It’s one of the world’s richest countries; it’s also one of the smallest. Nick Harman legs it over to Luxembourg to see what’s cooking.
It’s kind of appropriate when flying off to a country that’s barely 84 km long that I get on board an airplane equally as tiny. Just as France could swallow the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg many times over, you could fit quite a few Dash-8 airplanes into a modern jetliner.
The Luxair turboprop Dash -8 is the plane that makes the daily short hops from London City Airport to Luxembourg, it buzzes down the runway like an angry wasp and then climbs steeply out to minimise noise nuisance over Docklands.
Just over an hour later and we are over the heavily forested countryside of Luxembourg, the country is essentially a rural one and in its south eastern area is a large chunk of the Mosel valley, from where Luxembourg gets its Crémant de Luxembourg sparkling wine, a special type of wine within the Moselle Luxembourgeoise appellation. It’s drunk as an aperitif just about everywhere in the Duchy, as I will find out.
Luxembourg is a country yes, but it is also a city, which can get confusing. The city is a short ride from the airport, regular buses run back and forth and a tramway is being built, although most residents pull a face when you ask about it, suggesting that no one expects it to be ready anytime soon.
Within minutes of landing I am taking my weekend bag into the 4 star Hotel Simoncini, a bright smart and modern place bang in the centre with clean, sharp lined rooms and works of art in every corner.
Out to investigate
The general impression people have of Luxembourg, if they’ve never been that is, is one of lawyers, politicians and bankers all living well off the fat of the European Union, and it’s certainly true that the place has the scent of money. Fancy cars are everywhere and the men and women wear the sort of clothes that don’t scream wealth, but subtly demonstrate through cut, colour and fabric that they are not cheap either.
The city is divided by the deep Alzette valley. On one side is the beautiful old town perched on its cliff top, and once the most impregnable place in Europe thanks to its fortifications. Today it’s protected by Unesco from any attacks by modern day marauders trying to make money in property.
Across the gorge is the Kirchberg district where shiny office towers dominate, but not so long ago this was, as the cliché goes, all fields. And somewhat oddly, fields do still exist just behind some of the more massive shrines to capitalism thrown up by the big banks.
All is not empty hearted money though because here too is the Grand Duke Jean Museum of Modern Art, or Mudam for short, where I wandered happily. The museum is literally built on the old stone fortifications, and it has been done brilliantly so that old and new are equally visible at the same time.
Luxembourg has also realised that an area of town made up of nothing but office buildings is a soulless empty place at nights and weekends, so all new buildings have to dedicate their ground floors to shops and restaurants.
I ate lunch in the Aqua (Hotel Melia) close by to Mudam and it was very good; fine cooking in a stylish, modern glass environment with views out to the city.
Afterwards I went around the corner to see inside the Philharmonie concert hall, designed by the architect Christian de Portzamparc, a place of absolutely stunning design and, I was told, perhaps the finest acoustics in any hall anywhere in the world.
The old town and some stiff walking
Back in the old town there’s plenty to see. Obviously there is serious shopping to be had here but it’s not all Bond Street, even though one place I peered into sold nothing but classic watches and 4500 Euros seemed to be the cheapest one on offer.
If you’re not into clothes and watches there is food in plenty here, from the very finest restaurants serving classic French cuisine to modern fusion places such as Go Ten where platters of easy-eating and stylish Japanese style food are available all day. In the evening it becomes central to the whole busy bar and eating scene for the young Luxembourgers who gather in this charming part of town.
The morning food market the next day, Saturday, in the historic Place Guillaume was packed with good things to lust over and afterward there was a wide choice of coffee and pastry shops to try.
The locals endlessly debate the merits of the very old and established Patisserie Namur against the very modern Patisserie Oberweis, but both have the capacity to bring you to your knees at the sight of incredible pastries and cakes as art form.
Just as well then that there are great walks to burn some of those calories off. For the less active the Chemin de la Corniche is a pedestrian promenade that runs along the line of the 17th-century city ramparts with fabulous views across the river valley. Or you can descend, fighting the pull of gravity, to the valley floor itself where the small winding streets come alive at night, especially in the old brewery area, the Grund quarter, now home to lots and lots of lively bars and restaurants.
Here too is the massive Neumünster Abbey, a cultural centre where there is always something going on, especially jazz concerts on a Sunday often to be enjoyed for free with a coffee, and if you’re hungry upstairs is Brasserie Neumünster’ where easy eating buffets are served and are good value too I found.
Chocolate and cheeses
Good news is that there is no need to clamber back up the steep winding roads afterwards, an elevator hewn into the rock lifts you back to the old town in seconds. And moments later I’m having a hot chocolate in front of the Luxembourg Grand Ducal Palace, watching other tourists pose with the stony-faced palace guard. The Luxembourg Royal Family, happily retained after a nationwide referendum in 1919, live here much of the time close by their subjects who by all accounts love them dearly.
And I love the chocolate shop dearly. The Chocolate House has more than 60 hot chocolates on offer, with a large choice of pralines, pies and homemade cakes too. Slimming it isn’t. All I can do after is to walk the streets very slowly, poking my nose into the incredible cheese shop at Kaempff Kohler where you can select some cheeses and sit down with a glass of wine from the wine shop and have a taste trip like no other.
Dinner is served
And later, hungry once more I descend to eat at UmPlateau, a charming place in an old house. Upstairs is cosy, the rooms feeling like someone’s sitting room. Downstairs is a bar built out back, a place that seems popular with the more jetsetty style of local and which has over 25 wines by the glass, as well as a whisky menu.
The food is modern European all over, well done without being adventurous and well priced too. Sharing platters of jamon, croquettes, grilled artichokes, stuffed bell peppers vie with a simple but fine steak and chips for attention. It fuels me for the walk back up to the old town very nicely.
After another pleasant night’s sleep, it’s a very quiet city away from the bar areas, it’s off the airport for another ride in the Dash8 and an exciting night-time low descent over St Paul’s before we land. Luxembourg City was a pleasant surprise, a great place for a weekend break and not at all what I imagined I would find.
Office National du Tourisme de Luxembourg
Les bonnes addresses.
Léa Linster Delicatessen
Gourmet shop of Luxembourg’s famous female Chef
4 rue de l’Eau, L-1449 Luxembourg www.lealinster.lu
Family company in the 6th generation
27 rue des Capucins, L-1313 Luxembourg www.namur.lu
Patisserie Oberweis,Purveyor to the court
16 Grand’rue, L-1660 Luxembourg www.oberweis.lu
Founded in 1922
18 Place Guillaume, L-1648 Luxembourg www.kaempff-kohler.lu
Pâtisserie Cathy Goedert
8 rue Chimay, L-1333 Luxembourg www.cathygoedert.lu
Golden Bean Coffe Experience
23, rue Chimay, L-1333 Luxembourg www.goldenbean.lu
Kaale Kaffi coffee & vintage shop
9, rue de la Boucherie, L-1247 Luxembourg.
Dipso – the Wine Republic (wine bar)
4 rue de la Loge, L-1945 Luxembourg www.dipso.lu