Despite its diminutive size, Luxembourg has had a big impact on millions of lives (possibly including mine). It was here in 1985 in the village of Schengen that five European countries first signed an agreement to open their shared borders. Over twenty five years the Schengen Agreement has greatly expanded in scope – in both conditions and member states – and it has made international travel within the Schengen Area so much easier than across those parts of Europe previously. But as a non-European living in Switzerland since before they elected in 2005 to join the agreement from 2008, the free movement of labour and employment for Europeans across the Schengen Area the treaty allows has made my residence status (and many other non-European passport holders like me) more tenuous not just in Switzerland, but potentially all countries that are signed up. Exactly where this takes me – or, perhaps more correctly, excludes me from living – in the future remains to be seen.
It was for that reason that the location the treaty was signed in, at the convergence of the borders of Luxembourg, Germany and France, seemed like the most appropriate place for me in which to enter Luxembourg for the very first time. Admittedly there wasn’t much to keep me – Schengen is not much more than a single road town, and would probably be totally anonymous if it wasn’t for the treaty – but it was pleasantly surrounded on its bank of the Moselle river by hillside vineyards. At the very least it was a good taster for the scenic steep vineyards, river towns and hilltop castles I’d see the following day in Germany when following the same river further downstream.
From there I took the motorway directly to the confusingly twisting avenues of Luxembourg City, got a parking spot just outside the parkland that rings the city centre and eventually found myself wandering down the main shopping street the Grand-Rue just as it began to drizzle. Slightly uncertain of what to do, past a small square in the old town my eye was caught by a large sign hanging in a modern glass atrium that asked in French, “Pauvre Luxembourg?”
Luxembourg poor? Oh come on, it’s common knowledge the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is always at the top of world rankings for per capita gross domestic product. Admittedly I hadn’t been in the place long and the streets didn’t appear by any means to be paved with gold, but the Grand-Rue had been full of designer stores for clothing and handbags and they sure didn’t look like they were hurting for custom. To even raise the question at all I instantly took as an insult to most of the rest of the world, much like the bleating of ‘poor’ senior executives who walk away from struggling corporations with millions in performance bonuses, and I went closer to inspect who or what was behind this provocation. As it turned out, the building was the History Museum of the City of Luxembourg and the proposition in question was the title of a temporary exhibition there. Raining or not it was deliberately provocative enough to successfully get me in through the museum door and hand over the €5 entrance fee, and I’m certainly glad it did.
“Poor Luxembourg?” was a considered presentation of the current poverty levels of some recent immigrants to the Grand Duchy from the edges of Europe and those residents who through mental illness are on the margins of society (while going to some pains to stress that in world terms the conditions should be classified as ‘relative poverty’), while also going back to the more acute deprivations among Luxembourg’s working class back in the industrial revolution. To complement the localised focus, there were displays of early photographs and films taken in impoverished areas of Paris, New York and other large cities from the turn of the twentieth century. Back then, amid claims of exploitation of the unwitting subjects, capturing visual evidence of urban hardship, overcrowding and disease caused a sensation amongst the upper classes in a way print media could not, and their morbid curiosity was fed without daring to venture into the bowels of the cities themselves.
It struck me that much the same tension still holds today, with those of us who are affluent enough to travel increasingly drawn to tour around slum areas of people who aren’t so well off, like in the townships of South Africa or the favelas of Brazil, happily taking our own documentary footage of the shanties. Do our travels to less prosperous places really help the local population, or does it exploit and perpetuate the economic divide? I don’t know. As with most things in life, there doesn’t seem to be an easy answer.
The History Museum’s permanent displays were also well done, tracking Luxembourg City’s recorded history from a largely impregnable fortress over a thousand years ago, through the ebb and flow of independence whilst in conflict with centuries of influence by the House of Burgundy, the Habsburgs, Dutch, Spanish and French. After ceding half of its territory to the new country of Belgium that was formed in 1839, German influence in the remainder of the territory become more noticeable and Luxembourg went on to be occupied by the Germans during both world wars.
What I found most interesting about the information on the last sixty years is the seeming tension between the growing sense of Luxembourger sovereignty and national identity on the one hand, with, on the other hand, the Grand Duchy’s lead in fostering European co-operation and harmonisation within the European Economic Community/European Union, pioneering the aforementioned Schengen agreement and promoting the adoption of the single European currency. That at a time when Luxembourg could be enjoying the full fruits of self-determination without threat of invasion from its much larger near neighbours, it has instead chosen to play an important role in the central hub of an integrated Europe. But if the country always ranks so highly economically they must be doing something right.
Throughout my drifting around the museum’s five floors I got glimpses outside over Luxembourg’s defensive walls and down to the snaking Alzette river gorge, and I instantly understood how the city’s unique topography lent itself to making an ideal defensive stronghold.
By the time I‘d covered everything in the museum the drizzle had stopped, making it a pleasant time to go outside and explore the historic fortifications and on down to the riverside area of Grund – one of the principal formerly impoverished industrial neighbourhoods I’d just learnt about.
I happily spent a few hours walking around the bottom of the gorge, but beyond that there didn’t appear to be much else to keep me in the centre of Luxembourg. The rest of the city centre itself looked no different than any other small or medium sized city in this part of Europe, so in the late afternoon I headed some 50km north to the picturesque town of Vianden.
Remembered as the final part of Luxembourg to be liberated by the Americans in the latter stages of the Second World War in early 1945, I was primarily drawn to Vianden by its towering castle. Presuming this to be fairly out of the way location for tourists, I soon found I was far from the only person to drop by, with a scenic chairlift offering views of the castle from above just stopping for the day and restaurant terraces along the narrow Our estuary busy with visiting diners. I spent some more time unhurriedly exploring and was eventually able to enjoy an undisturbed view of the castle from a well kept cemetery a little bit out of town.
In the last hours of daylight I followed a quiet road along the Our river valley, through dark forests, past some major hydro-electric pumping facilities and a surprising number of campgrounds, and then up a small mountain pass to a plateau of farmland. Twisting down into another dark valley I stopped at Clervaux, a little village that appeared to be popular with holidaymakers from Germany and Belgium, with a small white-washed castle and, above that, a hilltop abbey well concealed by woodland.
By this time it was dark and there wasn’t anything else to see as I made my way back towards Luxembourg City and then onto a hotel in Trier, Germany’s oldest city. I enjoyed my day in Luxembourg, not least because of the intellectual challenges it unexpectedly threw up at me, and my weekend would be rounded out with a leisurely driving day along the Moselle Valley, a region previously unknown to me but long regarded by holidaying Germans for its river cruises, castle spotting, wineries and easy cycling.
As a non-European I don’t have any idea how many more years I’ll continue to live in this increasingly integrated continent, but while I’m here I’m both extremely thankful for how many different pieces I’ve been able to uncover and explore, and my relative affluence in world terms to so easily be able to do so. This weekend has reminded me that not everyone gets that opportunity.