Albania – a real alternative

Although there’s been a lot of media hot air about Montenegro in recent years, Albania is currently more interesting, and it’s become a great destination for slightly more enterprising backpackers. I passed through fairly quickly, with less than a week to spare between staying with friends in Montenegro and with family in Corfu, and would love to come again when the weather permits me to spend time in the mountains (it rained every day in mid-May). So I went from north to south fairly close to the coast, from Shkodër to Tirana, Berat and Gjirokaster, finishing at the port of Sarandë – all interesting towns with plenty of history. The country was, not surprisingly, green and fertile, but I didn’t see many of the mushroom-like pillboxes (tiny bunkers) that one heard so much about a couple of decades back – an indicator of how time passes. Now Albania seems much like the other southern Balkan countries, if a little poorer and thus more ‘authentic’.

 There’s now little sign of the strong folk culture that I found in places like Transylvania in the early 1990s and was probably going strong here at the same time. Albania’s been through some turmoil, not just its peculiarly warped form of communism (from 1945 to 1990) but then the pyramid-savings scams that brought the country to its knees in 1997 and unleashed a particularly anarchic uprising, with over 2,000 killed and UN peacekeepers sent in to restore order. Tribal feuds that it was assumed were finished and done for raised their ugly heads again, and the place seemed like an utterly failed state – I’d recently read about the build-up to this in Robert Carver’s fascinating The Accursed Mountains (1998) (and briefly in Paul Theroux’s The Pillars of Hercules; 1995). Another brief rebellion broke out in 1998 after the assassination of opposition leader Azem Hajdari. Nowadays the main towns feel perfectly safe and welcoming, and I certainly never felt I needed to wear a moneybelt or not go out after dark.

 Having said that, there are more tourists than I expected – not on a Kotor-like scale(though cruise ships seem to be arriving), but there’s a steady flow of backpackers staying in hostels (and there are quite a few of those in all the tourist centres) as well as coach parties in hotels. The main roads are decent, and the main towns are only a couple of hours apart; there are also very slow (but spectacularly cheap) trains between Tirana, Durrës, Shkodër, Vlorë and Elbasan – see below for more on Tirana’s stations.

 Northern Albania – Shkodër
Rozafa castle

I was first in Shkodër, gateway from Montenegro (by the routes from Podgorica and from Ulcinj on the coast) – it’s a very pleasant place without a huge amount to see, although I was taken by the quantity of cyclists, mostly managing to keep an umbrella upright and still stop and steer safely. The Rozafa castle is 3km south (a local bus shuttles along the main road) and gives great views after a stiff little climb, but there’s really nothing to see inside. In the town centre there’s a fairly poor history museum, in an attractive nineteenth-century building. The going rate for museums is 150-200 Lek (GBP 1-1.40) – there’s a new Photography Museum which charges 700 Lek, which I didn’t visit. Nor did I get to the Site of Witness and Memory on Edith Durham (southeast of the centre), in the former Security Police headquarters – now a memorial to the victims of communist terror. Otherwise there are a couple of Roman Catholic churches built in the 1890s and the English-style clock tower, dating from 1868.

 Tirana

From there I took a slow bus (lots of picking up and setting down) to Tirana, which as expected is largely a mess of communist concrete, but with many redeeming features. I was pleased to find a small new herb and wild flower garden on the central Skanderbeg Square – this is now a wide gently domed plaza above a car park, but I was also pleased to see plenty of cyclists crossing it. Unfortunately the main arteries to the bus stations and out of the city are horribly traffic-choked and not fit for cycling. Architecturally, the city is known for a few Italian Fascist-style buildings, such as the national bank, and for its programme of making unattractive concrete blocks more attractive by painting them – I was led to expect lurid graffiti art, but saw only pastel Italian tones – but I didn’t get everywhere. The ‘Tirana 2030’ project aims to return a bit more nature to the cityscape, and will with luck be nothing like the crass Skopje 2014 project.

 Unfortunately Tirana’s railway station was closed in 2013 and replaced with a multi-carriageway road to rearrange the city’s traffic jams, with trains moved Ryanair-style to Vorë, 16km away; from 2015 trains made it as far as Kashar, an industrial area about 7km northwest of the centre along the Durrës highway. A new bus and train interchange is supposedly to be built in Laprakë, a bit closer to the centre, but as successive governments have been happy to let the railway system collapse this seems unlikely to happen. In truth, one government signs up to a project and the next starves it of funds and cancels it – in particular, a contract was awarded to GE to build a railway to Tirana’s airport in 2005 and then cancelled, costing the government €14 million. Governments keep on putting modern railway stations in places that can only really be reached by car – see the new TGV line in Morocco, and I gather this has also happened with the new line to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.

 The city does have a few decent museums – the national history museum starts well, with good archeological displays with information in English, but then goes downhill upstairs (as it were). There’s good coverage of the kingdom of Illyria, which came into being by the end of the fifth century BC, and under the legendary Queen Teuta covered the whole Croatian coast as well as Albania; the Illyrians produced several Roman emperors (most notable Justinian) but simply vanished from the historical record in the seventh century AD. The coverage of the medieval and modern periods is less good, but there’s some interesting stuff – I’d thought Skanderbeg was a purely local hero, but he (George Kastrioti) turns out to have been an equal of the great John Hunyadi (Iancu de Hunedoara), who I’ve come across many times in Romania – they formed an alliance against the Turks, winning a great victory at Niš in 1443. The Castrati petrol stations are named after him (that’s his helmet in the logo), not after the Italian singers with very high voices.

 Nearby, the Bunk’Art-2 museum is housed in the bunker beneath the Ministry of Internal Affairs, built in 1981-6 (the present entry and exit outside the ministry are recent additions). This was one of the last ‘great works’ of Hoxha’s bunkerisation project, which began in the early 1970s and produced 175,000 bunkers and pillboxes across the country. In 24 rooms, it covers the history of the country’s Gendarmerie and the Sigurimi (Security Police), founded in 1944 as soon as the communists began their takeover (its founder was himself arrested and shot in 1948). Between 1944 and 1991 over 6,000 people were executed and over 30,000 political prisoners were held in labour camps; in addition the Border Forces (established in 1949) killed about 1,000 Albanian citizens attempting to leave their prison of a country. It’s a well-presented museum, and you can scan the AR logo for an augmented reality experience. In the eastern suburbs, the original Bunk’Art 1 (in Hoxha’s atomic bunker) displays a broader view of everyday life under communism.

 Hoxha’s Pyramid (built as his tomb and museum in 1988 and briefly used as a conference centre after 1991) is a sad wreck, and the nearby Bloku area, where the senior communists lived and where the hottest bars and clubs are supposedly located, seemed pretty dull to me.

 Having recently been visiting the shrines of Sufi saints in Uzbekistan, I was interested to see that the Bektashi order of dervishes has its global headquarters in Tirana. Founded in Anatolia in the thirteenth century by Haji Bektash Veli from Bukhara, it was particularly popular with the janissaries (such as Mimar Sinan), elite Ottoman soldiers taken as boys from Christian villages in the Balkans – and somehow it found its way back to this part of the world. You can also visit the House of the Dervish Khorasani, Khorasan also being in Uzbekistan. Albania was of course officially atheist in the communist period and is now of no particular religion – there are Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox believers, and they don’t particularly care. Anyway, you’re welcome to visit their headquarters, just east of the centre, and there’s a small museum beneath the mosque (I also saw Bektashi tombs in Gjirokaster castle – below).

 What’s more, Albania has welcomed 3,000 Iranian dissidents of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq from Iraq (where the pro-Iranian regime regularly allowed military attacks on their camp) to a new settlement, known as Ashraf 3, halfway between Tirana and the coast. It doesn’t get many visitors as yet, but there’s also a museum here, covering a hundred years of shocking struggle for human rights in Iran.

South of Tirana –  Berat, Gjirokaster, Sarandë and Butrint

Heading south from Tirana, I found Berat and Gjirokaster both slightly reminiscent of Plovdiv, with their steep cobbled alleys and Turkish-style merchants’ houses. The historic centre of Berat is about 2.5km from the bus station (walk or take a bus, clearly cast off from Paris or the Netherlands) – start with the view from the bridge over the Osumit River, linking Gorica, the Christian quarter to the south, and Magdalem, the Muslim quarter that rises up row upon row to the hill-top Kalasa citadel. On the main road in Magdalem you’ll find the remains of the eighteenth-century Pasha’s Palace and alongside it the Royal Mosque (originally the Sultan Mosque, built for Beyazit II at the end of the fifteenth century), the Helvetti Tekke (a Sufi prayer hall, rebuilt in 1782) and a nineteenth-century caravanserai and inn for dervishes. The mosques are currently being restored by TIKA, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, which I also noticed at work in Kosova.

 Opposite the Helvetti Tekke I stumbled across the Edward Lear Gallery (not in any tourist literature that I’d seen – it’s free, and open 08.00 to 14.00 except Mondays) – Lear, who was a superb painter and engraver as well as a composer of nonsense poetry, stopped here in 1848 and 1859, and described it as a ‘wonderfully picturesque place’. The gallery has some useful background information on him and one of his paintings, of Mount Tomor, a peak of 2417 metres which was the ancient home of the Illyrian gods and is still the object of a pilgrimage on the Feast of the Assumption in August. The gallery has four biggish rooms, exhibiting temporary shows by local artists, most titled either ‘portrait’ or ‘landscape’ – they’re really not too bad. Lear wasn’t the first western European artist to pass through, as a certain William Martin Leake had been here in 1805, and Charles Cockerill in 1813, not to mention the Irish writer Robert Walsh in 1828; more famously, Lord Byron and John Cam Hobhouse passed though in 1808, although their meeting with the local despot Ali Pasha took place in Tepelena (there’s a reference to the ‘glittering minarets of Tepelen’ in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage).

 Above the Pasha’s Palace, alleys lead uphill past the Ethnographic Museum to the citadel. Originally built in the fifth and sixth centuries under the Byzantine emperors Theodosius II and Justinian I (though the present walls were erected mainly in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries), this is still inhabited by several hundred people and there are some pleasant cafés here as well as four churches built between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, plus the Church of the Holy Trinity, built in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, on the slope outside the walls.

 Gjirokaster, as you’d expect from the name (from the same Latin root as Chester, Worcester, Gloucester etc etc), is all about the castle, although you can also visit some fine Ottoman townhouses. Inhabited by the fourth century BC, the first walls were built in the sixth century and what you see now was built mainly by the Byzantines and the Ottoman Turks, who captured it in 1417. Ali Pasha (see above) was backed by the British government at the time, which explains the British cannon on display. Once inside the castle, you can go along an avenue of artillery to reach the very dated Arms Museum, which inevitably also covers the struggles of the Partisans against the Nazis. Rather more interesting is the newish (2012) Museum of Gjirokaster, which opened at 10.00, an hour late, but never mind – it covers local history from 20,000 years ago to 2005, when the city, its houses crumbling due to emigration, was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, as well as brief mentions of local bats and vultures, and the isopolyphonic songs of southern Albania, also protected by UNESCO (on the intangible cultural heritage list) – iso refers to the drone part of these four-part songs. Outside on the ramparts you’ll see an American T33 jet which crash-landed at Rinas in 1957 (photos taken in 1988 show it in rather better condition than today), but there’s also an interesting story about a Dakota that came down near Elbasan in 1943 with 26 nurses and medics on board – after attempts to fly them out under the Germans’ noses failed they were eventually marched 800 miles (clearly not in a straight line) to the coast for evacuation to Italy.

 There are almost no old buildings in Sarandë (although there are a couple of derelict warehouses near the port that could be repurposed), but the sprawl of fairly low-rise apartment blocks is not unpleasant, mainly because of its setting and the pleasant people strolling on the promenade and running the hotels and restaurants. Nor is it traffic-choked because, unlike Kotor, it has several parallel roads. Nevertheless, there seem to be no controls on the spread of new buildings up the hills and along the coast, and it’s a comfort that the fabulous classical ruins of Butrint are a safe distance away (19km south, to be precise).

 Butrint is fantastic – the hourly bus from Sarandë terminates near the entrance, where a small ferry crosses the outlet from Butrint lagoon to a couple of small villages that have grown up on silt banks that have built up since the city was founded, possibly in the aftermath of the Trojan War (Virgil has Aeneas stopping here) and certainly by the twelfth century BC. The Greek settlement became Roman, then Byzantine and then Venetian, and there are remains from all these phases; the sixth-century baptistery and basilica are particularly impressive, but it’s a shame that the almost intact mosaic of the baptistery is almost always kept under sand, due to the frequency of flooding here. One could well make a case for replacing it with a modern replica and moving it to the decent little museum under the Venetian fort. On the other hand, it was fun watching turtles swimming in the Greek theatre. In fact the whole area is a national park, and I saw a large slowworm or something like it not far from the tourist loop.

Durrës and Elbasan are commonly agreed to be dumps; Paul Theroux’s account of arriving in Durrës in 1994, on a ferry full of stolen cars, is a superb account of a totally failed country, although it obviously has improved since.

Practicalities

I stayed in hostels, which can now be found in all the country’s major towns and which offer the best way of getting information as well as a cheery welcome and a good breakfast. The ones I stayed in in Shkodër and Tirana are both in older houses that survived amid concrete blocks right in the city centres. This was even more true of Berat, where the Berat Backpackers  hostel was in a lovely old house in the Gorica quarter looking across the river to Magdalem (both on the World Heritage List) and the Kala or Citadel. The hostel was known as Scotty’s, having been founded in 2009 by an Englishman (a Geordie, to be exact) – bizarrely, he’d sold it the day before I arrived (although a manager had run it for him for the last couple of years), to the owner of another hostel, a very likeable local chap who seems very capable and speaks excellent English. In Gjirokaster the Dutch-run Stone City Hostel was even better, and rightly won a 2019 Hoscar award – it’s another old house, with spacious common area, squeaky-clean washroom, and superb breakfast – how it is that wholegrain bread is available I don’t know, but homemade fig jam is a constant in this area. But do say if you don’t want your fried egg solid. Finally, my hostel in Sarandë was clean and spacious, with one of the most hospitable owners you could ask for, and just a minute or so from the ferry terminal. I enjoyed the hostels on this whole trip from Istanbul to Albania – it’s a region which seems to attract interesting travellers, not just people looking for cheap beer and ticking off a few compulsory sights. Even so, there are far too many who just hole up on their bunks watching films on their phones (and slowing down the internet for everyone else) – call that travel? And a lot of young people who wouldn’t smoke at home seem go mad when travelling here – something I noticed in Vietnam too.

 In Shköder I ate well at Peja (possibly named after the cultural capital of Kosova), which serves authentic ‘slow food’, but surprisingly fast – I had great eggplant stuffed with apple (from Korça), followed by apple with baklava. I also drank a Puka beer, from Pukë (pronounced Puka), about 30km east of Shkodër, which had a bit of colour and taste to it, unlike all the anaemic lagers available elsewhere in the country. The Korça brewery does produce a dark beer as well as a lager, and I finally sampled that on my last night – pretty tangy and refreshing. In Gjirokaster I ate at Odaja, which was great – there’s an English menu which was clear about vegetarian (not vegan) dishes, which accounted for about a quarter of the list. I had their famous (at least at the Stone City Hostel) tomato balls, which were basically fritters (I also enjoyed them in Corfu) and qifqi rice balls (a Gjirokaster speciality, rather like arancini); imam bayildi is a sort of Turkish ratatouille, and oshaf is a fig dessert (I also saw snails for sale in Gjirokaster).

The Albanian language

Albanian is an Indo-European language, derived from Illyrian, which looks like nothing else with its double rrs and lls and its ë, and names like Urani Runbo. You won’t learn much (enough people speak some English), but do try to master Faleminderit (thank you). Po and jo (yes and no) are easily confused, but once I’d heard an Kosovar talking to his wife on the phone (po, po, po… po, po, po, like a dove) it became easier. The one word you’ll probably remember, as it’s on signs everywhere, is Shitet (for sale)….  By main roads you’ll see signs for Lavazh (in the Gheg north) or Lavazho (in the Tosk south) – at first I assumed it meant Armenian bread, but it fact it means car-wash – from the French, of course.

Dundee, Perth and around

 

Although there’s plenty of culture and so on in Dundee (but see below for an update), we were actually there to cycle. First stop was Perth, which might have made a better base if only it had a backpacker’s hostel (there’s a hostel at Perth College which is only open from mid-June until the end of August). It seems a sort of Scottish Truro, with an old-money feel to it and a high-brow cultural profile – in particular at the Perth Concert Hall and Perth Theatre. I was especially struck by the line-up of performers in the Perth Piano Sundays series – the likes of Peter Donohoe, Jeremy Denk, Viktoria Postnikova – nae bad! Just a few days after getting home, a Radio 3 announcer praised the wood-panelled Perth Concert Hall as one of the great spaces for chamber music in the UK. Neither Perth nor Truro is forced by the presence of a university to be cool and relevant. You could argue that Dundee is to Perth as Glasgow is to Edinburgh – a brasher younger sibling that’s trying to cast off an industrial past and become a cultural hub, largely through riverside regeneration – and it’s doing fine, of course, but with a more street/youth profile.

The Perth Museum is fairly small but well presented, covering geology, natural history, prehistory and actual history. Perthshire has a rich store of prehistoric remains, with about 70 stone circles and later henges and hillforts. There’s also the Carpow longboat, about 3000 years old, so not as ancient as the Ferriby Boats. I had no idea that the Romans had made it up here and even started building Rome’s earliest frontier system (before the Antonine and Hadrian’s Walls further south in Scotland, and also the Limes Danubianus past Bratislava) along the Gask Ridge southwest from Perth – I must try to retrace it some time.

Nor did I know that William the Conqueror (Billy the Conk, as he’s known on The History of England podcast) came to Forteviot, near Perth, in 1072, when King Malcolm accepted him as his overlord – but he must have had his fingers crossed, because within a decade he was raiding England again. Perth became known as ‘a capital’ of Scotland, due to the royal court frequently staying here and the presence of Scone Abbey, where the King of Scots was crowned, just across the river; like Dundee, it became a Royal Burgh in the early 12th century. After this local history went a bit quiet until the nineteenth century, when the railway arrived and hotels started serving local drinks – Arthur Bell, John Dewar, and Matthew Gloag became known for their whiskies, and Sandemans imported port. In 1819 there were 44 distilleries here, the last closing in 2016. General Accident was founded here in 1885 and had its headquarters here for 113 years – it evolved into Aviva, which is based, inevitably, in London, but reintroduced the General Accident brand in 2013.

There’s also a bit of art here, notably two sculpture rotundas and two big Lawrence portraits and a Raeburn of the fiddler Niel Gow. There was also a temporary show about Margaret Morris (1891-1980), who created modern dance (a la Isadora Duncan) in Britain – she married the Scottish Colourist painter John Duncan Fergusson, whose parents were from Perthshire and who regarded the Perthshire Highlands as his spiritual home – many of his works and also her archive are held at the Fergusson Gallery, a former watertower nearby at the corner of Tay St and Marshall Place – this apparently sees few visitors, so there’s talk of relocating the collection.

Incidentally, we did have a scone in Scone, and a cuppa in Cupar.

Saint Andrews

I’ve been to St Andrews a couple of times before and didn’t linger this time – but I couldn’t help noticing that there are a lot of ruined churches, that the golf obsession is under control and largely confined to the west side of town near the Royal & Ancient, and that even though there are plenty of visitors there are quite a lot of cafés (and all the bike shops) which don’t open on a Sunday. It has more museums than I remembered, but the nicely named MUSA (Museum of the University of St Andrews) is closed for a refurb. There also seemed to be rather a lot of visible lesbians around this time, which was definitely not the case in Dundee or Perth (and was news to my friends who studied there a couple of decades ago).

Broughty Ferry

There’s a pleasant cycle route up the coast northeast from Dundee (now that they’ve sorted out the section past the docks) to Broughty Ferry and on (between railway and golf links) to Carnoustie, where I stayed on my last visit. Broughty Ferry is a more salubrious suburb of Dundee, with decent pubs (see below) and cafés, including (since 1897) the excellent Goodfellow & Steven bakery and tea rooms. Broughty Ferry castle was closed for toilet refurbishment when we passed through, but houses a free museum; guarding the mouth of the Tay since 1496, it sticks out like a rotten tooth from far away.

Problematic pubs

A really good pub takes a bit of finding in Dundee, I’m sorry to say. The Dundonians do like a drink, and there are plenty of pubs in the centre that are always full and noisy, but the main problem is that they’re not interested in live (real) ale – there are rows of gas-pressure dispensers promising IPAs and so on, as well as regular lagers, and frankly they taste much the same – pretty flat. The range of malt whiskies was fairly generic, too. Early in 2018 a real ale pub, the Copper Still, opened in the centre, but by the end of the year it had closed. As you’d expect, the university area, just west of the centre, has some more interesting options, notably the Speedwell, known mainly for its fabulous 1903 interior (there’s an interesting partition with a swinging door between two bar areas) – it has just three well-hidden real ales among a forest of gas dispensers, but the Deuchars was fine and the company was cheery.

Tickety Boo’s, at 51 Commercial St, has a fine interior too, with original stained glass, and is one of the nicest options in the centre, although it’s a bit small and short of seating. Even more than elsewhere, many of the pubs in the centre of Dundee are former banks – there’s the Bank Bar, a former TSB branch at 7 Union St (which usually has four real ales on tap as well as gins and food), not to be confused with the Old Bank Bar at 34 Reform St, The Trades House at 40 Nethergate (with wonderful stained glass and an engraved mirror) or The Counting House at 67 Reform St (once a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland, opened in 1856). The last is a Wetherspoons, run by a Europhobic nutter, but it’s attractively restored and has decent enough (and cheap) beers, notably from Stewart’s in Edinburgh. Wetherspoons also run Jolly’s Hotel in Broughty Ferry and the Capital Asset in Perth (neither of which we sampled).

The best option in Broughty Ferry is the Fisherman’s Tavern, which has been in the Good Beer Guide since 1975 (except for 2013, whoops) – like The Trades House, it’s owned by Belhaven, which generally means a better than average pub.

In Perth, the Green Room (good for live music too), the Greyfriars Bar and the Kirkside Bar are the best real ale pubs, but actually the ideal would be to go a little way north to Moulin, a suburb of Pitlochry, where the Moulin Brewery has been building a great reputation since 1995 (Inveralmond isn’t bad either, but they’ve only been going since 1997, so what would they know?). The multinational craft beer monster that is Brewdog (founded in Aberdeen) also has pubs (or ‘bars’) in Dundee and Perth, if that’s your thing. I just noticed yesterday that Brewdog will be opening a pub here in Cambridge soon – good news, if you take the view that any new pub expands the market for real ale and good beer.

Update

As promised at the start – an update on Dundee’s cultural offering – the West Ward Works on Guthrie Street, where the Beano and Dandy annuals were printed, is to be redeveloped into a hub for designers, artists and other creative workers and companies, and will house a comic museum and spaces for live performances and exhibitions.
And it seems that an e-bike sharing scheme will open in July (2019) – presumably using charging stations rather than the dockless model that has become so popular recently for non-electric bike-sharing schemes.

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

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.