Monday, January 17, 2011

Sunday Staycation

We do not own a car in Luxembourg and - at least so far - having wheels at our disposal is not something we miss on a regular basis. But when we do rent a car, as we did this past weekend, it is a real treat to be able to both run errands and to do some sightseeing in the area, visiting places that would otherwise require more complicated bus or train travel to reach. Yesterday we went to Rodemack, France, then followed the Moselle River up to Schengen in Luxembourg and ended the day at the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial, just outside of Luxembourg Ville.

Medieval garden
Our Sunday sightseeing adventure began in Rodemack, a small village just south of the border in France that is home to just over 1,000 residents. It is also listed as one of the 155 Plus Beaux Villages de France (most beautiful villages in France) by the French nonprofit organization of the same name that decides such things. This is the kind of village meant for strolling and enjoying for what it is, and I’d recommend it as a nice first stop for those with a car who can drive through and enjoy some of the other villages in the area. (Though if you happen to swing through Rodemack in December, be sure to check the schedule for the weekend of their medieval Christmas market.)

Porte de Sierck
In Rodemack, you’ll find a 12th century castle that dominates the “skyline” of the village (the castle is privately owned and tourists are not allowed inside), as well as remains of old fortress walls that still wind around much of the village. You will see ruins of the old fortress prison tower, the 18th century church of Saint-Nicholas, and also a carefully reconstructed medieval garden of vegetables, flowers, fruit, and herbs for both cooking and medicinal purposes. I thought the garden was nice in winter, but I bet it's even nicer in the spring and summertime.

The city gate, the Porte de Sierck, is worth a look as well. It was torn down in November 1944 by the Americans as they liberated the town; soldiers had to destroy the original gate in order pass through the village with their large tanks. (The door was reconstructed in 1989.) As you stroll through town, you’ll also see brightly painted over-hangings above important addresses in town, clueing you in to where you can mail a letter, buy groceries or purchase artwork.
L-R: Signs for the post office, a grocery store and an artist's shop.
On our stroll through Rodemack, we also stopped to check out a large map of the region that showed several other small villages nearby. We decided to drive southeast to Fixem and then toward Burg-sur-Moselle, where we would follow the Moselle River north back into Luxembourg. The drive lasted less than 20 minutes but we made our way through some quaint small towns that we agreed would be fun to visit in warmer weather by bicycle, since there was a nicely paved bike path visible from the road the entire way back to Luxembourg. Here is the map (click to enlarge), in case you'd like to plan your own sightseeing adventure:

Schengen is located on the southeastern border of Luxembourg, along the Moselle River, and is an important landmark in European history. On board the MS Princesse Marie-Astrid in 1985, on the Moselle where the borders of Luxembourg, France and Germany all meet, the Schengen Agreement was signed by the leaders of Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The agreement created an area that abolished border checks and allowed for free travel among signing nations; as of today 25 border-sharing European member countries have signed on to become part of the Schengen Area. It's hard to imagine what it must have been like in the days before this agreement, having to always carry a passport and to keep straight which countries required a traveler to apply for a visa in advance.

When you travel to Luxembourg to visit us, you'll see this in action: you don't need to carry your passport with you when we take you on day trips in the region, and you won't get a Luxembourg stamp in your passport unless you are traveling to or from Luxembourg through the UK or another non-Schengen state. Most flights to and from the US pass through Paris or Amsterdam, and since France and the Netherlands are both Schengen states, flying to them from Luxembourg is like flying to Nebraska from Pennsylvania. You'll only pass through border control when changing planes at your first or last stop before entering or leaving the Schengen area. Anyway: long story short, this makes traveling throughout Europe a breeze!

In Schengen, there are a couple of things to see. First off, the town is the first (or last, depending on the direction you're traveling) stop on Luxembourg's Route du Vin (wine trail), which takes you along the Moselle River and through terraced vineyards that dominate the landscape in the country's wine region. In the town of Schengen, you'll want to see the Château de Schengen. First constructed in the 13th century, all that remains today of the original structure is a round tower, because in 1812, the owner of the château decided to demolish everything but the round tower in order to build a more grand manor home on the property, which still stands today (and was once home for a short stay by Victor Hugo). Formerly off limits, you can enter the château manor today because it is now a four star hotel.

The European Museum Schengen opened in the summer of 2010 - on the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Schengen Agreement - and is an interesting (and free) stop that helps explain what life was like in Europe before and after the signing of the Schengen Agreement. It's a fairly well done and high-tech exhibit in German, French and English with just enough video clips and memorabilia to enjoy for 30-45 minutes or so. That is, before you realize the ongoing audio/video exhibit around you: continuous video footage of Europeans of all ages, shapes and sizes saying "Schengen". (Yep...that's all they say: "Schengen".) Once you notice it, it will drive you crazy. The museum also has a terrific selection of free brochures, maps and pamphlets about the European Union, as well as info on tourist activities within the tri-country border area.
Photo of exhibit stations inside the European Museum Schengen.
The dreaded, looped audio exhibit of Europeans saying "Schengen" is on the screen to the left of the people in the photo.
Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial
Our last stop of the day was the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial, the final resting place of 5,076 American soldiers who lost their lives in World War II. Many were killed during the Battle of the Bulge, which took place in the northern part of the country, or died while liberating Luxembourg. The cemetery is beautifully laid out, each of the headstones set in a straight and impressive formation from any direction you look. There are just under 5,000 Latin Cross headstones and 118 Stars of David. We noticed that a white pebble had been placed on a few of the Stars of David headstones, and inside the visitors' center, we learned that the tradition of leaving a pebble first started with the leaving of a note from a family member to the deceased relative, placed beneath a pebble to weight it down. The elements eventually washed or blew the notes away, and eventually the tradition became that only a pebble was left on the headstone, to indicate that it had been recently visited. Families may obtain a white pebble to leave on a Star of David headstone by inquiring inside the visitors' center at the entrance to the cemetery.

A large monument in the cemetery (left) also serves as a place of prayer for those who wish to do so. Large maps at the base of this monument lay out military campaigns in the Rhineland and Ardennes areas (including the Battle of the Bulge), with arrows indicating the fighting path. It is staggering to see so many dates of death in the cold month of December and to know that these men fought in such wintry conditions, especially those who fought their way through the steeply wooded forest area of the Ardennes.

Inside the visitors' center you will find maps of the cemetery, illustrating where medal of honor recipients are buried, and another, illustrating where 22 sets of brothers are buried, side by side.

General George S. Patton, Jr. is also buried in this cemetery. Originally buried among his men, his remains were recently moved because the number of people visiting his grave to pay their respects each year killed all of the grass. So now he lies at the top of the cemetery, looking out over his men.

World War II is something that seemed so far away for me until we moved to Luxembourg. But living here now and being so close to so many important battle sights, monuments and memorials, I feel enormously fortunate to have the opportunity to learn and understand more about the war, the men who fought, the men and women who resisted, and to learn more about what those who lived in this area were forced to endure. It makes me wish over and over again that my maternal grandfather, who fought in the war as one of the "Iron Men of Metz" in the 95th infantry division, was still alive today so I could ask him more informed questions about his time in Europe. Inspired by the battle maps at the cemetery, Nick did a little online research when we got home yesterday evening and found that my grandfather's unit may have advanced from Metz northward, toward Bertrange, which is in Luxembourg. I'll need to do some more research, but what an incredible thing it would be if he was one of the liberators of this country that I am now living in, nearly 70 years later.

So: if you are at all interested in World War II history, the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial is certainly one of many places you should visit on your trip to Luxembourg. (More must-see spots to come on Luxemblog.) And if you are interested in WWII history but can't make it across the pond, I highly recommend that you download a very detailed PDF about the cemetery here, and also suggest that you watch this 2 minute video clip about the cemetery:

1 comment:

  1. If you are interested in WWII, then you have to visit the national military museum in Diekirch. Absolutely worth seeing.