A Visit to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg:
Seeking a destination near Paris for a four-day excursion, we discovered that Luxembourg had been named the cultural capital of Europe for 2007. Further inquiry
led to a number of delightful surprises. Edward Steichen's renowned photography exhibit, The Family of Man, initially exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in the mid nineteen fifties, was on permanent display at the Castle of Clervaux, a forty-five minute drive from the center of the city of Luxembourg. We had seen this unforgettable exhibit
at MOMA, and were eager to re-visit it. Furthermore, I.M. Pei had designed an architecturally dramatic new Modern Art Museum, the Musee d'Art Moderne Grand Duc Jean. To tempt us further, the historic center of Luxembourg is classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, a notable designation. If you're traveling with kids, they will enjoy exploring the city fortress overlooking the valleys of Petrusee and l'Alzette.
Paris to Luxembourg is approximately a four-hour drive, or if you're not inclined to drive, you can catch the TGV (a high speed train) and make it in three. En-route from Paris to Luxembourg, consider a stop in Rheims, the center of the Champagne region. The cathedral is a magnificent Gothic structure-and a don't miss is the small chapel whose walls are graced with Foujita murals. Foujita was a Japanese artist who lived and worked in Paris alongside Modigiliani and other greats of the School of Paris. If you plan on tasting champagne at the great producers (a delicious enterprise), we urge you to choose lodging for the night. It is the best and safest choice. Remember our front-page caution: Please Do Not Drink and Drive.
After settling into your Luxembourg hotel, make your first stop the Luxembourg City Tourist Office (Place Guillaume II, www.lcto.lu)in the center of the city. Your concierge will provide a map and direct you. Pick up brochures and purchase Go Luxembourg Cards for each of your party. This will provide for public transportation and entry to the various sites (museums, castles, etc). While Luxembourg is a European business center, it is not without considerable charm and great artistic merit. You will find public art by Frank Stella, Jean Dubuffet, Richard Serra and others, as well as architecture by I.M Pei, Richard Meier and Arquitectonica from America and many leading European architects.
If you want to visit the interior of the Ducal Palace, arrange to visit in summer. In April, we had to settle for a stroll around the exterior of the Palace.
We chose two hotels in Luxembourg. The first, the Hotel Sofitel Luxembourg Le Grand Ducal had opened just two months earlier. The hotel is situated above the historic quarters of the "High City" and the "Low City." The views (request a room with view) are stunning. The décor is ultra-modern and appealing. A bonus at the end of a day of touring is the attractive bar and a roof restaurant, Top Floor, under the baton of the French chef, Antoine Westermann. We had a pleasant and tasty meal consisting of seasonal Vegetables, Frogs Legs, Breast of Pintade, accompanied by a glass of Chateaneuf de Pape and a Pinot Gris.
If you prefer to be more centrally located, we'd recommend Le Royal as the hotel of choice. It is the "Queen" of Luxembourg hotels. We spent two nights there and found the staff warm, welcoming and particularly well-informed.
On our first full day, after a change of hotels to, as indicated above, a more central location, we grabbed a bus and headed out to the Museum of Modern Art. We asked the bus-driver to let us know when we reached the stop for the Museum. Whoops. We found ourselves well past our destination and when I questioned him, he seemed a bit abashed. Grumbling, we got off and rather than return by bus, grabbed a taxi-cab. The museum is set back and cannot be seen from the busy main road. Our cab-driver was unfamiliar with its exact location. He obligingly called in to his office and managed to deposit us near the Museum. I can assure you that it was more than worth the aggravation and cab fare. The museum is located at the edge of the historic center, on the grounds of an eighteenth century fort. If you've seen I.M Pei's Louvre and its Pyramid, you won't be surprised by some elements of the structure, but you will be smitten by its beauty once within. The museum opened in July 2006 and a few of the more interesting temporary exhibits were by Chinese artists. In our opinion, the building itself is the major work of art and well worth the visit. Even the setting of the dining area was flooded with natural light as a result of the building's design.
Later in the afternoon, a long walk through the city led to The Casemates (UNESCO World Heritage). In the 10th century, the ruling Count built a fortified castle on the Bock Promontory and over the centuries, additional rings of walls were added. Despite the fortifications, the Burgundians conquered the city in the late 15th century and turned it into what the brochure describes as "the Gibralter of the North." In the late 19th century 90% of the defenses were demolished, but not the casemates. These galleries served as shelters during the world wars, holding up to 35,000 people during air raids or shelling. Two casemates are open to the public. You'll be amazed as you visit these galleries, fortifications, prison, rooms with splendid views, cannon emplacements, etc. The casements are open from March to October, 10AM to 5PM.
During a visit to a Liuxembourg bookstore, we had discovered and purchased the Pudlo Guide to Dining in Luxembourg. Pudlo's Guide to Paris Restaurants, published annually and now translated into English, serves us well as a reliable source of recommendations. To our surprise (and later delight), in perusing his guide to Luxembourg, we came upon Mosconi. His praise for this restaurant was high indeed, describing it as the best Italian restaurant outside of Italy, worth the trip from Paris. The Michelin Guide had bestowed two stars upon Mosconi, great recognition. We were pleased to obtain reservations and found the cuisine, setting and service as good as it gets. Ilario Mosconi is in the kitchen, while the lovely Simonetta ensures the smooth functioning of the dining rooms. Tastefully decorated, without flash, you feel as if you are dining in someone's home. And the food! Three yums!! My mouth is watering as I revisit the meal. An amuse bouche of Crevettes in Tomato Sauce; Meatball lightly coated with Pesto and Potato on a bed of pureed Tomato; Ricotta of Brebis (Sheep cheese) with a Fondant of Tomato and olive oil-chaser in a martini glass-Iced Tomato Sorbet with Balsamic Vinegar. On to the Pasta Courses which we shared: Linguine with Tartar of fresh Sardines and Lemon/olive oil; Maltiaglati with Sausage, Balsamic Vinegar and Parmesan. Main Courses: A Friture of Langoustines, Calamari and gamberi (large Shrimp) with Lettuce and Parmesan cheese, Olive Oil and a touch of Garlic; Wild Turbot Croute en Sel with beautiful Vegetables, Tomato Sauce with Marjoram. Our 2004 Castello di Ama Chianti Classico (a great vintage and a great vineyard) served us well. Hug Guillame is the sommelier (second generation, he learned from his sommelier father from boyhood). Hug is very knowledgeable an d enjoys sharing his preferences with the restaurant's guests. The pre-Dessert was a Citron Mousse with a confiture of Strawberry and Rhubarb. As for Dessert, we opted for variations around Rhubarb and Strawberry: Rhubarb Sorbet, Strawberry Millefeuille, Strawberry Mousse, Strawberry with Cream of Mascarpone and Strawberry Sorbet. The meal is expensive but well worth it. In our book, four stars!! When you plan your visit to Luxembourg, be sure to reserve a table at Mosconi well in advance.
Next morning, after a lovely breakfast at Le Royale, we set out for Clervaux Castle and The Family of Man. The route was lovely, good roads, not much traffic and beautiful vistas. Luxembourg has been described as a "Little Switzerland" and the appellation fits.
We arrived at Clervaux, parked and eagerly made our way to the small Castle housing the fabulous photography exhibit (and in an annex, a Museum of the Battle of the Ardennes, for World War I and II buffs). The Castle is open to the public from March 1st through December 31st,
Tuesday to Sunday from 10AM to 6PM (Mondays from Easter to mid-September). Some background to The Family of Man exhibit. Edward Steichen, one of the greats of 20th century photography and of Luxemburgian descent, became curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art. There, he conceived a plan of an exhibit that transcended geographic boundaries and dealt with that which humans ahve in common during their life's journey. He sought photographs and writing from professionals and amateurs alike, receiving more than two million photographs from all over the world. From an initial selection of 10,000, he chose 503 pictures by 273 photographers from 68 countries. He organized these according to 37 themes: such as birth, work, family, education, war and peace, love and faith etc. In the 1950's and 60's more than nine million visitors saw the exhibit at MOMA and as it traveled around the world. In 1964, the American government presented it to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, granting Steichen's wish that it should be permanently housed there. It is a powerful testimony to what we have in common and an antidote to the forces that separate us. Don't miss it.
From Clervaux, we drove another forty-five minutes to Vianden for a visit to the medieval town set in the landscape of the Ardennes. There, we enjoyed the pretty town and its magnificent mountain setting, churches, narrow lanes, all dominated by a restored castle (11th-14th centuries). The castle of Vianden is open daily (except for November 2, December 25 and January 1). Kids of all age will love it. Check hours as they vary by time of year. If you're a literature buff, visit the Victor Hugo House. If athletically inclined, there is mountain biking and a chairlift leading up from the valley and providing great panoramic views.
We returned to our hotel tired but very gratified and opted for a simple dinner in Le Royal. Le Jardin proved accommodating and comfortable. Still in thrall to our meal at Mosconi, we decided to order a simple dinner and lo and behold, the request for a bowl of Vegaetable Soup (prepared to order) and a Hamburger (Cheeseburger) was met. Both were well above average. Grilled Gambas with Rice was also quite good. The dessert was three stars - "Le Glace Royal" consisted of Moka and Coffee Ice Cream over which one poured a small cup of hot coffee and topped it with whipped cream. Dinner was accompanied with a selection of wines by the glass, including a quite respectable white wine from a Luxembourg vineyard.
We never made it to the Museum of Fine Arts, nor did we have time to search for local chocolatiers (whose reputation is excellent). Nor did we do a tour of the Moselle vineyards. More reason to return.
We did make a special stop at Metz, a short distance from Luxembourg City, en route back to Paris. The Church in Metz is known for its spectacular proportions and stained glass windows, including three by Marc Chagall. The Church alone would be worth the stop, but a visit to the Museum and its terrific Gallo-Roman finds (in the immediate vicinity) was a major bonus.
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Where to Stay:
Sofitel Luxembourg Le Grand Ducal
40 BD D'Avranches,
12, Boulevard Royal,
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Where to Dine:
13, rue Munster
in Le Royal Hotel
Restaurant Top Floor
in the Sofitel Luxembourg
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