Luxembourg’s administrative and financial leanings hide a country full of culture, adventure and gastronomy. Rob Hodgetts plundered some of the Grand Duchy’s finest treasures
What do you know about Luxembourg? Go on, have a think. If bankers and bureaucrats are all you can muster, you might be in for a surprise.
For starters, did you know the native language is Luxembourgish, or the natives known as Luxembourgers?
While it does seem to be fond of an institution – Luxembourg is a founder member of the European Union, home of EU boss Jean-Claude Juncker and seat of the European Court of Justice – this particular book shouldn’t be judged by its pin-striped cover.
The Grand Duchy boasts fabulous hiking and biking in the forested Ardennes, more mediaeval castles than you can shake a siege gun at, pretty villages, rolling countryside, a world-class wine region on the banks of the Moselle river, a stunning UNESCO-listed capital in lofty Luxembourg City, more Michelin-starred restaurants per head than anywhere on earth. And golf.
A WELL KEPT SECRET. It turns out this tiny landlocked country – just 85km from top to bottom -- bordered by Belgium, France and Germany, could well be one of Europe’s best-kept secrets.
Shame, then, to let the moneymen and EU suits have all the fun.
Combining Luxembourg’s charms with a golf break deserves some serious thought – short distances to travel, a variety of courses, top-notch cuisine and bags of culture.
With people from 168 nations represented, Luxembourg is a real melting pot in the heart of Europe, with French and German spoken as standard and English fairly widespread.
“The cosmopolitan life of so many languages makes it unique,” says Leon Marks, head pro at Golf de Luxembourg, Belenhaff.
Of the five 18-hole courses, the most northerly, Clervaux, lies at the heart of the Ardennes, a region of thick forests, deep valleys and winding rivers that stretches into France and Belgium.
ARRESTING SIGHT. The town of Clervaux is an arresting sight. A meandering country road creeps around the shoulder of a hill to reveal an enchanting white-washed castle astride a rocky outcrop in a deep bowl on a loop of the river Clerve.
This picturesque spot hides a bloody past. Clervaux was the scene of heavy fighting during the infamous Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s counterattack through the Ardennes in the latter months of World War II.
Outside the castle, a Sherman tank stands in more or less the exact position it was left when the besieged Americans were overrun by several German Panzer divisions in December 1944.
The castle is well worth a wander, with a compelling war museum and the famous Family of Man collection of photographs by Luxembourg-born Edward Steichen.
GOLF. A couple of clicks out of town, Clervaux Golf Club sits on a plateau, almost the highest point in Luxembourg, with far-reaching views over the forested folds of the Ardennes.
The characterful course, measuring 6,083 yards off the yellow tees, plunges away from the modern clubhouse and four-star hotel.
The layout sits well in the landscape, contouring the crumples of the surrounding area to reveal some quirky corners, such as the dog-leg fifth to a sunken green in a dingly dell.
The drive down to the short par-four eighth green, looking all innocent at the other side of a pond, is one of the steepest fairways you are ever likely to see.
“Clervaux is unique among Luxembourg courses because it is so up and down. That’s one of its attractions,” says manager Martine Malecki.
PANORAMA. Gazing out over the Ardennes from the club’s restaurant, Le Panoramique -- and what a panorama -- it’s easy to see how Luxembourg bred 2010 Tour de France champion Andy Schleck and fellow pro-cyclist brother Frank. Those rolling hills, laced with biking and hiking tracks, seem to go on forever.
If Clervaux whets your whistle for some more castle culture, head south east to Vianden, another of the 100 or so chateaux dotted around Luxembourg.
With origins in the 10th Century, Vianden is an imposing sight; a steep-roofed, pointy-towered citadel looming over a pretty village on the banks of the river Our. Far from a romantic ruin, the castle underwent extensive renovation in the late 1970s and 80s and offers a good glimpse of lordly life.
LITTLE SWITZERLAND. From Vianden, on the edge of a region known as La Petite Suisse Luxembourgeoise or Little Switzerland, a quiet country road across bucolic farmland takes you to the delightful Golfe de Luxembourg in Junglinster.
The course is set around an 18th-century farmhouse which now forms the charming clubhouse, and appealing light-filled restaurant and cosy terrace.
The farm was acquired in 1973 by brothers Jean and Marc Weidert, but they waited until there was sufficient demand for a second golf course in Luxembourg – after the members-only Grand Ducal -- before starting the course work in 1992.
“It’s 100% Luxembourgish and we’re proud of that,” says assistant manager Clara Kreh-Seco.
The majority of the eye-catching 6,129-yard course weaves through open farmland before returning to the more wooded plateau near the clubhouse.
Highlights abound, such as the risk/reward nature of the water-guarded second, the sylvan sixth green and the final three holes hugging the forest.
WATERLOO. The 18th is dubbed “Waterloo”, presumably because so many balls do meet their Waterloo in the lake guarding the green under the walls of the old farm.
“The golf course is a good challenge which any level of golfer can play and enjoy,” says Marks. “To play the course well, a golfer should be able to shape the ball both ways from the tee and be accurate with iron shots as the sloping greens can be brutal during the summer.”
In contrast to Belenhaff, a gentle meander into Moselle country brings you to the impressive Kikuoka Country Club – named by the Japanese founders.
The vast 76-roomed four-star Hotel Mercure dominates the centre of the property, a 6,479-yard American-style course featuring huge greens, lots of man-made water features and big shapely bunkers, like billowing clouds of sand.
It’s a muscly, ambitious course which has hosted European Challenge Tour events. It has an air of 2010 Ryder Cup venue Celtic Manor about it, with a handful of holes that run along shelves on the hillside.
GLIMPSE OF GERMANY. The 16th and 17th occupy the high point from which you can glimpse Germany across the Moselle River.
“You never get bored of playing it,” says director of golf John Pickford, an Englishman who has been there for 26 years.
“It’s the architecture and the big greens offering endless pin positions.”
From Kikuoka it is a 20-minute drive into the heart of Luxembourg City. The historic Old Town sits on a high sandstone crag, carved by the Alzette and Pétrusse rivers. It’s a delightful spot for a saunter through mazy streets, taking in sights such as the relics of 17th-century ramparts, the Palais Grand-Ducal and the “casemates” – a network of former gunnery tunnels carved into the cliffs.
For a taste of Luxembourg, order Judd mat Gaardebounen (smoked collar of pork with broad beans in cream sauce) in Um Dierfgen, an authentic brasserie in the heart of town. Or head down to the Grund, a former working-class district at the foot of the cliffs, for a meal at the Michelin-starred Mosconi Italian restaurant.
To remind yourself of former preconceptions, gaze across to the modern tower blocks of financial institutions and EU offices on nearby Kirchberg hill. And smile.
Because the bankers and bureaucrats will be there toiling away, while you plunder the true treasures of Luxembourg.
Good to know
Flights to Luxembourg City, or from the UK take the Eurostar to Brussels and transfer to an InterCity train to Luxembourg City (about 3hrs 15mins).
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Du Golf Club Clervaux
Tel: +352 92 93 95
Mercure Kikuoka Golf Club Hotel
Tel: +352 26 35 41
Golf de Clervaux
Tel: +352 92 93 95
Golf de Luxembourg Domain de Bellenhaf
Tel : +352 78 00 68
Kikuoka Country Club
Tel: +352 35 61 35