This was one of the longest days of our 24-day journey, starting in the early morning from Strasbourg in the Alsace and ending the day 300km away at Cochem on the Mosel. We made the middle part into a day-trip of two beautiful city cores designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Luxembourg City and Trier.
Getting from Strasbourg to Luxembourg would have been an easy 2 hour journey ... except SNCF recently cancelled its sole morning train between the two cities! So we woke up an hour early to catch a 06:47 regional train from Strasbourg to Metz, then transferred to a TGV to arrive at Luxembourg three hours later. There we started our 4 hour stopover in Luxembourg City, after picking up a Mille Feuille in the locally celebrated pâtisserie of Oberweis.
Luxembourg has always intrigued me as one of Europe's greatest fortresses, and it is this military heritage that earned its World Heritage distinction. While its massive ramparts had been mostly dismantled in the late 1800's, its vast underground network of tunnels remains with the natural defense of a 30 metre cliff from the valley floor. This would be the focus of our self-guided tour, starting from the top of the promontory and winding our way to its very bottom.
A quick ride on Bus #14 took us from the train station to the top of the promontory known locally as the Bock. Even in today's peacetime it offers great panoramic shots of the lower town and the valley to the east. It's easy to imagine the fearsome artillery launching from this massive rock of honeycombed bunkers during wars.
For over a millennium this has been the city's cradle and shield, a natural fortification augmented with ingenious military design to form a near impenetrable line of defense. Beneath the surface lurks an 18th Century system of underground galleries of cannons and barracks, with some 20 km of tunnels dug through sheer rocks.
Our mission on this day was to simply find a path to the lower town ... and even that turned into a bit of exploration. At the end we followed the advice of the ticket sales lady at the casemate's entrance, followed the steep vehicular road (Montee de Clausen) down the hill, turned left and left again through a convoluted path to the bottom of the casemates. There we emerged between the rocks and stone bridges into the valley floor.
We reached the Grund, a lower town of charming narrow streets snaking down its steep slopes to the bottom of the valley, surrounded by the stalwart casemates and the gabled roofs of the Old Town above. Clear signage directed us along a suggested route through the remnants of the city wall and past the elegant St Jean du Grund with its pointed spire.
This picturesque neighborhood of 18th Century houses beneath a cliff-top town reminded me fondly of Quebec City -- both sharing similar aesthetic qualities of a romantic old town divided by sheer cliffs into an upper quarter and a lower quarter. Quebec City is a little cuter and more intimate in my view while Luxembourg City is undoubtedly much grander, both in terms of its scale and its historical context.
Fortunately we didn't have to hike all the way back up ... there's a bus stop at the bottom with a half-hourly bus (#23) whisking visitors back to the train station. 2 Euros is relatively reasonable for the bus fare ... this is one of the world's most affluent nations after all.
We took a local train in the early afternoon to our next destination of Trier, just 40km away from Luxembourg on the German side of the border. At this time the Luxembourgish national rail (CFL) offered unbelievably cheap round-trip tickets to Trier, known as the Tagesrückfahrkarte, for prices even cheaper than the single fare. To this date we still have our unused ticket stubs for that return trip.
In my opinion Trier is just one of those tremendously underrated destinations among foreign tourists. As a former capital of the Western Roman Empire it's got beautiful Roman ruins, an amphitheatre that used to seat 20,000, the world's largest surviving Roman building in the Constantine Basilica, the oldest and one of the most prestigious cathedrals in Germany, and it's the capital of the Mosel wine region. What's not to like?
Just a 10 minute walk from the train station is the rugged Porta Nigra, the largest Roman city gate north of the Alps. A climb up the tower offers a glimpse into the robustness of 1800-year-old Roman engineering, as well as the light and shadows of ancient columns for some elegant portraits.
My best reason for climbing the Porta Nigra was the panoramic views practically in all directions. The picture above was taken in the southern direction looking down Simeonstraße towards the St. Gangolf church on Hauptmarkt and the Romanesque-cross-Gothic spires of the Cathedral.
But the Porta Nigra was only one of hundreds of city gates across the Roman Empire. There's another building here that was peerless in importance across the Empire -- Emperor Constantine's ginormous throne hall, the largest single room in the world to survive from the age of antiquity. The Romans installed their splendid marble niches and heated double floors to impress the visiting Germanic tribes, only to have it later converted for various functions by the people they were supposed to subjugate. It's used even today, currently by a protestant congregation in town.
The premier ecclesiastical venue in town though is the Trier Cathedral, itself an expansion of yet another Roman structure from the 4th Century. Partially destroyed and rebuilt again and again during the Dark and Middle Ages, it remains the oldest cathedral in Germany.
The current state is a curious mishmash of Romanesque baptistery and naves with a Gothic roof, along with an 18th Century Baroque chapel designed for one purpose only ...
... to house one of Germany's most famous Catholic relics, the purported seamless robe of Jesus ... or one of many in the world making the same claim. Whether one believes in Trier's claim or not, there's no denying the artistry of the extravagant marble sculptures.
Next to the Cathedral there's the smaller Church of Our Lady, the oldest Gothic church in Germany and another one of the many buildings protected under the World Heritage umbrella. Other heritage buildings include a Roman amphitheatre, ruins of the imperial baths and a Roman bridge across the Mosel, though we didn't have enough time on a half-day trip.
With some time left we decided to visit an authentic Weinstube for a light dinner and sample some of the region's famous white wine. We followed local advice and sat down among the old wine presses at Kesselstatt, an informal wine bar conveniently located right next to the Cathedral.
The format was self-serve and prices were cheaper than reasonable for such a prime location -- cheese platters from 6.9 Euros, Schinken and Wurst platters from 7.5 Euros, local Rieslings and Spätburgunders from 4 Euros per 0.2L or 12 Euros a bottle. If I'm not mistaken they also serve hot dishes in the evening hours, though we arrived a little early for that.
To start we ordered the classic German split pea soup with sliced sausages, followed by this platter of Wild Boar Schinken. It's a little leaner and deeper in flavor compared to the typical German dry-cured ham, though it was so salty that I had to wash it down with some Riesling.
The best dish of the day turned out to be this simple plate of smoked salmon -- moist, fresh and served with a green salad. On this trip I'm finding that the German appetite is continually moving further away from the typical repertoire of preserved vegetables and shifting towards fresh ones, which certainly fits my own preference.
Bill for Two Persons
|Pea Soup with Sausages||5.2 Euros|
|Smoked Salmon Salad||9.8 Euros|
|Wild Boar Schinken||9.9 Euros|
|Riesling 0.4 L||8.4 Euros|
|TOTAL before tips||33.3 Euros (CAD$46.6)|
Trier was such a pleasant small city that I wouldn't have minded staying for the night, but we had to keep with our schedule and begin the next segment of our journey. By sunset we're already en route to one of our most anticipated destinations of our trip, the incredibly charming town of Cochem where we'll be staying in a winery for the next 3 nights.