Wonderful 208

(This blog post was actually begun about six weeks ago, but what with one thing and another it never got finished….until now. Your patience is appreciated)

downloadThe number 208 may seem fairly random and innocuous and yet to someone of my generation there is a certain mystique about it. It was the medium wave frequency number of the legendary Radio Luxembourg. Long before the BBC ramraided the pirate radio stations and launched the good ship Radio 1 in 1967, Fab(ulous) 208 was broadcasting pop music from the centre of the continent and if you wanted to hear the latest hits that was what you tuned into….and retuned…and retuned yet again. The signal was fairly dire but at it was better than nothing – and nothing was definitley the alternative.  Even when Radio 1  did get going it only retained its separate identity during daytime and in the evening merged with the rather more staid Radio 2; so, not much use to those of us who were at school. Hence everyone I knew continued to tune into Luxembourg to listen to some of the biggest DJ names of the times – Kenny Everett being particularly notable….plus several others who have since become houehold names.

All this preamble is by way of introducing a recent swift three day visit to the radio station’s country of origin. An interesting hybrid of German/French/Belgian and Dutch influences, Luxembourg is both a country and a city while at the same time retaining the sense that it is like none of these much bigger nations. The Luxembourgeois (think that’s right) even have their own language – Luxemburgish – though I can’t say I heard it spoken…or if I did, I didn’t recognise the fact.

One big advantage is that the country is only a short hop by plane from London City Airport so no tedious flogging out to Heathrow or Gatwick and then only just over an hour later LuxAir (they are big enough to have their own airline) lands you in Luxembourg City.

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The Grund from above

The topography of the capital is somewhat strange. There is the main town built on either side of the bluffs and in between this, nestling at the bottom of a very steep gorge is the older “lower town” or “Grund”. This is not to be confused with the “old town” proper which is actually part of the main town and certainly not to be confused with the modern centre on the Kirchberg Plateau where we were staying. One tip for the intending visitor is to make sure you have all this fixed in your head before you attempt to walk anywhere…unless you particularly like behaving like the Grand Old Duke of York. A conventional 2D map isn’t that much help either. To be fair there are some spectacular views to be had in the city and you certainly get a feel for the olde worlde nature of the winding cobbled streets and the architecture of the private and public buildings. In the end nothing is really that far from anything else and with a highly efficient bus system plus public (free) lifts to transport you vertically it is difficult to go really wrong.

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Vikander in rush hour – note the Disneyesque castle above and the Hotel Victor Hugo below (apparently the author exiled himself here to escape Napoleon’s wrath)

Talking of the transport system, for the princely sum of €4, an all day travel card can be had. This not only gets you around the city but, amazingly, anywhere in the whole country by train/bus. Alright admittedly it’s a very small country but could you imagine going anywhere and everywhere all day in an area  the size of the Yorkshire Dales (roughly) for a shade over three quid? The second day was spent doing exactly this on some rail and bus journeys from almost the southern to almost the northern end of the country and back again. In between a couple of stops at picturesque Vianden (very German in a Grimms’ fairytale type way) and Clervaux (very Belgian in a chocolately/Ardennes pate kind of way) revealed a slow pace of life and a wonderful paucity of tourists. Mind you it was mid February so that might have had somethig to do with it. The northern reaches of Luxembourg were heavily affected by the World War 2 campaigns in the Ardennes which stretch across the Belgian border into northern Luxembourg so a good area for history buffs to see. Ettlebruck even has a statue to the American liberator General Patton.

As with the general culture the food in Luxembourg is an eclectic mix. Heavily influenced by French finesse coupled with German portion sizes (so the best of both worlds then) I was amazed to discover that they have more Michelin starred restaurants per head of population there than anywhere else in the world. Perhaps needless to say there was a plentitude of smoked, cured meats, sausages and pates. Öennenzop (onion soup) was ubiquitous and tasty, leberknödel (liver dumplings) with sauerkraut was perhaps less appealing. The national dish (which also went untried) is bouchée à la Reine – chicken and mushrooms in a large puff pastry case, so basically an XL portioned vol-au-vent; like the radio station, another hangover from the 70s. Dessertwise they are very into ice cream cakes plus they love their cheese: Kaempff-Kohler’s is the place to go if you’re in town.

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Of the fondly remembered radio station there was not a trace, though I gather at one stage that it was relaunched as an internet broadcaster…but subsequently seems to have disappeared again. Perhaps that is as it should be. Although in many ways quite a modern city there are definitely bits of Luxembourg that are stuck in a time warp..but that, of course, is part of its charm.

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