Sunday, April 20, 2014

Day 11: The Old Kingdom

It’s rather confusing that Luxembourg even exists.  It’s a small country sandwiched among substantial powers that has little economic raison d’ĂȘtre.  Nevertheless, the duchy of Luxembourg has been around since the ninth century.

I had great plans to be up and about at seven this morning to make the most of my one day in Lux.  When the alarm went off, I recalled that my “hotel” tonight is a bus, so maybe sleeping in and enjoying a king-sized bed this morning is in order.  Eventually, I got my stuff together and headed toward the old city.

For a small city, Luxembourg has a pretty extensive and picturesque park network.  And the playground!!  A ship?  Look at the height of that slide tunnel!

Emerging from the park and entering the old city…it felt a bit like walking through Yorkville.  Lots of the same stores and a similar “posh” feel.

Ok, not ALL of the stores are like Yorkville…

After a few more turns, I was in the Place d’Armes, strolling through a…flea market.  Lots of vendors selling odd assortments of tchotchkes and junk, including cassette tapes!  (Maybe some of those vendors think that Lux is still in the ninth century!)  It made for interesting wandering, anyway.  Then I found my way into the food market.  This is more my style!  I got some delicious marzipan pastries, and the Ferrari of cheeses! (I have no idea what it’s called other than that, but it is old, pungent, and covered in squashed grapes…..and wonderfully tasty!) The food market is in Place Guillaume II, so named after the guy on the horse in the statue – Grand Duke William II.

The Grand Ducal Palace sits at one end of Place Guillaume.

So…you enlist in the Luxembourg military.  You complete your training, do whatever advanced training is necessary, and then you’re stationed at the Duke’s Palace.  Is this a testament to your quality – a job that fills you with pride?  Or is it a “don’t-look-at-your-watch-don’t-look-at-your-watch-don’t-look-at-your-watch…Damn!  It’s only been three minutes.” kind of job? As Luxembourg is a neutral country by treaty, I suppose one could hope that there wouldn’t be frequent plots against the Duke.

A European Union information office sat across from the palace.  Because I’m a big nerd, I went in and picked up some more pamphlets about the EU’s role.  I also learned there that Lux was one of the founding countries in the EU (recall that thought the other day about small countries preferring multilateralism?), and that – like Belgium – Lux has been designated as host for key EU offices, such as a number of EU courts and tribunals. (Two of these courts were right across from my hotel. There was also a banker’s training centre.  I guess there is demand for the posh hotel when it’s not Easter week-end!)  I suspect that the EU office doesn’t really get a lot of tourism traffic, as the receptionist there was exceptionally friendly, and went out of her way to find all kinds of pamphlets and documents on topics I might find interesting.

Luxemburg adores their Grand Duchess Charlotte; they named a bridge after her (more about street names later), and they adorned the (top of the) WWI memorial with a statue of her:

In WWII, the Nazis were disinterested in Luxemburg neutrality – they were coming in.  The people of Lux were afraid that the Nazis would take their beloved statue of Grand Duchess Charlotte, so they hid her by burying her in the ground.  It worked!  The Nazis never found her.  Neither did the Luxemburgers, for about forty years.  This statue was rediscovered when they were digging foundations for a new building in the eighties.

Similarly, I discovered the entrance to Luxemburg’s Casemates by accident.  This was part of the day-tour Aurelie (front desk at my hotel) had mapped out, but – I’ll admit – at that moment I was looking for the toilet.  To recap: Luxemburg is a curiosity in that it has even survived; however, its survival has been linked to its neutral status.  Neutral or not, Lux hasn’t always relied on the goodwill of its neighbours (and its remoteness).  It’s a small population base, so the Lux army is of course small.  In order to make the most of its small army, Luxemburg built a series of tunnels (casemates…rooted in the Greek word for cave) that allowed for troops to move from one portion of the defensive walls to another without being exposed to enemy fire. 

By the way, that’s a REAL cannon from the seventeenth century.  It’s slowly rusting away, but it’s being sacrificed, apparently, for historical legitimacy.

These tunnels were commenced in 1644.  Over the next two hundred years, the network of tunnels was extended and improved to culminate in 23km of tunnels that were meant to make the Luxemburg defenses impenetrable.  It was nick-named the “Gibraltar of the North”.  As it turned out, this moniker was a little off, as Luxemburg was repeatedly occupied by opposing forces.  In the end, a treaty in 1867, wherein Lux pledged neutrality, allowed Luxemburg to retain its independent status.  As part of this pledge, 6km of casemates were destroyed – key sections that allowed for troop movements from one fort to another.  Of the remaining 17km, a good chunk of it is currently used by a bank to store valuables.  Another section is used to hold generators that supply part of the electricity in Luxemburg.

In more recent years, the casemates once again played a crucial role for the safety of Luxemburgers.  In WWII, forty thousand people huddled in the casemates seeking protection from bombs.  In case the crowding and fear weren’t enough, there has never been running water in the casemates. 

The wall belongs to a bathroom stall.  The words read: “remember the sand”.  A handful of rudimentary outhouses serviced the Luxemburgers seeking refuge here.

Back to street names.  A main road through the center of the old city is F.D. Roosevelt street. My hotel was on John F. Kennedy street. John F. Kennedy becomes Robert Schuman.  That last one makes sense when you consider that Schuman was “the architect of the European Integration project” (thank-you, EU documents).  The rest?  I’m not sure why a small European country with a history spanning over a thousand years names its streets after recent American political figures.  Another curiosity of Luxemburg.

I spent the later part of my afternoon wandering through the lower town (the Grund) and exploring the old fortifications.  I was following the “Wenzel route” – named after Wenceslas.  Strange.  Wenceslas played a significant role in the history of Prague…

Perplexing. I guess those ancient ruins don't re-build themselves!

This view was worth every steep step back up the hill.

This was a great little stop on this adventure, but one day seems to be about right for Luxemburg.  I made my way back to the train station Saturday night to catch an overnight bus to Prague.  Nine hours, and I would wake up in another part of the continent altogether.

I can’t wait!

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