Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Luxembourg, Land of Many Bridges

The Luxembourgish Flag
Feeling a little bored with Forbach and yearning to further explore our little corner of the globe, my roommate Meike and I ventured off to spend the weekend in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.  

Landlocked between France, Belgium and Germany, Luxembourg is one of the world's smallest sovereign states, covering an area just shy of 1000 square miles. (Along with Belgium and the Netherlands, Luxembourg makes up Europe's Benelux region.)  Its capital, Luxembourg City (where we stayed), is about 120 kilometers from Forbach and takes just under 2 hours to reach by train.  Run by a constitutional monarchy under the Grand Duke, the country is the world's last remaining grand duchy.

While the country itself may be small, it is quite a diverse place.   Due to its central location, Luxembourg has been controlled by many world powers throughout the centuries, serving as a Roman fortress, Frankish kingdom, and Spanish bastion, just to name a few.  Consequently, the nation is a melting pot for many cultures and is also officially trilingual, with Luxembourgish, French and German as national languages - although everyone there speaks English just fine too!

The Alzette River, encircling the Grund (Lower City)
Upon exiting the train station in Luxembourg, we could not believe how cold it was! It was definitely at least ten degrees colder here than in Forbach - I was kicking myself for not bringing a heavier scarf or gloves! I also hadn't known that the city is composed of two plateaus and a deep valley in between them, through which the wind certainly whips.  Needless to say my first souvenir purchase was a thick pair of fuzzy gloves!

A memorial statue to Duchess Charlotte
We didn't have much of an agenda for our weekend besides visiting a few museums, but when we arrived on Saturday, we learned that it was opening day for the Marchés de Noël, the traditional German-inspired Christmas markets that pop up every year.  This was a nice surprise, as the markets have lots of delicious fresh-cooked food to offer at prices that won't break the bank, helping to keep costs down and make for a relatively inexpensive weekend stay.

Christmas food at the markets with a German/Luxembourgish flair
We did splurge on one meal - a delicious tarte flambée covered with bacon, onions, potatoes and various Alpine cheeses...miam miam!
We stumbled upon the city's cathedral and took advantage of a free organ concert - as well as a much needed break from the cold weather! The church was filled with gorgeously carved columns and vibrant stained glass windows, as well as a pipe organ that could literally knock your socks off - quite a pleasure to behold. 
Inside the cathedral
Beautiful stained glass windows adorn the walls behind the altar
Venturing back outside into the cold, we took a stroll by the Royal Palace and continued along the remnants of the city's old fortress walls, making our way down into the Grund (Lower City) to the Museum of Natural History - free with a student ID (even with expired ones, apparently!).  While it didn't hold a candle to similar museums in New York and DC, the eclectic collection of taxidermied wildlife, fossils, and even live stick-bug exhibits gave us a reason to escape the howling wind for an hour or so!

The Royal Palace
Walking along the old fortress walls
Houses along the Alzette River in the Grund (Lower City)
Meike and I spent the evening at the city's various Christmas markets which definitely put me in the holiday spirit! As you wander among the little log cabins selling locally-produced cheese and sausage, hand-crafted ornaments, thick sweaters made from the finest Luxembourgish wool, and anything else you might imagine, you can join throngs of people crowded around bonfires to warm up as you drink a glass of vin chaud (hot mulled wine), munch on some spaetzle with cheese and locally-sourced bacon...and listen to The Jackson 5 singing American Christmas tunes which are blasted from multiple speakers in every square. Quite the experience!
Meike near one of the more festive vin chaud vendors
La Grande Roue - most big cities have a Ferris wheel during the Christmas season
The next day, we decided to check out the Musée Draï Eechelen ("Museum of the Three Acorns" in Luxembourgish) which showcases the history of the city's fortresses throughout the millenia.  As I mentioned earlier, the city is spread across two plateaus, a deep valley, some forests, a river...the list goes on. According to our map, the fortress/museum appeared to be pretty close to the historic city center that we'd been exploring the day before, so we figured it'd be no big deal to walk over to the fort. 

Gorgeous views from our stroll along the city's defensive walls
Had someone informed me I'd have to shimmy down the twisting path from the upper city to the valley, follow a winding road along the river, go on a hike through the woods up a steep/muddy path and cross multiple sketchy bridges spanning vast crevasses in the forest, I might have thought twice about heading all the way over there...our 2D map failed to mention the vast elevation changes and woodland strolls! It was another chilly day, so at least our hike helped warm us up and gave us a chance to get some fresh forest air.

Luxembourg, home of modern highway bridges...
...ancient viaducts (now used for trains), and every other sort of bridge imaginable!
In any case, when we finally made it out of the woods and up to the museum, we were treated to an amazing view of the city! You're able to walk through the maze of old defensive walls, moats and tunnels leading to the main fortress where the museum is located inside the old blockhouse, the heavily fortified structure from which defenders could fire at their enemies.

We made it! Standing atop the fortress walls with a view of the city behind me
The museum was free for students (seriously, hold on to your old/expired college IDs and try to use them wherever possible, they can save you so much money!) and had an impressive collection of cannons, guns, swords, armor and even the city guillotine - its shining blade hanging precariously above all those walking below.

One of the three acorn-shaped towers belonging to the Museum
Meike and I had worked up quite an appetite after our early-morning wilderness excursion, so retracing our steps, we made it back to the Upper City on the other side of the valley, deciding to swing by the Christmas markets one more time to grab some lunch...and more hot wine of course! 

The Grund as seen from atop the city walls
Vin chaud - it even came in a festive boot-shaped mug!
I also made a delicious culinary discovery during our trip: Lebkuchen! These mouth-watering delicacies are spice cakes half covered in dark chocolate, half sugar glazed, and typical of German-influenced Christmas markets found in Eastern France and other countries sharing a border with Germany. (I was excited to find them in the supermarket here in Forbach upon my return to France.) Once again, my quest to be adventurous and try any local food encountered on my travels pays off!  And speaking of food, Thanksgiving's tomorrow...I'm whipping up a feast for my fellow language teaching assistants who are German and British, we'll see what they think of Turkey and pumpkin pie!

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