Luxembourg City lies in the broken jaws of a giant dragon. These are the Marquis de Vauban’s great ramparts and buttresses. Perched above deep gorges the citadel is girded with miles of saw- toothed stone, impregnable and massive. Eighteenth Century cannon could not breach the walls of this Gibraltar of the North. Yet now the towers of the European Investment Bank and assorted EU secretariats glitter on a hill above the once formidable fortifications, so there has been a victory of sorts, over the hewn embrasures and casemates.
We sat in the Place de Guillaume II and drank coffee in the glancing June sunshine. Pensioners sipped mid-morning wine, their bags full of cheese, honey and bread. There is a Saturday market in the square and they had come to buy the best local produce. There is something about the retired men and women of Luxembourg. They are smart and certain in their dress and manners. In the choice of a pre-lunch aperitif, or a precise tranche of an apple cake, they seem at once keenly aware of the pleasures of life and also at ease with their good fortune. These grey epicureans are players in the Grand Duchy’s quietly bustling pageant of the European dream given life.
And it is a pretty place, in only the way a much contested city can be, after long years of peace and prosperity. There are cobbles and pricking spires and mansard roofs. All has been restored, curated and cleanly swept. In the old town, at least, these aspects of architecture are a reminder of Luxembourg’s geographical position, as a place where Germanic and French cultural flavours mingle.
Indeed, it is perhaps the food of the city that speaks most vividly of this emulsion of the Teutonic and the Gallic. Brigitte, our guide for the weekend was keen to give us an apparently familiar Luxembourg adage ‘French cuisine in German portions.’ At the Brasserie Guillaume my Carpaccio was an enormous fanned lily of crimson beef. The veal chop was bible thick and juicy, the béarnaise the glossiest of embrocations. Brigitte was right, here was technique coupled with generosity. Her opening phrase almost obliged me to stuff my napkin into my collar; in the spirit of Bourgeois meets Burgher.
Our weekend developed into a series of dining encounters. Food is serious here – nowhere more so than the opulent chocolate shops. In Britain chocolate is openly enjoyed by children and guiltily by adults. In Luxembourg the chocolate shops, such as Namure on Rue Des Capucins, resemble jewellers. Trays of exquisite and artful confection speak of a sophistry beyond the ken of anyone under twenty. Venture inside and you will find the chocolatier to be a grave professional. You will be listened to and you will receive suggestions. A constellation of chocolates will be spread before you. When you have made your choice your purchases will be boxed, wrapped and tied with curly twine. You walk back onto the street clutching an edible trove fit only for the cognoscenti.
The shops on the Grand Rue are elegant and expensive and a contrast to the ancient buildings just a few streets away. Here are examples of the arts nouveau and deco, a reminder that this indeed a capital city, with a modest but significant air of the experimental. Nevertheless, as we wandered around the Ruritainian quality was confirmed when our guide bumped into an economics minister who was buying some charcuterie. Ten minutes later we found the minister for transport perusing some road markings outside a cafe. We were told that the Grand Duke Himself often pops out C & A.
From one of the city’s many bridges I could see, as through Brueghel’s eyes, tidy allotment terraces, orchards and then countryside, with patches of looming pine forest. At the bottom of a gorge and accessible via lift is the Grund district. Although surrounded by the rest of the city the buildings here feel a little folksy. The rock walls are sheer. There is a waterwheel, long benches for drinking beer and the green Alzette River. Fairy tales could be hatched here, a mere twenty minutes’ journey from the European Parliament.
On the Sunday we were taken up to the Kirchberg Plateau. Far above the once unassailable spires and turrets the EU’s pennants of abstraction whisper. The wide straight road is sentineled by slick blocks of mirrored glass. They speak of the lofty protocols of a remote dispensation. To walk the empty thoroughfares on a Sunday is to glimpse Raymond Bradbury’s vision of a Martian metropolis – pristine, glamorous and deserted. Yet money and bureaucracy are mainstays of Luxembourg’s affluence. The clean streets, select boutiques and impeccable restaurants service an international population of lawyers, politicians, translators and bankers. The Kirchberg is where they do business. The City is where they play – in an ordered and understated manner, of course.
Our last morning was spent on the Moselle, a forty minute bus journey from the city. One side of the river is Luxembourg. On the other Germany rolls away over long low hills. We drifted through miles of neatly tended vineyards. It is a lulling region, with the river as a hinge between to identical landscapes. It is a place where a roman consul might retire after hard years of campaigning.
At a riverside restaurant we ate Zander in saffron sauce and drank a last draught of the delicate crémant they make here. It is always good to drink wine at its place of creation. Sunlight chased the bubbles to the lip of the glass. There was an after taste of honey and melon to it. For a dazzling second I could see why the Luxembourgers seem so content with themselves.
As Brigitte drove us to the airport she explained how the Luxembourg Tourist Board is selling the Duchy as an ‘unexpected’ place. For me it was a discovery, but one that I did expect. A short flight from London airports, Luxembourg City is poised just on the edge of Middle Europe. The expected tropes of modesty, quaintness and good taste make it a fine place to just be for a weekend.