Slide, Reeperbahn SPQB

Slide, Reeperbahn


In the Cockpit

Where on earth is Luxembourg anyway?

Luxembourg and Belgium
May 2002

I went on a little excursion a while ago, following the shatter zone between the French-speaking west and the Germanic east, that sort of runs along the Roman limes of the Rhine and then down through the Luxembourg and Belgium. I wanted to visit some of the cities fortified by the engineer Vauban to hold Louis XIV's new acquistions against the Hapsburg empire. This was the cock-pit of Europe, where each winner would be guaranteed to be roasted in turn. I did this because I am nature's orphan home for worthless knowledge, and am interested only in things of no use to anyone. Two of those cities are Luxembourg and Bruges.

Caught Between a Rock and another Type of Rock

I went to Luxembourg to discover if it really exists. I've heard of it, of course, one of the founding nations of the European union, pivotal role in European politics, bizarre cacophonic non-winning lunatic bands in endless Eurovision song contests, but I had never met anyone who came from there. Or who had been there. Or who had come upon it by chance, by a kind of accidental sideways lurch on the way from France to Germany, as it were.

So, the question was, did Luxembourg really exist, or did the Belgians just invent it, to fiddle the Union out of some extra cash and the chance to palm off some of their bizarre, cacophonic lunatic bands on the world. To gain a second bite at the Eurovision cherry, no doubt, only the Belgians of this world thinking the Eurovision cherry worth anything but spitting out and glancing around hurriedly to see if anyone noticed.

And yes, there it was, the great fortress city of Luxembourg, the rock, the Gibraltar of the North. And much like the original Gibraltar, this one too had been purloined from the Spaniards, at a point in their history when they had had enough of the damp northern weather and thinking, let's try somewhere else for a lark, how's about Mexico?

Most of the massive fortifications were dismantled during the nineteenth century to stop the French from stealing it any more. Such was the perception of a Frenchman's wit at the time:
"Morbleu! Take Luxembourg! Pah! She is undefended! Where is the challenge in that? I will not sully my hands on her, the little slut! Let's attack Moscow instead! Wherever that is."
Hence the word 'impregnible'. Unfortunately the French did not themselves learn this lesson, and went ahead and built the Maginot line two generations later, presenting the Germans with an irresistable challenge...

Hidden Dialects

I wandered along the ramparts that remained, the gun positions carved into the living rock, followed the geometric lines of the bastions that Vauban designed to inflict the maximum amount of casualties with mathematical precision on anyone who wanted to take the city. It was this perfection of design of course that made Luxembourg the key of Europe, desired by all, with all the sieges, burning and looting that implies. I suppose the Luxembourgious themselves were quite happy to see the walls go, and replace the 'defensive fortification' strategy with a 'hiding between Belgium and Germany' strategy that works so well today.

The people of Luxembourg like to retain the mystery of their little home. In addition to being rather hard to find, they conspire to speak a langauge among themselves incomprehensible to any living being. Either desribed as German with French influence, or French with a strong German undertow, of one thing you can be certain. They will immediately change it as soon as they twig that you understand.

It sounds French, it sounds French, you begin to comprehend - oui, c'est vrai, we will soon cut off his members and feast on the juice inside...Stop! He understands... und suddenly they're off into another dialect, Verdammt, er versteht noch mais ganz possible zut alors, ja, wir mussen suprise him and destroy him with Eurovision song entries - he must tell noone where Luxembourg is to be found...

Bruges / Brugge (whichever you choose to say, is equally a bugge)

Bruges is a living skeleton of the past, an old Flemish lace weaving town perfectly preserved just as it was on a fateful day centuries ago when all the Flemish weavers suddenly turned to each other and said stuff this for a lark, lets all go off to Amsterdam for drugs and girls. And never came back. So the town, all pretty brickwork and cathedral spires and canals, is a seventeenth century gem, minus the smell, and the vermin, and the scrofula. And the human life. Oh, there are people there, all right, don't get me wrong, there are tourists (me), and the only people who can stand large numbers of tourists, that is, knick-knack re-sellers, coffee-house price-gougers and lace makers (where else in life do we ever encounter a lace maker, except on holiday?). But that's not life. Tourism is something we do in between life.

Bruges was a strangely sorrowful town. It is so well preserved that you almost see it as it was, when it was alive, full of industry and children and dogs and markets and squalor, and life. And now it was simply a giant open air museum, hawking postcards of itself, like a drawn old trooper retelling battered stories of his youth for tuppence a go. Now the real people of the city wouldn't dream of going near it's ancient traditional markets if they actually want to buy anything. No, they go to the same place we all do, down a dodgy alleyway near the railway line where hawkers sell packs of soap by the ten and pink baby clothes out of stalls made from plastic bags and scaffolding.

As a valuable industrial town, Bruges was also heavily fortified, but all that now remains are a couple of gateways and the double moat system. The are grassy ridges and windmills where the walls once stood. Once again, I saw how the Flemish people had evolved their defenses beyond all that difficult and sticky siege business. Any attacking force not dispersed in the attempt to take a definitive windmill-over-Bruges photograph, wouldn't stand a chance of reaching the main square without being hopelessly demoralised, if not downright fleeced, by the endless lines of Genuine Lace Shops, over-priced cafes and useless knick-knackeries.

And having escaped Bruges, our sad demoralised beseigers, pockets empty, heads clanging from endless Belgian debates over whether French is better than Flemish or what? they might decide to go and take Luxembourg instead, in which case they're still wandering Europe today, asking directions...



Bruges Canal






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The Facts

Where I stayed
Luxembourg: Luxembourg YH. Big hostel with lots of school groups, permanent residents and the like. Big old dorms.
Bruges: Charlie Rockets. Cramped, little dorms. Nice bar downstairs.

How I got around:
Trains. Very good throughout the low countries.