Tiny Luxembourg — a land of international diversity

Do you speak French? No? Then perhaps German? Not to worry, everyone you meet in Luxembourg will also speak English — and most likely Spanish. However, a phrase in Luxembourgish, the national language, best describes the citizens of this grand duchy: Mir wölle bleiwe wat mir sin, or “We want to stay what we are.” What they are, these Luxembourgers, is fascinating — so much history, so many languages and so little acreage.

The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is slightly smaller than Rhode Island at 999 square miles. But do not let its tiny capital city of 82,000 people fool you. With 189 banks, three official languages and 50% of its population foreign born, Luxembourg City is an international dynamo.

The Luxembourg 3-day itinerary

Day one

Start your stay with a hot soak at the famed Domaine Thermal de Mondorf (Avenue des Bains, Mondorf-les-Bains; phone +352 23 66 60 or visit www.mondorf.lu), located 15 miles southwest of the city. A destination of rejuvenation and relaxation, the spa is less crowded in the early evening. Drop off the luggage and experience one, or all, of Mondorf’s attractions.

Les Thermes, with its mineral-rich waters heated to 82 degrees, is reputed to cure arthritis, rheumatism and chronic obesity, among other ills. Or perhaps a trip to Le Club is for you — but only if you are bold. Its spa pavilion offers nude bathers access to coed Turkish baths, hammams, steam baths, whirlpools and saunas (one-day pass, €26, or near $34). In the Bien-Être center, you can have a goat butter cream pack or a Fango mud massage (packages start at €90, or $119).

All that hot water will make you hungry. Drive back into the city to the area known as Marché-aux-Poissons, or Fish Market, the oldest section of Luxembourg. It is here that two ancient Roman roads meet and the Michelin-star-rated restaurants reside.

Le Bouquet Garni (32, rue de l’Eau; phone 26 20 06 20 or e-mail bouquetgarni@internet.lu), run by French chef Thierry Duhr, offers exceptional meals amidst the crooked lanes and cobbled mews.

You will soon see why the old local adage is true: Luxembourgish cuisine is French in flair and German in portion. The specialty is seafood, and it will set you back €30-€70 per person (without alcohol). I recommend ordering the Crémant, a dry sparkling wine made in the Moselle region.

Day two

Today you can set out to tour la ville (the city), as locals refer to the capital. Visit the Tourist Information Center in the Place d’Armes, located in Palais Municipal. Locate a map or join a walking tour.

A few highlights before lunch include the Cathédrale Notre-Dame, a late-Gothic church that houses the remains of the beloved Grand Duchess Charlotte, who escaped the Nazis with help from President Roosevelt during WWII, and Le Bock, a UNESCO World Heritage Site worth the walk. With foundations dating to the ninth century, the fortress has housed Celtic, Roman, French, Spanish and Luxembourgish warriors. A creep through the Casements du Bock, dug in 1745, will give you a sense of life for the defenders of this “Gibraltar of the North” (open 11-6, Easter-September; €2).

Stroll up to the Palais Grand-Ducal, dating from the 16th century. Once a home for the royal family, the palace is now used for government functions (tickets are available through the information office; €5). End at the place Guillaume, the city market square named for the knots in the belts worn by the monks who once lived there. Wednesdays and Saturdays, the square hosts a farmers’ market.

For lunch, just ask, “Wou ass e gudde Restaurant?” Or, if you can’t speak Luxembourgish, ask, “Where is a good restaurant?” Follow the Luxembourgers and you will see.

Le Brasserie Guillaume (phone 26 20 20 20) at place Guillaume is the place to be on a Saturday. Even for lunch, the local people are fashionably turned out — ladies with expensive handbags and doggies on leashes, plus gentlemen in cravats and impressive shoes. The ground floor is a bistro, and upstairs is a rather elegant dining room. As you enter the brasserie, watch the tank full of swimming fish; one will be your lunch if you order the bass or trout (€18). Take your time with lunch; everyone else does. Oh, and order the crème brûlée.

After lunch, it is time for “1,000 Objects and 1,000 Years” of history at the city’s two top museums. They are small and set in beautifully renovated old buildings. First, visit the Musée d’Histoire de la Ville de Luxembourg (rue du St-Esprit). It traces a millennium of city history, from Roman times to the present. On display are mosaics, tiles, Celtic weapons, ancient maps and many other artifacts of the city. The best feature is the glass elevator, which holds 40 people and is Europe’s largest. It looks out over the gorge (open 10-6 Tuesday-Sunday and 10-8 Thursday; €5).

The Musée National d’Histoire et d’Art (Marché-aux-Poissons) displays Rembrandt, Bruegel and Turner, as well as Luxembourg’s own Kutter. It is airy, open and pleasantly unvisited by the crowds (open 10-5 Tuesday-Sunday; €2.50).

“Prost!” is the thing to say in Luxembourg at happy hour. Taverne Wëlle Mann (rue Wiltheim 12; phone 47 17 83) is located near the National Museum; just follow the sign to the alley entrance. Sit on the deck overlooking the ravine. The yellow church below is Eglise St-Jean Baptiste, once home to Benedictines and then to prisoners. Now it is a cultural center.

After your aperitif, tuck into regional cuisine at the Alfa Café, located in the Grand Hotel Mercure Alfa (16 place du Gare, across from the train station). At the entrance to this very large, French-style bistro, visitors may look over the evening’s seafood displayed in the blue rowboat or try the veal cordon bleu (€15) or the sauerkraut and pork choûcroute garni (€17). Start with a bottle of Crémant Rosé and finish with a Grand Dame ice cream parfait, served with a little jug of melted dark chocolate.

Day three

With modern, open roads that wind through the wooded hills, Luxembourg’s highway system is a driver’s delight. A great trip is one to the Valley of the Seven Castles, just 30 miles from the city. The most magnificent structure is the ninth- century fortress in Vianden, which has been beautifully restored within the last 30 years. The castle (open 10-6 daily, Easter to mid-October; €5) sits above the River Our and the forests of the Ardennes.

After lunch, take a drive to Diekirch, once a base of operations for the Nazis. When the Battle of the Bulge decided the war, the Americans established their base camp there, 20 miles outside Luxembourg City. This small village, as well as Vianden, Echternach and Clervaux, suffered the greatest damage in a bloodbath that claimed 19,000 American lives.

The Musée National d’Histoire Militaire (Bamertal 10 — open 10-6 daily, Easter-October, and 2-6 November-Easter; €5) presents life-sized dioramas of WWII representing the human loss and triumph for both sides of the conflict. If you wonder why the Luxembourgers are so nice to Yanks, this museum will make it all clear: we were their liberators, and they have not forgotten.

To end the day with style, dine in Vianden at Hôtel Victor Hugo (1, rue Victor Hugo; phone +352 83 41 60 or visit www.hotel-victor-hugo.lu), which once housed the exiled writer. Legend has it that Hugo helped in a bucket brigade to put out a fire at the inn.

Toast the author of “Les Miserables” with a bottle of K&B Cox Crémant, then sample the complimentary hors d’oeuvres as you wait for your entrecôte served with a dollop of béarnaise sauce (€20). Finish with a café glacé frozen dessert, just perfect in front of the fireplaces.

In three days’ time, you can soak up the history and hospitality of Luxembourg. Perhaps you will pick up a little of the local language as well, but if you cannot say “Farewell” in Luxembourgish, not to worry; “Adieu” or “Auf Wiedersehen” will be understood by all.

If you go…

Because of the short distance, there are no flights from Brussels to Luxembourg City. A train from Brussels departs daily on the 2-hour trip (€20 round trip, second class).

The 141-room, 4-star Hotel Mercure Alfa (phone 49 00 09) is conveniently located across the street from the train station and offers a fine restaurant, a bar and a façade that has not changed since its heyday in the 1930s. Rates, including breakfast, run €118-€159 (near $156-$210).

The 40-room, 4-star City Hotel (phone 352 29 11 22 or visit www.cityhotel.lu) also is located across from the station and offers a renovated and contemporary hotel with mini-bars, a whiskey lounge and complimentary breakfast. Rates are €115-€154 for two persons, sharing.