We are on a very wet campsite on the edge of the city that is the hub of the European Community and also this year's European Capital of Culture.
We left Saarburg this morning in the rain and it has continued wet for most of the day. At Nennig we stopped to visit the scant remains of a Roman villa where there is little more than a beautifully preserved mosaic floor to the main room. Dating from the 3rd century AD it depicts mainly gladiatorial scenes and is virtually complete.
We crossed almost immediately into the country of Luxembourg, founded by Siegfried, Count of the Ardennes in 963. The Mosel at this point forms the boundary with Germany. We did not really know what to expect as this is our first visit to Luxembourg but were surprised to discover that French is definitely the dominant language. The transition was immediate, though in the capital German and English are heard almost as frequently as French. We've also heard people speaking Luxemburgish which looks and sounds very like Dutch to us.
At Bettenbourg we bought a couple of quiches Lorraine for lunch and discovered by chance at the baker's that people quite happily switch languages without actually being aware they have done so. Having asked in French for our quiche, we then selected a coiled iced bun called a Schnecke (snail) and the conversation switched to German. Somehow we then ended up speaking English and as we left we went back into French.
When we reached the campsite, about six kilometres from the city centre, we picnicked in the rain while we waited for the campsite to reopen after its statutory two hour lunch break! First impressions indicate that camping is considerably cheaper here than in Germany and diesel is only about 65 pence a litre.
The country of Luxembourg is about 70 kilometres north to south and 40 east to west. It has around 450,000 inhabitants of which well over a quarter live in the capital. The little towns out in the countryside that we have seen today have been clean and well built but are too small and smart to seem particularly interesting. The capital makes up for this and with an excellent transport infrastructure it is within easy reach for everyone. Travelling into the city for a preliminary look this afternoon we were the only passengers on the bus. The driver told us the motorway was blocked and there were diversions all around the city as tomorrow is National Day with all sorts of things going on in the city. The bus route was diverted but he dropped us near the city centre with directions as to how to find the main commercial area.
Luxembourg is clean, interesting, lively and beautiful. Today it was also very noisy. Apart from the hourly clanging of bells from various churches, there were street bands with amplifiers setting up at various points around the city and as we reached the Ducal Palace we encountered crowds waiting to watch the changing of the guard at 4pm. This is accompanied with a great deal of razzmatazz from the military band. Having marched through the streets the band and fresh consignment of guards march and parade up and down outside the main entrance, then, as the guards change, the band plays very unlikely military music, today's choice being an extremely lively rumba which had the crowds, but unfortunately not the guards, jigging to the rhythm.
It is a pity about the rain as a lot of activity is expected to celebrate the eve of the nation's special day. Restaurants were laying tables under dripping umbrellas with seafood menus starting at 50 euros a head plus 15 euros for drinks. At the other end of the scale, there were dozens of street stalls setting up to sell take-away filled baguettes, grilled sausages and chips and lots and lots of beer. It should be quite a party, and we can even hear the fireworks from the campsite as we write this!
The pedestrianised streets looked smart with bright, fashionable window displays which were very pleasant to stroll through. In the Place d'Armes we stopped to watch some Polish folk dancers in colourful costumes - some of the EC's newest members invited to entertain the citizens of the Community's capital as part of its celebrations.
Near the Place d'Armes we discovered a small square dedicated to Jan Palach, the Czech student who died by setting fire to himself as a protest for the treatment of his country following the invasion by Warsaw Pact forces in 1968. It struck a chord with us as there is a remembrance plaque to him in Wenceslas Square in Prague at the monument to the victims of Communism.
It being Friday afternoon we headed for the National Library as it will be closed tomorrow. Inside we found an exhibition from the library's collections on Humanist writers from Luxembourg in the 16th and 17th centuries. The main thing to emerge from the display was that it was very hard to be a humanist within Luxembourg because of the inflexible attitude of the Archbishopric of Trier, so they had to move elsewhere to write their works. We also explored the reference collections where catalogues, bibliographies, dictionaries and encyclopaedias have to be provided in four languages. We discovered the reading room with today's leading newspapers from all the major European countries and settled down to read the Times – it's a real treat when we can get our hands on an English newspaper. Unfortunately we were thrown out early today as everywhere was closing because of the national holiday celebrations.
Just across from the National Library stands the Cathedral. Inside is a wide central aisle and a very pretty altar. What fascinated us though was that there was a large man gliding across the floor in front of the altar holding a huge white balloon on the end of a piece of string while bright floodlights have been suspended from the roof making normally dark corners glaringly bright. We have concluded that in recognition for outstanding service to the country, one happy Luxemburger is selected each year and permitted to float a balloon in the cathedral on their national day!
Our wanderings took us through very pleasant gardens down to the older part of the town and to a promontory overlooking the deep gorge of the Pétrusse, spanned by a railway viaduct and a very attractive arched road bridge. Within the gorge lies a green, wooded park with footpaths through, right in the heart of the city, while on the far side are some splendid 19th century buildings as well as many recent buildings connected with the European Community. Tomorrow we will investigate everything further but our first impression has been very positive indeed.
Saturday 23rd June 2007, Kockelscheuer, Luxembourg
It rained heavily all night and this morning the entire campsite was waterlogged. Imagine the mud as dozens of caravanners slithered about hitching their caravans to their 4x4s. At least they could get off their pitches but the mess they left behind was horrid.
Leaving Modestine looking pathetic and wet in a sea of mud we stopped at the office on our way into the city to buy some more bus tickets – only to discover that because it is the country's National Day, it is a public holiday and there are no buses!! The thought of spending the day cooped up in Modestine in the rain lacked charm so we decided to risk driving into the city and trying to park. This proved far easier than we imagined as there was little traffic around, most of the Luxembourgeoisie obviously sleeping off the effects of last night's celebrations. The streets were clean and there was no evidence that crowds had been thronging the streets of the capital attending a massive firework celebration until 3am.
We had expected lots of events and excitement in the centre today but everywhere was wet, the rain drizzled relentlessly and even the cafes and little food shops were closed. There were more police on the streets than tourists. Near the Cathedral we were cordoned off while men in morning suits ran through the rain carrying white umbrellas. Nearby we discovered the personal car of Luxembourg's Archduke Henri complete with chauffeur. Realising something that might just be interesting was going on, we hung around in the rain until he drove off round to the front entrance to the Cathedral. We followed just in time to see the Archduke himself and his wife Marie Terese shaking hands with the bishop at the end of a special National Day church service. It was rather exciting though to be in the right place at the right time and see Luxembourg's equivalent to the Royal Family at such close quarters! We bring you the cream of Europe's aristocracy - why it was only recently we presented you a first hand account and photos of Bratislava's resident President! They smiled and waved and Ian was so excited his hand shook so the pictures turned out all wobbly which is a great shame.
By now we were in need of drying out and some restorative coffee at the Café de Paris on the Place d'Armes where the elderly waiters look like something from the era of Marcel Proust with bow ties, black waist coats, watch chains and silver salvers. The coffee was excellent however and as the rain teamed down we read the Luxembourg daily newspaper – in French so at last Jill can understand things again after weeks of Italian, Croatian, Czech, Hungarian and German! It was mainly about Luxembourg finance – this country must be SO rich! It did though include a heart warming account of a teenage hacker who had entered the Belgian police website and left them a message suggesting they tightened up their security!
Outside we heard the thunder of a 21 gun salute echoing along the city gorge from canons fired from the military casemates. Archduke Henri must find the adoration of his citizens a mixed blessing when they insist on playing military rumbas outside his window every afternoon, ring carillons hourly, hold wild street parties and seize on any excuse to play with their canons. At first Jill simply thought it was a rather powerful pigeon deterrent but Ian scampered off through the steep cobbled streets of the old town down to the bridge with its casemates overlooking the river Alzette, the old military hospital and the remaining towers of the 18th century fort and walls built by Vauban who seems to have held the European monopoly on military architecture at that time. We couldn't actually locate the canons but the noise was pretty impressive. Next we discovered a special review of the forces and emergency services. Military bands, the army, the police, fire services and the Customs and Excise were moving in formation slowly across the Pont Adolophe, flanked by motorcycle outriders, past a grandstand where various dignitaries were assembled. Just beyond and out of sight they all abandoned their musical instruments in favour of cigarettes and mobile phones!
We found ourselves at the railway station, a magnificent building that resembled a baroque French chateau. By now we were feeling rather hungry so were overjoyed to discover the station restaurant was serving an excellent dish of the day – braised beef with potatoes and broad beans in a creamy herb sauce – for seven euros.
Returning to Modestine we drove across the city to the centre of the European Community on the northern edge of Luxembourg. Here everything is new and architecturally very modern, being massive slabs of glass and concrete. Because all the buildings are set in their own campus it is very acceptable and we quite liked it. A similar building in the centre of an historic city (such as Exeter) however is as out of scale and aesthetically unacceptable as a row of semi detached houses would be constructed between the European Court of Justice and the European Investment Bank.
The area was deserted. Eurocrats were more than happy to join in with the local celebrations if it meant a day off from legislating on the standard time for waiting at traffic lights – currently set at three times what is necessary. We parked outside the European Court of Human Rights and walked off to discover the Jean Monet building, returning soaking wet to Modestine who'd been watching a tent placed opposite the main entrance to the Court covered in protests demanding the right to euthanasia.
During the afternoon we drove away from the city to explore something of the countryside of Luxembourg, making our way north to the town of Diekirch. This was a pleasant enough place if we'd happened to chance on it as we travelled through, but as we'd driven a round trip of 60 kilometres to reach it we found it rather a disappointment with nothing much there except the very pleasant mediaeval church of St.Laurence and a small pedestrianised shopping precinct that was completely closed up for the day.
Ian insists that we are not judging Luxembourg fairly as the weather is bad and it is a public holiday. Jill says Egon Ronay turns up unexpectedly to assign stars to restaurants and if it happens to be a bad day, then tough luck. So we are not quite in agreement about how interesting Luxembourg is as a country, but if Ian chooses to come again, he will probably need to find himself another chauffeur.
The campsite we decided to head for on our way south towards France turned out not to exist so we have been obliged to return to the same one we used yesterday which is now even more wet and muddy. That is something the campsite cannot help however and generally it is well managed with clean facilities, free showers that really work and at 14 euros inclusive of electricity, so near a capital city it is really good value.