Why Luxembourg matters

Europe has lots of tiny countries. The rest of the world reminds itself of this fact periodically, almost as a running joke. How Vatican City is the smallest “independent” state, but (come on people), is it really a country? Andorra sounds charming, too, until you go there and discover it’s only the European Union’s largest outlet mall. Likewise, Monaco‘s just a casino with a racecar track, and Liechtenstein‘s a drive-thru bank for dodgy Russians with Austrian passports.

Despite the less-romantic realities of present-day Europe, we travelers still get a kick out of these nifty, little hold-out principalities and monarchies. Somehow, they’ve prevailed in the tempest of European history, avoiding absorption into their larger neighbors all the way into the 21st century when we can ironically celebrate quirky existential nationhoods in the face of supranationalist sentiments.

I first visited Luxembourg on a whim–hopped a train in Brussels and three hours later, stepped off somewhere deep in the Ardennes. I was young, brave, and poor and it was late at night. I walked away from the one-room station in Arlon and disappeared into the forest, bumbling in the woods until the sounds of passing cars disappeared. When I found a comfortable spot, I pushed away the pine needles and lay down on the cold ground, using my lumpy canvas backpack as a pillow.I woke up well past midnight to the softest sound–approaching footsteps? A gentle, rhythm-less pit-pat all around me. It took me several minutes to figure out that all I was hearing were leaves–dead autumn leaves falling from ancient trees and hitting the ground, one by one. That is the silence of Luxembourg–you can hear each leaf hitting the ground.

A louder rustling woke me a few hours later–a little louder, a little closer, and a little more disconcerting. Panic, then peace set in: it was only a doe in the forest, rummaging, peeling bark from the pine trees and stepping timidly closer and closer to my little clouds of breath rising from the ground.

I shivered in the forest until dawn, then hiked back to a road where I fell asleep at a bus stop like a grungy homeless person. I woke up bleary-eyed and asked one of the more respectable citizens nearby if this was Luxembourg. It was.

This was long after the EU but also long before Google Maps. Nowadays you can just google Luxembourg and see how a thin grey line–an international border–simply traces the length of a road, jumps a stream and cuts corners through some farmer’s field (“Well, nine-tenths of my wheat’s right here in Luxembourg but the other tenth is over in Belgium”).

Somehow in the night I had entered this new country and now I was determined to explore it to the fullest extent. Using my finger and a map, I determined that Luxembourg’s fullest extent was around 30 miles–the length of road between Belgium and Germany. Thirty miles is nothing, really. I could walk that in a day, I thought. And so I did. I started that morning and ended at sunset when a bridge crossed the Moselle and I came to a polite, little square sign (chest-high) that barely announced “Deutschland”.

To figure out my to total walking distance across Luxembourg, I retraced my steps online. After punching in my start and end points, Google Maps shouts a stern warning in a yellow box: “Use Caution–This route may be missing sidewalks or pedestrian paths.” Indeed. My jaunty one-day trek across one of the smallest countries in the world was performed without the assistance of sidewalks or pedestrian paths (or a compass or a map). Most of the time I spent walking in open fields, loving the quaint freedom of fenceless Europe.

By walking, I saw tiny Luxembourg up close and personal. As countries go, it’s a good one. Much of it is very green, divided into forests, fields, and hills. Light yellow stone cliffs and the deep gorges offer a sense of wild landscape, untamed even by these most European of Europeans. Perky castles stand out in the countryside–real life castles where people live and a mailman still delivers the mail. Palaces fill the capital–grandeur and pomp without any particularly urgent purpose. (Remember, this is a country run by a duke, a nobleman who’s latest headlines involve his birthday party and a tumble dryer catching fire in his palace basement.)

Only half a million people live in this country–an odd mix of imported Eurocrats, happy farmers, tax refugees, rich people with titles, and polyglot investment bankers. Maybe it’s not the twee world we had hoped for (black-booted princes on horseback or whistling peasants sticking pitchforks into haystacks), but even in the midst of today’s bland supermarché EU Europe, Luxembourg retains its heirloom personality in its customs, unique government, thousand-year old culture and its even odder language.

In the city of Luxembourg, I attended a Catholic mass read in Luxembourgish (aka Lëtzebuergesch, Luxembourgeois, Luxemburgisch) and found myself delighted by the strange mashup of French and German pronounced like guttural Dutch. Geez, I thought, it’s a whole different language spoken by fewer people than live in the Tallahassee metropolitan area.

Luxembourg’s national motto is Mir wëlle bleiwe wat mir sinn or “We want to remain what we are.” The meaning is clear and pretty much sums up every country’s deepest patriotic longing. Because Luxembourg, too, is the red, white, and blue. Well, the red, white and light blue (turquoise?). This is a Grand Duchy folks–the only sovereign duchy left in the world–and the average American traveler to Europe overlooks it like they overlook high-fructose corn syrup. In the rush from Paris to Amsterdam to Munich and back, Luxembourg is the no-name brand of Europe that fails to inspire the uninitiated vacationer.

It’s a terrible mistake though, because honestly, nowhere is Europe more alive than in little Luxembourg. There is no Eiffel Tower or Oktoberfest or legalized marijuana but there is a glint of Europe as it once was–as it still is. Where quiet and pastoral comforts are much valued, where Sunday strolls pass over stone bridges and alongside flowered hedgerows, where no matter where you’ll look, you’ll find a tiny castle poking above the treeline in the distance. It’s nice.

In a time of megacities and mega-construction, we should be glad for a country like Luxembourg. Downtown Shanghai is larger than Luxembourg–Los Angeles County is four times as large. A lot of places are bigger than Luxembourg . . . and yet Luxembourg is the perfect size for travelers: big enough to be an actual country but still small enough to walk across in a day. Epcot Center attempts a similar feet with their 11-country World Showcase, but even your kids aren’t fooled by that set-up. Luxembourg, on the other hand, is the real deal.

I will be going back to Luxembourg–someday–and this time it won’t be for bragging rights. I can already say that I’ve walked across the entire country, but there is still so much of the country I have yet to see, for example, the North. Perhaps I will find a new route using Google Maps–a new, wandering path down the length of one of the smallest countries in the world; a long-winded itinerary that comes with a stern warning, “Caution: This Route May Be Missing Sidewalks.”

(Flickr Photos: Andrew Michaels [Flag], Hendrik [Yellow Field])