How Europe’s most open city used to be one of its most menacing fortresses

Anyone who’s been to Luxembourg will agree on one thing: the feeling of openness. Its international population, drawn by a buzzing economy that U.S. News & World Report describes as ‘most open for business’, accounts for half the population. The country is also one of the most multilingual in the world, as most Luxembourgers speak at least three or four languages. This linguistic adeptness is a source of pride, but it also testifies to the country’s character as flexible, tolerant, and obliging.

What’s curious is that once upon a time, this bastion of openness tucked between France, Germany, and Belgium was quite literally one of the most defensive and contentious places in Europe. Originally a crossroads between two Roman trade routes, what is now the old town of the capital, Luxembourg City, was founded in 963 by Count Sigfried who built his castle on the site to take advantage of the formidable natural defenses which included steep cliff walls on three sides.

The next nine hundred years saw what became known as the Fortress of Luxembourg grow ever more fortified. Because it held so much strategic importance, it was desired and occupied by nearly every European dynasty including the Spanish, Dutch, French, Austrians, and Prussians. Each occupying force added new defenses, prompting the city to be dubbed the Gilbralter of the North. One of the most striking features, first dug by the Spanish but later expanded, are the dozens of kilometres of casemates: underground tunnels and galleries to hold troops, artestians, animals, and even workshops.

This was all good and well for the occupying force but was a huge thorn in the side of other powers, a bit like an opponent in a geopolitical game of poker having a perpetual joker up their sleeve. The question of what to do about Luxembourg turned into a standoff which nearly led to a war between the French and Prussians in the mid-19th century. A major conflict was narrowly averted thanks to the Treaty of London in 1863, signed by every major European power. The agreement called for Luxembourg to be made independent and for its fortifications to be dismantled.

Even at the height of its military importance, Luxembourg was never truly closed. From its earliest incarnation at the confluence of Roman trade routes, it has always been a spot where people meet. It is a place that straddles cultures, languages, and spheres of influence. This is one of the reasons why openness is so deeply ingrained in the country and its character, and it’s what visitors and those who move there often appreciate the most: the ease of getting around and the modest, obliging, and open nature.

Even a short walk around the old part of Luxembourg City offers a clear and very gratifying sense of both its history and its modern-day character. Plenty of fascinating remnants of the once-fearsome fortress remain including bastions, towers, gates, and of course the casemates which are open for visits. Yet while strolling around these sites, if you close your eyes, you’ll hear the symphony of languages inherited from centuries of transition and movement. You’ll smell the aromas of foods built on the best of various European cuisines, a mix of old and new, and you’ll feel the ease with which the city welcomes everyone.

Ready to have your next corporate event in Europe’s most open place amid the ruins of an awesome fortress? Get in touch, and we’ll help you find the perfect venue.

Benoit Welté Administration