Monday, December 12, 2011

A Grand Duchy and a city with three identities

Luxembourg was an intriguing destination for a variety of reasons. First, it is the world's only remaining sovereign grand duchy. It is also one of the world's smallest countries with the highest GDP per capita in the world (although that the number is inflated by the Belgians, French and Germans who commute to Luxembourg for work).
Place de Metz, Luxembourg
We spent a brief two nights in the capital city as we made our way south from Germany to Italy, with one full day for sightseeing. The main tourist office is located in the heart of the historic center and, since I had discovered on their website that they offer a free self-guided walking tour brochure, we stopped there first. We also picked up information on the American Cemetery and ultimately decided to start our exploration there.
To get to the cemetery from downtown we took the #15 bus to the next to last stop and then walked 20-30 minutes, following the signs, to the cemetery entrance. We arrived right at noon and were treated to Amazing Grace playing at the chapel. There were only a few other visitors so it was very peaceful as we walked around the memorial, studying the pylons with operations maps and the names of the missing, then making a loop through the graves area which contains the remains of 5,076 American military dead. We finished our tour at the grave of General George S. Patton, Jr.
Patton's grave at Luxembourg American Cemetery
We retraced our route to the bus stop and caught a ride back into the center of town. From there we started our City Promenade as outlined in the brochure. However, it was easy enough to deviate from the designated route in order to focus on the areas or sights in which we were most interested. After a quick look around the Cathedral to the Blessed Virgin (dating back to 1613), we made our way to the Corniche, which was described by Luxembourg writer Batty Weber as "the most beautiful balcony of Europe."
view from the Corniche
From there it was a short walk to the Bock Promontory and the UNESCO World Heritage-listed casemates, a network of underground tunnels and bombproof rooms built upon the rocky foundations of a 10th century fortress. We decided to pay three euros each for the privilege of wandering through the tunnels. Unfortunately, the brochure provided at the ticket desk was not very informative and there wasn't much to see or do in the casemates other than try to imagine them filled with thousands of soldiers.
view from the Bock Casemates
We returned to the center of town and eventually settled on a simple cafe for dinner where I decided to order grilled horse. Yes, I have eaten horse steak before, usually in France. If not overcooked it is a very lean and tender meat with a taste similar to beef but slightly richer. Greg opted to have a more standard meal of sausages & potatoes.
Luxembourg's Adolphe Bridge at dusk
After dinner, we enjoyed a sunset walk back to our hotel, which happened to be across the street from the train station. Not wanting to miss out on any cultural enrichment, we did take a quick detour into the red light district which was only one block long and was pretty tame around 7pm.
Luxembourg's red light district
The following day we continued by train another three hours to Basel, Switzerland. We shared a compartiment with an elderly Belgian lady who was accompanied by her 27-year-old nephew. I passed the time by editing photos and occasionally chatting with the lady in French (she wanted to know where we were from, where we were going, etc).
inside the Basel train station - this way to France
Our arrival in Basel was confusing. The conductor announced "Basel" and the train soon came to a stop. But I knew we were supposed to disembark at Basel SBB and the signs only said Basel, so I stepped off to ask a rail employee. He did not speak English or French very well but what I came to understand was that we had stopped at the French station and if we stayed on for a few minutes we would stop at the Swiss station. Soon enough the train reversed and backed up just far enough to switch tracks, then proceeded forward another few hundred meters into the Swiss station.

Basel tram
We picked up the Basel walking tour booklet from the tourist info center in the train station then caught a tram to our hostel. All accommodations in Basel offer a "Mobility Ticket" which allows free use of public transport for the duration of your stay, including transport from/to EuroAirport. As the cost of a day ticket is 8.50CHF ($9), this is a nice perk if you're staying outside the city center.
Unger Brewery next to Basel Backpack
When we arrived at our hostel we discovered it was located next to a brewery; very dangerous you would think! But with beer costing about $5 for 33cl and food at a restaurant averaging $20 per entree, we decided we would save money by purchasing our beer at the nearby grocery store. And since our hostel had a kitchen, we could also cook basic meals there, too.
these must be the narrowest houses in Basel
As we only had one full day for sightseeing, we decided to use the walking tour booklet to maximize our time. It features five walking tours of the historic Old Town which are named after famous citizens (e.g. Erasmus, Hans Holbein, etc.). While the walks are well-signposted, the map in the booklet only listed a handful of street names, so was otherwise useless for navigation purposes. We ultimately chose to do a combination of all five walks, fully circling the city as well as criss-crossing the center, and thus seeing all of the key sights.
Munster Cathedral and the Basler Herbstmesse (autumn fair)
Once we had exhausted ourselves after hours of walking, we stopped in for a late lunch at Fischerstube Brewery (not the one by our hostel, which was Unger Bier). Luck was on our side; the young couple seated next to us had a voucher for a free 2-liter jug of beer and, as the man was the only one drinking, he graciously offered to SHARE his beer with us! We splurged on some pub grub to accompany our beer and enjoyed a few leisurely hours at the restaurant until it closed for an afternoon break.
a Fischer of beer
We returned to our hostel to do laundry and prepare for our early-morning flight to Rome. At 5am the following day we were walking through the empty streets of Basel, back to the train station, where we caught a bus to the airport. According to Wikipedia, Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg is one of the few airports in the world operated jointly by two countries, France and Switzerland. It is located completely on French soil but has both French & Swiss sections. Due to its unusual international status, EuroAirport has three IATA airport codes: BSL (Basel) is the Swiss code, MLH (Mulhouse) is the French code and EAP (EuroAirport) is the international code.
sunrise on our 7am flight to Rome
This was the last part of our honeymoon adventure that wasn't cruise-related. We only spent one night in Rome since we had just spent a full week there in March. Then we departed on our 15-night transatlantic cruise. I have already covered the first couple of days of the cruise in a previous post. My next few posts will be about the remainder of the cruise, my overall impressions of Holland America Line, and what we decided to do upon our arrival in Miami.
nave of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome
Here are the links to my photos:

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