Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Mythbuster Tour

It’s taken me two days to sit down and write this post because I haven’t been able to walk to my computer.

Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but my legs have been a bit sore. That’s because Nick and I did a Very Awesome Thing this past Sunday: we went on a 6.5 hour guided walking tour around the former fortress fortification lines of Luxembourg Ville.

It’s a program that has been offered once a year for the past four years by the Luxembourg City History Museum and this year, I happened to stumble upon it on the museum’s web site. (A notice also appeared in Lux Ville’s CityMag; order your free subscription by e-mailing your Lux mailing address to

The walk was essentially a combination of the Vauban and Wenzel city walks, with some passages through outlying neighborhoods thrown in for good measure. There were only nine people in the English-speaking group including Nick and myself, so I’m guessing that you may not have been able to make it to the event. But don’t worry, I’ve got a few fun facts from our fabulous, fearless guide to share that will make you feel like you went along for the tour...

1. One of the oldest trees in the city is in the courtyard of the Lux City History Museum.
Our tour group, next to the old tree.
Photo by André Rosa.
Just a little tidbit that you can impress your friends with the next time you head to the museum's courtyard for a drink or a bite. (Don’t worry, these fun facts get more interesting as you continue below.)

To get to the courtyard, enter the museum at 14 rue du Saint Esprit and turn left when you walk inside, pass through the gift shop and turn left through a door that leads outside to the courtyard brasserie.

2. People actually live here.
Ancient tower,
current housing.
There are several towers around town that have been preserved from centuries past. I thought that they were just lovingly repaired or reconstructed, empty monuments left to show how fortified the old fortress of Luxembourg City used to be. Apparently, I thought wrong: many of these old monuments also double as homes! Our guide told us that people have been living there for generations and that rent to the government is as low as 500€ per month.

I have no idea how to fact check this, but if you happen to be reading Luxemblog and you live in one of these trés cool accommodations, will you please e-mail me at so we can chat? I am so curious to know what life is like inside one of these towers…and even more curious to know how you moved in your furniture!

3. The casemates are longer, darker and way more accessible to you than you think.
I’m guessing that we’ve hosted guests for about four solid months of the year and a half we’ve been living in Luxembourg. (And yes, we have had a lovely time with all of you, though we’ve particularly loved those of you who brought us bags of Starbucks Italian Roast...wink, wink!) Which is to say that I’ve been inside the Bock and Pétrusse Casemates more times than I have fingers and toes. They are interesting and a definite must-see in Luxembourg, but if you’ve read the brochure that you get for free with your entrance fee, you’ll see that there are actually 23 kilometers of tunnels that run beneath the city – much, much more than you get to see on your self-guided tour of the public casemates.
Inside the Vauban casemates.

(A quick interlude for those who have no idea what I’m talking about: the casemates are a vast network of tunnels carved into the rocky underground to the west and valley walls to the eastern side of central Luxembourg Ville. They were carved for military purposes in defending the city, and date mainly back to Spanish rule of Luxembourg in the middle 17th century, but were extended by the Italians, Belgians, French, Dutch and Prussians, and especially improved upon during Austrian rule. The casemates were even used during the two world wars as a shelter in case of attack. For more background, take a look at this very helpful brochure.)

Visit the casemates beneath
Plateau Saint Esprit on Oct. 2!
Click here to view the flyer.
As part of this walking tour, we had the opportunity to enter casemates not regularly open to the public. The tunnels opened for our tour ran near the site of Fort Vauban, a former outpost that lies beneath today’s Villa Vauban art museum, where fortress ruins can be partially seen from the basement. Nearly the entire western wall of the fortress lies beneath the city park, so if you see a discreet set of rocky stairs leading underground to a locked door, chances are probably good that you’ve stumbled upon an entrance to the casemates.

To enter, we walked down a set of stone stairs that I must have passed a hundred times before while living here, but never noticed. (Find them on the left side of Boulevard Prince Henri after it crosses Avenue Emile Reuter.) We quickly learned why we were told to bring flashlights on the guided walk: it is d-a-r-k down there! Tealights had been lit along the way by the casemate key-holders, the Frënn vun der Festungsgeschicht Lëtzebuerg (Friends of the Fortress of Luxembourg), but they only lit the way enough to see white markings on doorways naming tunnels that led elsewhere beneath the city park, surely added long after the fortress was dismantled in 1867.

We walked only a short loop, but I think it’s fair to say that it left everyone in our group with a taste for exploring more of the non-public casemates that lie beneath our city. Lucky for us – and for you – the Friends of the Fortress have organized a tour of the casemates that lie beneath the Plateau Saint Esprit. It takes place this Saturday, October 1 at 2:00pm. Meet in the Cité Judiciare, outside the elevator that travels down to the Grund. Cost is 4€ (kids are free) and you should bring a flashlight. Click here to view the flyer (in German) or contact the Friends of the Fortress with questions.
Misleading high water marks.

4. The high water marks in the Grund are fake.
Apparently, some years ago the marks noting high water from record flooding of the Alzette and Petrusse rivers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were painted over. According to our guide, the signs that are there today are just somebody’s best guess.

5. The Gëlle Fra never went missing after WW2.
The Gëlle Fra (Golden Lady) is the Luxembourgish equivalent to the United States’ Statue of Liberty. She is the gold-plated statue of a woman draped in a toga-like dress, holding a wreath of laurel. The Golden Lady was created by artist Claus Cito after the first Word War to commemorate fallen Luxembourgish soldiers who fought with the French. It was installed in Place de la Constitution in 1923…much to the objection of Luxembourg’s Cathedral Notre Dame, which was not so keen on the public display of a woman wearing such scant clothing practically across the street. So, they pushed to have the statue elevated so high above spectators below that people would be less likely to see her true appearance.

The Gëlle Fra 
During the second World War, the Gëlle Fra was seen by locals as a symbol of resistance against occupying forces. Viewing it as a thorn in their side, the occupying Nazis tore down the Gëlle Fra. She disappeared for the next several decades.

In most books or documents you’ll read, you’ll find only a gap between when the statue was torn down in 1940 and when it was reinstalled in 1985. There were several rumors and assumptions about her disappearance. Some believed that the Nazis had melted the statue because they thought that it was pure gold, others assumed that the Gëlle Fra had been destroyed completely and lie buried, never to be found again.

But, thanks to a teacher from Wiltz, the Gëlle Fra was “found” in the early 1980s. The teacher was one of several throughout the country who had learned the open secret that the statue had been rediscovered and then banished to the catacombs of the national football stadium, the Stade Josy Barthel. (Allow me to remind you where she had previously been installed and the powerful organization that didn’t care to look at her scandalous attire every day…) The teacher decided to do something about it and approached Escher Tageblatt journalist Josy Braun with the scoop of the decade.

In a 2010 interview with the Lëtzebuerg Revue, Braun recounted the tale of how he broke the story nearly forty years earlier, in 1981, that the Gëlle Fra was hidden in plain view. From what I can gather via Google Translate, Braun acted on the advice of the aforementioned teacher and went to the stadium to investigate. He took a photographer along and the two were able to convince a janitor to take them to the statue. The janitor would not allow photographs, but the two could observe the statue where she was kept, beneath the bleachers.

Naturally, they took a photo anyway. Braun then took the picture to the city mayor at the time, who admitted to having known for two years about the statue’s whereabouts (and was none too pleased that the secret would surface on his watch). Faced with a national scandal on his hands, the mayor agreed that he would have the statue reinstalled in its permanent home in Place de la Constitution after Braun’s story ran. And so it did, under the headline “Prominent Luxembourger kept hidden for 40 years” on June 22, 1981: the eve of Luxembourg’s National Day. Braun got his story and Luxembourg got its prized Gëlle Fra. She was reinstalled to her former glory on National Day (June 23), 1985.

Now there’s a fun fact to remember the next time you notice the large gap of “missing” years in the Gëlle Fra’s history...

(Further reading: If you know German, or have the patience to copy and paste into Google Translate, this booklet released as part of the Gelle Fra’s tour to the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai may be of interest.) 


  1. Wow!
    I have visited Lux so many times, only once I have gone for casemates. And that time we [me and my wife and our sons] walked only that portion of that lie below the way over the Grund, sometimes stopping by the window holes that give view over the Grund and Alzette. I didn't realize that there is so vast tunnel system down below the upper city.. And those tower houses are such discovery! Must see them closer in next visit! As well as the old tree in a museum yard. Well, I just envy so much my sister-in-law who lives in a nice residence flat in Boulevard Joseph II (She always kindly gives us good accommodation when we travel in Mid-Europe:). Luxembourg is really my favourite spot in Europe.

    Thanks for nice blog and congratulations, Jessica & Nick for chance to live in such a fantastic little mid-European city as Luxembourg!!

    cheers from Finland,

  2. Hi Teijo,
    Thank you so much for your comment. I can't even tell you how much you made my day! I'm glad that your sister lives in Luxembourg so your family can come back and keep exploring!

    Addi from Luxembourg,

  3. Hi, just found your blog on Blogbuerg. Very interesting :-)

    By the way, also a nice walk, if you like nature, it's Itzigerstee-Hesperange Park. I live in Weimerskirch, and i like to walk at sundays from Weimerskirch, via Pfaffenthal, Clausen, Grund, Pulvermuhl, Itzigerstee, Hesperange. In fact, you just have to follow the Alzette river. From Hesperange Park you can even walk into Kockelscheuer, Cessange, Merl and back in town.
    It's about a 10 to 15 km march but it's really nice. You walk half the time trough town whitout noticing it, by using the green nature lanes...

  4. Hi Alexandre - thanks for stopping by. Your walking route is impressive! Thanks for sharing it and I look forward to following all or parts of it soon!

  5. Hi -

    My husband and I (and our dog) just moved to Luxembourg from the States. I had to laugh because just a couple days ago, I was walking with my dog and photographed that same tower pictured in #2 not realizing I was actually taking pictures of someone's house. Good to know! :)