Luxembourg – lots of history

Luxembourg was a city I hadn’t visited for close to 40 years – it just doesn’t quite seem to be on the way to anywhere – but it was interesting to see that for Asians in particular it figures as part of their Capitals of Europe tour. And quite right too, it’s an interesting place and not quite like anywhere else. Having said that, the next challenge is to get out of the capital and see something of the rest of the country. There’s a good network of cycle trails and youth hostels, so it’s just a matter of getting organised.


Luxembourg has a fascinating history, gradually losing territory and becoming more constrained while also becoming more important – in particular Luxembourg City occupied a strategic position above the route from Reims to Trier (particularly important in Roman times). Heavily fortified in the 16th and 17th centuries, it became known as ‘the Gibraltar of the North’, and was fought over many times.

Arriving from the station, Avenue de la Gare is just a busy shopping street, but it ends dramatically at a viaduct (built in 1859-61 and known as the Passerelle) over a deep chasm, with the old town and fort on the far side and a pathetic stream below.  One lane has been taken from the road to provide an excellent segregated cycle track across the bridge.

The Passerelle viaduct

The national and city history museums are both excellent and modern – I can’t see why you’d need to visit both, so go for the national one (the Musée National d’Histoire et d’Art; closed Mondays) which is free, and also has interesting art displays. They both give detailed accounts (mainly in French) of Luxembourg’s history, which I have merged here for your delight, and to ingratiate myself with my old mate David Crowther, who produces the History of England podcasts. There are traces of human habitation here from at least 250,000 years ago; farming and ceramics were introduced by the Rubané culture around 5000 years ago in the early Neolithic period. From around 1800 BC (in the Bronze Age) cassiterite (tin ore) was brought from Brittany or Cornwall, and in the 8th or 7th century BC iron-working began. From the mid-second century BC oppida or villages were established by the Gauls, Celtic people who were good farmers and led comfortable lives here, leaving many archeological remains. The largest prehistoric cemetery found in Gaul (present-day France and to the north) was in Wederath, and mercenaries fought for Carthage against Rome, bringing back Macedonian coins. By 51 BC Julius Caesar’s Roman armies had conquered all of Gaul (all three parts). The oppidum of Titelberg (just north of Luxembourg city) was an important centre of the Civitas Treveroum, with its capital in Treves or present-day Trier, just across the present-day border in Germany, which was briefly one of the four capitals of the Roman Empire – I went there from Luxembourg and will post about it soon.

The Romans built a watchtower on the Bock, the rocky outcrop above the Reims-Trier road just east of the present city centre, and were in charge here until the early 5th century, when the Germanic Franks invaded. A church was built in Echternach in northwestern Luxembourg in about AD 706 by St Willibrod (who was buried there in 739) and by around 800 Echternach had become one of the intellectual and spiritual centres of Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire.

The first record of ‘Lucilinburhuc’ came in about 963 when a certain Siegfried built a wooden tower there; the first church in the town was St Saviour’s in 987 (now St Michael’s, rebuilt in 1687-8), and the first Comes or Count of Luxembourg was Conrad I from c1040 to 1086. In 1086 the Benedictine abbey of Altmünster (where the counts were later buried) was built by the river below the château, followed in the mid-12th century by the church of St Nicholas (demolished in 1778) on the new market place. Countess Ermesinde (1186-1244) is known as the ‘second founder’ of Luxembourg, building a city wall in about 1200 (along the present Rue du Fossé), modifying the château and granting a charter in 1244; monastic orders established themselves here and the first stone houses were built. The county of Luxembourg soon controlled the swathe of territory between the Moselle and the Meuse rivers, south of Liège (see my post for the history of Liège), with an annual fair from 1340. Ermesinde’s great-grandson Henri VII (c1278-1313) became Holy Roman Emperor in 1308, and his son Jean l’Aveugle (John the (partially) Blind, 1296-1346) became King of Bohemia and was known as the ideal of knightly chivalry in his time, fighting in all the major wars of his time and finally being killed fighting the English at the battle of Crécy. Jean’s son Charles IV (1316-78) was later elected Holy Roman Emperor in his turn, and In 1354 the Comté of Luxembourg was promoted to Duché or duchy. At one time there were lots of independent duchies across Europe, and especially Germany, but this is the only one left.

The Bock was rebult in stone and partially destroyed by a Burgundian attack in 1443 before being burnt down in 1509; in 1542-4 the city occupied a strategic position in the wars between the Emperor Charles V (ruling Spain, Austria and the Netherlands) and François I of France, and in 1544 the city was captured by Charles, and his governor Count Pierre-Ernest de Mansfeld (1517-1604) added extensive new fortifications. Luxembourg became a garrison town for the next two centuries, its defences, including 23km of tunnels known as the casemates. In 1659 the area of Thionville, to the south, was ceded to France, and in 1684 Luxembourg itself was captured by Louis XIV’s general, the great military engineer Vauban, who added modern fortifications (1684-5). In 1697 Louis XIV was obliged to hand Luxembourg back to Spain, and in the 1715 partition of the Netherlands it went to the Austrians, who built a third defensive wall; the Schlossbrücke, leading to the Bock, was built in 1735-6 and the Bock was hollowed out into defensive casemates in 1737-46 (see below). However in 1795 Luxembourg was again captured by France (although there was a peasant’s revolt against them in 1798); at the Congress of Vienna, ending the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, it became a Grand Duchy and part of the new German Confederation (successor to the Holy Roman Empire); the eastern part of its territory was ceded to Prussia in 1815 and the Walloon part to Belgium in 1839, when the Grand Duchy’s present borders were established.

The Schlossbrücke and the Bock

Having been under foreign rule since 1443, Luxembourg was now independent again; in 1867 the Treaty of London established Luxembourg’s neutrality (abandoned after the Second World War), as a result of which the Prussian garrison had to withdraw and the fortress (by now covering 180ha) was dismantled – only the Dent Creuse (Hollow Tooth) tower, by the Monté de Clausen, the road leading east towards the youth hostel, was left in a romantically ruinous state; just recently this road has been raised to give space for a visitable archeological crypt below. The entry to the casemates (perhaps the city’s main sight – placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1984) is also on the Bock, a spiral staircase descending into the bowels of earth (although it’s then quite spacious). Also in 1870 the fortress walls and stairs were removed to create the Corniche, dubbed ‘Europe’s most beautiful balcony’, a scenic walkway running along the ramparts above the Alzette valley.

Until 1890 the kings of the Netherlands were also Grand Dukes of Luxembourg, but when Wilhelmina became Queen of the Netherlands she was as a woman unable to succeed in Luxembourg, so Grand Duke Adolphe (1817-1905) of the house of Nassau-Weilburg took over. The Grand Duchy remained poor until the 1880s when a steel industry was established here – the city’s population doubled in the 19th Century, with gas lighting (1843), piped water (1866) and a horse tramway (1875). In 1914-18 and 1940-45 Luxembourg was occupied by German armies; in the First World War the pro-German Grand Duchess Marie-Adélaïde was unpopular but there was no active resistance, but in 1942 strikes against conscription led to 21 protestors being shot, and by the time the Duchy was liberated in September 1944 792 résistants had died. Liberation was followed by the Battle of the Bulge, mainly in Belgium but crossing into northern Luxembourg.

Luxembourg has played a disproportionately large rôle in the development of the European Union. but being sandwiched between those two perpetual rivals, France and Germany, it was a smart survival strategy. Another benefit from Luxembourg’s location is that many European institutions (such as the European Court of Justice and the European Investment Bank) are based here (in the modern European Quarter, across the valley to the northeast of the city). In 1921 BLEU, the Belgium-Luxembourg Economic Union was a first step towards the more famous Benelux union of 1944, between Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The European Steel & Coal Community, set up in 1952 and driven by the need to integrate the continent’s steel industries (thereby making a European war impossible), was the first step towards the creation of the Common Market and the EU. Robert Schumann, the French foreign minister (1948-53) and prime minister who is widely lauded as the father of the Council of Europe and the EU, was actually born in Luxembourg in 1886, with German citizenship due to the annexation of Lorraine, his father’s homeland, but in 1918 he became French when Alsace-Lorraine was handed back to France. The current president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, is also a Luxemburger.

Nowadays the city’s population is 80,000, with another 50,000 commuting in; about 45% of the Grand Duchy’s 530,000 population is foreign-born, with the main immigrant community being Portuguese. Administration is mainly in French, but the newspapers are mainly in German. People actually speak Letzebuergesch, a Moselle-Franconian dialect of German; apart from the specific words of French origin it’s similar to Siebenbürgisch, the dialect of the Transylvanian Saxons of Romania, about whom I’ve been writing since 1991, not that I understand a word of the dialect.

It’s quite a progressive place: Luxembourg’s prime minister recently became the first European Union Leader to marry his same-sex partner, and the city seems to have been led entirely by mayoresses recently. But, I have to say, I wasn’t impressed by the beer.

Some practicalities

Arriving by train is a bit reminiscent of arriving in Bern (and Truro), with striking views from rail and road viaducts. CFL (Luxembourg State Railways) services are all pretty slow, but they are now investing in some decent modern trains which work through onto the neighbouring countries’ networks – the hourly RE11 service to Koblenz is worked by double-decker CFL trains which I took as far as Trier (it’s cheaper to buy a day return than a single on this route, not that there were any ticket checks). It seem that this service will be extended to Köln and Düsseldorf in December 2017, although I’m not really sure why the CFL (Luxembourg Railways) would want its trains used for what is basically a German regional service. [It turns out it’s just one train a day – leaving Luxembourg at 06.00 and getting to Düsseldorf at 10.00, and returning a few hours later.]

The trains to Koblenz (Germany) and Liège (Belgium) are regional trains with plenty of stops, the hourly service to Brussels is a bit better, but there are much faster connections to France. Direct TGVs run to Paris, taking just over 2 hours via the new high-speed line into Paris Est; in addition ‘Gare Lorraine Express’ buses run from Luxembourg station and the Sud/Howald Park & Ride to the Lorraine TGV station on the high-speed line near Nancy, from where you can catch TGVs to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, Le Mans, Nantes, Rennes and Bordeaux. In July 2016 two daily TGVs were introduced from Luxembourg to Marseille and Montpellier via Metz, Strasbourg, Besançon and Lyon, using the new Rhine-Rhône high-speed line.