Monday, November 02, 2015

Luxembourg City and remembering the Battle of the Bulge

Fog-enshrouded ravine bisecting the city
Luxembourg, with a population slightly less (~550K)  than the city of Portland (~610K), is a small independent nation, landlocked between France to the south, Belgium to the north and west, and Germany to the east. Over the centuries, it has been disputed territory. The Dutch and the Germans (among others) have alternately laid claim to it, but its independence was officially established (no doubt as a compromise between disputing parties) in 1839.

Fall colors
I came largely because, in my previous travels to Europe, I'd never managed to come here before. And, I must say, I'm glad to have come. This is a prosperous country, as evidenced by its clean, safe, well-organized eponymous capital city. It is also surprisingly diverse, racially and ethnically. There are many black people and Muslims among the population.

Building in the cliffside
I arrived here on Saturday afternoon, by train from Metz, and quickly became enamored of the place. Why? Because, with its dazzling fall colors, its bitterly cold fog, and its peaceful and sedate ambience, it reminded me of home, of Portland. (I love traveling. But I'm homesick. It's always that way.)

Centuries-old fortifications overlook the river and church
On my first full day here, I took a city bus (which was very clean, very comfortable, and free!) from my hotel to the center of Luxembourg City. It was Sunday, and I arrived in mid-morning to find the streets nearly empty. The thick fog added a ghostly quality which the tolling bells of Notre Dame Cathedral only enhanced.

Luxembourg City is laid out on both sides of (and within) a deep ravine, in which flow two small rivers, the Pétrusse and Alzette. I walked along the ravine and enjoyed picturesque views of the rivers and parkland below me.
Tunnels in the fortress
Eventually, I came upon the remains of an old fortress, the Fortress of Luxembourg, cut into the cliff-sides that define the ravine. The fortress was designed by engineers from all over Europe (but mostly, I believe from Spain) over 9 centuries and served as a formidable defense for the city. In its one military test, which came in 1795, the fortress withstood assault from a French army for seven months before the city finally surrendered with its walls never having been breached. The French were so impressed by the strength of the fortress, they named it the "Gibraltar of the North."

Today, you can pay 4 Euros to walk through the tunnels that still exist and get a feel for what it must have been like back in the day.
Spiral staircase
After I'd gone through the fortress, I walked back along leaf littered paths to the city center. It was early afternoon by this time. The sun had burned off the fog and things had picked up a bit.

Americans are heroes in Luxembourg. More on that later...
Clusters of people strolled through the pedestrian heart of the city. I heard many languages, but mostly French and German. I also encountered a surprising number of (United States) Americans. The natives that I interacted with were invariably friendly and helpful, which was a nice change from Parisian haughtiness.

Place des Armes
As I said, Luxembourg is a prosperous country. Streets are clean; there are few beggars; the city infrastructure is well-maintained. It's an idyllic little land, here in the middle of western Europe.

Playful sculpture
I spent a few hours just wandering around the inner city, listening in on conversations that I couldn't understand, and imagining what it would be like to live here.

Russian buskers
As I was getting ready to jump back on the city bus to return to my hotel room, I happened upon a trio of buskers. Russians, I think. They played a mournful tune with an odd ensemble: a pan flute, an accordion, and a balalaika. It was a sad tune, and it fed my homesickness. I really miss my wife.

Diekirch and the Military Museum

Then, today, I caught the milk train up to Diekirch (population ~6500), a small, but historically-significant hamlet in northeastern Luxembourg.

Diekirch
I went to Diekirch on the rumor that the military museum there was worth the effort. And I'm very happy to report that it is so. The museum is one of the very best military museums I have seen.

M4A1E Sherman tank outside the museum
Although small, the museum is focused specifically on the last German offensive on the Western Front, which occurred in the waning days of 1944 and the early days of 1945. Named by the Germans, Wacht am Rhein, the offensive was an attempt to seize the initiative from the advancing Allies. Americans know it as the Battle of the Bulge.

War detritus recovered from the surrounding countryside
Much of the fighting of that massive battle occurred in the area around Diekirch. The fighting opened about a week before Christmas when American troops were surprised by a massive artillery bombardment followed by a lightning armored advance of elite Wehrmacht forces, including Kampfgruppe Peiper, a ruthless Waffen SS unit.

Diorama depicting a German crew manning an 82mm mortar
The history of the battle is well-known. (I refer curious readers to the innumerable historical accounts of the battle.) But for those who don't know, a (very) succinct synopsis:

After initial successes, the German attack stalled in the face of fierce resistance by American troops. Lack of fuel for German tanks and complete Allied air superiority further doomed the offensive and by spring, the Germans were back on their heels, where they remained until Germany's unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945.

US paratrooper
Even today, people in Luxembourg are grateful to the United States for liberating them from four years of Nazi occupation. The Nazis considered the people of Luxembourg to be ethnic Germans which no doubt spared them some of the worst abuse, but they still suffered greatly.

Diorama depicting American troops dragging a plywood boat to the river
Under Nazi occupation, Luxembourgers were forbidden to speak their own language, compelled to change their names to their "proper" German forms, and were conscripted into the German military. Luxembourg women were shipped into Germany to work in munitions factories.

Diorama of American crew manning a 60mm mortar
Those who resisted were shipped off to work camps if not summarily executed.

German halftrack
And, of course, Jews and other "undesirables" became victims of Hitler's Final Solution.

German Schwimwaggen
 Being a military history enthusiast, I found the museum enjoyable for a number of reasons.
  1. It was not at all crowded. There were only a handful of visitors while I was there.
  2. The audio guide provided by the museum was extremely well-done. It explained each diorama, related interesting anecdotes, and was paced perfectly.
  3. The dioramas themselves (created from photographs) were dynamic and dramatic.
  4. The collection of military equipment was extensive.
German Hertzer tank destroyer
Tomorrow, I leave for Brussells, there to meet my brother, Calee, for the last leg of my trip.

Until next time, then! Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed it.

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