Walk across a country in a weekend

Jeremy Atiyah strolls through Luxembourg and ponders its place at the heart of Europe

I Wanted to take a journey to the European Union by stepping out across an entire country. In a weekend? That was why I chose Luxembourg.

This was no joke. Unlike some of Europe's other lesser states (Monaco and San Marino spring to mind) this little country was not merely a pimple on another country's nose. It was geographically extensive, filling up 2,500 square kilometres of pleasant green fields, woods, hills and valleys. As a fully-fledged member of the European Union in its own right, it not only produced the President of the European Commission, Jacques Santer, but was also the country where the Schengen agreement, to abolish Europe's internal frontiers, was signed -in a village called Schengen.

What was more, it occupied that crucial grey area where France turned into Germany and vice versa. I found this a fascinating concept. What would such a country be like? Sexy - or efficient? Might it in some sense embody the pure, undiluted essence of Europe?

Insight into the great issue of our day - Europe - was at stake. And by walking the 50 or so kilometres that separated the Latin world in the west to the German world in the east, I was determined to get to the heart of our continent.

And having travelled courtesy of Eurostar and Belgian railways as far as the last Belgian town, Arlon, I was now walking, alone, towards the border with Luxembourg.

Oh Belgium! The station area of Arlon had been a handsomely ruinous mix, with pollutant motor-bikes coming and going, grey stone buildings with peeling shutters looming over the road; taxi drivers, fags in mouths, waited by vehicles outside the Cafe du Sport.

It had been the last bastion of the Latin world and I was walking out of it. The road to the border ran straight into a cool forest. Passing cars displayed not just the grimy red and white Belgian number plates, but also the spanking new black-on-yellow plates of Luxembourg.

Any traces of an actual frontier would be quite invisible of course. The country which gave birth to the Schengen agreement would have dismantled its own borders years ago. Would it not?

Except that just now, emerging from the trees, I suddenly came on a border post, comprising two officers in a hut. Not to worry. Overlooked by lime trees in the warm evening air, it was hardly the Berlin Wall. I ambled past, unnoticed, while a cluster of men in colourful shorts and golfing shoes chatted in the road.

The first 500 yards of Luxembourg were all about golf in fact. An immaculate course disappeared away between the trees. Luxembourgeois, Belgian, French and German cars were amicably parked together. Otherwise, the village of Gaichel discreetly sheltered a petrol station and a couple of hotels.

Hungry after my day of travelling, I looked forward to a hearty Luxembourgeois dinner combining French quality with German quantity. It was not to be. The cheapest set menu in the village's only restaurant cost pounds 40. Starving hungry but nothing to eat except Magret de Canard au Vin de Miel? This was a kind of Euro-torture, designed to taunt poor people from the outer peripheries of the Union.

I set off like a vagabond in search of food. In the next village was a gloomy bar serving omelette and chips for a bargain pounds 8. An old couple eyed me suspiciously from behind their beers. "Er ... guten abend?" I proffered hopefully. "Bon soir?"

Germans or Latins? The woman promptly began speaking French in a German accent. "Oh la la," she puffed, stiffly, at the notion that I was walking across her country in a weekend. I told her how interestingly European everything was. The woman scratched her head, while the Portuguese barmaid interrupted: "Oh it's just the same!" she said, gaily. "People are all the same everywhere!"

On the face of it, the native language of Luxembourg, Letzebuergesch, which replaced French as the official language in 1984, was the authentic Eurospeak. The next morning however, as I set off through dewy meadows of cowparsley and poppies, I found no evidence of Letzebuergesch at all.

In villages, everything was in French. As well as the local boulangeries and charcuteries, the streets had names like Rue de Bellevue and Rue De L'cole. The only exceptions were the numerous war memorials which were engraved in German, presumably to make sure the right people could read them.

Villages comprised immaculately painted, barn-sized structures with lawns and lupins, designed to put any Belgian village to shame. Farmhouses ranged from the faintly rustic - chickens pecking in the yard, a man in blue overalls - to the terrifyingly modern. Heaps of logs were stacked with fanatic neatness in garages, with metal signs announcing "Surveille par Securicor" perched on top. Fruit orchards had been carefully fenced off in an un-Latin sort of way.

After some hours, at a tiny junction by a cornfield, a sign indicated that it was 8km to Luxembourg City. Of suburban outcroppings were there no sign, just a few very expensive cars behaving politely to each other. In a village-shop I asked for bread and cheese and was given a plastic tub with a kind of cold Swiss Fondue inside. Was Luxembourg falling on the wrong side of the Franco-German culinary divide as well?

I finally staggered into the confines of Luxembourg city around 5pm. Latin or otherwise, it struck me as the most blessed capital in Europe - containing less than 100,000 people. Within minutes of arrival I had seen a small building down a back-street with a sign announcing that it was the Chamber of Deputies. Next door was the Grand Ducal Palace.

It was tempting to interpret the extraordinary green fissure that cuts through the middle of Luxembourg City as the ultimate battle-line between the French and German worlds. On either side of the line there was little sign of life. It felt empty, even in the central square. Even on a Saturday night. My God, even in bloody McDonald's. Given that the city contained 220 banks, surely there had to be people somewhere?

Perhaps they were up in the north-east of town, where a huge swathe of cityscape - out on the Kirchberg Plateau - had been built to house European institutions. The Court of European Justice was there. And in June and October, the Council of Ministers briefly decamped from Brussels to Luxembourg for no reason other than to satisfy ancient protocols.

On Sunday morning, unenlightened, I set out to walk the 20 or so kilometres to Germany. Finally, in a hilly village just short of the border, an old man with a wheelbarrow mumbled something at me that sounded like "Guten Morgen". So! The German sphere!

I seized my chance: Did the man feel more German or French? He paused, thoughtfully, before answering in German with a French accent. "I'm not sure," he concluded. "But no matter. We believe in the European majority..."

This was awesomely reasonable for a country of 400,000 people whose direct neighbours contained upwards of 130 million.

"...but what a pity," he went on sadly, "that you British drive on the left. It means you are not real Europeans."

No? I plodded on. And at the village of Wormeldange I finally stepped out across the road-bridge into the Federal Republic of Germany. There was no passport control here; not even a sign saying "Welcome to Germany". I walked into the first bar, and paid for a hearty brotwurst with Belgian Francs. If the European Union was this civilised, I wanted to live in it forever.

FACT FILE

Getting there

A return train ticket from London Waterloo to any Belgian station, via Brussels, can be obtained from Eurostar (0345 303030) for an additional pounds 10 on top of the standard excursion price of pounds 99 (until 14 July, mid- week fares start from pounds 69). Travel time from London to the Luxembourg border is about seven hours. British Rail International (0171 834 2345) can supply tickets right through to Luxembourg City. If driving, Luxembourg is only 200 miles from Ostend.

Flying to Luxembourg: Luxair (0181 7454254) flies twice daily from Heathrow and Stansted. Cheapest return fare pounds 113+pounds 7 tax

Accommodation

Expensive in Luxembourg, though in the station area rooms can be found for about pounds 30. The Youth Hostel on Rue de Fort Olisy, 2 (Tel: 00 352 226889) has beds from about pounds 10

Information

Luxembourg Tourist Office (0171 4342800)

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Casual Visitor Experience Assistants

    £7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: To work within the Visitor Experience Departm...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

    Recruitment Genius: Transportation Contracting Manager

    £33000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A global player and world leade...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel and Spa Duty Manager

    £18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are friendly, sociable, ...

    Day In a Page

    Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

    Tribal gathering

    Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

    Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
    10 best trays

    Get carried away with 10 best trays

    Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?