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October 31, 2006

Castles in Luxembourg

The Travel Channel

For my next trip to Brussels I were taking Friday off and staying until Monday, making it a long weekend, as we were getting a rental-car and driving south to visit the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, and to eat more waffles of course!
As usual I left with the airport express train directly from work, this time on Thursday afternoon, and as usual the SAS-flight were delayed so it got quite late before I finally arrived. Also as usual I spent the waiting time reading a classic novel, this time having selected the dystopian "Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card, a very gripping story about war, ethics and human nature.

Friday: Getting out of Brussels
Friday morning Carina and I got up early so we could get to Brussels Midi train-station, where Avis has their offices, before 9 a.m. At first we had some trouble finding the offices, and walked around several blocks before we found them, just around the corner from where we started! Getting the car was a breeze, and despite just paying 75 euros for the weekend we got a really cool black Opel Astra-batmobile :-) Before heading out Carina went shopping for snacks and drinks while I packed in our luggage and mounted the iPod and GPS. And boy were I glad that I remembered the latter, for getting out of the Midi-area and then out of Brussels without it would have been a problem and could have taken hours... but with the GPS-lady guiding us we got quickly underway.

After a couple of hours on the road we made a stop in the very nice town of Arlon to have lunch, and got ourselves the best curry-chicken sandwich from a local bakery. We then walked around the city center a bit before rounding of with a few pralines from a nearby chocolatery and heading on towards Luxembourg. We set the GPS for Differdange and arrived in a small industrial town with nothing much to show for itself, so we didn't stop but drove on towards the canton capital, Esch-zur-Alzette. This was a really cozy town and we spent several hours walking around the shopping district, which among other things sported a Villeroy & Boch brand store where we saw lots of really nice stuff, but expensive too. Our next stop was supposed to be Dudelange which was just another town similar to Differdange, so we decided not to waste our time there and quickly set course for Luxembourg City. After checking in to our hotel we went out to take a walk around the city, which was a bit off as our hotel was not located on the main hill. On our way we found a very nice restaurant and had a really good dinner before walking around and taking in the sights by night. However it had been a long day, so we headed back to our hotel and turned in early.

Saturday: The heart of Luxembourg
We woke up early to a slight drizzle and hurried out to explore the city in daylight. Our first stop were the Casemates, a 23km series of medieval defensive works and tunnels built around the edge of the main hill of Luxembourg city. I ran around all over the place to see every bit of the narrow tunnels deep underground, an amazing achievement to have been built by hand, earning the city the name "Gibraltar of the North". I really love all this old medieval stuff :-)

Afterwards we wandered around the city to get some more photos in daylight and to buy some lunch before heading south to the district of Grevenmacher to see the Moselle valley. Our first stop was in a small town of EU-fame called Schengen. First we took a wrong turn and ended up in France, and then another taking us across to Germany, all within less than a kilometer. It was strange how French everything became just across the border in Contz-les-Bains, despite the towns being separated by just a few kilometers, and similarly was everything really German in Sehndorf in Germany, just across a short bridge in the other direction. With a population of just above 400 there were not much to see in Schengen other than taking the tourist photos of the plaque where the agreement of the same name was signed, so while there we barely left the car before starting up along the Moselle river.

The next place about 5km downriver was the village of Remich, a very picturesque town known as the pearl of the Moselle. Here we stopped for a while to walk around and find somewhere to have lunch, but the entire town seemed to be closed so we had to settle for the nice views before heading on. The Moselle valley is famous for its wineries, and in the small town of Wormeldange we happened upon the Caves des Vignerons, a winecellar for sparkling wine in the Vinsmoselle group. Here we first tasted a few select wines in the bar, and afterwards we bought so much in the shop that we almost couldn't carry it all before going after the next winery on our itinerary. This one was supposed to be in Grevenmacher city, but both wineries there were closed when we got to them. But since we were going on holiday in late October this was a calculated risk on our part, so we didn't get too bummed and went to find some lunch instead. However due to the low population density in this area, we found no open restaurants, so we ended up just getting some snacks from a local supermarket instead.

Our last destination this night was the city of Echternach in Mullertal, an area known as "little switzerland" from its many rock formations and small streams. The city itself still held the true spirit of medieval Europe, but the real gem was the amazing landscape surrounding it, completely different from that in the rest of the Benelux area. I would have loved to spend more time there, but as it was getting late it was time to head back to our hotel in Luxembourg city. Despite having spent a full day through various landscapes getting to Echternach, the return trip took us just above half an hour when going the short route back, a testament to the greatness of little Luxembourg. After refreshing ourselves in our room we headed out and had another very good dinner in the city proper, and then being tired from the days events we once again headed to bed early despite having planned to check out the Luxembourg nightlife. Oh well, it will have to wait for another occasion.

Sunday: Castles and ruins
Waking up on our last day in Luxembourg we first went out to see a bit more of the city. So we walked around to the main square and city hall, as well as getting breakfast and shopping for some souvenirs, which we should have done Saturday since most places were closed now, but we still got ourselves a set of nice fridge-magnets and some other thingies.
When the clock turned 10 it was time to head out and start our tour of the northern Luxembourgian countryside and its castles. Our first stop was the castle Larochette, also in the Mullerthal, a set of partly restored ruins of an 11th century fortress on a rock over the town of the same name. It was a tad to ruiny for my taste, but still a beautiful place with its history.

Heading on we followed our GPS through a series of backroads through the countryside until we suddenly around a turn came upon the Castle Beaufort down in a narrow valley. It was an amazing castle-ruin, with remains of a moat and many buildings still intact, as well as a few exhibits of reconstructed instruments of torture and kitchenware. After following the marked trail through the castle, dungeons and towers we were on our way out when we discovered that they were selling Cassis, a castle branded locally made blackcurrant liquor, and after tasting we just had to buy a bottle. Now thats what I call a good souvenir :-)

Next we headed across the countryside towards the town of Vianden on the German border. Coming up the Our valley we could from far away see the large majestic Vianden castle towering on a hilltop over the town, a truly spectacular sight of one of the most beautiful castles in Europe. The drive up to the castle was no less through the streets of a medieval-era town where time seemed to have stood still. The castle itself has been fully restored and decorated with an impressive collection of artifacts from throughout its history. If you are going to visit just one castle this summer, make sure it is this one!

After spending too much time in Vianden we had to press on to make our other scheduled stops, and headed on towards the Bourscheid Castle in the Ardennes. When we got there a bunch of other tourists were hanging around outside the gates, and we soon found that the castle was closed despite the times mentioned both on the door and in our brochures. We pondered about what to do and called the Luxembourg turist office who didn't know of this, but after a while they found out that the janitor had never shown up to open that morning. We didn't want to waste any more time, but I really didn't want to miss out on this castle either. Walking around the wall to see as much as possible I found a spot where the wall was just 3 meters tall, so I talked Carina into helping me scale it. After climbing up I squeezed through a gap at the end of the fence and suddenly found myself inside the castle walls!
First I tried opening the gates from inside for Carina and the other tourists, but the bolts were secured with a padlock so instead she handed me the camera through a crenelle in the wall and I ran around taking pictures on my own. I can honestly say its the first time I've broken into a castle by scaling the wall, but it was totally worth it as the castle ruins were awesome and among the coolest I've seen, and there were no other tourists to disturb the mood! I'd really have liked to spend more time there, but with Carina waiting outside and me trespassing I just looked over everything once before heading back out and getting back to our car.

With the evening setting in it was far past time for lunch, so we headed into the city of Diekirch where we had a quick dinner at a small Italian restaurant. After eating it was getting late and we figured that we only had time to see one more thing before darkfall. I wanted to see more of the town, but but since most of it was Sunday-closed we left and headed north for Clervaux instead. We drove into the valley while it was still light, and found a beautiful white chalked castle standing in the middle of a pittoresque little town. The white walls and current use of the castle really made it feel as a living part of the city compared to the sense of history that follow most castles.
Also our haste to leave Diekirch was rewarded when we made it to Clervaux castle just a few minutes before the Museum of Models were closing. It holds a grand collection of model replicas of almost all the Luxembourgian castles and palaces, an astonishing piece of work that let us enjoy viewing the many castles that we did not have time to visit on this trip. On permanent display in the castle was Edward Steichens photo exhibition: "The Family of Man", which Carina really enjoyed. This was a really fulfilling end to our tour of Luxembourg, and driving out of the town we even got an amazing view of the lighting of the white castle by night. And with that view we left the Grand Duchy and set a route back to Brussels where we returned the car at Midi station before heading home to Carina's apartment in Ixelles.

Monday: Waffles in Brussels... again
To get the most out of our weekend in Luxembourg I took both Friday and Monday off so that we didn't have to stress around to get time for everything, and since I wouldn't make it back in time for work even when taking the morning flight I stayed in Brussels until Monday afternoon. After sleeping in until noon we took the metro downtown and walked some around the city again, checking out Manneken Pis and the book-selection at Waterstones, and of course having another one of the delicious chocolate covered Belgian waffles that I just love so much! Then in the evening I as usual took the 17:30 express train to the airport, spent an hour looking at delicacies in the tax-free stores, and walked the mile to the furthest gate where the Oslo-planes are always located, to be arriving in Norway and enter my dark apartment a few hours later, after having spent another wonderful weekend away!

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