When you envisage Luxembourg, your first thoughts will probably be of businesses, banks and the EU. It might come as a surprise, therefore, to learn that it also has three world-class UNESCO-listed sites under its belt: the world’s longest casemates, defined by centuries of European power struggles; one of the greatest photography exhibitions on the planet, set within a striking castle; and the biggest, and possibly strangest, dancing procession you’ll ever come across.
I recently went on a tour of the country to delve deeper into its heritage, and discovered that Luxembourg’s history and culture is far richer than its tiny size would suggest.
Bock casemates, Luxembourg City
Cut deep into the Bock promontory in Grund’s northeast corner, this maze of underground tunnels is the longest in the world, and is what gave Luxembourg its moniker of the ‘Gibraltar of the North’. The casemates have had a long and turbulent history, with countless different owners, but since their inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1994, they’ve become Luxembourg City’s prime attraction with up to 100,000 visitors a year.
Upon entering the casemates you come first to the archaeological crypt, where glass plates describe the history of the fortifications. The original fortress was constructed by Count Siegfried in 963AD, and it soon became the cradle of the city. The first casemates were built in 1644 during the Spanish period, and were then enlarged some 40 years later under Louis XIV by French engineer Vauban, famed for his talent for designing fortifications. It was not until the arrival of the Austrians in the 18th century, however, that the underground galleries and passages were completed. With a total length of 23km, the extraordinary casemates could hold up to 1,200 men and 50 cannons, and also had facilities for cooking and keeping horses.
Following the neutralisation of Luxembourg in 1867, the fortress had to be evacuated and dismantled, but due to its position above the lower town, it could not be blown up without taking a large chunk of the city with it. The deconstruction process therefore took 16 years and reduced the casemates to just 17km. During the two World Wars, the passages lived up to their purpose of defending the city, and were used as a bomb shelter protecting as many as 35,000 people at any one time.
Inside the tunnels themselves there isn’t a lot to see, and a visit certainly isn’t recommended if you’re claustrophobic. But the windows in the rock, which were once used for cannons, present fantastic photo opportunities with wonderful panoramas over Grund and Clausen.
The Family of Man, Clervaux
This is undoubtedly the world’s best photography exhibition, a poignant and moving exhibit depicting the joys, struggles and life of man.
Originally created by Edward Steichen for the New York MOMA in 1955, it contains 503 photos from 68 countries, displaying the work of 273 different photographers in total. After touring the world for eight years, with stops in 37 countries that attracted over nine million visitors, it was gifted by the US Government to Luxembourg in 1964, Steichen’s home country. Today it resides in the imposing Clervaux Castle, using the original layout from the MOMA in order to give the ultimate viewing experience. It was added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in 2003 due to its historical significance.
Taking you on a journey though man’s development and lifecycle, each room illustrates a different theme. The first depicts creation, with images of the night sky and touching photo of a pregnant belly with the caption ‘And God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light’. As you move through the halls, you’re graced with both the beauty and destructive nature of man: a man sat among the rubble of the Berlin Wall, a woman voting for the first time, a child starving.
I found two exhibits in particular to be very touching. The first is what some might call the centrepiece of the exhibition: a group of hanging family portraits, each illustrating a different family from different parts of the world in different eras, but each as happy and loving as the next. The second is a giant metal circle showcasing images of children playing ring-a-roses in times of hardship; some are in impoverished towns, others in the aftermath of destruction, such an earthquake or bombing, but all showing that happiness can be found even in the darkest of times.
Dancing Procession, Echternach
Perhaps one of Europe’s most bizarre spectacles, this was definitely my favourite of the three. Every Whit Tuesday, the Dancing Procession grabs Echternach by the horns, with thousands of people gracing its cobbled streets to bound from one leg to another in time to a relentlessly catchy tune.
And why, do you ask? All to prevent the mysterious ‘dancing fever’. Intrigued? Read the full story here.