A lot of European character packed into a little country

``Luxembourg? That's a city in Germany, right?'' I admit to being more than a little callow when I first ventured off to Europe on my own back in my teens. But I had never even heard of Luxembourg. A fellow youth hosteler was leaving for the little country that plugs the hole where France, Germany, and Belgium come together - and was looking for company.

Luxembourg charmed us both.

In the ensuing dozen or so trips back to Europe over the years, I have managed to skirt the country. Not by choice, but it's so little it's easy to miss. You can drive the length of Luxembourg in an hour and a half, and the breadth in an hour.

A recent trip ticketed by Icelandair meant my returning to Boston from Luxembourg, with the attractive option of staying on a few days. I did so with enthusiasm.

Luxembourg is not only the name of this 999-square-mile Grand Duchy, but of its capital city as well. Its 365,000 citizens are for the most part trilingual, speaking French, German, and their own unique Luxembourgeois.

For more than 1,000 years this little country has been more of a doormat than a steppingstone. Armies, from Caesar's foot soldiers to German tanks, have invaded its borders.

If the country hasn't exactly thrived through these frequent incursions, it has at least survived quite beautifully.

More than 40 castles and fortresses here have been the target of stones, cannonballs, and bombs. They dot this entire land in glorious states of repair.

The capital, Luxembourg City, is dramatically attractive, with beautiful vistas at every glance as you stroll over the many bridges that straddle two steep gorges. The fortified embankments of rocky cliffs actually house a remarkable 13 miles of labyrinths, subterranean installations, staircases, and casemates.

Far below, the P'etrusse River, a mere thread of water, trickles through a splendid park of verdant lawn and trees of every description. Benches in the shade are a welcome respite for the weary who have hoofed up and down the ramparts.

For a small fee, you may hop aboard a little rubber-wheeled train under the Pont Adolphe. It runs along the Vall'ee de la P'etrusse, past the citadel, under bridges, along the river and back. Stereo earphones give a historic account of the tour. You may plug into German, French, English, or Luxembourgeois.

Bus tours of the city center and beyond are available from the Place de la Constitution. But there's a problem here. Our guide had to explain everything we went zooming by, in four languages. The description sometimes came half a mile after the monument.

No words or description is necessary at the stop at the American Cemetery in Hamm. Here Gen. George Patton Jr. lies buried in front of more than 5,000 soldiers of the Third Army. Row upon row of white Italian marble gravestones in concentric arcs spread across acres of greensward. A statue of Patton stands in nearby Ettelbr"uck.

Back in town, side streets with high, narrow buildings with black tile gable roofs, and old churches give a medieval charm to the city.

Cuisine is a Franco-and-mostly Germanic mix. Restaurants are quite good, and expensive. If you're fond of fish and are long on cash try the La Lorraine restaurant at Place d'Armes. Many other restaurants surround this quiet pedestrian square, including a McDonald's, where I ate an order of Chicken McNuggets. These turned out to be McTough but at least McCheap.

A dish of the first of the season's white asparagus with hollandaise sauce was, at this point in my trip, too dear.

A gazebo in the center of the square here frequently houses a band that entertains outdoor diners.

Black pudding, sausages, and fried sausages - called Wirstchen - are available at the many charcuteries. Quenelles of calf's liver and sauerkraut are popular. Game, especially rabbit, is popular as well. The fine ham of the Ardennes region is worth seeking out, and the local pastries aren't to be believed.

If you want a souvenir that's uniquely Luxembourgeois, stop at Villery & Boch in M"uhlenbach, just five minutes out of town. There are tours of the porcelain factory, and they ship anywhere. Or pick up a box of its famous Knippercher chocolates.

High-quality fashions from the top French and Italian houses are found in shops along the Grand Rue. Other fine stores are there, too. Antiques and paintings are good buys.

As in all European capital cities, the hotel scene here is varied. I stayed at a comfortable pension the first night for less than $30, and later at the new first-class Le Royal for considerably more - and well worth it. French, Belgians, and especially Germans pour in to this little land on holiday. Locals are more apt to head off to the nearest seacoast - something not available in Luxembourg.

The flashy new European Centre, just out of town, is worth a drive through from a purely architectural point of view.

In the countryside you're never far from a campsite or one of 23 fortified baronial castles. Heading north along the German border, the ch^ateaux at Vianden and Clervaux should not be missed.

If a hot and sassy night life is what you're after, move on to Paris or Frankfurt. You won't find it in Luxembourg City.

But if it's serenity that appeals, search the map, find Luxembourg, and you may be delightfully surprised.

Winston Churchill put it this way: ``Of all the countries I have visited, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is the smallest, but it is the one that has charmed me most and where hospitality has been most simple and cordial.''

Luxembourg has been described as ``the finest of Europe poured in a smaller glass.'' It's worth taking time to stop and drink it in.

Only one lone tourist sitting on a park bench, surrounded by beauty in every direction, looked a little down. ``What's the matter, don't you like Luxembourg?'' I asked. ``Oh, yes, it's lovely,'' he said, managing a slight smile; ``but you see, I've just come from Paris.''

Practical information

Icelandair offers wonderful enticements if you'll linger awhile. They include accommodations at first-class hotels, free sightseeing, transportation to and from the airport to your hotel and more. Prices start at $49 per person, based on double occupancy.

If you suddenly find yourself in Luxembourg City without knowing which way to turn, stop at the Office National du Tourisme, 77 Rue d'Anvers.

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