For many people, it would be a struggle to pinpoint Luxembourg on a map, let alone list the country’s highlights. Perhaps most famous for being the world’s only Grand Duchy, Luxembourg isn’t somewhere you’d immediately associate with high culture.
But while modern capital Luxembourg City has become a global financial hub, Esch-sur-Alzette – its southern second city – is a name you can expect to hear more of this year, after being named European Capital of Culture 2022.
With iron ore deposits covering around 3,700 hectares, Luxembourg was once the sixth-largest cast iron producer in the world and the eighth largest producer of steel. And from the open-cast mines of the Minett region to the smoking factories of its Belval neighbourhood, Esch was Luxembourg’s thriving industrial heart, exporting its steel across the globe.
But with the decline of the region’s cast iron industry in the 1970s, by the 1980s Esch was struggling to find a new identity. Now it’s showing off its transformation, while still embracing the foundations the city was built on.
That fusion of past and present was at its starkest on my first night in Esch, when I found myself walking to a smart evening meal beneath the hulking remains of Belval’s former blast furnaces.
What was once a dismal brownfield wasteland has been transformed into one of the most striking quarters of any European city I’ve visited recently. Two of the five original 1950s blast furnaces remain and around them, the neighbourhood has been rebuilt into a modern centre of learning, culture and entertainment.
Rising up around the 82-metre-high furnaces is the Cité des Sciences, an angular collection of some 20 new buildings alongside shimmering ponds, urban forests and several winter gardens.
Serene bistros and libraries now sit where the clatter and smoke of the steelworks once dominated, and across the appropriately named Avenue du Rock’n’Roll is the 6,500 capacity Rockhal concert hall. Built in 2005, it’s home to many of the performances on the Capital of Culture calendar.
But while Belval might be the symbolic heart of this city’s transformation, it’s back in the old town of Esch where much of this year’s action is taking place.
Iron hooks still hang from the ceiling of the quirky Kulturfabrik, a former slaughterhouse-turned-80s-artist-squat, which became a non-profit cultural centre at the turn of the millennium. With over 250 events each year, this colourful spot on the edge of town is a weekly cocktail of concerts, plays, exhibitions and public readings.
As well as being a centre for artists in residence, they also lead the Urban Art Esch street art tours which pass by over 50 different pieces throughout the town, featuring some jaunty examples by local hero Sumo and his distinct bright graffiti style.
Silently rolling back and forth up Esch’s rue de l’Alzette, the city’s driverless electric shuttle buses were one of the more unexpected sights that caught my eye here but they were a constant reminder of the city’s progress – though judging by their snail’s pace speed, I’m not sure if they’ll catch on in the UK.
It’s towards the end of the rue de l’Alzette at the Brillplatz – Esch’s grassy main square – that the grand stone facade of the National Museum of Resistance and Human Rights has been looking out since 1956. Following renovations, the museum reopened partially in March for a series of exhibitions, and is due to fully reopen once more in February 2023.
Located between France and Belgium and bordering western Germany, Luxembourg’s position meant it suffered greatly during Second World War, and the building is a testament to the importance of remembering some of the darkest chapters of the 20th century.
In total, 1,945 of Luxembourg’s 3,500-strong Jewish community died during the Holocaust, and the museum features a moving exhibition on their fate. The museum also offers free guided tours through Esch taking in monuments, plaques, buildings, street names and Stolpersteine stones in honour of Jewish victims of the Nazi regime.
In keeping with the museum’s spirit of coming together, one of the more unusual aspects of this particular Capital of Culture bid is that it’s a cross-border collaboration.
With a faded industrial past similar to its Luxembourgish counterparts, rural north-eastern France’s Communauté de Communes Pays Haut Val d’Alzette (CCPHVA) is also benefitting from the investment and running its own series of events.
I took a meandering bus through the nearby forests of the Minett region and over the French border to see a new cultural centre known as L’Arche up close. Its enormous structure looks out over the tiny town of Micheville and is an alternative space for art, music and new technologies, while incorporating live shows and digital art.
But it’s back across the border where the Minett region really showcases this underrated corner of Europe at its best. Once home to one of the most important mining sites in Luxembourg, the Minett Park Fond-de-Gras has been transformed into a charming open air museum.
The old mining train tracks piece their way through dense forest, and what was once a smoky hive of industrial activity is now home to several preserved historic buildings, including an electric power station, an old grocery store, a railways station and a train shed.
Century-old steam trains puff between Fond-de-Gras and sister site Pétange throughout the summer (the site opens for the season in May), and many of the old mining tracks have been converted into serpentine walking trails winding through forests reclaimed by nature.
While this fusion of nature and history won’t be at the forefront of the Capital of Culture celebrations, for me, it represents how to celebrate this region’s proud past by moving forward in an attractive and sustainable way.
As this little-known country makes the most of its time in the spotlight, it’s a reminder to look beyond the obvious to discover the surprises hidden in this corner of Europe.
Esch 2022: Summer Highlights
Remix22 – 14. European Youth Music Festival
Talented pupils and students in the fields of music, dance, and theatre from 23 European countries perform for three days in various venues. 26-28 May
Earthbound – In Dialogue with Nature
Addressing the impact of human activities on the Earth’s collapsing ecosystems, showcases artworks proposing alternative models of understanding and interacting with the world. Opens 4 June
Rockhal open-air concerts
Including acts such as Black Eyed Peas, The Killers and more. 15 June-10 July
Tribune // Dance Your Self!
Dance project between Esch and its fellow 2022 Capital of Culture Kaunas (Lithuania). 2-7 August
Frontaliers: Des vies en stereo
In this exhibition, filmmakers Mehdi Ahoudig & Samuel Bollendorff document the journeys of French workers who cross the border to Luxembourg every day. The exhibition offers an interactive journey, allowing the spectator to immerse themselves in photographic and sound landscapes and to listen to the stories of the characters. Opens 22 October
An exhibition offering a view through various perspectives of what constitutes Europe and Europeans, structured around six clichés about Europe. Opens 16 December
Various airlines fly direct from London to Luxembourg City, including BA, easyJet, Ryanair and Luxair, with fares from £20 return.
Esch is a 25-minute taxi ride from the airport, or a 20-minute train journey from Luxembourg City centre.
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