ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 139


BENELUX NEXT TIME!

We left Luxembourg City behind today bound for France. As the scenery rolled past the train window we spent some time reviewing all our photos from the past month in the BeNeLux region and reflecting on what we’ve seen and done since leaving the UK behind. Obviously a few days in each country is hardly enough to form more than a basic opinion of what it means to be a visitor in Belgium, Luxembourg, or the Netherlands, but we’ve still managed to pull together our general impressions from each country. So here it is: an overview of our* experiences in the BeNeLux region.

*Emphasis on the fact that these musings are based on OUR experiences. Everyone has a different experience of a place when they visit and we’re certainly not expecting that our view of the world is shared by all.

 

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One of the first things that strikes us about the BeNeLux region is that, whilst these 3 little countries share a lot in terms of history and geography, they’re also very different. We saw this in the architecture, which changed gradually as we travelled South from the typical tall, narrow townhouses that dominate cityscapes in the Netherlands and Flanders in Northern Belgium, to the more Germanic homes we saw in the Ardennes region of Belgium and all over Luxembourg.

 

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The architecture of this region was one of the highlights for us, without a doubt. The Medieval towns of Ghent and Bruges in Flanders were even more magnificent than we expected. And despite the hordes of other tourists we encountered in these towns, we would still rate them as top destinations in Europe. If nothing else just because they’re so well preserved, and there’s no denying that they’re pretty, with all the canals that criss cross the towns.

 

 

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If the canals in Bruges and Ghent are pretty, then those of Amsterdam are stunning. The canals in Amsterdam bring a sense of space and open-ness to the city that stops the densely populated city from feeling overly crowded and closed in. Brussels, by comparison, felt so much more oppressive; mind you, that may have had a lot to do with all the graffiti, dog shit, and dirt everywhere as well*!

*In case you missed it: we didn’t really like a lot of Belgium. Bits of it were nice, but the overall vibe wasn’t a nice one. The bigger towns and cities often had an air of unkempt disregard about them that just made it seem like no one cared. In both the Netherlands and Luxembourg, however, basic civic pride was evident everywhere. From the cleanliness of the streets, to the flowers in every window, and beautifully landscaped public gardens. There just wasn’t much of this in Belgium.

 

 

 

 

For museums Amsterdam wins hands down again, though when it comes to grand churches, there Belgium surprised us. The Protestant churches in the Netherlands were very stark and austere; whilst the Roman Catholic ones in Luxembourg and Belgium were far more ornate.

 

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And castles – so many awesome castles in Belgium and Luxembourg!

 

 

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In all 3 countries, however, the highlights for us were often to be found in the small country towns; in the quiet towns where the pace of life is still slow enough that people take the time to say hello and get to know their neighbours. And where you see the best of that the landscape has to offer. In the villages of the Ardennes, for example, we saw the better side of Belgium and got to enjoy some of the most beautiful scenery of the region.

 

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The countryside in the Netherlands is pretty awesome too. All the waterways bring life to the flat landscape there and adds immeasurably to its charm. The odd windmill helps with the charm too.

 

 

 

 

For beautiful scenery, however, Luxembourg has to be the pick of the bunch. The forests and hills of “Little Switzerland” are beautiful and, combined with the prevalence of schnitzel on the menu throughout the region, has made us keen to visit that part of the world again.

 

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Schnitzel wasn’t the only thing on the menus of Luxembourg we took a liking to. We found Luxembourgian food to be just great – like the best of rustic French and German cooking combined. Belgian food was a little OTT (i.e. other the top) for us – everything was always enriched with cream, drowned in melted cheese, or slathered in mayonnaise. Sure, the waffles and the chocolate are good, but you can’t live on waffles and chocolate alone (Shane tried, but the “sugar lows” he was getting after all the “sugar highs” were getting ridiculous so we had to get him back on to real food).

 

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A special mention also has to go out to Dutch cheese, in all its cheesy glory. So tasty….

 

 

One thing we will say is that Europe needs to WAKE UP when it comes to their definition of good coffee. Can we PLEASE ban push button coffee machines?! If all the skill required for someone to make my coffee is that they push a button, that’s NOT a real cappuccino, nor is it worth €3! We had the same issue with only being able to find push-button coffee throughout Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and Austria a couple of years ago and we say IT HAS TO STOP (as for that percolated “American style” stuff, I cannot even bring myself to describe what THAT is; I tell you what it ISN’T: coffee!). We found a couple of cafés around the BeNeLux region that did real coffee, but it was a rarity and a little luxury we often missed…

 

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Last, but certainly not least, the people. Everywhere we’ve been it’s usually the people that help shape our experiences of a country the most. From the small, casual interactions with shop keepers, wait staff, and hotel staff, to the more in depth discussion we might strike up with locals we meet; it’s the people that make the most lasting impression. And the Dutch are AWESOME; a little crazy at times, but awesome. We loved how open and friendly people were, and how prepared they were to chat to us and share their thoughts and feelings with us. We also learnt to truly appreciate the Dutch approach to rules and regulations – i.e. don’t have so many of them and everything and everyone just works it out. It’s just great because, basically, they treat you like an adult and then it’s up to you to behave like one. It’s an almost Darwinian approach to rules/safety; if you’re too bloody daft to work out how to stay alive, then it’s your problem. It’s just about the opposite of Aus at the moment where those in power seem to think that we need rules for EVERYTHING, catering for the lowest common denominator every time and making us all feel like children wrapped in cotton wool (a favourite Aussie comedian of ours, Steve Hughes, does a great routine about this exact thing – very amusing). The Dutch do it much better – the lack of rules means the dumb ones get weeded out early.

 

 

 

 

Luxemburgians weren’t quite as open, but once past their initial reserve, they seem pretty friendly. A little “German” in their love for systems and order, but that’s OK. As for the Belgians we met…., well, suffice to say we didn’t really gel with any Belgian people. They seemed to begrudge us being there and we were glad to leave, so no love lost really.

 

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Overall it’s been a really interesting few weeks in the BeNeLux region. Before we started our travels in the region we only knew a little about Dutch, Belgian, and Luxembourgian history, art, and culture, but not much really. These aren’t “big ticket” countries, and living across at the other end of the planet we don’t tend to hear much about these smaller European nations – which is one of the main reasons we wanted to see them for ourselves! We’ve certainly learned a lot over the past month, and highlighted a few places we want to get back to one day. For now though, our thoughts are turning to France and what might await us there….

 

ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 138


HIKING THROUGH LUXEMBOURG’S KLENG LETZEBURGER SCHWAIZ

“Little Switzerland”* is the nickname used to describe the South-Eastern region of Luxembourg. This corner of the country is said to have similar terrain to its namesake, hence the moniker; we didn’t really see the similarities during our day trip out there today, especially since the highest point in the area is only 414m above sea level! Still, the craggy terrain, thick forests, rock formations, and waterways definitely have an appeal all of their own and were well worth the visit.

*Kleng Lëtzebuerger Schwäiz in Luxembourgish

 

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We started our day with an hour long bus ride from Luxembourg City to Berdorf, a tiny village of 800 souls nestled in the emerald green hills of Kleng Lëtzebuerger Schwäiz. Here we picked up the Mullerthal Trail, a well established track that traverses the region. The entire trail is over 110km long, which is a bit much for us to cover in a day so we chose to do a subsection of it, from Berdorf to the nearby town of Echternach.

 

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To start with the trail took us past fields of newly cut hay and ripening corn.

 

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Soon though we were under the eaves of the famous forests of “Little Switzerland”.

 

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The trail took us past some distinctive rock formations, and into a natural amphitheatre which has reputedly been used for theatrical and music performances since Roman times.

 

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Further on we came to Hohllay Cave, famous as the place where millstones used to be cut from the rocks. Circular grooves can still be seen across the cave’s ceilings and walls, dating back 2,500 years.

 

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Continuing on through the beech forest we followed the Aesbach brook through a steep-sided valley, where light filtering through the trees painted everything in a thousand shades of green.

 

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The trail continued upwards and onwards, through narrow gaps between boulders, along a path aptly named “The Labyrinth”.

 

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The most dramatic part of the trail was the hike through the Wolfsschlucht (i.e. The Wolf’s Canyon), where legend has it these animals used to shelter.

 

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Not long after squeezing through the Wolfsschlucht we emerged from the forest and followed the path along the River Sure, which marks the border between Luxembourg and Germany. Once heavily defended, the border is now open and easy to cross: all you have to do is cross a bridge and you’re in Germany! We had no business in Deutschland however, and so didn’t venture across the river; instead we kept going for a few more metres, emerging into Echternach’s main square.

 

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Echternach is the oldest town in Luxembourg. It grew around the Abbey of Echternach, which was founded in 698 by St Willebrord, an English monk from Northumbria (present-day Yorkshire in England). Today the abbey and the attached church are still at the heart of this cute town of 5,000 people.

 

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St Willebrord lived in Echternach for many years and died there in 739. His body was interred in the main church, and still sits in the crypt and attracts pilgrims from all over the world who want to pay their respects.

 

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After a well-earned lunch in one of the town’s many cafés, we spent our afternoon in Echternach exploring the alleyways and narrow cobblestone streets around the picturesque Market Square near the Abbey.

 

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In the 10th century, the town was surrounded by a wall with 20 towers and 4 gates. Sections of this Medieval wall are still standing today, and 4 of its towers have been converted into modern homes.

 

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We also strolled around the buildings that once comprised the Abbey of Echternach. This Benedictine monastery, founded by St Willebrord in the 7th century, benefited from the patronage of a succession of rulers for 300 years and was the most powerful institution in Luxembourg by the 11th century.

 

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After the 11th century the abbey’s fortunes waned, and though it continued to produce the illuminated texts it was famous for, its wealth diminished over the centuries. In 1797, in the wake of the French Revolution, the monks were dispersed and the abbey’s contents and its famous library were auctioned off. Some of the library’s early manuscripts are now in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. The abbey buildings are now used as public buildings and house the town’s school, library, and tourist information office.

 

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Echternach is a wonderful little town, and though much of it was destroyed during World War II, it has been rebuilt and lovingly restored and made a great end to our day. The best part of our day, however, was the hike we did through the forests of Luxembourg’s “Little Switzerland”. It’s just such a pretty part of the world! We’d love to come back and do more of the Mullerthal Trail – especially since some of the local hotels offer a baggage service where they transport your bags to the next town, whilst you spend the day hiking through the forest unencumbered. Sounds like our kind of hiking holiday! Not sure WHEN we’ll be back, but we’ve definitely put Luxembourg on the “Must Return One Day” list…

 

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ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 137


JUST US IN VIANDEN

We went to see one of Luxembourg’s most popular day trip destinations today: Vianden. This delightful village is all charming cobblestoned streets lined with typically pastel-coloured Luxembourg maisons; there are cafés on every corner, the River Our to admire, and forests to hike through. To top it all off, perched high on the rock plateau above the town, sits the stunningly restored Chateau Vianden. What’s not to love?!

 

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Vianden is in the far East of this little nation, just a few kilometres from the Luxembourg/Germany border. Luxembourg is so small, however, that even this far flung corner of the country took less an hour to reach by bus! Keen to spend as much time in Vianden as possible we left early this morning* – so early, in fact, that the train was empty and some of the deep river valleys we travelled through were still shrouded in morning mist. The landscape we passed through was mostly flat farmland, and forested, gently rolling hills.

*We didn’t leave THAT early, but like most of Northern Europe, it seems that Luxembourg subscribes to the notion that anything before noon is practically the day before!

 

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Unsurprisingly when we reached Vianden nothing was open yet, so we took the opportunity to walk through the town and down along the River Our, admiring the lush green backdrop of the Our Valley along the way. Our eyes were constantly, unavoidably being drawn up to the castle as well. Can you blame us?!

 

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One of the stranger sights we saw was an old tank. The tank was part of a memorial commemorating the Battle of Vianden. Fought in February 1945, this battle was the last fought in Luxembourg; Vianden was the last town freed from German occupation by the Americans.

 

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On our travels we discovered the Vianden Chairlft, a tiny little operation that, for just a few Euros, can whisk you 450m up the mountain. The thought of a 10 minute chairlift ride sounded far more appealing than an hour long hike up the mountain, so we took them up on their kind offer and were soon passing over the village, the river, and the forest canopy.

 

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There’s not much at the top of the chairlift, just a café and a nice view. A number of hiking trails are accessible form there though so we chose one of the shorter walks and went for a stroll around the top of the rocky plateau.

 

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Eventually our wanderings brought us to the day’s highlight: Vianden Castle.

 

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Built in the 11th century on the foundations of a Roman castle, Vianden Castle was home to the powerful Counts of Vianden until the 15th century. To reflect their importance the Counts built a castle of truly epic proportions – once the largest of its kind in the region.

 

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In 1417, the castle and its lands passed to the German noble house of Nassau; the same family which, in 1530, also acquired the French principality of Orange. A Renaissance-style structure was added to the castle in the 17th century, but over time the fort became less and less important.

 

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By the 18th century it has been abandoned, and in 1820 the castle was sold to a merchant who proceeded to sell it piecemeal, starting with the furniture and ending up with the roof slates. As a result the castle was exposed to the elements and fell to ruin.

 

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In 1977 castle was finally transferred to state ownership and a restoration program was undertaken. The result is Luxembourg’s best preserved chateaus, with 20 different rooms open to the public and a whole lot of history on display.

 

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We spent a happy couple of hours exploring the castle, but as the sun hit its zenith our bellies were rumbling so we headed downhill to find some lunch. Much of the fare on offer was very similar to what we saw on menus in Germany and Austria (unsurprising given how close the border is), and as long time fans of all things crumbed and pan-fried, it wasn’t long before we were enjoying a couple of Wiener schnitzels. Mmmmm… schnitzel…

 

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For the rest of the afternoon we continued our ambling through Vianden, stopping to visit the 13th century Church of St Nicholas, stadhuis (townhall) and the city ramparts*.

*In the Middle Ages, Vianden was a fully fortified town, surrounded by city walls with 24 half-round towers and 5 gates. Most of those ramparts are now gone, but a few restored ruins remain.

 

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We also managed to find our way up to the town’s 17th century belfry, positioned on a small rocky outcropping above the river.

 

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We were lucky to have the town virtually to ourselves today as most schools across the BeNeLux region went back this week. This and the glorious weather ensured we saw Vianden at its best. There were no maddening crowds to spoil the relaxed vibe, or to force us to hurry. We had an amazing day in Vianden and would highly recommend it to anyone visiting this part of the world. But only if you enjoy winding cobblestoned streets, old buildings, a crystal clear river meandering through the centre, beautiful little churches, a magnificent chateau on the hill, and cafés to sit at and take it all in….

 

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ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 136


LIVING THE LIFE OF LUXURY IN LUXEMBOURG

We knew we’d crossed the border this morning when the graffiti petered out, the towns started looking so much cleaner, and the cars on the roads got fancier. Yup, we left Belgium behind and crossed into Luxembourg today and the difference is quite astounding. Gone is the awkwardness and discomfort we felt in Belgium, replaced instead with our more usual sense of joy and excitement at being in a new country! So far Luxembourg is proving to be a great little place, and we can’t wait to see more.

 

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Often eclipsed by its larger and more illustrious neighbours, Luxembourg forms the last of the famed BeNeLux triad and is reputed to be one Europe’s prettiest little* countries. With a population of just over 500,000, it’s also a rather rich little country, boasting the world’s second highest per capita income** (only Dubai’s is higher). Walking through the nation’s capital, Luxembourg City, today we noticed the wealth in a myriad of little ways: the clean streets, the lack of graffiti, the haute couture shops lining the streets, and the abundance of flashy cars (think Porsches, Ferraris, and the like). Not that things are overly pretentious, there’s enough “normal” people, cars, and shops around that it just feels like we’re visiting the “nice” part of town.

*The whole nation is just 82km long and 57 km wide. 

**Banking, finance, and insurance account for the majority of economic output – Luxembourg is the world’s second largest investment fund centre (after the USA).

 

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Reflecting its geographic position, Luxembourg’s culture is a fusion of French and Germanic Europe, integrating customs from each of its neighbours. For example, Luxembourg is a trilingual country: Luxembourgish*, French and German are official languages. The food seems to take the best from both worlds too, with sauerkraut and schnitzels sitting on the menu next to escargot and cordon bleu.

*A Germanic language with a bit of a French twist to it, and a few unique bits of its own.

 

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Interestingly this little nation is the world’s only remaining grand duchy, currently headed by their monarch: Henri, Grand Duke of Luxembourg. We stopped by the Grand Ducal Palace on our tour through Luxembourg City this afternoon. Not that we were allowed into the official residence of the Grand Duke of Luxembourg, but just got to admire it from the outside.

 

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Like most people who come to Luxembourg we’re staying in the capital, which, with a population of just over 100,000, is small enough to feel intimate and comfortable, but large enough to have everything you need as a visitor. It’s also a very picturesque town, built across the Luxembourg Plateau at the confluence of the Alzette and Pétrusse Rivers, with lots of wide boulevards, green space, and beautiful public spaces.

 

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One of the nicest public spaces we found was the Place d’Armes, the city’s main square. Once the parade ground for the troops defending the city, this large square is now the beating heart of Luxembourg City.

 

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Luxembourg City is essentially divided across 4 main regions:
• The Ville Haute (“High City”), the Medieval town core, which became home to the nobles and gentry as the city expanded.
• The Ville Basse (“Low City”), situated in the gorge formed by the rivers cutting their way through the landscape. This was historically home to the working classes but is now just as gentrified as the High City.
• La Gare (“The Station”), the least glamorous part of the city, positioned around the main train and bus station.
• Kirchberg, the newest part of town and site of the country’s political offices and EU institutions.

We’re staying around the train station in the less salubrious part of town, but given how small the city is, we’re only 10 minutes walk from all the high fashion stores and glamour of the old town (Ha ha – as if they would let us in to their fancy shops anyway!)

 

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As well as peering into the windows of all them fancy shops, while we were exploring the old town this afternoon we stopped the Cathedrale de Notre Dame Cathedral. It was originally a Jesuit church, and its cornerstone was laid in 1613. Given it’s the country’s only cathedral, it was a surprisingly simple church.

 

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By far the best part of the afternoon, however, was strolling along Le Chemin de la Corniche – the promenade built along the old city ramparts, along the edge of the Luxembourg Plateau. The 70m drop down into the narrow river valley below ensured the views were beautiful the whole way around the High City.

 

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Luxembourg’s central location has historically made it of great strategic importance to numerous powers, and Luxembourg City has been an important European military and economic centre since the time of the Romans. It was repeatedly reinforced as it passed from one great European power to another: from the Holy Roman Emperors, to the House of Burgundy, the Habsburgs, the French, the Spanish, and finally, to the Prussians. Up until 1867, when its defensive walls were dismantled and Luxembourg became an independent nation, Luxembourg City was one of Europe’s greatest fortified sites. The remnants of the city’s fortifications are still pretty impressive, though, and the town’s dramatic setting certainly adds to its charms.

 

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Given the size of the town we feel like we’ve seen most of it in an afternoon, so we’re thinking the best way to utilise the rest of our stay here is to take the leap out into the countryside and see some of Luxembourg’s famed hills and forests. There are a ridiculous number of castles peppered around this country too (another legacy of being one of Europe’s favourite battlefields), so it shouldn’t be hard to find a couple of day trips to keep us entertained…

 

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