We arrived in Vianden, which was to be our base in Luxembourg, in the evening. The countryside on the drive from Germany into Luxembourg was breathtaking. In some ways it reminded me of Ireland. The infinite variety of greens that covered the mountains contrasted so sharply with the grays of winter in the Netherlands. I could only gape at the vistas stretching off into the distance from the winding mountain roads on the way to our destination.
Vianden itself is known as one of the prettiest towns in Luxembourg. The city is situated in a beautiful valley and is dominated by its castle, which sits high above the town proper. There is a chair lift that runs up the mountainside to a viewpoint over the castle.
Unlike the castle in Kastellaun, Castle Vianden has been fully restored and is open to visitors. Strangely enough, Victor Hugo lived in the castle for a few months in 1871. I never found out why he ended up in Vianden exactly, but Vianden takes great pride in this bit of historical claim-to-fame; there is even a statue of Hugo down on the main bridge crossing the Our River in the town center. I also learned that I wasn’t the only American to ever set foot in Vianden (though it felt very far from the typical stops of an American in Europe!) Vianden was the last place in Luxembourg to be liberated from the Germans in World War II. And it was American troops that were ultimately successful in doing so.
To be honest, there is not much to do in Vianden aside from visiting the castle and wandering the sleepy town (which is so small it takes less than half an hour). We had intended to do some serious hiking in the nearby “Little Switzerland” region of Luxembourg, but when we woke up on Saturday morning and saw pouring rain howling outside our window, we decided to go for Plan B. It was only an hour’s drive to Luxembourg City, so we hopped in the car and went to see what the capital city of Luxembourg had to offer.
Despite its small size, Luxembourg City is a relatively important place. Historically, the city was nicknamed the “Gibraltar of the North” because it was so heavily fortified during previous centuries, and it is on the UNESCO World Heritage list for the same reason. The city is currently home to numerous European institutions including the European Court of Justice, the European Investment Bank, the secretariat of the European Parliament, as well as various offices of the European Commission.
Driving into Luxembourg City, grand buildings surrounded us on all sides. It was pretty clear that the city was a historical seat of wealth and importance. However, I was somewhat surprised by the different impression I received while walking through the city on foot. I had heard that Luxembourg enjoyed one of the highest GDPs per capita in the world (more than $80,000 US Dollars in 2011), but you wouldn’t know it by the people in the city. At almost every street corner there were beggars and homeless people, and we saw dozens more disheveled people walking around with alcoholic beverages at around 11am. There was trash on the streets, and many of the “grand” houses that we had passed in the car turned out to be rundown and poorly taken care-of upon closer inspection. Not the image I had expected from such a rich, European welfare state.
In a way it was quite sad, because the city’s ornate buildings and stunning setting suggested a past wealth that today is merely a façade. I am by no means an expert in the history/culture/economic situation of Luxembourg, but my guess is that the GDP per capita figure in Luxembourg hides a very unequal society, with many more problems than the country would like to admit.
We spent a few hours walking around the city, taking in sights like the Grand Ducal Palace (the official residence of the Grand Duke of Luxembourg), but neither Willem nor I really enjoyed the city.
I am sure part of this has to do with the fact that it was raining hard for a good portion of our time there, making us more worried about finding shelter from the rain than seeing the sights. In general though, it just wasn’t that impressive. Instead of wasting our time in a place we weren’t having fun, we thought, “why not just find a new place to go?” After all, we had a car and no schedule…we could go anywhere. We ducked into the nearest bookstore and found a travel guide for Luxembourg. A town called Echternach, in the Müllerthal region of Luxembourg, looked interesting. And so we went. Being spontaneous is fun!
Echternach is the oldest town in Luxembourg (we sure did end up seeing a lot of old towns on this road trip, didn’t we?) and is surrounded by completely restored medieval walls and towers.
In the town square, we stumbled upon a music performance in mid-swing. We also almost ran right into someone’s filming of a Harlem Shake video. I thought that fad had died out, but it seems Echternach is a little behind on the pop culture scene. The highlight of our limited time in Echternach was finding a local bar that was showing the final moments of the last Bundesliga matches of the season. We got to watch the moment when Bayern Munich clinched the league title in a perfect little pub full of Germans and Luxembourgers. There is nothing like watching a little football to make my day!
We had dinner in Echternach and then began to drive back in the direction of our hotel base in Vianden. One of the nicer things about living in this part of the world is that the summer daylight hours are very long. So even though we had already had dinner and were on our way in the general direction of Vianden, we knew that we had many more hours of daylight and thus were not quite ready to turn in for the night. Instead we decided to take a few random turns and see where it would take us. We had no maps or destination in mind; we had the GPS if we got lost and needed to get back to a main road. Every time we got to a signpost or a turn, we picked whichever way looked the most interesting.
Pretty soon we started climbing. Some of the hairpin turns were so sharp and steep I had to stomp on the accelerator just to make it up the hill. (Note to self: Maybe rent a more powerful car before trying out a road trip in the Alps. I don’t think our dear little Honda would make it). We eventually found ourselves at the very top of a large hill/tiny mountain on the outskirts of a town called Beaufort. We didn’t know it at the time, but this town is actually quite a popular little village in Luxembourg. You wouldn’t know it from the time we spent there, though. The place was deserted. We didn’t mind. The scenery was incredible. There were views in every direction. I almost wished I wasn’t driving so that I could take it all in without worrying about staying on the narrow roads. We saw a sign that directed cars to a “chateau”, so we followed it. After a few minutes of driving through some very think and creepy dark forest cover, we emerged into a little green valley. And there it was. A true castle, sitting there in the shadows.
We were the only people there. We parked the car and wandered over to the hulking blue-gray mass of stone. According to a sign that was posted at the entrance to the castle, tours are available of the place during the day, but we were too late to go inside for the day. This did not diminish our visit, however. It was truly amazing to watch the castle in the fading light of the day. Even though it is clearly not an “undiscovered treasure”, it felt like that to us. The only thing we could hear were the sounds of birds in the trees and the wind whipping through the trees. The place seemed magical. And when I closed my eyes, I could almost imagine how it must have been to live there at that castle back during the Middle Ages, when the entire region was covered in forest and the castle was the only sign of human habitation for miles.
From Beaufort, we drove on to our hotel. Funnily enough, no matter how we programmed the GPS, it kept trying to take us on routes through Germany to get back to Vianden! Who would’ve guessed that the most efficient way to get from one city to another city in the same country would be through a different country altogether? I suppose it just reinforces exactly how tiny Luxembourg is (and maybe says something about the quality of the roads in Luxembourg). The next day was Sunday, and the last day of our trip, but we still weren’t finished with our mini-road trip. Instead of taking the same route back to the Netherlands through Germany, we chose to take a roundabout path through Belgium. On the way, we visited Bastogne, the site of the famous World War II battle that inspired Steven Spielberg’s Band of Brothers.