Monday, July 19, 2010

Other People's Gardens: Luxembourg City and Clervaux

On Saturday the 10th we took a slightly less than 1 hour train ride to Clervaux in the north of Luxembourg near the Belgian-German border. After exploring the town center (this being a small town, our wanderings took but a few minutes), and lunched at a cafĂ© situated in a rehabilitated medieval alley, we toured a UNESCO World Heritage site: the Chateau de Clervaux and the “Family of Man” photography exhibition collated by Edward Steichen. The Chateau (or castle) dates to the 12th century, but its fortified walls were destroyed in the late 19th century. After the D-Day Landing, the Americans successfully took control of and defended the fortress perched above the medieval town during WWII, but an errant German artillery shell hit the castle in December 1944 and the Chateau de Clervaux was completely destroyed. Rebuilt, it stands as an errant, gleaming white structure amidst a sea of evergreen and muted colored buildings below.
An additional “treat” awaited us: the "best" Gregorian chants east of the Rhine by Benedictine monks at the Abbey de St. Maurice. We began walking up the road, for the Abbey stood prominently above the town and the Chateau on a not-quite-mountain but certainly more-than-hill. The heat wave from the United States followed us, and the sun was unrelenting. We soon discovered that we were heading in the wrong direction. A friendly Luxembourgian offered us directions, and so we set on the right course up the quasi-mountain. This path, now used by predominantly by mountain bikers and certainly not by the septagenarian monks, was a veritable path of penance—a steep, nearly vertical incline—that the monks most likely took from Abbey to town center and back. We hiked and hiked, and perspired and perspired: this was no meandering path with switchbacks, but a grueling ascent with mostly land and a but a wee sliver of sky above you.

And yet the path was not entirely punishing or austere, for along it I found the remains of a garden life: horseradish and currant bushes, foxglove, heather, and Scotch brooms, not to mention the ubiquitous woodland (mostly Ostrich) ferns. Who knew penance could be so gratifying?

Thus if I could append a subtitle to the subtitle, it would be “whimsy.” Luxembourgian gardens are to my untrained eye an exercise of whimsy, which may be defined in two senses. First, as intimated by the photographs in my previous entry (but which the severely sleep-deprived mind could not articulate), Luxembourgian gardens may be formal (perhaps the ordering dictate of diminutive plots of land in a diminutive country), but this formality is punctuated or assuaged or mitigated by a distinct playfulness: whimsical accoutrements (certainly not of the pink flamingo or garden gnome sort), shapes of boxwood hedges, Grecian blue wading pools, and color.

And Luxembourgian gardens are whimsical in yet another sense: one finds plants in the most unexpected of places, remains of a day long past. I sighted rose bushes on the 2nd level of a 15th century guard tower, now a lone sentinel, its walls having collapsed around it long ago, and poppies at its base; heather and Scotch broom, foxgloves and currant bushes in the middle of the woods on a path to the Benedictine monastery.

Luxembourg lacks the grand, pretentious boulevards of many a European city, though it surely is spectacular in its diminutiveness, and that, I think, owes to the spirit of the people: playful, casual, and every bit as prone to celebrating the remains of many a previous day just as much as they look forward to a profitable and gleaming future—but always constrained by a formality within which you can be as whimsical as you like.  

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