May 20th, 1999

While we were staying with Heike in Köln, we decided to take a day when she was busy, packed day bags and hopped on a train to visit Luxembourg. One of the smallest of European countries (only Andorra, Lichtenstein, Monaco, San Marino and Vatican City are smaller), Luxembourg was once one of Europe's most impregnable fortress cities. Founded in the 10th century by Sigfried high upon a narrow finger of solid rock, Luxembourg has managed throughout the centuries to maintain a distinct identity while most every other duchy and dukedom in Europe was swallowed up.






Clockwise: the cliff upon which old Luxembourg was built; a section of the secondary defense wall built in the 16th century; Jim about 50m underground at one of the gun holes; and a former city gate now converted into office space.

Luxembourg was completely independent until the end of the dark ages when it finally fell to the Bordeaux in a two month long siege. After that, a series of reinforcements were installed by a variety of kingdoms until the city was considered to be the fiercest fortress in all of Europe. One gets the idea that Luxembourg was sort of a military showcase for the latest and greatest in city defense, with one king playing with the city and then handing it off to his buddy governing the next kingdom. The treaty of London in the 1860's finally handed independence back to the people of Luxembourg, with the price being the destruction of most of the city's defenses. So, as much of the fortress city as possible was dismantled and about half of the 23 kilometers of underground tunnels filled. What remains is merely the foundations of the old fortress, and from these shadows one can see just how impressive this place once must have been.

On the former site of the largest of the fortress' now sits the statue of the Golden Woman (above left). Dynamited by the Nazis after the 1940 conquest and rebuilt after the war, it serves as a commemoration of Luxembourg's victories and a memorial for the dead in its wars. On the right is the royal palace, complete with guards who are present while the king is home.

A great 12th century church, just outside the center defenses and built into solid rock.

We were happy to have spent a day in Luxembourg. More time would have gotten pretty boring, as very little happens in the duchy. It's a pretty bottled up society with video surveillance everywhere and plenty of police. It was even hard to find a restaurant open after 10PM!

Money in Luxembourg

The thing that makes Luxembourg tick is money. They've carried the fortress mentality from the physical to the fiscal. Luxembourg is one of Europe's safe havens for cash. The average tourist isn't there to gawk at 16th century buttresses, but rather to set up a totally tax free account at one of Luxembourg's many banks. An awful lot of francs and marks find refuge here. As such, you see devices for dealing with money we haven't seen anywhere else. Our favorite was the Automatic Currency Exchange machine. Basically, you can stick in any denomination of cash or traveler's checks and this machine will dispense an equivalent amount of cash (minus a fixed commission of 50 Belgium francs - a very modest $1.50) in dollars or any of the major European currencies.

Oh, and those money tourists go to Luxembourg to shop and gamble. Seems that every major corporation has some sort of boutique shop set up there with the latest and greatest in consumer goods. If you want to be "in Mode" and have more cash than common sense, it's the place to jet set and shop. And as for gambling, while Luxembourg isn't the Monaco of the north, they have a big and luxurious casino where they're more than happy to administer thrills and drinks while raking through your wallet.

Crazy Little Cars

Space in Europe isn't what it is back in the states. Densities overall are higher, houses packed closer, and streets are narrower. Much of this is due to the fact that no major city in Europe was built after the invention of the automobile (or after the development of modern surveying, for that matter). Cities weren't purposely created. Rather, they aggregated through the merger of smaller villages that simply grew into each other. That's why you can be wandering along a street and it suddenly changes name with no warning or indication. One village called the street by one name, and the other village by another name. Combine these factors together with the average European's desire for an automobile (gotta keep up with the Jones) and you get a congestion nightmare that only the densest of American cities can touch.

So what do they do? They make the cars smaller. As opposed to the American ideal of bigger is better, Europeans in general prefer small cars. They're easier to park, are taxed less (and, boy, do they tax 'em here) and sip at that $4/gallon gasoline instead of guzzle. Everyone gets into the act here, even the luxury brands. In particular, Mercedes launched a joint venture with Swatch to create a car for the next millennium: the Smart.

Check this thing out! It's the size of about two medium size motorcycles -- barely larger than the Isetta of yesteryear. But it is indeed very nice on the inside, with plenty of room for two average adults and their baggage. One of the first things you notice is that no where on the vehicle is the Mercedes name. Turns out that Mercedes attempted to launch this car in Germany last year and got thrown to the wolves. Seems those first generation Smarts had a tendency to roll like beach balls during tight cornering. With the German market poisoned, these re-engineered Smarts are being launched under the Smart brand name in neighboring countries. Already Parisians love the little car and you see many wedged in the tiniest parking spots in Paris. Luxembourg is Smart's current target, with a whole square littered with dozens of the beasts available for test drives on the day we were there.

Is America ready for the Smart? Doubt it. European crash standards are a little more lenient than America's -- imagine a Smart against a full size GMC Suburban! But just wait. Once the next gas crisis hits (and it is coming -- it's only a matter of time), you may see these little Mercedes tooling around in your neighborhood.

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