LITTLE CITY, BIG CULTURE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

OK, so it isn't Paris.

This city -- one of two European Cultural Capitals for 2007 and capital of the richest per-capita-income country on the planet -- is pretty nice.

Like all worthwhile European cities, this is a center of commerce -- but also a city of beautiful fruit stands and pastry shops, of historic churches and requisite statues and back streets worth poking around in, and of outdoor places to sip a cup of coffee or a glass of wine or a local brew while furtively enjoying the passing scenery.

There is a local cuisine, of sorts, a remnant of a time when Luxembourg -- officially the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg -- was largely a mix of farms and steel factories, plus this town.

"Up until 1850, Luxembourg was a very poor country," guide Pierrette Antony would tell us. "Then we found iron ore in the south of the country."

Which began the transformation.

So today's Luxembourg City is a city of banks (200 of them, thanks mainly to attractive regulations), wealth, style and diplomacy (many European Union functions function here). Genuine Luxembourgian-style restaurants in town may be heavy on sausages, smoked cuts of pork and such wonders as liver dumplings the size of billiard balls, but the delicate among you certainly will find sustenance.

I can tell you're wondering: If it's all these things, why isn't it swarming with tourists?

There's a reason.

A generation ago, long-defunct Icelandic Airlines (slogan: "We're Cheap") flew youthful backpackers to Europe and dropped them off here. Those kids stayed just long enough to grab the first train for Amsterdam.

If any of them brought home memories of Luxembourg, the memories were lost in jet lag or some other fog. In fact, I have yet to hear anyone of that vintage -- anyone -- say today, "Now that I can afford to stay in a hotel where the bathroom isn't down the hall, I just can't wait to get back to Luxembourg and do it right."

For sure, it wasn't, and isn't, Amsterdam. Amsterdam, on a Saturday night and for better or worse, is a happening place. What's happening isn't everybody's cup of tea (or pipeful of dried vegetation), but there's a certain, well, buzz.

On a Saturday night here in mid-July last summer, Luxembourg City threw a party called a Blues 'n Jazz Rallye. Bands and singers were all over the place -- not only in the Grund, an older part of town below the old city walls with a few crawlable pubs, but up the hill as well -- singing and playing blues and jazz. The narrow streets were full of people, young and old, snaking their way from venue to venue.

Kind of like Amsterdam without the red lights, porn shops and cannabis fumes.

At one venue, a bar not far from the city's national art museum, a singer / guitarist was performing hits by Brazilian master Antonio Carlos Jobim and doing a nice job in front of a nice crowd.

Excited and surprised by the hip scene, I found the proprietor.

"Is it always this lively here on a Saturday night?"

"No, it's always calm," he said, calmly. "I wish every Saturday night was like this."

So there's the main downside: The nightlife here, even -- and especially -- on weekends is rather dull.

But there's a reason.

This is a city of about 80,000. Unlike just about every known European and American urban tourist destination, the population swells on weekdays, to 120,000. Part of that surge is people who come to town on banking or EU business, which fills hotels and makes seats at better restaurants precious. This is in addition to a tide of "border crossers" who come here daily to work from neighboring France, Belgium and Germany, then go back across the border to homes they can afford.

(There are no plans, incidentally, to build a wall along the Luxembourg border. This is Europe.)

The crossers may hang out in Luxembourg City for the occasional dinner or drinks on weeknights, or even stay overnight if duty calls -- but Saturday and Sunday, they're back in France, Belgium and Germany. The businesspeople and bureaucrats and their expense accounts go back to wherever they go back to.

Which leaves things a little quiet.

But lack of consistently rowdy weekend madness aside, there is stuff of interest here. Most of it relates to history, some ancient and some that's still remembered first-hand.

Castle to country

Luxembourg began in 963 as a castle (now gone) built by a Count Siegfried on a rock -- the Bock -- that made it defensible on all sides. As happened in this part of the world, when a castle went up, a town grew up below it.

After a few hundred years and an upgrade in armaments, the French, Spanish, Burgundians, Austrians, Dutch and Prussians took turns occupying the place. Seems everybody wanted to control this impregnable fortress -- nickname: "the Gibraltar of the North" -- despite its newfound pregnability.

It was mainly the Spanish, during their reign, who carved fortified compartments -- casemates, complete with cannons -- into the Bock. It's estimated those walls could hold 50,000 soldiers, their horses and their gear. By treaty (the Second Treaty of London, which came in 1867 after the Austro-Prussian War, but you knew that), Luxembourg became an independent nation, and the casemates largely disassembled.

But not entirely. In the 1940s, surviving casemates, repurposed as bomb shelters -- though bombs never fell here -- held 30,000 horseless Luxembourgians. Today, along with parts of the old city, the casemates are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and you can tour them, alone or with guidance.

Speaking of World War II: Before and during the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944-45, Gen. Omar Bradley's headquarters in Luxembourg was the Grand Hotel Cravat.

"Before that," said a clerk, "the Germans."

Bradley's signed photo still graces the hotel lobby. There are no signed photos of Germans -- but even though the city escaped the bombing that strafed much of the country, there are scars. Not all are visible.

"In 1942," said Antony, the guide, who was born not long after the war, "there was a strike [during the German occupation] and a lot of people were shot."

Others died in concentration camps.

"It's kind of controversial," she said. "Like in my family, my mom was German, but my grandfather -- my mom's dad -- they hid Jews. Whereas my father's father was a loyal Luxembourger, but his brothers and sisters, they were Nazis. So it went through all Luxembourg families."

And: "We have villages that totally disappeared."

A few miles outside the capital, near the suburb of Hamm, is an American military cemetery. Most of the dead, more than 5,000, fell during the Battle of the Bulge, whose battleground was this country and eastern Belgium. Among the war dead resting here: one woman (a nurse), 22 pairs of brothers -- and Gen. George S. Patton Jr., who died in Germany months after the war's end but wanted to be buried with his troops. (Also here: ashes of Patton's widow, scattered on the general's gravesite.)

Near the American cemetery is a German military cemetery. More than 11,000 German dead are here -- some who were as young as 16 -- most buried two or more to a cross but 5,000 in a single mass grave.

"They didn't have the space," said Antony.

North of the city, primarily in the lovely rolling countryside that is the Luxembourg Ardennes, are towns that also remember, among them Diekirch, home of an outstanding military museum, and Ettelbruck, with its Patton Memorial Museum and monumental statue of the general whose army liberated the city Christmas Day 1944.

There are other places. Other monuments and memorials.

In the fields, they're still finding remnants of war.

Cultural Capital

But Luxembourg City is doing well. Fine homes grace Chemin de la Corniche, a lovely walkway that affords strollers marvelous views of the Bock, the Grund and the Alzette River Valley.

Last summer, the city opened a new museum of contemporary art, the Musee d'Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean (or Mudam, for short), designed by I.M. Pei, who gave the Louvre its pyramid.

Reaction was decidedly mixed.

"About 80 percent of the cost went to the building," snarled one of the many youthful tourist helpers scattered around town. "That didn't leave much for the collection."

Added a woman who works the ticket desk at the established art museum in town, the Musee National d'Histoire et d'Art: "Well, they have some paintings too. But for me, very strange ones. Very strange."

Robert Garcia, coordinator general for "Luxembourg 2007," the Cultural Capital operation, provided perspective: "Normally the focus of the museum is rather on temporary exhibitions, because the size is not big enough for both at the same time."

Plus, sometime this fall a new Fortress Museum is expected to open next door. In any case, whatever's on exhibit in the art museum this tourist season (a Design and Science" show will be on for most of it) likely will be a must-see for anyone drawn here by the Cultural Capital designation. (The other European Cultural Capital for 2007 is, of course, Sibiu. In Romania. I'd never heard of it either, but you can bet nobody there has heard of me, so. ...)

Speaking of art: Among the examples of public art worth seeking out is a fountain that features musicians, with great faces, performing while surrounded by sheep. It is commonly referred to as Roude Petz -- the Red Fountain.

Why? It isn't red. ...

"We just call it 'the Red Fountain,'" explained a local.

Wednesdays and Saturdays, Place Guillermo II -- the plaza in front of the city hall, steps from the seldom-used palace of the grand duke -- becomes a farmers' market, filled with fresh produce and fresh flowers, all colorful.

"During a regular Saturday," said Antony, "you can walk into the market and run into the grand duchess -- and she's doing her grocery shopping. That's very normal, and it's very different from the States."

At the main city square not far from Place Guillermo II -- Place d'Armes -- bands play live music almost daily during summer. The choice of music can be eclectic. One day, it was the Elmer Bernstein march from The Great Escape -- a film about a World War II prison camp. Another, it was an Elvis medley.

In Luxembourg, children are taught French and German, and speak Luxembourgish, despite efforts to the contrary.

"The French have been telling us -- for 800 years -- that soon nobody's going to speak Luxembourgish anymore," said Antony. "For 800 years!

"We still do speak it -- and we will speak it for a very long time to go. It's part of our identity, and that's what we want to be ... and we're very proud of it."

It is a pride that helped carry this little country during the worst of times.

Carved above a door in a building that in the 14th century was a fish market is a motto, in Luxembourgish: Mir wolle bleiwe wat mir sin. Translation: We want to stay what we are.

"And that," explained my guide, "comes from the lyric of a song that was written in honor of our first train, in the 1860s.

"The lyrics say, 'You can visit us from Belgium, France and Prussia, but do not try to change us, because we want to stay what we are.'"

So Luxembourg, and its capital city, is what it is, and what it has been for a while now: absolutely worth a day or two, before catching the next train to ... somewhere else.

Alan Solomon writes for the Chicago Tribune.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

With some good rail connections as well as attractive cities within a couple of hours' pleasant driving (Brussels, Belgium, and Cologne, Germany, are especially handy), flying into Luxembourg and home from another city is a low-cost option.

Language note

English is widely spoken at hotels, restaurants and tourist stops in Luxembourg City; in the countryside, a little French or German will be helpful.

GETTING AROUND

Public transportation

-- There are taxis and buses, but if you stay in or near the traditional center, almost everything worthwhile to the leisure traveler in Luxembourg City is within walking distance.

Tour buses

-- For sightseeing, the hop-on, hop-off CitySightseeing buses (12 euros, or about $16, daily subject to dollar-euro fluctuation), with narration in multiple languages through headphones, operate every 20 minutes during summer and are hard to beat; guided walking tours (recommended), as well as free self-guide maps (almost as good), are available through the tourist office on Place d'Armes.

LODGING

Visitors not there solely on business will want to stay within an easy walk of the city's center. Tip: Hotel prices dive on weekends and holidays - often by 50 percent and more - when business/governmental travelers go someplace else and vacancies happen in bulk. They also drop in August, but you might find nobody's there.

Le Royal

-- Luxembourg City's only five-star lodging (and the only one near the historic area with a pool) is a stolid hotel with air-conditioning - a serious plus in summer - a few easy blocks from the middle of things. Doubles from $475. hotelroyal.lu.

Grand Hotel Cravat

-- A four-star hotel with rates starting at $350. hotelcravat.lu.

Hotel Francais

-- Centrally located and clean and bright, the hotel is right on the Place d'Armes. Especially in summer, when there's lots of music on the square, try for a room facing the back. Rates start at $165. hotelfrancais.lu.

Best Western International

-- Right across the street from the train station. Rooms start at $190. bestwestern.com.

CULTURAL CAPITAL

Expect a year full of international dance, music, theater and visual arts events throughout the country (and spilling over into neighboring regions of Belgium, France and Germany) but primarily in Luxembourg City, some in the two-year-old, architecturally fascinating Philharmonie. As of now, about 450 events are scheduled in all; closing party is Dec. 8. One sure to be fun: a festival of brass bands - bands from all over the world playing all over the city - Sept. 29. For schedules, check the Luxembourg 2007 Web site at luxembourg2007.org.

INFORMATION

Contact the Luxembourg National Tourist Office (212-935-8888 in New York; visitluxembourg.lu); or check the Luxembourg City Tourist Office site at www.lcto.lu.

[ALAN SOLOMON]

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