Only one who has learned much can fully appreciate his ignorance.
- Louis L'Amour
East of Paris the land was flat and low-lying at first, rather poor-looking - thin soil, I guessed, limestone a little way down - with fallen trees still lying in piles from last winter's terrible storms. Farther on, though, the terrain turned hilly, with green pastures alternating with wooded patches, and little towns up on the hillsides.
Metz was a bigger city than I'd realized, and I was tempted to get off there and spend a couple of hours looking around; and maybe I should have, but I didn't know how long it might take me to find a room in Luxembourg City.
A couple of Luxembourg customs cops got on the train at the border and came through the cars asking questions and checking passports - the only time after London that anybody official wanted to see mine. They didn't seem really interested in me, though. I had the impression they were looking for something or somebody in particular.
They should have a sign at the train station in Luxembourg City: ABANDON ALL PRECONCEPTIONS, YE WHO ENTER HERE. At least my own mental pictures were due for a major trashing. I had, fatuously, envisioned Luxembourg as some sort of quaint backwater: little old grand duchy up in the mountains, bypassed by history, no doubt quaint as all hell....
Ha, needless to say, ha.
Luxembourg Ville is in fact a very hip, fast-paced modern city, very cosmopolitan - and very prosperous, because it serves as headquarters for so many international banking and holding companies. Like Switzerland, Luxembourg makes a national business of holding other people's funds; there is a hell of a lot of money in that tiny country, and it shows. The streets downtown are lined with pricey shops, and the traffic includes an unusually high proportion of BMWs and Jaguars and other expensive cars; smartly-dressed women talk on cellphones -
Ah, yes. We'll get back to those smartly-dressed women later on. Were they a factor in my decision to spend three days in Luxembourg City? Maybe. You've got to have something to look at and I was getting burned out on cathedrals.
I found a hotel room near the station (the Bella Napoli, upstairs from a pizzeria; a decent hotel with reasonable rates - for Luxembourg; this is, as I quickly learned, not a cheap town) and got settled in and went out to explore.
The key geographic fact in Luxembourg City is the big gorge that splits the city in two. The old city is mainly on the northern side of the gorge, as are the government buildings and most of the big banking and commercial centers, not to mention the casino.
A couple of bridges span the gorge; this is the main one. From it you can see down into the gorge:
You can even look straight down onto people's rooftops and into the little gardens that everybody seems to keep. If a Luxembourger has access to a square foot of dirt he will plant something. An endearing trait, and one which helps make the city so attractive.
Needless to say there is a cathedral. I failed to find out when it was built or what it is famous for. As I say, by now I was starting to go into cathedral overload.
There are several other old churches, though. Here we see an unusual sight: a Gothic church with real Goths. (Look closely.)
This is St. Michael's church. It is the oldest church in the city but in its present form it only goes back to the late 17th century. That is all I know except that it must be very important because there were almost always at least a couple of tour buses parked out front. This is how you recognize important places in Europe: there will be tour buses parked nearby and a group of people, most often Asian, snapping photographs.
This is the palace where the Grand Duke lives. A much better-looking palace than Buckingham, in my opinion, if not as large. Amazingly, there is no wall or fence or anything like that; you can walk right up the street past the Grand Duke's front door.
The Grand Duke must feel pretty secure in the affections of his subjects; there was only this one guard on duty - a competent-looking lad, to be sure, far more confidence-inspiring than the redcoated shrimps at Buckingham Palace, but still obviously representing ceremony rather than serious security.
The Grand Dukes of Luxembourg go back a fair number of generations, but have only been full-fledged reigning sovereigns for a little over a century; Luxembourg has only been an independent country since 1890. Before that it was ruled by the Dutch crown and before that by a series of occupying powers.
This has in fact been a pretty popular spot for people in the occupying-power racket; even in Roman times - and, probably, earlier than that - it was readily recognized that the place had great potential as a natural stronghold, not to mention being in a highly strategic location. The first castle was built here in 963 and succeeding generations of occupiers continued to improve and add to the fortifications. The major defensive works were, as I understand it, begun by the Spaniards back in the 1600s or so, but all sorts of people got in on the act at one time or another. That's what makes it hard to know how old a given structure is in Europe: everybody felt called upon to add something new, especially in the case of fortifications and churches. Or, of course, combinations of both, as in Avignon.
The interesting thing is that nobody ever seems to have actually done any fighting here; the great fortress of Luxembourg ("the Gibraltar of the north," it used to be called) never had to do any actual defending. Maybe it was such a tough nut nobody was prepared to try to crack it.
Then finally in 1867 the Treaty of London specified that the fortress had to be deactivated, and the authorities obediently demolished the defensive works, at least enough to render them useless. Reportedly there was some bitching about this among the citizens of Luxembourg, since the fortifications after all represented Their Tax Guilders At Work, but the job got done and now there are only interesting and scenic ruins, like this tower.
The old walls are great, though, for sightseeing, as they command splendid views of the city and the gorge:
Here we have one of those things that seem impressive at first until you start thinking. The bridge itself is neat enough, but what, after all, was the good of the tower and the walls? Whoever commanded the heights could, even in bow-and-arrow times, wipe out any force that tried to hold the bridge - hell, you could just about do it throwing rocks, from this height - or, if they were the home team, they could defend it perfectly well from up here. Oh, well, somebody's brother-in-law probably got the contract.
It was clear that there was a great deal to see in Luxembourg, and I planned to spend some more time seeing it. But first I had another side trip to make.
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