HFC on Tour: Luxembourg City and General Patton’s grave
Posted by Denny Koch on October 19, 2012
On our tour through the Ardennes this summer, we became fans of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg – a small, friendly, and very relaxed country in the heart of Western Europe. We didn’t have enough time to visit the capital Luxembourg City then, so we decided to make another trip into our neighboring country and visit the capital as well as the US and German war cemeteries in the city vicinity.
We went to Luxembourg city by car, using the opportunity to fill up our car (Luxembourg has very cheap gas prices, compared to the incredibly expensive prices in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands).
Despite being a medieval city, located on several sandstone plateaus and cliffs above steep valleys, your first impression when you enter the city is the skyline of the banking district dominated by skyscrapers of several banks, funds, and the European Parliament. These are in a stark contrast to the Frankish castle, the Gothic Cathedral and massive forts that dominate the old town.
Topography and Language
The topography of Luxembourg city is quite dramatic – most of the city is located on various sandstone cliffs which are separated by two deep-cutting rivers – the Alzette and Pétrusse – with pittoresque parks and recreational areas 70 m (230 ft) below the plateaus. The city districts are connected by large bridges and viaducts, one of them the world’s 2nd largest arch bridge (the largest being in China), the Adolphe Bridge. This bridge is one of the main tourist attractions and a kind of unofficial national symbol, symbolizing Luxembourg’s independence.
The city has about 100,000 inhabitants and is the largest city in the country of Luxembourg.
The official languages are Luxembourgish, French, and German, but French appears to be the most popular language by far, followed by the curious Luxembourgish which is a close relative to the Mosel-Frankish German dialect. Both are hard to understand for Germans from other regions. Strangely enough, many shops (even McDonald’s or Saturn, one of the largest electronics shops) have German product displays and ads, but the staff only speaks French and if you switch to German, they answer you in English… You soon get accustomed to the Babylonian language mingle-mangle in this country, so if one language doesn’t work, you simply switch to the next language, and the answer will probably be in a third language or with hands and feet. The inhabitants even tend to mix French and Luxembourgish within one sentence, using both languages in their conversations simultaneously. English also isn’t a problem at all since Luxembourg City is a very international and very European city.
Since the city is located on several plateaus, connected by bridges, understanding the geography isn’t an easy feat. We tried to follow the parking guidance system into the city and ended in a parking garage near the “gare” (meaning railway station). We were under the impression that a railway station must be located close to the city center, but learned later that the station was intentionally built outside the city center (about 2 km, on a different plateau) for defensive reasons.
We walked through the area around the station which is a modern shopping district, dominated by the usual combination of McDonald’s / Subway / fashion stores of a typical European major city.
Then we reached the Adolphe Bridge and were impressed by the height and the dramatic landscape all around us. We later asked a tour guide how often people jump from this bridge in order to commit suicide, and learned that there was an ever higher bridge which was the favorite suicide location until they built a high fence instead of a handrail.
Deep below Adolphe Bridge is a river with a nice park, which is used by tourists and Luxembourgers alike when they want to skate, bike, relax, meet, or read.
The old town
On the other side of the bridge, the old town begins. In contrast to many cities in Western Europe, Luxembourg wasn’t founded by the Romans (whose city Augusta Treverorum - today: the city of Trier, Germany’s oldest city – is close by). Two Roman roads crossed at this location and there was a watchtower, but that was all.
Luxembourg was founded in the Early Middle Ages (in 936 ) when Siegfried I of the Ardennes bought some land from the Abby at Trier and built his castle on top of the sandstone cliffs. His castle was named Lucilinburhuc. Then, the Archbishop of Trier built a church near the castle (St. Michael’s, which is still one of the intact churches today) and a small marketplace appeared which soon became a small city.
Luxembourg was always of military and strategic importance because of the great defensive position on top of the steep cliffs (the reason why Luxembourg is also named “Gibraltar of the North“). During the course of time, the city was conquered several times, for example by the Burgundians, the Austrians, the Spanish, the French, the Habsburgs, and finally, the Prussians.
Interestingly, Luxembourg city was never bombed or destroyed in World War II, despite the fact that the entire region north of the city (the Ardennes) was almost completely destroyed during the Battle of the Bulge.
One of the most famous attractions of Luxembourg city are the Casemates, a system of defensive underground caves and tunnels within the rocks and cliffs, which are now UNESCO World Heritage.
The tunnels below the city are 23 km (14,30 miles) long and were built to house and supply thousands of soldiers with equipment and horses, artillery workshops, cannons, kitchens, and bakeries. Today, two casemate systems can be visited (and they have 100,000 visitors per year!). The Petrusse Casemates are only accessible with a tour guide and offer more historical background information. The Bock Casemates can be freely wandered by visitors, and are more of a “touristic” and spectacular experience. You should visit both to get the full picture!
First, we visited the National Monument of Luxembourg Solidarity (“Kanounenhiwwei”, “Cannon Hill”) which commemorates the solidarity of the Luxembourgian people during Word War II as well as all victims of the war. Luxembourg suffered heavily during World War II, 2% of the entire population were killed, many inhabitants were “resettled” to areas in the East when the country was annexed by Germany and declared part of the Reich. Young people were forced to join the German army or labour service and many of them deserted. The monument is quite modern with an eternal flame.
We then visited the (protestant) baroque Trinity Church and the (catholic) Gothic Revival Cathedral Notre Dame, built in 1613.
The cathedral is huge and was very crowded with tourists filming and taking photographs everywhere. Simultaneously there was some kind of Tamil baptism going on with Tamil women dressed in traditional clothing and their children. If you are searching for a contemplative place, you are certainly wrong here – the Cathedral is a tourist attraction, just like the Cologne or Aachen Cathedrals, or St Paul’s in London. Nevertheless, the Gothic and Renaissance architecture, paintings, and religions works of art are quite impressive. The church has two organs which are of special interest (if you are interested in organ building and organ music).
Below the Cathedral is the crypt where members of the grand duke’s family are buried, the oldest being Johann, King of Bohemia (died in 1346).
We then walked through several government buildings to the large pedestrian zone (which reminded us of Cologne city). There was a large farmer’s market and an antique market where a
band, consisting of 6 musicians with guitars, drums, strings, and a cello, attracted a huge crowd. Luxembourg is a nice place for shopping purposes, the prices are on an average Western European niveau. Video games and DVDs are slightly cheaper than in Germany (you have to watch out, though, because there are various product versions, some in French, some in German), gasoline is significantly cheaper. Since we aren’t interested in fashion and shoes, we have no idea of the pricing here.
After walking around in the pedestrian zone and visiting the tourist information (where we got a map of the city as well as a “World War II Circular Walk” guide), we went to the “Gelle Fra” Monument on the Place de la Constitution. Gelle Fra means “Golden Lady”, and the monument consists of a 21 meters high Obelisk with a bronze statue atop, showing a woman holding a laurel wreath.
This monument was initially dedicated to the thousands of Luxembourgers who volunteered for the Allied forces in World War I. In 1940, the German occupation authorities decided to tear down the monument, which caused three days of heavy protest, which was followed by brutal repressions and arrests. In 1984, the Gelle Fra was restored and returned to her rightful place. Today, it commemorates all Luxembourgian volunteers in World War I, II, and UN missions today.
Now it was time to visit the Casemates! Close to the Gelle Fra moment is the underground entrance to the Petrusse Casemates (easy to miss!). These Casemates were built in 1644 by the Spanish.
The Petrusse Casemates can only be visited with a tour guide; guided tours are held several times a day. Depending on the composition of the visitor group, the tour will be held in English, German, or French, or two of these languages simultaneously. Since only a small group of about 15 visitors is allowed at a time, the ambitious and friendly tour guides try to combine visitor groups by language. We went down into the tunnels with a group of 10 Dutch tourists who explained that they understood German, so our tour was held in German exclusively. The tour guide was a young guy (obviously a French native speaker) whose English and German language skills were both excellent.
The entrance fee is very moderate (3€ for the guided tour which takes about 1 hour).
First, we had to get down 450 stairs, deep into the Petrusse-rock. There we learned about the history of the city of Luxembourg and of the Casemates. It was very interesting and the guide took his time to explain, and to answer questions. We even got the chance to exit the tunnels through a secret entrance which led to a small plateau with banks, flags, and a small park – where we learned that this park is only accessible for members of the government (through a door in the government building) and used by them during breaks – but when no one is around the tour guides sometimes use their key to show this place to the visitors… :)
Some impressions from the Petrusse Casemates (for more photos, visit our photo gallery!)
We walked through several tunnels and exited them deep below in the valley next to the river Petrusse. There we also learned about the bridges and viaducts of Luxembourg and other interesting facts about the city and her history. We climbed up and down for about one hour, until we reached the newest part of the Casemates which was used by the Nazi authorities during the occupation. When US forces liberated the city in 1944, the German governor tried to hide inside the Casemates, but this was in vain, because this hideout was very obvious. We saw an authentic prussian cannon from 1834 and also learned that the Germans were the first ones to build toilets inside the Casemates.
The Casemates tour through the Petrusse-Casemates is a must if you are interested in historical defensive fortifications!
Then, we moved on to the Bock Casemates which are located on another cliff, the Bock rock. These Casemates are much more “touristic” than the Petrusse-Casemates. The entrance fee is also 3€, but you can walk freely through the tunnels without a guide. We walked through the tunnels together with about 25 Chinese tourists who appeared to be very excited about this exotic location.
The Bock Casemates were built in 1785 by the Austrians. They are famous for spectacular views over the city through the crenels. Even Napoleon Bonaparte, who visited the Casemates in 1804, was impressed by these defensive fortifications.
Inside the Bock Casemates, the tunnels and walkways are illuminated by light installations of various colors. In addition, there is decent spherical music here and there. Several cannons can be watched and touched. The Casemates are almost labyrinthine, you often climb down narrow spiral stairs (so narrow that we had to let the Chinese pass or they had to go backwards to let us downstairs), just to discover that we had walked into a dead-end.
Walking trough this labyrinth of tunnels, cannons, vantage points, was nevertheless a very cool experience, so you shouldn’t miss the Bock Casemates as well. They are so huge that you can spend hours there.
Change of Guards and Back to the gare
After eating strawberry cake and waffles with cream in a cafe, we went back to the gare. There is much more to see in Luxembourg city, for example the National Museum of Natural History, but we wanted to visit the US and German war cemeteries, so we had to leave after spending an entire day in this interesting city.
On our way back, we came to a large place which reminded me of the atmosphere in front of Buckingham Palace: the Palace of the Grand Duke. Lots of people were gathering behind barriers, most armed with cameras, so we figured out that something was about to happen here. A police officer drove me away when I stood in the midst of the road and took pictures of the palace, so we moved behind the barriers to the other waiting people.
After a while, we heard music and then soldiers marched up in front of the palace. They did some exercising, shouting French commandos, and then we witnessed the change of guards. I wasn’t so wrong with my Buckingham Palace impressions after all!
We then continued our way back to the railway station where we were shocked by the amount of parking fee we had to pay for parking one day in the garage: 12,50€ (about 16 Dollar). The only city where parking is more expensive is Arnhem (2,50€ per hour!).
Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial
The American War Cemetery lies only a few kilometers outside Luxembourg city near the village of Hamm and can be reached within a few minutes.
5,076 US soldiers are buried here, most of them died during the Battle of the Bulge in winter 1944/45. The most prominent grave is the grave of General George S. Patton. He died after the war, when he was severely wounded in a car accident and paralyzed from the neck down, from an embolism after 12 days of struggle. His last wish was to be buried “with his men” and not in West Point, as was planned for him. So he was buried in Luxembourg.
At the cemetery entrance is an impressive War Chapel with a mosaic ceiling and a large bronze sculpture. To the right and left of the building are monuments showing the Western Front on a large scale, and the Ardennes / Huertgen Forest front on a small scale. There is also a memorial place for the Pacific War.
We visited the chapel where we signed the guest book, paid our respects to General Patton, and then walked a while along the lines of graves. It was quite peaceful on the cemetery, only a young man and a young woman were there with us.
Sandweiler German War Cemetery
After visiting the US cemetery, we drove to the German War Cemetery which lies only 1.5 kilometer from the US cemetery near the small town of Sandweiler.
This cemetery contains the graves of 10,913 German soldiers from the Battle of the Bulge. They were formerly buried all over Luxembourg, often in mass graves, but were moved to this central cemetery in 1955 where the German War Graves Commission tried to identify as many as possible. In the end, 4014 soldiers from mass graves could be identified.
The tombstones are the typical dark twin tombstones we also saw on the German cemetery in the Huertgen Forest. Two soldiers share one stone. In the central part of the cemetery is a large granite cross and a place overgrown with roses where the remains of bodies were placed which couldn’t be identified or even sorted. The last soldier was buried in Sandweiler in 2007, when his remains were discovered near Wiltz.
There is also a small chapel which contains the grave register and a guest book, which we also signed. We were surprised by the number of US visitors who wrote very sensitive and kind comments into this guest book.
Luxembourg city, the capital of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, is well worth a visit! If you spend more time in the region (for example, when touring the Ardennes in Northern Luxembourg and Belgium), you should consider to visit this city, too. It has a lot of interesting historical places, the world’s largest Casemates, an impressive fortification, and is built in a dramatic landscape on top of various cliffs and rocks, connected by famous viaducts. Certainly an unusual city!
Our first impression that the Luxembourgians are a very friendly and relaxed people, was reconfirmed when we visited the capital of the small country.
There is so much to see that you can spend easily a few days here. In addition, there are tons of restaurants, bars, pubs, which promise an interesting and pulsating night life. Luxembourgian beer is also highly recommended, and last but not least, there are many historical sites in close vicinity. It’s only a short drive to Diekirch and Ettelbrück, important Battle of the Bulge locations with excellent museums, and both the US and the German war cemeteries are also worth a visit.
So we repeat our recommendation from our Ardennes travel report: if you are a battlefield tourist and/or a history buff, especially interested in the Battle of the Bulge, medieval and modern age defensive fortifications, castles and old towns, all combined with wild nature and impressive stone formations, you should consider spending your holidays in the small and friendly country of Luxembourg.
We will certainly return there, there is still much to discover