In a few months, the tiny European nation of Luxembourg will be making headlines around the world. Not for the usual reason – its tax haven status, which shelters the likes of Amazon, Skype and ArcelorMittal – but for a far more positive initiative. It will become the first country in the world where all public transport is totally free – no strings attached. From Sunday, March 1, 2020, both residents and visitors will be able to use trains, trams and buses without buying a ticket, without any controls.
Bearing in mind the size of the venerable Grand Duchy, this may not sound like the biggest step for ecotourism, but in a period when ecology, carbon footprints and climate change are rarely out of the news, it could set a precedent that will then have to be considered by more well-known tourist destinations.
Barely the size of Rhode Island, in the US, the landlocked Luxembourg is surrounded by Belgium, France and Germany. While travellers invariably stop off at the imposing capital, Luxembourg City, this new free travel scheme is a great incentive to discover the rest of this intriguing kingdom: the picturesque vine-clad valley of the Moselle river; trekking though the hills and forests of Mullerthal, Luxembourg's "Little Switzerland" (though don't expect any Alpine peaks); or exploring the chateaux and battlefields of the historic Ardennes.
I kick off my tour of Luxembourg City, checking into a chic boutique hotel, Le Place d’Armes, which looks out over the town’s main square, lined with cafe terraces where pinstripe-suited bankers puff large cigars while an oompah orchestra performs in the old-fashioned bandstand.
Since medieval times, this has been one of Europe’s most impregnable castle-fortresses, sitting atop a towering rocky outcrop, protected by the 17th-century Bock Casemates, a spectacular 23-kilometre maze of tunnels and galleries that today is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Within the fortress walls, tiny neighbourhoods hug a series of steep ravines and valleys that can turn sightseeing into quite a hike, though the free transport plan makes all that a lot easier, with an efficient network of buses, trams, lifts and funiculars.
In just a day, I pass from the Renaissance palaces and Baroque churches of the historic centre to a tour of the skyscraper architecture of the Kirchberg neighbourhood, home to the stunning Mudam modern art museum, designed by I M Pei, alongside a host of futuristic European institutions, such as the Court of Justice, reflecting the city's dual role as national capital and one of the three official capitals of the European Union. In the evening, it is back on the bus again to go down to the lower part of the city, the 12th-century Clausen quarter. This is the favoured after-work hangout of the multinational Eurocrats and financiers who call Luxembourg home, perfect for dining out at gourmet Michelin-starred restaurants, excellent Italian trattorie and traditional Luxembourgish brasseries, followed by a late-night tour of chic cocktail lounges and packed sports bars.
My travels to discover the real Luxembourg begin the next morning, when I catch a bus outside the train station to Echternach, a bustling medieval market town. This is the perfect point to set off along the Mullerthal Trail, a series of diverse hikes that total 112km, meandering through the wild scenery of hills and valleys of what locals love to call their "little Switzerland".
The trails sometimes resemble tropical jungle treks I have done in Asia, across wooden plank-walks raised above marshy bogs, through thick woods of pine and oak where the sun barely breaks through the vegetation, then suddenly coming out in a bare canyon with strange sandstone formations reaching up to the skies, or in front of a crystal clear waterfall, cascading down into a tempting turquoise pool.
It is easy to plan the length of your trek – I managed a dozen kilometres – and end at one of the region's sleepy hamlets, where you can get a bus back to Echternach, or stay the night. I end up in Berdorf, where the cheap and cheerful Trail-Inn is full up with seriously equipped walkers and a motley crew of Harley Davidson bikers, who love the winding roads here. All for the best as instead I discover Berdorfer Eck, the funky village deli showcasing organic locavore specialities – honey, herbs, cheeses, smoked meats. It's a cosy bistro, with seven welcoming guest rooms upstairs.
The next day my destination is the tiny village of Mullerthal itself, where the Heringer Millen, a 17th-century watermill, has been converted into a brilliant help centre for ramblers. Just turn up and you can borrow everything from professional boots, waterproof jackets, walking poles, rucksacks, binoculars and even a GPS, free of charge for the day. Part of the mill has been converted into a brasserie that offers everything from pizza and pasta for hungry hikers to gourmet cuisine that merits a Michelin star, created by the talented Lars Fiebig. The young chef tells me he enjoys reinterpreting traditional Luxembourg recipes with exotic spices and flavours, aided in the kitchen by his two assistants, former refugees from Syria and Afghanistan. Right now, they are inventing dishes they hope will be chosen as part of the Luxembourg Pavilion at the 2020 World Expo in Dubai.
The Moselle river, which for 40km forms a natural frontier with Germany, is Luxembourg's picture-postcard destination. The steep slopes of the valley are lined with graphic vineyard terraces, where wine has been produced since Roman times. After my tiring Mullerthal hikes, I take the direct bus to Remich, but opt out of testing the popular bike track that hugs the bank of the river, and instead embark on a peaceful river cruise. The steamer chugs along as far as Schengen, the sleepy village that gave its name to the landmark treaty that ended passport control for European citizens. From Schengen, a quick 20-minute bus ride drops me at Mondorf-les-Bains, an old-fashioned 19th-century spa that has been transformed into a luxury wellness centre, perfect for ending the day with hot thermal baths, hammam, massages, plus a fine-dining restaurant.
The Luxembourg Ardennes may not be as picturesque as Mullerthal and the Moselle, but there are two grandiose castles that must not be missed. The village of Vianden is a bucolic bolthole bordering the Our river, once the exiled home of French author, Victor Hugo.
But its tiny stone houses are overshadowed by the looming presence high above of the immense Chateau de Vianden, a mountainous fortress dating back to the 10th century. Formerly the home of the Grand Duke himself, it is now open to the public, and is the most visited site in Luxembourg. Vianden is also a popular starting point for bike and walking tours through the forests of the Ardennes, once the scene of devastating fighting during the Battle of the Bulge.
There is a museum dedicated to this final campaign of the Second World War at the other Ardennes landmark, the Chateau de Clervaux. The castle was mostly destroyed during the fighting, but has been completely restored today, and hosts a far more surprising permanent exhibition than I ever imagined discovering hidden away in the middle of Luxembourg's countryside. Dubbed "the greatest photographic exhibition of all time", about 500 breathtaking images are displayed over two floors, from The Family of Man, curated by Edward Steichen for New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1955, and registered on Unesco's Memory of the World. Featuring more than 250 of the world's greatest photographers, the exhibition takes you on an incredible journey across the globe. It turns out Steichen was born in Luxembourg and wanted his collection to find a permanent home here.
I can see people are spending hours gazing in front of the emotive images, and I could easily have stayed all day. But it is time for me to head back to Luxembourg City, just an hour’s train ride away. Soon the journey will be free, and perhaps more travellers will be heading off to discover this tiny but surprising country.