As Europe’s richest country, and ranked second in the entire world, it was easy for us to think that the luxe in Luxembourg would stem from the same source as deluxe, or luxury, but it doesn’t.
The name comes from lucilem, the Celtic word for little, and burg, German for castle. The combination perfectly reflects this tiny crossroads nation’s long history of being set between much larger powers.
Over the centuries she has managed to navigate between her neighbors to remain the world’s last grand duchy, meaning that she is ruled by a grand duke.
Through the diplomacy and royal relationships of the dukes, and the strategic placement of its namesake castle, Luxembourg has not only survived, but flourished.
As we entered Luxembourg City the fortifications certainly didn’t look to be small at all, but then the name refers to the original Castle of Lucilinburhuc from back in the year 963. There have been significant upgrades since then.
In fact, over time, the city has become one big honkin’ fortress. Walking inside the walls, we got a glimpse of what life looked like centuries ago.
Space was at a premium within the ramparts, so the streets are narrow and homes crowded together.
Down one little lane we noticed an arch inside a tiny courtyard displaying crossed arrows above the doorway, and our guide explained how the sign was thought to help avoid the plague during rampant outbreaks.
The sores incurred from the dreaded disease looked a lot like arrow wounds and, while we doubt the ploy was effective, we certainly understand the need for grasping at straws arrows.
We’d have been all over any plague-avoidance tactics.
One thing the city had no trouble keeping away was invaders.
Much of the fortification was natural, as we saw when we walked along the Chemin de la Corniche.
This walkway was built atop the ramparts on the massive cliffs of the Alzette valley in the 17th century, adding to Luxembourg’s already impressive defenses.
We could almost hear the city’s founders exclaiming their delight when finding this spot, what a perfect place from which to drop flaming oil on our enemies’ heads!
The lookout along the walkway is often called the most beautiful balcony in Europe, and the view makes it easy to see why Luxembourg was once known as the Gibraltar of the North.
An assault would have been nearly impossible since the city had the luxury of practically perfect protection on three sides.
Back in the center, of town we wandered around the main square and discovered a veritable smörgåsbord of languages.
Luxembourg’s location makes for an interesting buffet of both spoken and written words.
While most of the signs around town are lettered in French, official business is conducted in Luxembourgish, French, and German. Wandering around we overheard dozens of languages, and sitting at a sidewalk café in the main square became a linguistic feast.
Staff and customers alike switched between tongues without missing a beat, mixing it up in the same conversation, even the same sentences.
Playing off the term Spanglish, we dubbed these phenomena Gerfranbourgish (we also giggled over Luxemgermench and Franluxerman – that was a really fun lunch!)
We also happened upon what claims to be the oldest pub in Luxembourg, dating back to 1691.
We knew this because they proudly announced it in multiple languages on a sign out front.
Honestly, we appreciated the sign more for providing a peek into some translations than its informative properties, but we give big snaps for embracing the local diversity of speaking.
Lest we forget, the American Cemetery
Just outside the city, at Hamm, we briefly returned to the United States when we visited the hallowed ground of the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial, which is officially American soil.
Luxembourg presented the land to the US in perpetuity in appreciation for helping free the country from Nazi occupation.
In 1939, Luxembourg declared itself neutral as war broke out. Germany had other ideas, invading on May 10, 1940, then occupying the country and sending the duke and government into exile.
Two years later, the Third Reich formally annexed the duchy and declared Luxembourgers to be German citizens. At that point they began drafting thousands of men to fight in the war.
Strict rules — including a ban on speaking French — were imposed. A resistance movement formed, but opposition to German rule was severely punished.
Passive resistance was most common, with refusing to speak German at the top of the list. Many Luxembourgers returned to the old Luxembourgish, and, in the process, most likely saved the language from disappearing.
U.S. forces liberated Luxembourg in September 1944, but were almost immediately engaged in the Battle of the Bulge and parts of the country fell back into German hands.
The allies ultimately prevailed, which was instrumental in ending World War II, and many of the soldiers who lost their lives in that combat are buried at the Luxembourg American Cemetery.
We somberly walked the grounds where over five thousand soldiers are interred.
One of them is General George S. Patton, who survived the battle only to perish in an automobile accident a few months later.
He was originally buried alongside his troops, but in an effort to keep the surrounding graves from being trampled, he was moved to the forefront of the site.
As we were leaving, we met the cemetery superintendent, Scott DeJardins, who lives at the site.
He explained to us that because of the unique position of this — and the many other United States Military Cemeteries around the world — as American territory, there is always an American caretaker.
Mr. DeJardin is happily serving his fifth assignment in the last nine years, and is headed to Normandy next.
It’s a job he clearly loves, in fact he said “I’d tell my boss I’d do it for free, but I’m afraid he might take me seriously.”
A welcome bit of levity in our very solemn visit.
With our explorations of Luxembourg complete, we took to heart an old saying.
Big things do come in small packages.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com
Thanks to Viking River Cruises for inviting us along and providing this adventure! As always, all opinions are our own. See our entire sailing with stops in Paris, Luxembourg, Trier, Cochem, Heidelberg, Wurzburg, Rothenburg, Nuremberg, and Prague.