A Fairy Tale Chateau

IMG_8474 (2)After two days of summer heat and glorious sunshine, Luxembourg has returned to winter drizzle and scuppered any thoughts of an expedition into the countryside. I had forgotten the unpredictability of European weather after years in the Philippines. Were the skies forever blue there, or am I already glamourizing the memories? Still, the rain provides a good opportunity to sit in front of my computer, after a long break from my blog, and attempt to capture some of my adventures and expeditions over the past weeks.

Easter was a wonderful, fun-filled week, as family arrived from England. We spent a couple of days showing off the highlights of Luxembourg City before venturing further afield to explore along the Moselle and hunt for a chateau or two.

According to several websites, Luxembourg has a veritable galaxy of chateaux to visit; over one hundred they say. A closer look at the list, however, drew a slightly different picture.  Of those that weren’t in ruins (and many were) a lot of the local castles were privately owned or had been converted into municipal buildings or hotels. Very few, it seemed, were open to the public. Luckily, we quickly located the jewel in the crown, and, even better, less than an hour’s drive from home.

Vianden Castle was built between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries on the foundations of a Roman ‘castellum,’ a blend of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. Vianden was originally the seat of the highly influential Counts of Vianden, who had connections with both the Royal Family of France and the German Imperial Court, and who sought to rival the Court of Luxembourg.  During this time the town flourished, renowned for its skilled craftsmen: tanners, drapers, weavers, barrel makers, masons, locksmiths and goldsmiths. By the nineteenth century, however, the castle had fallen into disrepair, damaged by both fire and earthquake. It was then bought by a local merchant, who dismantled it and sold it off piecemeal. In much the same way, the surrounding countryside was surrendered to the Prussians at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

Today, however, Vianden claims to be one of the most significant castles in Europe, thanks to the inspiration of the Grand Duke of Luxembourg and the mammoth efforts of the State to restore it to its former glory in the 1970s.

Driving in over the ridge from Diekirch, we gasped at our first view of this impressive chateau, looming above the mediaeval town like an eagle in its eerie, a hundred metres above the River Our. It is a steep climb to the entrance gate of the castle, but the views over the valley alone are worth the effort. And the chateau is beautiful, despite the glaringly awkward juxtaposition of mediaeval walls and starkly modern canteen in the central courtyard.

To follow the self-guided trail through the chateau is to follow its historical timeline, from its Roman foundations to its Gothic rooftops. The twelfth century chapel is a double oratory: two separate, octagonal floors with a communication shaft through the centre, so the towns people could hear the services from the vault below, while the nobles sat overhead. The guide book describes this upper chapel as the Rhenish (Rhineland) Romanesque, that is reminiscent of the early Christian basilicas we found in Turkey with its semi-circular arches, small paired windows, and groined vaulted ceilings.

The mediaeval kitchens were also fascinating, with a plethora of fourteenth century kitchen appliances on display: impossibly heavy iron cauldrons; a vast fireplace strung with long iron spits for roasting entire animals; a wooden case that would once have contained some wildly expensive, exotic spices; a solid tree stump smoothed down for use as a chopping board, decorated with lethal looking knives. There was an entrance hall filled with mediaeval armour, and the Count’s suite furnished with a dark refectory dining table, a four-poster bed and several old tapestries. A photo gallery has pictures and models of the castle in its various stages of life, not to mention a celebrity gallery of all its famous visitors, from European Royalty to American Presidents and Hollywood stars.

My favourite spot, however, was the Byzantine Gallery with its high wooden ceiling and unglassed, trefoiled arched windows overlooking the valley to the east and the hillside to the west. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so inviting on a wet and windy afternoon, but that day it provided wondrous views and an urgent desire to throw a party or a mediaeval themed wedding.bandoning the car at the top of the town, we wandered down the cobbled Rue Grande, past some picturesque old buildings older than any to be found in Australia. At the bottom was the River Our, and here we came across a handful of riverside restaurants and an enthusiastic welcome from local restaurateurs.

Feeling like chicks tucked beneath the mighty wings of the castle, we opted for an enclosed balcony where we could look out over the river and the pretty stone bridge in cosy comfort, and enjoy generous serves of schnitzels and chips in the warmth. The house we could see on the opposite side of the bridge apparently has links with the French writer Victor Hugo, who spent several summers here, writing and sketching.

After lunch, we headed north along the river, and discovered a chairlift  (le télésiège), which carried us up from the lower part of the town to a point across the valley from the castle. As my chair rose sharply up the steep hillside to the café at the top, I found myself twisting awkwardly backwards in my seat to wave at my nephew and to better see the views over the blossoming countryside – at the same time being very grateful that I wasn’t travelling in the opposite direction, to hang precariously, unnervingly over the valley as the chairlift plunged to the valley floor. Clambering stiffly off the chairlift, we meandered back through the woods towards the castle.

I can tell that this charming little town with its fairy tale castle is going to be a firm favourite to share with friends who come to stay.

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