On a foodie tour of the Benelux countries by rail, Peter Morrell’s first stop is the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.
Peering down dimly lit tunnels hewn from solid rock I was starting to understand why Luxembourg is called Gibraltar of the North. The tunnels, that stretch for 23 kilometres, under the site of the original castle on huge rock promontory, are known as the Casemates. Peppered with openings that acted as gun emplacements, at one time they housed a garrison of 1200 men and 50 cannons, making Luxembourg one of Europe’s most impenetrable and therefore most strategic city sites. It literally sits controlling the military crossroads between Germany, France and Belgium.
The tunnels were just one of many surprises, both cultural and culinary, during my two day visit. Our group had arrived the day before by rail on a tour organised by Railbookers. After a quick and comfortable trip on Eurostar from London St Pancras there was a change of a few steps between trains in Brussels for the service to Luxembourg. The journey down to the Grand Duchy was made more interesting with the view of the ironing board flat land morphing into the hills and valleys of the Ardennes, all enjoyed from a comfortable seat on the top deck of a carriage with panoramic windows.
We had arrived on the Friday of a very special weekend, it was National Day on the Sunday and at some point we may get a glimpse of the Grand Duke. But right now it was time to join in the party with the Lëtzebuerges – or Luxembourgers in their language – who were in the mood to celebrate. Seated on a terrace overlooking a square outside the Brasserie Guillaume we were soon being entertained with a classic/pop concert performed by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg and tucking in to some delicious food.
My spaghetti was a piled with fresh clams, squid and scallops, delivered daily from Ostend, and was preceded by my favourite tipple, a Kir Royal made with cassis and Crémant de Luxembourg, the excellent sparkling wine produced in the country’s Moselle district.
The Farmer’s Market
Next day back at Place Guillaume II, the official name of the square we had eaten in, a transformation had taken place. The mobile bars and street carts that had been supplying the revellers the night before had been replaced with the regular Saturday morning farmer’s market, where stalls piled high with pungent cheeses, smoked meats and plump vegetables were all doing a brisk trade.
The Pâtisseries and the Flea Market
Luxembourg has historically been occupied by the Spanish, French, and Austrians and as well as the fortifications the invaders also bequeathed a culinary heritage. So when it was time for coffee and we called in at the family run Pâtisserie-Traiteur Oberweis it was no surprise that it had the atmosphere of a Viennese patisserie.
Oberweis is something of an institution in the city. Everything is made in-house from pastries to tarts and from beautiful cakes to chocolate truffles, we indulged ourselves in aromatic coffees and buttery croissants.
Only a few steps down the street, is the other main square in the city, the Place d’Armes, on Saturday mornings it hosts a lively flea market selling curios and bric-à-brac. As with the Place Guillaume II there was a music stage in the square. This is all part of the Summer in the City festival, and the concert the night before was its maiden event. This festival of outdoor entertainment goes right through to September. So it is impossible to visit Luxembourg in the high season without the opportunity to hear alfresco live music or watching street theatre.
On our way to lunch we passed the Hotel Place d’Armes, the place to stay if you are looking for old world opulence. Our destination for a bite to eat was Pâtisserie Namur, one of the city’s long established restaurants. Opening its doors in 1863 Namur is another establishment that exudes a charm of its own. Conscious that I would be eating that evening the light salads on offer hit just the right note.
The Battlements and the Chemin de la Corniche
After lunch we made our way through quaint cobbled streets and alleyways arriving at the battlements, to which the city owes its existence. In the distance modern tower blocks bear witness to Luxembourg’s biggest industry, finance. But from here, looking down at the buildings in the steep ravine created by the Alzette and Pétrusse rivers, it is not difficult to imagine much earlier times.
Emerging from the casemates and blinking in the sunlight we strolled along the ‘Chemin de la Corniche’, a two-hour walk along the city walls. It is often described as ‘Europe’s most beautiful balcony’ and it’s not difficult to see why. The ever changing perspective of the view gives you a unique insight into the evolution of the city.
Wine and Dumplings
Time was pushing on so we wandered back to Place Guillaume II to Kaempff-Kohler, a specialist delicatessen cheese shop. As well as sampling their cheeses we wanted to try a couple of local wines. The first was made with the Auxerrois grape, a sibling of Chardonnay. This was fresh and fruity with elements of both citrus and tropical fruits. The second was a more familiar Pinot Gris and in this wine well-balanced acidity was complemented with notes of apple and more subtle melon flavours.
By this time the crowds on the street were starting to grow and the impromptu beer stalls were busy serving large plastic glasses of Bofferding, the local pilsner style brew. The night ahead of us was going to be long so we headed off to the Restaurant Am Tiirmschen. Tucked down an alley the interior has a very rustic character. First course was a Luxembourg speciality, Feierstengszalot, which was a cross between a beef salad and pate and complete with egg and cornichons.
The main course was a must before a long night of imbibing, Kniddelen. This is a flour dumpling that comes with a range of garnishes. Our version had a generous helping of melting Roquefort cheese over them. This was very hearty fare and very filling.
The National Day Celebrations
By now the celebrations were in full swing and the intermittent rain was doing little to dampen the party spirit. The largest crowds were concentrated around the royal palace from which the Grand Duke and his wife were due to appear before a torchlight parade and their traditional annual walkabout to meet their loyal citizens.
However, we wanted to see what is billed as the spectacular firework display that’s centred round a bridge across the deep river valley. With a couple of hours to go the ideal spot to wait and watch was the bar of the Grand Hotel Cravat, with picture windows overlooking the bridge. The display was well worth waiting for and all from a very comfortable vantage point.
A brisk 10 minute walk back to our temporary home, the Novotel Hotel, saw the end of a very busy but satisfying day which has shown us the best of Luxembourg’s culture and cuisine.
For many Sunday morning brought the prospect of a well deserved lay in but for us it was a walk through the streets, already cleared of the debris of the night’s festivities, to the railway station. Our next stop was a new city in a new country, Antwerp in Belgium. As the train pulled away I bid Luxembourg a very fond farewell, it had been my first visit, after my experiences it won’t be my last.
How to get there
Railbookers (www.railbookers.com) offer a 5 night holiday by rail to Benelux. Prices start from £579 per person and include all train travel from London, Ebbsfleet or Ashford, 2 nights central 4* hotel accommodation in Luxembourg, a night in Antwerp and 2 nights in The Hague, all including breakfast.
For the full itinerary click here… or call 020 3327 1597