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Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Posted on 8/18/03

I arrived in Luxembourg knowing almost nothing about the unusual city and country that share the same name. To me, Luxembourg was a weird mystery as I had never met anyone from Luxembourg during my repeated tours of Europe and I didn’t know anyone who had ever visited Luxembourg. I theorized that these oddities were due to Luxembourg’s tiny population and landmass size. It’s one of the smallest countries in Europe with a land mass of about the size of Euro-Disney. A drunk Scotsman that I met in The Hague informed me that Luxembourg was a grimy, car making, industrial city. I visualized Detroit with super narrow streets. Yuck! As my train approached Luxembourg, I snapped out of my train nap and took a look around. Usually, arriving in any capital city in Europe, trains tend to be at least partially to mostly full of backpackers and commuting locals. Despite being early in the afternoon, high tide for backpacker arrivals, my train was nearly empty. This did not help the growing trepidation within me that there was a very clear, unpleasant reason that I had not heard about people visiting Luxembourg in the past. Was it really a gray, unattractive shit-hole? I started to braced myself for two horribly unpleasant days that could very well transpire with me mostly confined to the hostel, drunk on cheap wine in single serving boxes from the lobby vending machine. I slapped myself, causing the few people on the train to look at me with visible concern. What was I thinking? I was a freelance (with emphasis on the “free”) travel writer and I had a duty to cover this city to the best of my abilities whether it was the utopia of my dreams or the polluted, disagreeable equivalent of Berlin. I only had 36 hours to crack this enigma and document it before I was forced to backtrack into Belgium, so I was going to damn well put my head down, be quick like a cat and sober like a Shaker to maximize my time there. Despite failing in both respects I still got the job done.

Luxembourg was not an industrial wasteland. On the contrary, it was the most beautiful and scenic place I had seen outside of Norway. The city turned out to be small enough for me to walked the entire circumference of the city center and the length of the valley in a casual 40 minutes. While I was timing the aforementioned foot trek and enjoying the incredible scenery that surrounded Luxembourg, I saw in the distance what looked like patio umbrellas with the word “Strongbow” (my preferred brand of cider) on them. The heat hadn’t been bad that day, but nevertheless I concluded that it had to be a hopeless fantasy driven mirage. As I got closer and closer and the “Strongbow” name got larger and clearer, I started to pick up my pace gradually until I was almost at a full sprint by the time I burst into the bar. Not only did they have Strongbow, but it was on tap! I immediately forgot my quest to unlock the mysteries of Luxembourg and ordered a .51 ml glass of cider. It was the most welcome taste to cross my lips in weeks. Even better than I had remembered. Wanting to get back to exploring the city, I finished it off rather quickly and got up to leave. I careened into the table next to me as I simultaneously realized that I had not eaten since my early breakfast in Maastricht and that European Strongbow was a bit stronger than the stuff in the States. The cider had gone straight to my head and as I slumped over a chair I owned up to the fact that my productive day had been moronically cut short.

Despite returning to the Strongbow bar three times in the next 24 hours, my goal to traverse Luxembourg was easily achieved in lieu of it’s compact size. I was eventually forced to reluctantly admit that the scenery around Luxembourg probably surpassed my beloved Salzburg in the sheer number of picturesque postcard views. The first impression that hit me as I took the bus into the city center from the train station was that Luxembourg was surrounded on two sides by an incredibly steep valley. This valley had enormous fortifications and casements carved into them that I would eventually tour for a shockingly cheap 1.75 Euros. These casements were cut right into the stone embankment like a giant ant farm and they were as amazing as they were hugely complex. Claustrophobic tunnels led to tight spiral staircases that led into rooms deeper in the embankment, that led into yet more tunnels and rooms. This extraordinary complex was slowly chiseled into the solid rock embankment over the course of five centuries by successive foreign rulers with builder-engineers from Spain, France, Austria and Germany. The fortification became so huge and impenetrable that it was referred to as the “Gibraltar of the north.” Upon learning that I had only toured a fraction of the formerly 23 kilometer long underground network totaling 40,000 square meters of bombproof rooms, I think I actually said “bitchin’!” out loud to myself. Sadly most of this intimidating fortification was either sealed up or destroyed as a result of the Treaty of London in 1867, more than likely because the thing was nearly indestructible and those wussy superpowers were probably too nervous knowing that something with such fortitude existed outside of their rule. At the height of it’s existence, the fortifications could house 35,000 soldiers and their horses! Additionally, it was equipped with artillery workshops, kitchens, bakeries and slaughterhouses. The mere 10% of the fortification that remained after the Treaty of London was still so strong and durable that it was used as a bomb shelter in World War II! Oh-wow!

From the outside, the spectacle of the fortifications made me feel as if I had just taken a train trip back to 17th century. My hostel happened to be at the dead bottom of the valley, at the base of the Bock Casements, the larger of the two remaining casements. The hostel’s geographical location was as scenically thrilling as it was spirit crushing. As I walked further and further down the incredibly steep, uneven cobblestone path with the Barge bouncing and rattling the whole way, I quickly filled with dread at the prospect of having to haul all my back-breaking load of crap back up that sucker in two days. I concluded that I had to make one or two swift friends at the hostel, preferably with a car, so I would have some kind of assistance climbing back out of the valley when it came time to leave.

Adolphe Bridge had the longest stone arch in the world (85 meters) at the time it was built in 1903.

The day that I arrived in Luxembourg was a “bank holiday” (a national holiday), so just about everything except the McDonald’s was closed. This hardly mattered since the best parts of Luxembourg are free and in the wide-open outdoors for anyone to admire at their leisure. Despite the holiday, the tourists that were conspicuously absent on the train ride into the city were nevertheless swarming all over the impressive series of pedestrian walkways that snaked through the Old City, lined with every kind of retail need conceivable. Being the urban genius that I am, I had deduced that by walking against the flow of people holding ice cream cones, I would eventually home in on a gelato stand. Achieving that objective, I crisscrossed the entire city, then descended down into the valley for a look from the bottom. I had my camera out and clicking the entire time before the whole show screeched to a halt at the Strongbow bar. Even semi-drunk on cider, I was so excited about Luxembourg that I managed to drag myself back to the hostel and start documenting my initial thoughts with “Jackass” and “Celebrity Death Match” on European MTV blaring in the background.

Luxembourg is not a cheap city. The country reputedly has the highest per capita personal salary level in Europe. The nightly rates at the hostels are nothing to worry about, but you will easily pay the same amount for dinner as you did for your accommodations if you eat anywhere but the hostel bar or the grocery store. It’s no Norway, but one needs to come to Luxembourg prepared to pay two Euros for a dainty, eight ounce, ice filled glass of Coke.

The wealth in Luxembourg shows itself in several not-so-subtle ways. Expensive, fast cars careened through the city and around the fortifications, pricey, fine dining experiences far out-weighed the affordable alternatives and the locals were tanned and well dressed. Even the Luxembourg chapter of the Hell’s Angels hung out at an expensive bar (the Strongbow bar, as I discovered later that night) and kept themselves dressed in fresh Harley Davidson leather and adorned with intricate, expensive tattoos.

While in Luxembourg I was reacquainted with the tendency of restaurants in central and southern European to close for a short while during my peak hunger window. I was very familiar with this phenomenon in countries like France and Spain, but I had not expected to encounter this practice so far north. Restaurants, like many businesses in what I like to call the “Siesta Regions,” will shut down or only serve drinks between 4:00 and 6:30. I got caught in this vacuum of no food service on both days in Luxembourg. By that point, my daily eating schedule had evolved into two big meals (breakfast and an early dinner) with an ice cream cone in the middle of the day for a snack. So when my hunger became intolerable at 5:00 each day, my choices were to either go to McDonalds (once this year was enough, thank you) or cool my appetite for an hour and a half. Anyone who knows me is acutely aware that I do not cope with hunger well. This behavior was especially strong before I started the Happy Pill regimen. There are theories that I suffer from some low key, exotic form of diabetes, but I think I just really like to eat. Anyway, the debilitating hunger comes on suddenly somewhere between 6 to 8 hours after my last meal and I get more and more insane until I finally get food in me. My behavior can range from quiet, introverted, and crabby to marginally controlled rage. And it doesn’t end when I finally eat. Depending on how worked up I am, getting some food into me can be like a full body, lunatic orgasm. I get goofy to the point institutionalization and I feel as though I have the energy to run a hundred miles at a full sprint. That behavior lasts for about 20 minutes, before all the blood in my body rushes into my stomach for digestion and I crash into an exhausted, spent, stupor. It’s not easy being me.

Late on the day of my arrival, I tried to check my email with the coin operated internet console in the hostel basement. I was used to computer keyboards changing slightly from country to country, but the Luxembourg keyboard configurations had a head spinning variation that slowed my typing speed down to about seven words a minute. Half the letters were jumbled around and all of the punctuation had been moved and scrambled with such common symbols as the period and the apostrophe requiring shift key strokes. I nearly went insane moving between the Luxembourg keyboards and my own in the two days that I was there.

Ascending and descending the embankments around Luxembourg took it’s toll my legs early on. Even just walking up with my tiny day-pack, I would reach the top spent and gasping for air. While the Old City and much of the attractions were at the top, my hostel and the Strongbow bar were at the bottom. With the repeated trips that I made up and down that valley every day, the sensation of my calves being close to exploding started to become a routine feeling. Then, late on the second day, I discovered the goddamn elevator. Luxembourg had installed an elevator to take people from the bottom of the valley up to the city, probably to keep us tourists from having heart attacks while climbing that hideous hill. The bottom of the elevator was hidden deep in a tunnel that emptied out right next to the Strongbow bar and deposited people at the top on the edge of the city center. I had seen several groups of people go in a out of the tunnel while I sat nursing my ciders and I finally decided to investigate. The relatively late realization that I didn’t have to climb that God-awful hill every time I wanted to move around was a bit frustrating, but it was nonetheless a welcome relief to my ass and legs.

After two days in Luxembourg, I had managed to traverse pretty much every city block in the city center and I toured the lush valley twice. Luxembourg is not drenched with a daunting list of tourist activities like most European capital cities. In fact, as I’ve just proven you can pretty much take in all of Luxembourg’s offerings in less than two days, even with several stops for cider. Despite what may seem like a trivial, out-of-the-way stop, I cannot stress enough that Luxembourg is beautiful, friendly, amazing and well worth the detour. I added it to my short list of potential places that I might like to live next summer and departed for Belgium.


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©Leif Pettersen 2012

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