Ancient fortresses, ultra-modern museums and a scenic clifftop setting: a weekend in Luxembourg City reveals why the Grand-Duchy’s fairytale of a capital is greater than the sum of its parts.
In Luxembourg there’s a famous legend of a mermaid, Melusina, who was so beautiful that Count Siegrid, the founder of the House of Luxembourg, fell head over heels in love with her. For years, they lived happily together, the count oblivious to his wife’s true nature until the day he spotted her with her fishtail uncovered. Upon this discovery, Melusina let out a shrill cry and got swallowed up by the earth. It is believed that her locked-up spirit has been charming the banks of Luxembourg’s river Alzette ever since.
A place with a founding myth like this one is bound to look like a fairytale. Lush greenery frames the dramatic cliffs upon which Luxembourg’s historic old quarters are perched, while gentle streams trickle through the cobblestoned valley district. A series of arch bridges, staircases and slopes connect the lower and upper parts of town to painterly effect, perfectly blending with the extensive remains of its former fortifications. In more recent days, the city’s emblematic medieval layout has become a canvas for a flourishing contemporary arts scene, a dynamic banking sector and Europe’s most multicultural population.
Similarly to the Grand-Duchy’s capital, Hôtel Le Place d’Armes – my home away from home for the weekend – creates a seamless marriage between old and new, historic and modern. The hotel’s 28 rooms and suites are spread over seven buildings from the 18th century that are intricately connected by a network of leafy patios, verandas, roof terraces and original winding stairs – a small château in the heart of the city, as Hubert Bonnier, the Maître de Maison, likes to describe it. The décor is at once classic and contemporary with each wood beam ceiling and ornate stucco wall paying respect to the historic character of the structure. Warm light floods through the Art Nouveau stained glass windows at La Cristallerie creating a magical atmosphere that is enhanced by chef Fabrice Salvador’s cooking. From three-way Japanese Kobé beef to line-caught sole with abalone, the seasonal, product-driven tasting menus served at the hotel’s gastronomic restaurant surprise with subtle flavours and imaginative combinations. Two further addresses – the bistrot-style Café de Paris and the rôtisserie Le Plëss – complete the hotel’s culinary offer with a convivial atmosphere and two terraces opening out onto the lively Place d’Armes.
Within a short walk from Hôtel Le Place d’Armes lie all of Luxembourg City’s major sights, among them the Grand-Ducal Palace, the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Casemates, an impressive complex of underground tunnels and galleries carved out of the Bock rock. My weekend is spent strolling through narrow medieval streets, past pastel-coloured houses and down the Chemin de la Corniche pedestrian promenade to take in the panorama of the multi-level city. Luxembourg’s brand new tram takes me across the Grande-Duchesse Charlotte bridge – better known as the red bridge – to the Kirchberg business district, where glass towers and modern architecture predominate. Besides financial headquarters and European institutions, the area is home to two of the city’s best cultural attractions, the Ieoh-Ming-Pei-designed Musée d’Art Moderne (Mudam) and the futuristic Philharmonie concert hall. Outside of Mudam sprawls the Parc des Trois Glands from which I marvel at the old town unfolding on the other side – another world within one and the same city, it seems.
Any tour of Luxembourg City is likely to end in the Grund, a lower-lying district that feels more like a village than a major European capital. Here, on the banks of the river Alzette, chef Ilario Mosconi and his wife Simonetta have opened their two-Michelin-starred Italian restaurant almost two decades ago. Mosconi serves the type of simple, yet refined cuisine that allows the produce to shine in all their glory: ricotta-stuffed courgette flowers, lobster on a bed of Puglian tomatoes and Piedmontese veal entrecôte with white truffles, all sourced from small Italian producers that the chef knows personally. The restaurant’s waterside setting – across an old stone bridge known for its picturesque views of the upper town – is among the most spellbinding in the city. Without doubt, even Melusina, Luxembourg’s storied river nymph, would have been mesmerised by it all.