Travel: A modern fairytale

The River Alzette in the Grund quarter

The River Alzette in the Grund quarter - Credit: Archant

Both fairytale and modern capital, Luxembourg City’s mix of geology, ancient history and modern European role makes for a striking city break. Rebecca Underwood reports

The modern side of the city - Kirchberg

The modern side of the city - Kirchberg - Credit: Archant

The captivating city of Luxembourg, at the conflux of the Alzette River and its tributary the Pétrusse, is the capital of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, the only remaining Grand Duchy in the world and one of the smallest sovereign nations in Europe. The landlocked country is bordered by France, Germany and Belgium.

Luxembourg City contains the ruins of Luxembourg Castle, which sits on a promontory known as the Bock. The drawbridge, which once linked the rocky outcrop to the city, was replaced by the double-storey Pont du Château in 1745 by the Austrians.

In 963 Count Siegfried of the Ardennes, a relative of King Louis II and Emperor Otto the Great, constructed the castle on the natural outcrop, surrounded by water on three sides. According to legend, the count married a beautiful mermaid and the terms of their union demanded she have one day of privacy each week in order to bathe. Siegfried failed to keep his promise and watched her bathing. Her bath tub sank into the rock below the castle and she vanished beneath the waters of the Alzette. A mermaid, taking the form of a beautiful woman or a viper, is said to emerge briefly from the river once every seven years.

In 1443 the castle fell to the Burgundians and over the next 400 years the most highly skilled military engineers from Burgundy, France, Spain, Germany and Austria transformed the stronghold, which became known as the Gibraltar of the North. The bastion was strengthened by three fortified rings with 24 forts, 16 additional works of defence and a network of casemates stretching for 23 kilometres under the stronghold, providing shelter for troops and horses as well as a network of bakeries, kitchens and workshops.

The Grund district

The Grund district - Credit: Archant

Following the declaration of neutrality in 1867, the military vacated the fortress and over the following 16 years 90 per cent of the defences were destroyed and the entrances to the casemates sealed. Today, 17 kilometres of tunnels are a popular tourist attraction and were recognised, along with the old town area surrounding them, as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1994.

Other attractions in the city include the glorious Palace of the Grand Dukes, parts of which reflect the beauty of the Flemish Renaissance style.

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The centre of the palace was built in the Baroque style in the early 1740s and in 1891 it was transformed in the Renaissance style. A restoration was completed in 1995. Adjoining the palace is the chamber of deputies, which dates from 1859. The City Palace, which today hosts several administrative buildings and festival halls, is connected to the city by a bridge.

Another site that offers an intriguing insight into the city’s history is the imposing Notre Dame cathedral. The property was once a Jesuit church dating back to 1613 and it is an excellent example of Gothic architecture with Renaissance adornments. In the late 18th century the church obtained the (said to be miraculous) image of the Maria Consolatrix Afflictorum, patron saint of Luxembourg. Five decades later the church was consecrated and in 1870 the building was raised to cathedral status and renamed by Pope Pius IX. The crypt of the church is the final resting place for prominent members of the Grand Ducal family including the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, the consort of Grand Duke William IV.

The Grand Ducal Palace

The Grand Ducal Palace - Credit: Archant

To gain further insights into the rich history of the city, visit the National Museum of Art and History, located on Marche aux Poissons. It has extensive collections, spread over five floors, include renowned exhibits from the Gallo-Roman era and the Middle Ages.

For lovers of contemporary art, the Mudam Museum on Park Dräi Eechelen, is a must. The striking building, designed by Ieoh Ming Pei, features a glass canopy which ensures natural light floods the spacious interior and is sympathetic to the beauty of its natural surroundings. An exhibition of works by Canadian sculptor David Altmejd, known for his portrayal of creatures and inspired by an interest in architecture and the natural sciences, is on display until May 31. Or you may prefer to view the minimalist sculpture, conceptual, performance and abstract art of Franz Erhard Walther. This fascinating collection is also on show until the end of May.

Today the city has developed into a thriving banking and administrative centre. Take a stroll around Kirchberg in the north-eastern quarter of the capital and here you will find several European Union institutions including branches of the European Commission, the European Court of Justice and the Secretariat of the European Parliament.

For time and space to reflect on all that culture and history, head for the Grund, a precinct in a valley in the heart of the city along the banks of the Alzette River. After taking the elevator which descends through the cliff, take a stroll around this picturesque area and admire the stunning explosion of colourful flowers and towering trees.

For great food, try Mosconi, a first-class Italian restaurant only a short walk away from the Grund on Rue Munster and holder of two Michelin stars. The menu features a wide range of Mediterranean dishes with 90 per cent of the produce imported direct from Italy, including Tuscan beef, Piedmont veal and truffles from Alba. The high end service and an outstanding pasta menu will ensure an unforgettable lunch experience.

For accommodation, consider the Place d’Armes Hotel on Place d’Armes Square, in the centre of the city. Treat yourself, and reserve one of the spacious duplex suites measuring 50 square metres. The contemporary furnishings, plush carpeting and rich fabrics ensure a high standard of comfort and with a separate living room on the lower floor and a tranquil bedroom above, you should enjoy a rejuvenating slumber.

For an exceptional dining experience you won’t need to go far. La Cristallerie, the hotel’s gourmet restaurant, offers an enticing selection of delicious dishes served in opulent surroundings.

For a more informal dinner, visit the Big Beer Company on Rives de Clausen. Here you can sample the national dish, a bowl of bouneschlupp – a hearty green bean soup with bacon, potatoes and onions. Order a pint of home-brewed ale and raise your glass to Luxembourg City, the only European city to have achieved the title of European Capital of Culture twice.

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