Spent the weekend in Luxembourg to celebrate C's birthday. Not a country I ever thought I'd see, but when you only live a few hours away and can get two return train tickets there for as little as 59 Euros, it doesn't seem like a bad option after all. 1 hour from Mons to Namur, then a very quick change, and then another 2 hours to Luxembourg. It probably should be a lot quicker but this route doesn't appear to be served by any high speed trains.
Before I went I knew absolutely nothing about Luxembourg. Now I'm back can't say I know much more. I had always thought it had a population of around 1-2 million, but in fact it's less than half a million. And the capital (where we stayed), originally called Luxembourg City, has only around 90,000 inhabitants which is the same as glorious Mons. It was a founding member of the EU, NATO and the UN. No idea how a country so tiny and so utterly insignificant seems to have been at the top table when some of the world's most important institutions were being set up. Maybe because it's rich. Stinkingly so, according to the OECD.
Naturally, it's also listed very high up in some of those great 'world quality of life' surveys that come out every year, which never make any mention of whether a place is: 'vibrant,' 'exciting,' 'cutting edge,' or 'diverse.' It seems as long as you have a perfectly functioning transport system, spotless streets and little crime, you do pretty well. All of which of course is very nice and am sure very well appreciated by the people that live there, but this isn't really what entices tourists to visit and then return, or make them recommend the place to their friends.
Which is how I felt about Luxembourg. Very clean, beautiful people, some spectacular views, but that's about all. Even the art galleries aren't that praised in the guides. We did do a walk which takes you right down in to the valley of the city, where you almost feel completely cut off from the old city above you. You come across a couple of small communities that have seen better days and a scattering of shops.
Even had a coffee at an Irish pub where smoking is still allowed (it seems to be allowed in all pubs/bars but not restaurants or cafes. Similar to the laws in Belgium), much to my annoyance. It was a little strange walking into a pub deep in the bowels of Luxembourg to be greeted with a: "Hiya, what can I get cha?" Luxembourg is after all another one of those trilingual countries where French, German and Luxembourgish are the official languages. The name of the latter sounds as if it were made up.
And I think most of the people I could hear in the streets and in restaurants spoke it. At first it sounds German, but the more you hear it, the more you realise it doesn't sound as harsh on the ear or as aggressive.
What did strike me as odd was how empty the place seemed. Of course it's a very small place but even on a Friday and Saturday evening, save for a few bars, it felt extremely quiet. Maybe the weather was keeping people indoors. It was bitterly cold during our stay. I did really notice that Mons is a good 4 or 5 degrees warmer once we'd returned. And that's saying something.
It was still an enjoyable weekend; exploring new places can never really be described as dull, even if the places are. I found Luxembourg different from any country I'd ever been to. Very hard to describe, except to say that it felt more Germanic than somewhere also officially part of the French-speaking world. I did also keep hearing a lot of Portuguese and discovered once I got home that this is because over 1 in 10 people living there are immigrants from Portugal. Not sure why they chose to settle in Luxembourg.
I also noticed an abundance of Indian restaurants which I put down to the numerous sectors of the EU that are based here, bringing with them a number of Brits. Or maybe Luxembourg folk just like curry. Of course we went out for a curry on Saturday night: poppadoms, dips, vegetable samosas, chicken biryani. Delicious, although the biryani was a lot spiceier than the ones you'd find in England. What a bonus!