As I close in on 100 countries visited in a lifetime of roaming and working abroad, I’m retracing my route towards that “100 Club” and sharing impressions collected along the way.
A slither of land wedged between the tourist magnets that are France, Germany and Belgium, Luxembourg is often overlooked on European tours, but the annals of history show that it was not ever thus. On the contrary, those lands were coveted by many an ambitious power given their strategic importance at the centre of Europe where trade routes crossed and empires advanced. The list of Luxembourg’s overlords reads like an A to Z of great European powers through the ages: the Romans, the Franks, the Holy Roman Empire, the Burgundians, the Habsburgs, France (under kings, the Republic and the Emperor Napoleon) and the Kingdom of the Netherlands, as well as Imperial and Nazi Germany during the two world wars.
The legacy is a rich historical and cultural heritage ranging from fairy-tale castles nestling in forested hilltops to world class museums and the encyclopaedia of architectural styles intertwined with geology that is Luxembourg City. At the same time, the visitor need not venture too far from man-made marvels in order to ramble over lush rolling countryside or experience traditional village life.
Luxembourg’s political system only enhances the country’s charm; it is the world’s only sovereign grand duchy, ruled by monarchical Grand Dukes. The modern Grand Duchy was formed in 1815 by the Congress of Vienna after Napoleon’s defeat, but, instead of becoming independent, it was placed in a personal union with the Kingdom of the Netherlands (the King also served as Grand Duke). However, when William III died without a male heir bringing his daughter to the Dutch throne in 1890, Luxembourg passed instead to William’s distant cousin, Adolphe the Duke of Nassau, as female succession was only permitted upon extinction of all males in the dynasty. This brought about Luxembourg’s de facto independence and Adolphe’s descendants still reign as Grand Dukes to this day.
With so much going for this country and with such an intriguing backstory to recount to visitors, why on earth did its people seem so glum to the 15-year-old me who was there on a caravanning holiday with his father?
Perhaps it was partly down to Luxembourg’s règlements — grand ducal regulations that we saw posted in public places around the country and which seemed to forbid a plethora of activities. So much so that the standing joke between my father and I became that there was to be “no enjoying yourselves at all”. If we could feel, even in jest, that the Grand Duke was personally committed to our misery then perhaps other visitors have got the memo over the years. But what of the locals?
Despite the long faces, I suspected that being overlooked suited them just fine. It reminds me of that rather selfish joy that travellers may experience on having a natural wonder or tourist site to themselves. I confess to feeling this quite recently, during the pandemic, when I strolled along the top of Dubrovnik’s famed city walls with just the wind for company. So, who could blame the Luxembourgers if they wished to keep their own wonders to themselves? A few règlements from a fussy Grand Duke might be a small price to pay reasoned the 15-year-old me (while the modern-day me suspects a grand (ducal) conspiracy to preserve this unique land).
Photo credit: Thibault Milan on Unsplash