With spring just around the corner in central Illinois, my thoughts naturally turned to Luxembourg City, where I spent three weeks from mid-May last year, sponsored by Luxembourg Income Study. Linking the two places is the rhythm of nature: lilacs, rhododendrons, peonies, irises and daylilies bloom from late April to late June in central Illinois, in that order; they blossomed within the span of those three weeks in Luxembourg City, perhaps to give my wife, Keiko, and me the feeling of home of the entire spring.
Luxembourg City is the capital of Luxembourg, a landlocked country surrounded by Belgium, France, and Germany with a second highest 2009 per capita GDP in the world and a population of half a million. Picking up a local newspaper, you will find its content in the three languages of French, German and Luxembourgish. The capital, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and seat of several European Union institutions, is a beautiful marriage of culture and nature. The city straddles several spectacular valleys and outcrops, with the main valley, known as the Grund when it runs through the city center, with the Alzette River meandering at its bottom.
On the weekdays, I would speed-walk, oblivious to the efficient local buses passing by, from our studio apartment for close to 40 minutes to the office, as a way to get some fresh air and exercise to counteract cooping up indoors all day long at the research institute. On my way there and back, I would enjoy the flowers in the front gardens of the wayside local houses, some cute and some stately. On most of the same days, Keiko would take an even longer walk to explore the old town. The old quarters have many tourist sites: Place Guillaume, Place d'Arme, the Grand Ducal Palace, Cathedrale de Notre Dame, Eglise St. Michel, Muse National d'Histoire et d'Art (National Museum of History and Art), and Ptrusse Casemates and Bock Casemates (networks of underground fortifications).
There are Saturday markets in the old town. The day after our arrival in Luxembourg City, a Saturday, we chanced upon these markets – an antique market in Place d'Arme, where all sorts of antiques, books, china, other types of collectibles, and homemade crafts were displayed, and a farmers market in Place Guillaume, where you would find fresh and dried fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, breads, homemade jams and specialty foods. The palace is the home of Grand Duke Henri, Luxembourg's handsome head of state. You can find him gracing postcards for tourists.
Northeast of the old town connected by the Charlotte Bridge is Kirchberg, home to the European Union and banking institutions. It is also home to the modern art museum, known as MUDAM (Muse d'Art Moderne), its iconic modern structure designed by the American architect I.M. Pei, showcasing a marvelous dialogue between the natural and the historical environment. Another resident in Kirchberg is La Coque (the shell), the sports and event complex including an aquatic center whose Olympic pool I swam in one day and found it more visually pleasing–with plenty of natural lighting and green foliage in and outdoors–than any swimming pools I have seen in Illinois.
Luxembourg City has a major marathon, consisting of a full and a half marathon. On May 23, we went to watch the event, joined by thousands of other spectators. The marathon, participated in by elite runners and fitness runners alike, was a truly jolly event. The 6 p.m. start time began an evening of festivities, and the finish line, with two parallel chutes for the full and the half marathon so that the elite and the recreational runners could finish in synch, was in an indoor stadium of La Coque where rock musicians played to enhance the merriment. The weather was pleasant; I could not think of a better way to spend a spring evening. If I beef up the mileage of my weekly runs, I would be seriously tempted to try a half marathon on my next visit there and to see the lilacs when the fragrance of those in my yard has become a memory.
Tim Liao, professor of sociology and statistics at the University of Illinois, lives in Urbana and travels when he can.