Luxembourg (2011)


We visit Vianden. Knights with swords and shields, belly dancers and pirates surround us before we are blown out of King William III’s castle.

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According to a Luxembourg map, Vianden contains one of the many castles that the country is famous for. And as an indigenous Rosportian gardner in an Echternach orangery had recommended it to us, we decided to pay it a visit. A small hour’s drive brought us to the hills surrounding Vianden as the traffic notably increased. No actual jams or huge congestion, but noticeably more cars on the road.

As we made a left turn at the Vianden exit sign, we saw we had good reason to fear: along the entire road winding down into the town, cars had been parked and people were walking down on foot. It did not look like it was going to be a quiet day—was Vianden such a touristic destination that it was entirely packed? It seemed so, for there was no parking space to be found along the entire road and soon we ended up in a row of cars in the town, with the only exit a rather steep road out of the valley, filled with a long line of waiting vehicles. Vonne seemed slightly alarmed at having to start the car on that steep an incline, although not as alarmed as the gothics in the car behind us, who saw the Nissan slowly rolling down on the first two attempts. The third attempt was more determined, however, and with some serious disrespect for the gearbox, Vonne got the car moving to the relief of the drivers behind us. The slow drive up did not lead to any unclaimed parking space, however, which meant that we had exited Vianden before we had even truly been inside.

A second attempt

We already feared that we would have to return another day, but we wanted to check once more whether we could not leave the car somewhere on the way in, so we circled around and went back in. At the start of the road down, I suddenly spotted a space between two parked vehicles that seemed to be four inches longer than the Nissan. At least. Or thereabouts. I am to this day not sure whether Vonne was more sceptical about my eyesight or her parking skills, but facing another useless pass through the village, she decided to go for it. Backing up to park the car uphill on the wrong side of the road, what could be easier, after all? Well, quite a lot of things, actually. But, fair is fair, like a true professional she manoeuvered the car into the tiny space without sending the other cars down the hill like a row of domino blocks. We decided to fold in the side mirror (“Are you sure it can do that? Yeah, just push harder, any car can do that (at least this one, I hope)”) and made our way down with a spectacular view of Chateau Vianden.

Once in town, it became apparent why there were so many visitors and why the vehicle behind us earlier contained a number of gothics: it was the final day of an international historic festival. The main street was blocked off for a semi-medieval market, with horses taking children up and down the street if the latter were not too busy waging war with wooden swords and shields (I admit to some sense of jealousy), quite a few visitors were appropriately dressed and several falconers displayed their owls and falcons. I was a bit disappointed that they had all given their birds the usual Lord of the Rings names: one was called Agarwaen, another Bregolas. Not one of them had been orginal enough to just show up with a giant sea eagle named Dave who intimidated the other birds by staring at them. Then again, neither had anyone named one of their falcons Millennium, so I guess it could have been worse.

Into the castle

We headed into the castle, which was equally busy and filled with stands and merchants. The larger part of the usual adornments and displays had been moved to make space for the festival, but we did not mind. Pretty much any castle you visit has a bunch of cases with armours, swords, chainmails and halberds, and once you have seen a few of those, you have seen most of them. Although I do have to admit that the German names for most of the weapons did sound a lot more terrifying than the other ones. Not that German cannot be a beautiful language (if you have the word babywickelraum, you score major points), but their names for weapons can be pretty gruesome. Much like the smell that emanated from the stand of the artisan cheesemaker, by the way. Fortunately a lot of the other craftsmen made less of an assault on the senses, such as a glass blower, several woodcarvers, a rope maker, someone who made birds from clay and twigs, and a fortune teller. “Ah ha!” you might exclaim now, “that last one is not a craftsman!” But then, I ask you, how one can tell the future? Exactly. Witchcraft.

If the Scottish–Ottoman War ever breaks out, we all lose.

Upstairs in the great hall of the chateau, there was an entire programme of more or less medieval performances from a variety of groups and people from throughout Europe. As it started to get cloudy and darker quickly, we decided it was a good moment to get a few seats inside. As a show had just ended, we were fortunate to find a few. The next show featured several belly dancers with a snake. Many “ooh”s and “aah”s from the audience, but the creature did not seem particularly impressed and looked like it was simply taking a nap around the neck of one of the dancers (again, there was some sense of jealousy on my part). Then, there was a group of Scotsmen with bagpipes and a drum. Now I am not sure whether it was the acoustics of the hall or their vigorous enthusiasm, but very occasionally when I am sitting quietly at home, I believe I can still hear them. Vonne once showed me a video of a group of Ottomans playing traditional drums when she was at a conference, and I am fairly confident in saying that if the Scottish–Ottoman War ever breaks out, we all lose. Mostly our hearing.

There were also a bunch of pirates who used their own set of drums to test whether our ears were bleeding yet, but Vonne was less impressed by them than I was. I could easily picture several pirate vessels assaulting a Caribbean port while sounding the drums of war, so I was pretty satisfied. I am easy to please. What followed was a comedy play about a band of robbers in an inn who were finally defeated by the hero of the piece, with the bandit leader taking a humiliating stab to his buttocks from the hero’s rapier, to the great hilarity of all the children in the hall. And to mine—see the earlier comment.

The best show, however, was quite probably a Czech juggler. His show only lasted for a few minutes of juggling burning torches, but made quite an amusing show out of it, including requesting the aid from a few audience participants, who were to supply him with drumrolls and trumpeting as he climbed onto his ladder in order to place his own life on the line “and that of the first two to four rows of spectators”, as he cheerfully announced. Some skilled display of juggling and balancing later, no one had been incinerated, so a big applause was his reward.

An epic storm

We had planned our visit of the shows well, because about halfway through, outside the castle the rain came down fast and unrelenting, even bringing a small thunderstorm along. The hall quickly filled up with people seeking shelter, and was partially cleared in equal little time as the wind blew the rain in through the large open windows, drenching those who were unfortunate enough to be standing next to them. Fortunately we were well inside and only had to make sure the wind did not blow our entire bench through the opposite window into the ravine on that side of the castle.

As the round of shows ended, the weather had equally quickly turned back into a pleasant summer afternoon, so we explored the castle further. According to the displays in the castle towers on the history of the building, it had once belonged to the Dutch royal family and had been restored by King William III in particular. One of the most beautiful items on display was a book of sketches of the castle and its various rooms, which had been offered to the King to show him what he possessed. It was essentially a 19th century photo album, albeit a bit more work.

Having finished our visit of the castle, we descended into town for some medieval waffles with sugar and several postcards for the friends and relatives back home. We then went to see if the car had been pushed downhill yet by another driver angry at us for having boxed in his car like porcelain in a furniture van. That had not happened, however, and we even had more space than before to manoeuver out and start our drive back to the campsite. We had not only seen Vianden, but lived to tell about it!

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