IR INTERRAIL 2003 > Day 27 > Luxembourg City (Bock Casemates) - Liège - Maastricht

Luxembourg City (Bock Casemates) - Liège

My night with Grunter finally came to an end, and I failed to see how anybody would actually want to share a bed with him. Being on separate bunks was as close as I would ever wish to be. The lady on the opposite side of the dormitory had clearly made the right choice in rejecting this man, who acted like he had just travelled from the Stone Age, only with less sophistication. 'NO!!' was the only word she would ever need in his presence. During breakfast, I did notice them chatting with a fair degree of recognition, and so she had presumably been expecting his blatant fondling advances towards her. I felt that I already knew far more about this couple than I had ever deserved, so I packed my belongings and exited the hostel soon afterwards, keen to free myself from their world.

A short distance from the hostel was the entrance to one of the country's main visitor attractions, the Bock Casemates. I made some enquiries and decided to head back there later in the day, as it was now postcard time, the weekly process of boasting to everybody else that I was somewhere more exotic than them.

I strolled around the old part of the city and visited what was presumably the country's main post office to get my stamps. Luxembourg City was a small and charming capital, a little nondescript in some places but containing many picturesque locations. Sited on the ridges and valleys around two steep gorges, there were plenty of nice spots for a walk, cycle ride or picnic. Several bridges and viaducts spanned the valleys, with the capital being split over different sites. The old, historic centre sat on one hill, with a glossy business district poking up above the trees further away, whilst a rather crumby area lay around the railway station - a typical discovery that seemed to be the norm in many cities worldwide.

I would have expected the key entrance point to a city to attract high quality developments and businesses vying for a prime location, but usually the reverse held true. Consequently, Interrailing around Europe could often present the traveller with a shock every time they got off a train, as they would invariably be presented with another image of seedy, run-down streets and urban dilapidation. Personally, I never minded a bit of ruin. If decrepit city districts everywhere were to be rebuilt into snazzy business parks comprising dreary, unambitious corporate design and architecture (with the inevitable lack of thought for pedestrian access which had become a prerequisite of such places), then city life wouldn't be much fun.

More poignantly, I'd noted that so many towns had now become playgrounds for the middle classes, with authentic pubs being replaced by trendy bars, restaurants and other tedious safe havens for the uninspired. My decade living in the neighbourhoods of Manchester had given me an insight into the transformation of a city that way. I first arrived there in the early 1990s when the entire city was a dump. It was a miserable place to look at, but there was a buzz in the air and an excitement surrounding any night out on the town. In the short space of a few years, much of Manchester and its suburbs were radically transformed, the residents gained a new pride in their local environment and city leaders banged on to the world at large about what a wonderful place it had become. All very well for the rich folk occupying the countless new warehouse apartments, and living the high life amongst the glut of overpriced, pretentious new bars and eateries, but all quite meaningless for the downtrodden people living on the average council estate around the corner. Going out in that city never seemed so enlivening anymore. The streets looked respectable, many of the buildings looked remarkable, but most of the energy and verve of the place had been sapped away and substituted with superficial gloss.

Worryingly, Brighton - a town renowned for its alternative spirit and creative types, and for a counter-culture and determination to be unique - was showing signs of going down the same route. Perversely though, for a traveller like myself spending only a short time in each destination, those glorified, redeveloped cities such as Manchester could often fool me just the same into believing the hype. I would find them attractive at first glance, and assume the role of that same middle class complacent resident during my brief stay, by seeing all the best bits and enjoying the places which I'd probably never bother with if I actually lived there. Luxembourg City avoided this syndrome, since it was just posh and expensive from the start, but it still couldn't escape the insalubrious station surroundings.

A road bridge spanning one of the gorges dividing Luxembourg City The third distinct portion of the city lay down in the valleys, filled with lush gardens, allotments, churches, cottages, parks and rivers. I found a pleasant spot overlooking a gorge (left and below), where I scribbled a few 'wish you were here' sentiments.

View across the valley from the old city to the modern district of the capital

After lunch I returned to the Bock Casemates, a publicly accessible section of the remaining huge fortifications which once surrounded the capital of Luxembourg. It was a great shame that much of these giant walls, castles, tunnels and other excavations carved out in the rock had been dismantled and blown up in the nineteenth century. Some parts still stood, however, and I was filled with glee upon entering this network of caves and passages, exploring every last nook and cranny with the inquisition of a seven-year-old child.

There were many openings in the rock, providing some wonderful views across the valleys (right and below). The Casemates and the historic centre of the city were the second of two locations I had seen in as many days which had been declared UNESCO world heritage sites. It must have been a hard slog for the thousands of labourers who dug out the tunnels and built the fortifications centuries before. There had once been huge ring walls around the capital holding forts and many emplacements, making Luxembourg City one of the most heavily protected sites in the world, although that didn't stop the Burgundians capturing it in 1443. Over the following centuries, they - along with various other surrounding nations' forces - bolstered the defences even further, only for much to be sadly destroyed after 1867, when the redevelopment of parts of Luxembourg City was not to be inhibited by anything which stood in the way.

A view of a church spire through a gap in the rocks of the Bock Casemates
One of the many cannons that once filled the Casemates, pointing out of a gap in the rocks The Casemates were once inhabited by vast legions of soldiers and whole communities, needless to say that during the world wars they provided shelter for tens of thousands. They were also keeping me away from the drizzly intermittent rain outside, an uncommon occurrence during my trip, and I had certainly chosen the right time and place to avoid it. My tour of the tunnels took me deeper into the rock, down tight spiral staircases and through narrow passages which had been blown apart with dynamite. It was a very strange experience, as the caves were completely empty. I was the sole explorer, and as I sunk further inside behind walls of rock several feet thick, there was not a murmur to be heard anywhere. So when I reached a dead end which instructed me to go all the way back again towards the entrance, I considered taking a nap and catching up on lost sleep. My unrewarding arrival and first encounters in the country the previous night, and my intended brief stay before departing later in the afternoon for Belgium, could have made my visit to Luxembourg a waste of time. But the Casemates had made coming here worthwhile, and I had finally achieved my lifelong aim of setting foot in this funny little land, so I could tick it off my long list of places to go. Just as I weighed up the merits of falling asleep in a cave on a cold stone floor, I heard the faintest voice echoing through the chambers and I made my way back, passing the source of the speaking some five minutes later.

During my backwards trek, I again spent considerable time checking out each compartment and the views it offered outside, just to be sure I hadn't missed anything. I felt like Lara Croft in a game of Tomb Raider, and I needed to make absolutely certain there wasn't a raging lion lurking around the next corner. Another view from the Casemates of a train on a viaduct crossing the valley

Further views of the old historic city of Luxembourg, sitting on the hill above a river valley Each gap in the rocks provided a slightly different aspect on the pretty surroundings of the valleys (above, left and below), which were again being seeded by the rain clouds above. Like a coward, I waited until the last few spits of rain had died down before heading for the exit.

I passed through a final section of grand, golden arches (below) and emerged again into the outside world, finding it strange to look back at the rocks and know that I had been somewhere deep within them. Many cities had secret underground chambers, and I would never be happy until I'd discovered them all. More views of the huge walled fortifications surrounding Luxembourg City
A series of golden coloured stone arches leading to the exit of the Casemates

Looking back at the Bock Casemates to the left, and the picturesque valley below

There was time to spare as I took a lazy walk back to the station. What I had seen of Luxembourg was nothing quite like I had imagined beforehand. Although expensive, it was a unique and attractive little place, and another of the many quirky misfits which made up the varied landscape of Europe. I had only done the bog-standard tourist circuit, however, and there was much more to see in the rural districts and small towns around the country. My train journey on a branch line through the north of Luxembourg offered some more scenes of the lush countryside. The railway wound around valleys and through the southern hills of the Ardennes which stretched further up into Belgium, and dark threatening clouds marauded across the land spilling torrents onto the dense green forests. There were some perfect rambling and cycling opportunities in this region, though they would be best performed another day in a friendlier climate.

Thunder storms rumbled all around but there was little electrical activity, just angry clouds having an audible fight. The weather was dismal but the gloom was satisfying. Too much sun had become a bore, and I had experienced virtually nothing but clear skies and intense heat until now. Forecasts predicted that the moody conditions were set to accompany me for the remainder of my trip, but I didn't really mind. They would provide some contrast and prepare me for anything similar which would typically await on return to England.

They also prepared me for the entrance to Liège; a slightly grim, industrial sprawl that looked set to offer little if I stayed there. According to my beliefs about tarted up towns and their lack of fizz I should perhaps have given Liège a chance, but a flick through my timetables showed regular services departing for the nearby town of Maastricht, further east and across the border into the Netherlands. With the evening only just underway, it seemed worth a gamble to try and reach the hostel there instead. Several people had suggested Maastricht as a worthy destination, and I was determined to take in a small part of Holland in addition to at least one night in Belgium. I would also thereby have an opportunity to visit another little place of wonderment - the funny drippy bit which stemmed down from the southern regions of Holland.

Liège - Maastricht

My fascination with maps had me staring many a time at this dangly Dutch district, and so it was necessary to go there and satisfy my craving for discovering probably nothing in particular. I had hoped to make it to Amsterdam and take in a few Dutch cities towards the end of my travels, but there was no longer time for that to be a realistic plan. Maastricht was only a quick hop across the border, and the train from Liège was packed with literal cross-country commuters.

My immediate impressions of the place when we arrived weren't all that striking. It was a grey day which didn't help to illuminate the rather bleak looking station. I followed the town maps to find a central point from where to board a bus to the hostel. On the way I stopped at a greasy diner by the main square for a cheap dinner, which had to be gulped down so that the proprietor could lock up her shop. It wasn't a very satisfying meal. It could be guaranteed that the Dutch would always rival the British when it came to unhealthy fast food snacks. In many such ways, Holland was the most similar country to Britain of those I'd visited, but the countries were worlds apart in other elements of their culture and society.

The bus stop wasn't far away, but when I got there it seemed that I was out of luck. All the buses serving the youth hostel on the outskirts of the town stopped running in the early evening, and there didn't appear to be any others which travelled anywhere near it. Facing a pricey taxi ride or a very long walk, I paced the bus shelter for a while hoping that a miracle might occur. I was in luck. The miracle that occurred came in the form of a very friendly Dutch couple.

Of all the people queueing in the shelter, I struck gold with the lady I asked for assistance in English. She and her husband were from Amsterdam, but frequently travelled to Maastricht and were familiar with the town. When I enquired about the lack of bus services they knew instantly that I must be heading for the hostel, which they had also stayed at before. Very kindly, they offered to give me a lift, but we first had to take a bus to where their car was parked. With a long strip of bus tickets in his hand, the man assured me it was not necessary that I pay for my fare, and having spent twenty minutes fretting in the piddling rain about what state my terrible trainers might be in after a four-mile trek, I sat relieved and contented on the bus as we pulled away and left plenty of sad, sodden faces standing at the stop.

A couple of miles later we got in the car, and the couple were unbelievably helpful in depositing me at the door of the hostel, which lay in a field a fair distance from anywhere. I doubted that I would ever have found it had I walked without a map. Having never spent time travelling in the same manner in my own country, I couldn't verify whether the Brits would have been so generous, but I couldn't imagine that most people would be so warm and kind-spirited as to offer a lift to somebody they had met only seconds earlier in a bus stop.

What was certainly evident, however, was that being a traveller in foreign lands, struggling to speak in other languages and being lost in search of information, frequently brought about meetings and opportunities which never occurred in normal life at home. It was one of the things that I loved about travelling, and a motivation to do lots more of it. Despite the difficulties with making bookings and arrangements, trying tricky translations and having to be a permanent enquirer as to where, what and how in strange territories, travelling was more often than not fun. Life was constantly being refreshed with new people, new places and new experiences, and seldom did so many doors unexpectedly open up for me when settled in any one place for too long. With just three days of travel remaining, I had to start thinking hard about how I could prepare for some more.

The youth hostel out in the sticks of Dousberg was something of an oddball in comparison with the many others I had visited; a sort of swimming, sports, fitness and leisure centre-cum-tennis club-cum-hotel-cum-hostel. That was the bit I couldn't get my head around. I was in a hotel, yet for a lower rate I could take a shared dormitory in the same complex and they would call it a hostel. Accordingly, all that the rich had to gain was a dropped 's' and a room to themselves. I was a bit puzzled, and taken aback by the enormous price of 24 Euros - the highest tariff I'd faced, but the place seemed clean and spacious, and I had little choice. Most importantly, it had a bar. That was all I really needed to know.

I found my room divided in two with eight bunk beds on my side, most of which were empty, as was the whole hostel. It was always a little disappointing to end a long day's travelling and arrive at some promising accommodation with a bar, only to find nobody in it to share a drink with. Later, an American guy returned to the dormitory and slumped out in his bed opposite. We had a chat for a while, and it was clear that his main reasoning for travelling in Holland was the country's lenient attitude towards certain substances. He'd spent a very relaxed time in Maastricht's finest coffee shops and was looking forward to more of the same tomorrow, and the next day, and probably the day and week after that too. He couldn't abide living in his own country anymore, and was not at all happy contemplating his forthcoming return there. We had an interesting and sometimes quite deep, philosophical chat about things, but I had to let him sleep and ensure I salvaged at least one drink from the bar before it closed.

Happily, when I returned to the dormitory, everybody was sound asleep, or rather, no sound asleep. Not a single wheeze, grunt or snore - the people here were too chilled out to make noise in the day let alone at night. It had been a low-key evening, but I was overjoyed at the prospect of an undisturbed night's sleep in a comfy bed.

HOSTEL REPORT: Maastricht - NJHC Hostel de Dousberg, Dousbergweg 4, 6216 GC Maastricht
Although very pricey, this hostel did offer small discounts for members of Hostelling International, and allowed guests free use of the full size swimming pool next door. It also provided by far the best breakfast I had found anywhere. There was so much variety that notices had unsurprisingly been stuck to the breakfast room windows requesting guests refrain from taking food away. But with nobody manning the place for much of the mornings, most guests did, stashing enough grub away for their lunch. There were plenty of facilities available in the complex, including indoor tennis courts, table tennis and a bar, and the hostel was modern, spacious and quite luxurious, largely due to it also masquerading as a hotel. Local amenities were scarce though, with the location being well away from the centre of Maastricht and requiring a bus ride in and out of town, made difficult in the evenings when services ceased. The dormitory was airy and clean, featuring en suite toilets and a large bathroom with showers. Despite being a well-organized hostel with many extras, during the off-season the place could lack atmosphere and was a utilitarian, sporty complex devoid of any character. Score: 8/10

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