The scene greeting us at a certain Cafe des Artistes could have been in Paris, Berlin or Amsterdam or any number of European hot spots. In the dark, smoky room, a chanteuse, young and lovely, yet already world weary, sat perched on a high stool by a piano. With the requisite lit cigarette in hand, she warbled the timeless refrain of “La Vie en Rose,” to an appreciative crowd, who piped in during the refrain.
But this wasn’t one of those better known European cities. This was the less-traveled city of Luxembourg, the button-down capital of one of the continent’s smallest countries and a place better known for banking and commerce than Bohemian-style nightlife.
As the evening continued, and the Piaf gave way to German, Italian, Spanish and English-language tunes, the connection between this classic slice of evening life and modern day Luxembourg became more apparent. This small city of some 76,000 in a tiny country with fewer than 500,000 people is keeping its link to the past –– its national slogan is “Mir welle bleiwe wat mir sin” (“We want to remain what we are”). Yet, to stay relevant, it must continue to build on its current international role as a key member of the European Union.
This dual identity also reflects its location between France and Germany. The native language, Luxembourgish, is only a spoken dialect, while French and German are used as official written languages, spoken by many people and the unofficial cultural references for food, fashion and other aspects of everyday life.
For a visitor, this duality translates into a city that’s both sophisticated –– witness the well-heeled shopping district lined with high-end boutiques –– and down to earth –– check out the lively pub and nightlife scene. Thanks to high-speed TGV service from Paris, you can easily have a taste of Luxembourg via a two-hour trip. A long weekend is plenty of time to take in its major sights as a side trip from the City of Lights, a stop on your way to Germany, or a base for exploring the lovely countryside of the Ardennes.
There’s perhaps no better example of Luxembourg’s charms than the Grund, a storybook neighborhood of small-scale houses set in a valley, whose sleepy daytime attitude gives way to a considerable bar scene by night. Situated here is yet another example of how old and new coexist peacefully: L’Abbaye de Neumunster is a former monastery that has been reimagined as an arts center with changing exhibits, concerts and a brasserie offering a popular Sunday jazz brunch.
It was also in the Grund where I spent that memorable evening at Cafe des Artistes, with the songs set in Paris (“Les Champs Elysees”) and other places far grander continuing long into the night. You’ll always have those other cities, so why not experience Luxembourg.