Europe's Best Kept Secret

Trip Start Jun 21, 2010
Trip End Aug 23, 2010

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Flag of Luxembourg  , Luxembourg,
Tuesday, August 17, 2010

I arrived to Luxembourg via a stress free, though nearly six hours long, train ride from Amsterdam. My only trip-up happened at a train station vending machine – my peanut M&Ms got stuck!  Argh.  As I exited the train, I felt comfortable right away.  I could tell the bus driver, "Une heur, sil vous plais," understand his answer, and settle happily in a seat.  I emerged at the correct stop and aided a couple of lost looking girls from Ohio in the right direction, pointing to the international hostel sign pointing us down a path.  I've been doing this a while, I bragged, as we hiked down a very steep hill to get to find our accommodation.  I had a backpack, so I scooted down faster and never talked to them again.  I barely walked through the front doors and towards the reception table, when one of the two guys behind the counter asked if I was Carolyn Dike coming to check in.  I told him, why yes!  What a great guess.  Both commented on how several people still needed to check in that day, so that was a good try on his part.  We joked about his ability to read minds for a while.  The two Ohio girls came in.  I asked my reception friend if he could guess them and he couldn’t.  Those girls didn’t humor the guys, either, so the workers just checked them in quickly and otherwise ignored them.  I complained about how I lost my HI card, they teased me a bit, and I paid in cash (like I normally tried to do.  Less strings).  My friend couldn’t find that last penny that he owed me.  Euro pennies are about the most worthless coins I have ever seen.  Although worth more than the American penny, they are much smaller and many places don’t accept them.  I only kept receiving them and dumping them in street performers’ hats.  I told him not to worry about it, but the other guy showed me his computer screen, saying that the system was mad at him for having too much money.  Laughing, I left, anxious to take a quick nap.

After resting for about an hour, I walked back downstairs so I could look around Luxembourg City.  As I passed the reception, the guy at the desk nearly knocked me over, jumping up and giving me a penny,  He said this penny could be the first of a million, so I told him I would treasure it forever (I still have it).  I bid them adieu and went on my merry way.

As I climbed up the steep hill, I stepped into another world.  Luxembourg City is Europe’s best kept secret, or so I found.  The city center is preserved by UNESCO, or United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, an organization set to preserve Europe’s fine corners.  Sometimes buildings, like the church where my choir performed in Pisa, and sometimes full quarters, neighborhoods, or towns, like Luxembourg City or, as I just discovered, Amsterdam’s canals, are protected by UNESCO.  Luxembourg is picturesque, situated proudly on a hill, packed in by a well-preserved wall.  This wall does not hide the city like Rothenburg, but supports it, built into the hill and speckled with ramparts.  Part of the city sits below in the hill’s shadow, perfectly preserved.  I felt as if I stepped into another world 1000 years ago.  And the surprising part was that I saw barely anybody to take me back to 2010.  Only a handful of tourists scurried about, leaning over ramparts, taking a few scenic photos, getting lost in the uneven streets.  I didn’t read about Luxembourg in any guidebook.  In fact, I never even planned on visiting.  Someone in a hostel told me I would enjoy it, so I shrugged my shoulders and decided to give it a try.  And boy, was this city worth it.  Luxembourg City stretches beyond the medieval town center and, in real life 21st century economics, fares very well.  I, however, stayed in this fairyland, viewing the working world only in a distant skyline.  By 7pm or so, when I was excitedly running around town, all the shops and eateries were closed except for a few restaurants filled with cheerful patrons.  The streets were bare, the square was bare, and I was alone, basking in the city’s grandeur.  I kept running into the same tourists, including these two hysterical guys from Latvia, which I discovered later that evening when I ran into them a fourth or fifth time.  We charaded a bit.  They were here for business, buying cars (I think?) and were excited to meet an American.  After I walked around in circles for a while, passing the same guarded palace, church, and statue several times, I decided my sight-seeing for the night started becoming redundant and turned in to save some energy for a full day of wonderment in the morning.

Luxembourg is a small country, often forgotten when discussing European geography.  Squished between France, Germany, and Belgium, Luxembourg is a mishmash of cultures and languages.  Luxembourg City people spoke French, but I heard a bit of German now and then, and the culture felt far from either French or German.  Luxembourgers fought with the Allies in WWI but were occupied by Germany in WWII (who wasn’t?) until it was at last liberated in 1944.  Thankfully, be it luck or chance, the Luxembourg City center remained unscathed during the war.  The city is actually very close to Trier – had I known I wanted to visit earlier, I could have saved some ping pong train travel, but the beauty of traveling with an open, flexible itinerary means that I can discover jewels like this on a whim, plan free.  I practically stumbled into this medieval wonder, unsure what to expect and being very pleasantly surprised.

I woke the next morning, ate a hostel breakfast in cluster mayhem, and went on my way.  The weather was perfect – cool enough to wear a jacket if I wanted, clear skies.  I found the casements, which were supposed to open at 10am, and discovered them tightly locked, so I walked around searching for something else to catch my eye.  I decided to walk along the fortified wall a little ways, trying to read UNESCO placed plaques written in French and German and enjoying glorious views, then I took stairs down through a woodsy garden just below the wall.  Up stairs, down stairs, up paths, down paths.  Boy, if I lived here, I’d have tight legs.  But alas, that is not the case.  I found a nice pathway back up to the upper city.  I somehow stumbled into a nice Baroque church.  It was an odd, almost comfortable feeling, returning to a church interior similar to the smaller ones I toured in Italy.  I felt that my trip was coming to a full circle.  I started south and Baroque, then moved to Gothic, eighteenth century, and Nordic.  I saw domes and spires, wood and stone, light and dark.  Here, in this little Luxembourg church, my trip memories flooded back to me and I realized that I have been gone for a long time.  This trip went by so quickly that when I finally sat down to reflect, my Italian leg of my trip felt ages ago.  Yet it felt like just yesterday.  The trip is done in a flash, though my memory recalls it occurring over a lifetime. 

I walked up to the main square and found a lively produce market replacing the dead silence I found the night before.  I enjoyed a coffee in the square, watching the action (and felt cool because I could order, “Je voudrais une caf au lait, sil vous plait” and understand the waitress’ answer).  Some rain drizzled slightly, not enough to slow the light market buzz.  Luxembourg was still empty, especially compared to some major hubbubs I visited before, so the meandering crowd felt more homey, personal, and relaxed than rushed and excited.  After paying for my drink, I walked back to the casements, ready to have a look around.  These casements were interesting and fun.  I still liked my St. Goar castle experience far better than any other underground adventure, but I liked these tunnels were still pleasantly enjoyable.  I walked around in circles for over an hour, eating my packed sandwich within dank, dark stone walls.  I hiked up and down tight spiral staircases, peeked through openings along the wall looking over the lower part of Luxembourg, and ran into multiple dead ends.

When I think I saw as all the rooms possible in the casements, I emerged in fresh air and headed straight for the market for an afternoon snack.  I bought fresh blueberries which fed me well through the night and a freshly made “petit” salmon quiche.  Yummy. 

One thing I especially liked about Luxembourg city is that every fifteen minutes, I listened clanging church bells.  They rang and rang, playing songs, chords, or random chaotic notes.  A beautiful quality is that they didn’t feel pretentious.  They were not ringing to amaze hordes of tourists.  They just rang.  They sounded somewhat tinny, so they rang from relatively small churches.  Luxembourg had several of these small churches, poking out from corners, hiding in tight cobbled lanes.  I felt that the Luxembourg bells rang just for me.  One thing I will miss about Europe are the bells.  Luxembourg’s will leave nice memories.

Luxembourg’s history is huge.  It served as a convenient point of trade in the Medieval times and rose and fell in wealth and importance.  Unfortunately I couldn’t learn as much as I would have liked while I was there since it wasn’t in my guidebook and all the plaques were in French and German.  I could figure out the French well enough to somewhat know what I was looking at, but that was about as much Luxembourg knowledge I could acquire. 

I passed a chocolate restaurant (yes, you read that right) and it looked too good to be true, so in a went.  They served me steamed milk and a “chocospoon,” which was just a wooden spoon with a block of chocolate on the end.  I could choose from several different kinds – mine had lime and coconut and such.  Yums.  I stuck my spoon in the milk, swirled it around a bit, and voila!  A tasty hot chocolate.  They also served me a “brownie” which was more like dry cake, so whenever the waitress wasn’t looking I dripped some milk on it to moisten it up a bit.  I finished, pleased overall.  Some nerd fest took their chocolate break here.  Suddenly I was surrounded by prepubescent boys wearing bright green science shirts, flaunting their exciting club.  I watched them bemusedly and after a while decided to leave their crazy antics. 

Hoping to learn more Luxembourg history, I found the history museum and went inside, expecting to fill my mind with new knowledge.  The man behind the counter informed me that the museum was closing in 45 minutes and I would waste my money going in so late.  I must have looked sad, because he said he could let me into the temporary exhibit for free.  Happy, I headed right up and learned all about European youth through photographs, videos, posters, and other odds and ends.  It was very interesting, and before I knew it, a guard told me the museum was closed.  He guided me to the largest elevator I’ve ever seen in my life.  I felt like a mighty monarch descending in it’s giantness.  When I left the building, I walked past a large window looking into the lobby and I waved at the workers.  People here are especially friendly.

I hiked down to the lower part of town.  I found a bit of action in restaurants and a handful of tourists meandering about, but otherwise this well-preserved old town sat very quietly in the shade of the upper part of Luxembourg.  The lower part felt even more medieval than the upper part.  While upper Luxembourg City felt perfectly intact, old facades housed modern interiors and chain shops.  The pedestrian walkway, though quaint, was work-a-day, serving Luxembourgers their consumer needs.  Lower Luxembourg City felt like another world, surrounded by ancient walls and skylines.  I walked into the impressive church, the tallest building down here and was all alone.  I sneezed obnoxiously and loudly, which echoed for ages, making me laugh.  So much for showing respect.  At least no one heard me rattle their walls.  I walked around the town a while, then along the river, past a vegetable garden, apple orchard, and a little otter-type creature.  I watched ducks swim in water so covered in moss it looked solid.  My walk was lovely. 

My hostel was also situated below the hill but on the other side, so I thought I could get there easily by just walking around and not climbing back up those hundreds of steps.  Boy, was that a bad (yet good) idea.  Bad, because I got lost, knowing exactly where I was but unable to reach where I wanted to be.  Good, because I ventured beyond fairytale Luxembourg and saw more of the real life.  Suddenly, I found myself in a world full of lively bars, zipping cars, and well-dressed locals all having a grand time, all in the shadow of the ancient town.  I think I somehow meandered into private property and couldn’t get out, so I prayed that the owners wouldn’t come home and yell at me.  Soon enough, I left, and after an hour of searching for an easier route, I shrugged my shoulders, turned my heels, and headed back to my hill, working my rump up the steps and down the other side.

Crashing at the hostel, I decided to update my behind schedule blog when the wifi in all of Luxembourg City went down.  It was a strange phenomenon, indeed.  The hostel workers were running around frantically until they settled, realizing that they couldn’t do much except wait for the technicians to arrive.  Meanwhile, I tried to mind my business when I somehow ended up in a conversation with a guy from Amsterdam who visited California several times.  He was middle aged and had a tick, making the conversation interesting, to say the least.  His friend works in the Hollywood Bowl, I think as an usher, even though of course this guy talked up his friend like he had the greatest job in the world.  (A few days later, even though I never once gave this guy my name or information, I received an email from him, asking if I was the lady he talked to in Luxembourg City Hostel when the internet went down.  Strange . . . I never responded since I don’t want to confirm his hunch.) 

I left when it got dark outside, anxious to see the floodlit city.  Luxembourgers are lucky – they get to enjoy this majestic beauty every day, although I think they may take it for granted, as people tend to do when life becomes a chore.  Some event must have been going on, because even though I was walking around near midnight, I saw many men in suits walk about in pairs or small groups, laughing, slightly inebriated, joking and playing in the streets.  Now and then a car blew by and 500 miles an hour.  Besides these bouts of energy, the city, was quite, serene, grand.  Content, I turned in for the night.  I laughed with the concierge again.  My chips got stuck in the vending machine and I relayed the story to them, telling them that this was the second time this happened in two days.  One responded with, “Then that’s not the vending machine’s problem!”  He saved my life by opening the machine with his key and extracting the lodged chip bag from machine claws.  The other worker was nursing a new scar above his eye.  I asked him what happened and he explained to me that he bumped into his door that morning.  He continued to show me other scars from various disasters – a burn on his arm from scalding water, a dog bite, this thing, that thing.  He was proud of his battle wounds.  I was happy that I met someone clumsier than me.  For not knowing at all what to expect when I arrived to Luxembourg City, I left happy, excited that I stumbled across an undiscovered, low profile little Western European town.  Just wonderful.
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