Oh you’re from Luxembourg? The waiter looked surprised, and quickly added: but it’s such a small country! Well, Luxembourg might be small, my friend replied, but the country’s still big enough for Mei to fit in there! I burst out laughing, and were lucky that I didn’t have a mouth full of sushi then. At that time, my friend Alicia hadn’t visited Luxembourg yet. But she was right to assume that Luxembourg is not that tiny after all. Or at least, it is big enough to keep you busy for days, weeks, months, years, depending on how much in depth you want to explore it.
Take Luxembourg City for example, the Grand Duchy’s capital city, where I was born and grew up in. When I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to leave Luxembourg because I found it small and boring. And when Kerstin and I came back “home” after living abroad for a decade, my first confrontation with Luxembourg’s capital brought back many bittersweet childhood memories. But then I decided to leave the past behind, and to discover Luxembourg City as if it were a new destination. Soon, it occurred to me that despite the small size of Luxembourg’s capital, there are so many places I had never been to before. We’re back since 2013, and there are still new spots to explore in this 52 square kilometres. Unbelievable, right? Or is it because I chose to explore Luxembourg City with new eyes?
“The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust
Table of Contents
From the Bock to the Casemates
If the rocky cliffs of the Bock had not existed, Count Siegfried wouldn’t have built his Castle of Lucilinburhuc… Luxembourg City wouldn’t have been created in 963, and my primary school teacher wouldn’t have been able to say “9 6 3 und Luxembourg sprang aus dem Ei” (963 and Luxembourg jumped out of the egg). This saying is the only thing I remember of my second grade teacher Mrs W., besides the rumour that she had one leg shorter than the other. Since it would be a shame to recall only the latter information, I’m glad that Count Siegfried decided to settle down on the natural fortification of the Bock, which later developed into one of Europe’s most strategic strongholds, the Fortress of Luxembourg.
When our friends and family visit Luxembourg, we always take them to the Bock promontory, where they can shoot panoramic pictures of the Lower City of Luxembourg. So when my little cousin from Canada stopped by a few years ago, we also made her take photos of the Bock. But not just that: for the first time in my life, we also visited the casemates below – or inside – the Bockfiels.
The Bock Casemates are a vast underground system of passages and tunnels built inside the rocky cliffs of the Bock in 1644, when Luxembourg was under Spanish domination. (For the records: yes, Luxembourg belonged to the Spaniards during the 16th and 17th centuries. That’s why I chose to learn Spanish in high school, just in case you know…). Less than 40 years later, the 23 kilometres long casemates were enlarged by the French military engineer Vauban, when the troops of Louis XIV took over the Fortress of Luxembourg (those bastards!). And they were enlarged again in 1744 under the Austrian period.
The Bock Casemates were then so impressive that the Fortress of Luxembourg was dubbed the “Gibraltar of the North”. I’ve never been to Gibraltar, but from what I’ve seen, the views from the Bock Casemates are definitely more charming than from the Great Siege Tunnel in the Rock of Gibraltar.
When we climbed down the spiral staircase and through the galleries of the Bock Casemates, I heard a guide repeating to a group of Asian tourists that the fortress ramparts and the Old Town of Luxembourg are listed as World Heritage by UNESCO since 1994. And the tourists responded with a: Ah! Oh! Unesco, Unesco! And off went their camera flashes. They all seemed to be mesmerized by the main chamber, and didn’t seem to be interested to move on. So we were almost alone as we continued further in the tunnels, gazing out of loop holes, descending into pitch dark passages, and wandered around the Bock Casemates for about an hour.
The exit of the underground tunnels led us to the Pont du Château, built by the Austrians in 1735 to connect the Bock to the Old Town. On this two-storey bridge, we tried to take a good selfie with a view of the Grund in the background. If you’ve already seen our selfies, you’ll understand why we ended up asking for someone to take a picture of us.
Down in the Grund
When tourists visit Luxembourg City, they all head down to the Grund in the Lower City, one of the oldest parts of Luxembourg’s capital. The cobbled streets, the Alzette River and the buildings dating back to the 14th century make this neighborhood in the valley one of the most picturesque areas in the capital.
The first time I went to the Grund after coming back to Luxembourg in 2013 was actually for a job interview. I didn’t get that job, but I got to explore the Lower City on a sunny day. Which was a nice experience too. As I strolled through the Grund, I felt like walking in a small village. The car access is limited in this quarter, and there’s actually no bank, no modern building, and no school. Definitely one of the few peaceful and unspoilt areas in the historic heart of Luxembourg City. How come I rarely came here for a walk when I was a kid, I wondered?
And then it hit me: until 1984, Luxembourgers used the expression “to be in the Grund” to say that someone is in jail. There were in fact two prisons in the Grund: one for women in the Hospice Saint-Jean, built in 1308, and one for men in the Neumünster Abbey, which origins go back to the 17th century. Although both prisons were moved to Schrasseg in 1984, the Grund district was “to be avoided” when I was a kid, because “bad people might still be sent to the Grund”… (Yes, my mother was very strict.)
In 1996, the Hospice Saint-Jean reopened its doors. Not as a hospital or a prison, but as the new National Museum of Natural History. A couple of years after it opened, Kerstin dragged me there for a visit. And ever since we’re back in Luxembourg, we keep going back to this museum whenever there’s a new temporary exhibition, such as the one about cats which ended up making us adopt two baby kittens.
As for the Neumünster Abbey, it became a cultural center (Neimënster) sometime after we left Luxembourg. Today, many venues and exhibitions are held in these two institutions.
The “new” Adolphe Bridge
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Built between 1900 and 1903, this arched bridge in the Upper City of the capital is somewhat an unofficial national symbol of Luxembourg’s independence. When I was a kid, someone told me that it was named after Adolf Hitler. I lived with that belief for several years, and thought that we Luxembourgers also call it Nei Bréck (New Bridge) to ignore its history. Of course, that was a joke (a bad one!), since it was in fact named after Grand-Duke Adolphe, who reigned Luxembourg from 1890 to 1905. Yes, I was angry with that person who lied to me. And yes, I was relieved when I learnt about the truth.
The longest renovation works and redesign of the century old Adolphe Bridge occurred between 2014 and 2017. It made road traffic on it impossible, so a temporary (ugly blue) bridge was constructed parallel to the Nei Bréck, to connect the Boulevard Royal in the Upper City (Uewerstad) with the Plateau Bourbon. During these renovation works, they also built a brand new pedestrian and cycle path, suspended beneath the existing bridge.
A couple of months ago, I had a doctor appointment in the city on the (supposedly) coldest day of the year. Of course, I missed the bus to return to work. Instead of waiting (and swearing), I decided to cross the Adolphe Bridge to catch another bus at the next station, by taking the new pedestrian walkway beneath the “original” bridge. Despite the freezing temperatures and my acrophobia, I stopped several times to shoot a couple of photos. When I arrived at the next bus station, I missed the bus again and ended up waiting (and swearing) after all. But at least, I finally got to see the new footbridge beneath the iconic Adolphe Bridge, and work on my fear of heights at the same time.
Saint Quirin’s Chapel in the Pétrusse Valley
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Under the Adolphe Bridge lies what we call the Pétrusse Valley. When I was kid (seriously, it sounds like I’m so old! What I mean is: about 29++ years ago), the Pétrusse was a river. Now it’s just a tiny rivulet. On both sides of this mini steam, stretches a huge park, which I used to compare with New York’s Central Park. In fact, the Pétrusse Park is completely different, except for the fact that it’s also a green park in the middle of the city. Since I’m back in Luxembourg, Kerstin and I have strolled through the Péitrusse Valley only once. Our promenade took us towards to the Passerelle, also known as the “Al Bréck” (“Old Bridge”, in comparison to the “New” Adolphe Bridge).
Not far away from the Old Bridge, we stumbled upon a small chapel carved in the rocks, and hidden behind leafy trees. Behind a barred gate door we saw several statues and wooden benches covered in spider webs. Onsite we couldn’t find any information, let alone a name or a date of this chapel.
Later on, we found out that it was constructed in the 14th century and dedicated to Saint Quirin. But apparently, due to the natural spring that flows beneath the chapel, this holy site was already considered as sacred by the Romans in the early years of Christianity. They believed that the water from that spring is miraculous and could cure skin diseases. According to the Catholic Tourism Office, the St Quirin Chapel is now sometimes open for groups of Catholic tourists who’d like to make a pilgrimage to this sacred site. I’m not Catholic, but if I could ever get inside this chapel, I might want to see if the holy water from the natural spring could heal my skin issues.
In the meantime, I shall continue looking for hidden gems in Luxembourg City.