Little City, Big Culture

Art Museums, History And Music Fill Luxembourg's Often-overlooked Capital

May 13, 2007|By Alan Solomon | Alan Solomon,Chicago Tribune

LUXEMBOURG CITY — OK, so it isn't Paris.

This city -- one of two European Cultural Capitals for 2007 and capital of the richest per-capita-income country on the planet -- is pretty nice.

Like all worthwhile European cities, this is a center of commerce -- but also a city of beautiful fruit stands and pastry shops, of historic churches and requisite statues and back streets worth poking around in, and of outdoor places to sip a cup of coffee or a glass of wine or a local brew while furtively enjoying the passing scenery.

There is a local cuisine, of sorts, a remnant of a time when Luxembourg -- officially the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg -- was largely a mix of farms and steel factories, plus this town.

"Up until 1850, Luxembourg was a very poor country," guide Pierrette Antony would tell us. "Then we found iron ore in the south of the country."

Which began the transformation.

So today's Luxembourg City is a city of banks (200 of them, thanks mainly to attractive regulations), wealth, style and diplomacy (many European Union functions function here). Genuine Luxembourgian-style restaurants in town may be heavy on sausages, smoked cuts of pork and such wonders as liver dumplings the size of billiard balls, but the delicate among you certainly will find sustenance.

I can tell you're wondering: If it's all these things, why isn't it swarming with tourists?

There's a reason.

A generation ago, long-defunct Icelandic Airlines (slogan: "We're Cheap") flew youthful backpackers to Europe and dropped them off here. Those kids stayed just long enough to grab the first train for Amsterdam.

If any of them brought home memories of Luxembourg, the memories were lost in jet lag or some other fog. In fact, I have yet to hear anyone of that vintage -- anyone -- say today, "Now that I can afford to stay in a hotel where the bathroom isn't down the hall, I just can't wait to get back to Luxembourg and do it right."

For sure, it wasn't, and isn't, Amsterdam. Amsterdam, on a Saturday night and for better or worse, is a happening place. What's happening isn't everybody's cup of tea (or pipeful of dried vegetation), but there's a certain, well, buzz.

On a Saturday night here in mid-July last summer, Luxembourg City threw a party called a Blues 'n Jazz Rallye. Bands and singers were all over the place -- not only in the Grund, an older part of town below the old city walls with a few crawlable pubs, but up the hill as well -- singing and playing blues and jazz. The narrow streets were full of people, young and old, snaking their way from venue to venue.

Kind of like Amsterdam without the red lights, porn shops and cannabis fumes.

At one venue, a bar not far from the city's national art museum, a singer / guitarist was performing hits by Brazilian master Antonio Carlos Jobim and doing a nice job in front of a nice crowd.

Excited and surprised by the hip scene, I found the proprietor.

"Is it always this lively here on a Saturday night?"

"No, it's always calm," he said, calmly. "I wish every Saturday night was like this."

So there's the main downside: The nightlife here, even -- and especially -- on weekends is rather dull.

But there's a reason.

This is a city of about 80,000. Unlike just about every known European and American urban tourist destination, the population swells on weekdays, to 120,000. Part of that surge is people who come to town on banking or EU business, which fills hotels and makes seats at better restaurants precious. This is in addition to a tide of "border crossers" who come here daily to work from neighboring France, Belgium and Germany, then go back across the border to homes they can afford.

(There are no plans, incidentally, to build a wall along the Luxembourg border. This is Europe.)

The crossers may hang out in Luxembourg City for the occasional dinner or drinks on weeknights, or even stay overnight if duty calls -- but Saturday and Sunday, they're back in France, Belgium and Germany. The businesspeople and bureaucrats and their expense accounts go back to wherever they go back to.

Which leaves things a little quiet.

But lack of consistently rowdy weekend madness aside, there is stuff of interest here. Most of it relates to history, some ancient and some that's still remembered first-hand.

Castle to country

Luxembourg began in 963 as a castle (now gone) built by a Count Siegfried on a rock -- the Bock -- that made it defensible on all sides. As happened in this part of the world, when a castle went up, a town grew up below it.

After a few hundred years and an upgrade in armaments, the French, Spanish, Burgundians, Austrians, Dutch and Prussians took turns occupying the place. Seems everybody wanted to control this impregnable fortress -- nickname: "the Gibraltar of the North" -- despite its newfound pregnability.

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