of the Bulge and the National Brewery Museum, introducing Luxembourg’s beer industry with a taste of local brew – the best way to finish a day tourism Luxembourg’s castles.
Grand-Ducal Palace – symbol of modern Luxembourg
This is not actually a castle, but I’ve decided to include it in this list for two reasons. First, because it’s the Grand Duke’s residence for official missions – Luxembourg is the only Grand Duchy in the world. The rulers of the past lived in castles, while the heads of state of today live in palaces, protected not by walls and crocodile-filled moats, but by layers of security.
And that leads to the second reason. The Grand-Ducal palace is surprisingly accessible. It’s right into the centre of Luxembourg City, without high gates, hedges and grumpy guards. With its pretty sandstone facade, it sits right in the middle of Place du Marché aux Herbes, just opposite the Chocolate House, a great lunchtime spot by the way.
You can visit the palace inside during summer, or just wander around it, taking pictures of it without being reprimanded by burly security.
In a way, I thought that the Grand-Ducal palace was a great symbol of modern Luxembourg. Even though we only spent three days in the country, I was surprised by how friendly and village-like it felt. The capital only has 120,000 residents, only 35% of which is Luxembourgish – people must know one another, I thought.
On my flight home, I read an article that proved that to be true. One of Luxembourg City’s few homeless men was sitting under a porch without shoes, when he was spotted by the Prime Minister. Oh, Tom! What happened to you? The prime minister asked. My shoes were stolen last night, Tom said. The prime minister told him to wait just a second, and went off to buy a pair of new shoes for him.
There aren’t many countries in the world where the Prime Minister knows homeless people by name and takes time to help them out. This, in a nutshell, was Luxembourg for me. A small community, where people know and care for one another.
A place with a rich history, and a future that can only become richer and more interesting, thanks to the hundreds of thousands of people that come every day to the country to work, and those who moved in recent years from elsewhere in Europe and beyond, and now call Luxembourg home.
Where to stay in Luxembourg
The Luxembourg City Park Inn by Radisson is a great base to explore the capital. It’s a convenient 5 minute walk from the train station, and it offers spacious, modern rooms, with a great breakfast and excellent free wifi. The staff is especially awesome, and they went above and beyond to help us, even letting us store our luggage when we weren’t even staying there anymore. I also forgot my sunglasses in the room, and they kindly let me know and held them for me.
Most of the castles we visited are in the northern part of Luxembourg, an easy hour-long train ride from the capital. If you don’t fancy to travel there and back, you can stay at the Hotel du Commerce in Clervaux, just across the road from the castle. Service is not as friendly as the City Inn, but all in all is not a bad deal.
Where to eat in Luxembourg
With such a hectic sightseeing schedule, most of the times we just grabbed a quick pizza or sandwich, but we did have time to discover some great Luxembourg City eateries. Sandy from the Luxembourg Tourism Board told us that Luxembourgish cuisine is special, because ‘the quality of the food is French, but the portions are German’. Let me tell you, she was totally right.
First and foremost is the Chocolate House, winning prizes for the great people-watching location just across the street from the Grand-Ducal Palace. It serves quiches, burgers and sandwiches, and of course a variety of chocolate specialties – from giant scrumptious cakes to chocolate spoons to stir into hot milk.
Another great lunchtime spot is Konrad Cafe, in a quiet backstreet not far from Place du Théâtre. It’s the kind of place you’d expect to find in Kreuzberg or Hackney, with vintage/hipsterish decor and freshly made quiches, salads, soups and more.
For dinner, head to Beim Siggy, a restaurant serving traditional Luxembourgish fare with a great view over the city. I had wine sausages with mashed potatoes and mustard, a meal that perhaps was more suitable to a drizzly January night than a warm summer one, and I immediately understood what Sandy meant about German portions. In any case, it was a lovely meal!
Other Practical Luxembourg Info
If you’re planning to travel around the country to visit the castles, definitely get a Luxembourg Card, allowing you to enter over 70 sights and to travel for free on all buses and trains. The 72 hour card is only €28, and the family card (that can be used by up to 5 people) only €68. Considering that entrance to each castle is around €5-7, you definitely get your money’s worth.
The castles can be visited by public transport – there’s a great Luxembourg transport app with the timetable of all buses and trains. If you have only one day and don’t have your own car, visiting all the castles can be difficult. In that case, get in touch with Visit Luxembourg for the full or half day castle tour, organised by the Regional Tourist Office Ardennes.
I was a guest of the Luxembourg Tourism Board during my time in the country. All opinions are my own.
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