The Gran Duchy
When in the tenth century Sigfried Count exchanged some lands in the Ardennes for a rocky ledge between the Alzette and Petrusse rivers to build a fortress, he couldn’t imagine how it would grow. Bastions and casemates turned the rock into a gruyere that would be nicknamed the Gibraltar of the North. It is Luxembourg.
It was the year 963 when Sigfried, count of Moselgau and the Ardennes, and protector of the abbeys of Sankt Willibrord, in Echternach and Sankt Maximin, in Trier, negotiated with the latter the property of the Bock promontory, in a place called Lucilinburhuc, where, since Roman times there was a watchtower that controlled the route between Reims and Trier. In the 10th century, the fortress erected by Sigfried was nothing else than a tower surrounded by a wooden palisade where a chapel was added. In the XI, the wall was extended to accommodate a growing population seeking refuge in the fortress. In 1096 Conrad, Sigfried’s grandson, was recognized as the first count of Luxembourg. Between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, the city was protected with two new wall rings that already housed more than five thousand people, including courtiers, countrymen, merchants, hoteliers and artisans.
For centuries, military architects from Burgundy, French, Spanish, Austrian and German, were expanding, reinforcing and modifying the city's defences, making them one of the most well defended strongholds in Europe. Three walled belts reinforced with bastions, forts and an extraordinary network of twenty-three kilometres of underground galleries, which would not be dismantled until the signing of the London Treaty on May 11, 1867. Not much as the ten percent has been preserved of that immense structure.
Between 1555 and 1714, Luxembourg belonged to Spanish Flanders before it was ceded to Austria in 1815. After Napoleon’s defeat, Vienna Congress established the Luxembourg borders, naming William I of Orange -Nassau first Grand Duke. From 1839 on, the new country becomes completely independent and its state institutions were developed: the Chamber of Deputies, the Council of State and the government. In the mid-twentieth century, after World War II, Benelux was created, the trade association of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, embryo of the future European Union. Nowadays, the European Court of Justice, the Court of Auditors, the European Investment Bank and the General Secretariat of the European Parliament are based in Luxembourg.
The city centre is divided between the Upper City and the Grund neighbourhood, the Lower City. And, between both, there’s what is called one of the most beautiful balconies in Europe, the corniche. A walk that runs through part of the old wall and from there are a great view of the Lower City whit the sharp spire of the Church of Saint Jean de Grund. It’s attached to the Abbey of Neumünster, a space today desacralized where exhibitions and concerts are held. Both neighbourhoods are surrounded by a green belt of municipal parks that have replaced the areas previously occupied by the bastions. Around are the most peripheral neighbourhoods: Bonnevoie, Hollerich, Limpsterberg, Pfaffental, Clausen or Kirchberg. The latter has become the centre of the country's finances, European institutions, the congress centre and the headquarters of the RTL, the Radio Television of Luxembourg. Here the most innovative architecture of the city is projected. The train station neighbourhood is linked to the international railway lines since 1859. The current station is an attractive neo-baroque building from the early twentieth century, when it replaced the old wooden one. The avenues Liberté and Gare connect via two viaducts with the Upper City. Viaducts and bridges are part of Luxembourg’s urban landscape. The Passarelle and Pont Adolphe save the Petrusse valley. The latter leads to Constitution Square, from there, in addition to the bridge, you can see in the background the tower of the Banking Museum and the gardens and remains of bastions that lead to the valley and the casemates of the Petrusse. Beside the square is the monument of the Gëlle Fra or the Memory, one of the icons of the city. Gëlle Fra means golden lady, the statue standing on a large 63 feet high obelisk appealing to the memory of the Luxembourger people who died in the First World War. Right beside, surpassing the golden lady in height since 2013, the City Sky Liner is a rotating observation tower that takes visitors up to 216 feet high, ensuring that, from there, the view reaches up to 29 kilometres away.
Closer to the same square is the Gothic cathedral of Notre Dame de Luxembourg, in whose crypt are the graves of the ducal family and the sarcophagus of Jean l'Aveugle, king of Bohemia and count of Luxembourg, who died in 1346. The funeral tomb, a monumental scene of the mass in the tomb of Christ, was sculpted in 1688. Behind the cathedral complex is the town hall building, which overlooks the great square of William II, there an equestrian bronze reminiscent of the second great Duke, who granted the country's first parliamentary constitution. A passageway leads to the rue du Cure, almost next to the heart of the city, the Place d'Armes. This is a bustling square where terraces of cafes and restaurants are concentrated, including the old but renovated Grand Cafe, a summer house that musicians often occupy, the colourful building of the Cercle Cité, enabled to host conventions and exhibitions and that, between 1952 and 1969 was the headquarters of the European Coal and Steel Community. Around are most of the commercial streets, including the Grand Rue, the main street, which ends at the Routa Pëtz, the red well square, where, from 1982, there is a statue of Wil Lofy with a parade of lambs directed by a trumpeter pastor crowning the Hämmelsmarsch Fontaine.
There begins the Ville Vielle, the conglomerate of streets that form the oldest part of the city reaching the corniche and St Michael church, where that first chapel was built next to Sigfried’s fortress, modified and destroyed on several occasions, its current appearance dates from 1688. Almost beside is the access to the Bock casemates, where the history of the city is told in its archaeological crypt and you can see remains of the oldest fortifications. The knowledge about Luxembourg history of can be extended in the nearby Lëtzeberger City Museum. It provides a folkloric vision of what life has been like in the city and which has a panoramic terrace over the Alzette valley, or in the National Museum of History and Art, with archaeological samples of prehistory and Gallo-Roman times until the Middle Ages.
© J.L. Nicolas