Echternach, Luxembourg: Non-stop quirks in the Grand Duchy

I recently found myself entangled in a linguistic chess match with a Luxembourg waitress.

On a morning stroll of the cobbled avenue that comprises the city of Echternach’s main thoroughfare, the sight of white foam cresting over frosty, oversized beer steins unintentionally drew me to a corner table of an outdoor café. Though a mere 90 minutes had passed since finishing my morning coffee, the lust for some local imbibing had suddenly trumped my desire to explore.

As the blonde waitress casually approached my corner table, I mentally prepared myself for the verbal jigsaw puzzle Luxembourg frequently forced me to construct. Anxiously eying her smiling young face, something about her leisurely stride tipped the scales towards going with French. I decided to strike first.

“Bonjour”, I offered, my American accent completely butchering the romance of it.

“Gutentag”, she shot back, her blonde curls bouncing as she took the final step.

Ugh. German Not my strong suit.

“Gutentag. Bitte ein bier” I countered. (Everyone at least learns how to ask for a beer).

“Oui, une bière” came the half-expected French reply.

She was catering to me. I was catering to her. We had danced a full circle.

Before I could internally translate my next thought, however, I was unexpectedly struck by a hailstorm of guttural syllables. Luxembourgish: a language I didn’t even know existed until I had entered the country three days prior.

“Big”, I sheepishly guessed, my reply in English. We had finally succumbed to our Mother tongues.

“Oui”, she giggled, her blonde locks dancing off in the direction of my incoming beer.And so begins another day in Echternach, a city of 4500 people on the banks of Luxembourg’s Sauer River. Officially, Luxembourg is the world’s only Grand Duchy, though I’m still unsure exactly what that entails. From the marked difference between the opposing banks of the Sauer River, I’m guessing it has something to do with acting remarkably aristocratic. On the other side of the Sauer lies Germany, its riverbank populated by large trailer parks and dingy flea markets. Here on the Echternach side of things, however, there are manicured walking trails and sprawling historical gardens. I figure the difference must have to do with the Duchy.

During World War II, American troops stormed across this river in the epic fight that would become the Battle of the Bulge. A monument to their bravery stills stands outside of town today. A few kilometers from that monument rises the Abbey of Echternach, a massive concrete sanctuary constructed by the English monk St. Willibrord in 698 AD, thereby making Echternach the oldest city in one of the world’s smallest countries.

In perfectly quirky Luxembourgish fashion, for the last 500 years the Echternach dancing procession has taken place each Tuesday after Whit Sunday in the large square fronting the Abbey, though no one knows exactly why they are dancing. A curious celebration that features pairs of strangely clad Luxembourgish civilians hopping and clapping their way down the cobbled streets, the dance is officially recognized on the “UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity“.

When not filled with poofy-shirted dancers, an alarming amount of bars and outdoor cafes spring from the town’s two main streets, though this should come as little surprise seeing as the Luxembourgish population potentially consumes more alcohol per capita than any country on the planet. Wedged between the vineyards of France, the Traapist beers of Belgium, and the Oktoberfest mindset of Germany, there really is little room to blame them.

More than a city of dancing and drinking (though really, what else is there?), Echternhach is also regarded as being one of the best places in Luxembourg to embark on the Mullerthal Trail. Tracing the wooded hills for 110km through Luxembourg’s Mullerthal region, the trail passes a number of natural sights that are potentially more fun to say out loud than they are to look at. Places with names like Schnellert (a forest), Schiessentumpel (a waterfall), and Wolfsschlucht (a dramatic stone canyon known as the “Wolves’ Den”), spring up along the trail, all of them part of the remarkably scenic and comprehensive network of trails that criss-cross the forests of the Grand Duchy.

Back at my corner table, a curious clamor in the distance draws my attention away from perusing a pocket map of the Duchy. Cheerily in the midst of draining my second Belgian import, a rogue troop of nearly 30 local children are now marching down the main street beating a variety of drumsticks together in a mal-rhythmic terror. There are no words to accompany their impromptu march, just the clashing of wood on wood and little footsteps moving out of synch across the cobblestone. The blonde waitress shoots me a glance that she has no idea what’s going on either. It seems no one knows, yet oddly, no one seems to care. This is just another morning in Echternach, medieval Luxembourgish city of incessant curiosities.