When in AD 963, Count Siegfried built his “Lucilinburhuc” (little castle) on a rocky promontory overlooking the river Alzette, little did he know that his home was to become the cradle of one of the smallest, yet one of the richest countries in the world.
Thanks to its strategic location at a crossing of Roman roads, “Lucillinburhuc” grew rapidly. Siegfried’s dynasty promoted this growth by forging the right alliances, in marriage and political pacts. Throughout the Middle Ages, the House of Luxembourg has exerted considerable influence, providing Holy Roman Emperors and countless Kings for realms far and near. Many times the city was besieged and occupied by a multitude of foreign powers; Prussia, Austria, Burgundy, Spain, to name but a few.
The Congress of Vienna settled the destiny of the country, by raising it to the rank of Grand Duchy, and by giving it as personal property to the King of the Netherlands (William I of Orange-Nassau). The personal union between Luxembourg and the Netherlands lasted until 1890. During this period the political independence and autonomy were strengthened, and the democratic institutions were developed. Since 1890, when the Crown of the Grand Duchy passed to the elder branch of the House of Nassau, Luxembourg has had its own dynasty. The present ruler, H.R.H. Grand Duke Henri, succeeded his father, Grand Duke Jean to the throne in October 2000. Executive power is in the hands of the Grand Duke and a Cabinet of 12 ministers, while legislative power rests with a Parliament (Chamber of Deputies) elected by men and women over 18, all of whom in Luxembourg have the right and obligation to vote.
For all the havoc that has been wrought on the City of Luxembourg by the many foreign invasions, it must be said that the occupiers, in particular the brilliant French military engineer Vauban, developed Luxembourg’s potential and created one of the strongest fortresses ever built; so impregnable that Luxembourg became known as the “Gibraltar of the North”, protected by 3 defensive walls with 24 forts, and honey-combed by a man-made 17 mile network of underground caverns, the so-called Casemates. The fortress survived in its greatness until 1867, when it was dismantled according to the provisions of the Treaty of London. Not surprisingly, it took 20 years to carry this out, even though some fortifications simply could not be destroyed, as the whole city would have crumbled away. The Petrusse Valley fortifications show this perfectly: part natural rocks, part man-made walls, gun-ports and secret passageways hewn into solid rock, providing the foundations for the elegant three-spired cathedral of “Notre-Dame de Luxembourg”. This very valley has prompted that great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, not only to paint it but to write of it, in 1792, that “here such bulk is measured with so much grace, such gravity with so much loveliness, that one might wish that Poussin had put his splendid talent to work in such spaces.” Today, the parklands of the Petrusse valley are a haven of peace, and a road-wheeled tourist train, the “Petrusse Express”, runs through the Valley giving visitors an insight into life in the former fortress.
Many of these foreign incursions have left their mark – much of the city’s older architecture can be attributed to specific periods of occupation. Here and there, so-called “Spanish Turrets”, once used as spy-posts, still adourn the city walls. Even the spectacular Art Nouveau buildings in the Bourbon area of the city are a response to influences from outside. The ancient convent among the cobbled streets of the Grund suburb, once used as a prison, is now a cultural centre for exhibitions and concerts. Some 230 international banks have major offices in the city, their marble mausoleums and glass temples striking skywards from the ancient ramparts. The new “Historical Museum” is housed in the former Music Conservatory, a 15th century building. What Luxembourg has done, and what is so obvious even to the most casual observer, is to integrate modern architecture into the older, more classical environment.
Just look at the Place d’Armes, the principal square in Luxembourg, originally a military parade ground, and now a tree-lined sanctuary of restaurants and open-air cafés, the drawing room of the city. This is a place to sit and savour not only the splendid beers of Luxembourg, or its even finer wines, but also a tranquillity, a sophistication, a very cultured existence, and definitely an affluent one. Everyone it seems either sits watching, or joins in the promenade. Where foreign powers once drilled their troops, there is now a leisurely parade, serenaded by the music from the central bandstand.
The invading armies have also left behind a human legacy. Still today, foreigners make up a vast proportion of the population, and each race has added something of its own to what had already developed over centuries of domination by others. Luxembourg can proudly boast that it has the great fortune to possess the best traits of so many countries. It has been able to filter, to extract the cream from the top of the European churn of civilisation.
This cream is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that there are more Michelin-starred Restaurants per head of population in Luxembourg than anywhere else in the world. Among the noteworthy restaurants are the “Clairefontaine”, “Agath”, and “Schneidewind”, in Luxembourg-city (the latter specialises in fish recipes), “La Bergerie” at Geyershof, “Bel Air” at Echternach, and “Hiertz” at Diekirch. All these (and more) are Michelin-starred, though that should not prevent you from trying any of the non-star rated restaurants. Fine cuisine is indeed quite common-place in quality-conscious Luxembourg. It is often said that Luxembourg food combines French Finesse with German heartiness. Local dishes include “Judd matt Gaardeboùnen” (smoked collar of pork with broad beans), “Friture de la Moselle” (small deep fried river fish), “Pike in Riesling Sauce”, “Ardennes Ham”, “Wild Boar”, and a host of others. The restaurateur “Léa Linster” at Frisange has won a “Bocuse d’Or” for her traditional style cuisine. As one would expect in a country where more than one third of the population holds a foreign passport, international cuisine is everywhere; American, Japanese, Indian, Thai, Russian, and many other speciality restaurants abound.
Geographical statistics show the Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg to cover 1000 square miles (some 2600 sq km), with a maximum North-South extension of 52 miles (84 km) and 36 miles (58 km) East-West, and a population of 420 000. These bare figures belie the fact that so many different landscapes are evident in such a small territory. Indeed, the northern half of the country, site of the 1944 Battle of the Bulge, is hilly, densely forrested Ardennes countryside, dotted with medieval hilltop castles, of which Vianden, Esch-sur-Sûre, and Bourscheid are probably best known. To the North-East of the City, the “Müllerthal” region is often called Luxembourg’s “Little Switzerland”; strange sand-rock formations litter the area’s many woods, providing opportunities for not-too strenuous rock-climbing, or walking along the hundreds of well-marked hiking paths criss-crossing the area in every direction. The “Gutland” in the centre and the south is mainly rolling farmland and woods, bordered to the east by the wine-producing valley of the Moselle, and in the extreme south-west by a narrow strip of red earth which forms the Luxembourg iron-ore basin.
It was the re-discovery of this iron ore around 1850 which marked the turning point for Luxembourg and meant its economic take-off, thanks due in particular to that industrious British court-clerk, Sidney Gilchrist Thomas, who as a pastime(!), developed a method of removing phosphorus during the smelting process to create fine quality steel. An important steel industry came into being in the south-western corner of the country, drawing tens of thousands of foreign workers into the ore mines and steel factories, and bringing prosperity to the whole country. The steel industry is nowadays little more than a memory, but prosperity has not faded with it.
Indeed, Luxembourg plays a major role as a prominent international financial centre. Banks and investment trusts have settled in the capital, as the fiscal legislation, which dates back to 1929, favours Banks and Holding Companies. Luxembourg as an international centre numbers more than 7000 domiciled Holding Companies, some 1300 investment funds, and 200-odd banks which represent the greatest banking concentration in the European Community. One statistic perhaps best underlines the massive importance that banking represents for the country: The assets of banks form a proportion of 6:1 to the GNP, whereas in most first world countries this proportion is in the region of 1:30.
Luxembourg has reaffirmed its importance as a centre for Eurobonds with a big emphasis in ECU’s, and the future seems likely to attract more and more investment funds in European Currency Units to this comparatively young, but steadily growing centre. The multi-lingual abilities and very high education level of the working population provide local businesses with first-rate staff, whilst the advanced technological infrastructure of the country guarantees the best-possible future support for the finance spot. It is no coincidence that ASTRA, the European Television Satellites, are owned and controlled by SES, based in Luxembourg.
The Luxembourger lives a fine life, where quality is above all of the greatest importance. He demands a high quality of life for himself and his family, he is proud of the high quality of the goods and services he provides, and his high standards are not selfishly kept as his own. He is happy to share his life with you. He is delighted and almost flattered when you chose to visit him, and he wants you to know it. His is not so much a welcome as an invitation to be pampered. Yet, despite their desire to welcome others, and their will to be “as one” with their neighbours, the people of Luxembourg have always been proud and protective of their individuality. The nation’s motto is “Mir wëlle bleiwe, wat mir sin” – “We want to remain what we are”.
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