Posted in Travel

Vianden: The Perfect Centre of Europe?

On the bridge across the river in Vianden
On the bridge across the river in Vianden

On our tour of Luxembourg, we become more cosmopolitan by the moment. We’re soon used to being in a country at ease with three languages in its daily life (French, German and Letzeburgesch). So it doesn’t seem too much of a leap to visit the part of the country known as “La Petite Suisse” – “The Little Switzerland”. One more country for our collection will not go amiss.

Vianden has taken its pseudo-Swiss connections very seriously, with copious Swiss-style chalets nestling alongside its riverbank. Heidi, come out, come out, wherever you are!

Soaring above this little riverside town, reaching even above the spectacular mountain-top castle, is a chairlift, echoing Swiss ski resorts. The effect is charming, if surreal.

Portuguese Ambush

The hot stone on which I cooked my steak
Should have taken this picture BEFORE I cooked and ate my steak

On the evening of our arrival, which happens to be our eleventh wedding anniversary, we eat out at one of thse chalets, a Tyrolean-themed restaurant called Das Heisses Stein (The Hot Stone). Not surprisingly, it serves dishes associated with Switzerland such as cheese fondue and – something new to me – a hot stone cooking system. My husband and I (but not our vegetarian daughter) are each provided with an oiled, heated slab of granite and a raw steak. We are instructed to slice the steak and set it atop the stone to sizzle to our preferred degree of doneness.

The author and her husband on their 11th wedding anniversary
Well, you’re entitled to be slushy on your wedding anniversary

Our very helpful waiter, attired in authentic Swiss lederhosen, turns out to be Portuguese, speaking exellent English. What brings him all the way from the Algarve to La Petite Suisse? I enquire. His sister was already working here, it turns out. We find further evidence when we visit the town’s two souvenir shops next day.

In the first of these shops, alongside the badges and mugs bearing “Souvenir of Vianden” slogans and images, are handbags made of cork, cigarette lighters bearing the Portuguese national flag, and, for balance, a selection of Spanish and Portuguese flags on plastic sticks.

Shock Finnish

The second souvenir shop is unexpectedly called The Finn Shop. Once we step inside, all becomes clear. Here we find Moomin-themed gifts and badges emblazoned “I love Finland”. Not the obvious souvenir of Vianden.

Laura inside the Heisses Stein restaurant
Inside Das Heisses Stein – no place for a vegetarian

Surprisingly, there are very few souvenirs of Vianden itself. My daughter has to work hard to spend her holiday money on this trip, eventually settling for a plastic doll in national costume (phew!)

The multinational connections do not end there. In the Hotel Victor Hugo, named after the great French writer who spent some time in exile here, we are served by a young boy apparently of African descent, possibly with Belgian Congo connections.

You Say Orange, I Say Orange

Vianden Castle, Luxembourg
That’s some castle

Touring the castle next day, we come across a large room lined with photos of world leaders visiting Vianden, from my own Queen Elizabeth II to Russia’s Gorbachev, from the Japanese Emperor Hirohito to President Allende of Chile. A family tree fills one wall of the room, explaining the direct blood relationships of the local lords with the Dutch and French royal families – but not close enough, it seems, to prevent the eventual Dutch owners dismantling the castle in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and selling stones for scrap. Shame on you, House of Orange! It’s taken the Luxembourgeois most of the twentieth century to restore the place to its former glory.

Such a cocktail of nationalities is bewildering. I’d expected this country to be cosmopolitan, but this complexity is beyond all my expectations. And all offered with such good, tolerant grace by these proud people who “woelle bleiwe wat mir sin” (“we want to remain what we are”).

Viking sign outside Das Heisses Stein restaurant
So who invited the Viking?

And then it occurs to me: if ever there was a venue tailor-made to host the Eurovision Song Contest, surely Vianden is it? Luxembourg, I’d give you douze points any day.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like some others about our Easter trip to northern Europe:

The Benefits of Speaking a Foreign Language

Luxembourg’s Crowning Glory: Its Own Language

Nous Sommes En Panne: The Tale of our Luxembourg Camper Van Crisis 

Posted in Family, Travel

La Lingua Franca

The Bayeux Tapestry, chronicling the English/N...
Image via Wikipedia

If my daughter ran the world, it would be a much simpler place.

“Why do people have different languages in other countries?” she asks as we drive past French roadside hoardings.

I explain that languages evolved before man developed the means or desire to travel abroad. Once we started travelling, I add,  we imported words from other languages. (I often worry whether my improved explanations are academically sound; I wonder how any parent can have the confidence to home-educate a child.)

I try to think of a few French words that migrated into English after the Norman Conquest.  Oh, “language” – that will be one of them (as in la langue Francaise) – and “conquest” (la conquete).  She doesn’t look convinced (or even convaincu).

Her skepticism is catching and I find myself looking out for bizarre examples of this alien lingo.  As we cycle round the city walls of Montreuil, I espy a poster advertising an event.  In large type, the name “BIGOT” stands out.  Riding shotgun after Laura, I don’t have time to check the details, but I am disappointed to realise that it can’t be a political poster.  It lacks the dreadful photo that seems indispensible in mainland European electioneering.

I’m always astonished that any politician is elected on the basis of these huge, insipid mugshots.  They’re usually posed against a bland studio backdrop, showing over-groomed and coiffed men and women smiling straight at the camera.  All the politicians look phoney.  This approach certainly wouldn’t work in Britain, where most MPs are elected in spite of their hairstyles rather than because of them.  I’m amazed that it works abroad.

Food advertising here seems to follow the same pattern.  We pass a giant poster displaying nothing but a tin of sweetcorn, the face of a woman looking vaguely startled, and the price.  It does not for a moment make me want to buy a tin of sweetcorn.  Yet presumably to the French shopper it is persuasive, as there are similar advertisements everywhere we go.

Driving in the camper van later that afternoon, we pass a shop under the name of “COFFIN”.  I’m not sure I’d want to take advantage of the sign inviting me to fill my house with its products – until I realise that it’s not an undertakers, but a furniture store.

Soon afterwards, our van’s cooking gas cylinder runs out.  Seeking a replacement, we spot one marked “MALICE” on the service station forecourt.  I do a double take.  Is this a special brand aimed at the terrorist market?  “Malice – le gaz ideal pour ceux qui preparent les bombes chez eux”?  Might be hard to get that one through customs on the way home.  (We settle instead for “Le Cube” – a square brand of cylinders, which seems rather a contradiction in terms).

Later, searching in one of the van’s cupboards for a spanner, I rediscover a handy translating gadget that Gordon has tucked away and forgotten about.  Laura is intrigued by the concept and he shows her how it works.  You input a word in one language and choose the language into which you’d like it translated.  Et voila!

But for Laura, two languages are not enough.  She inputs her own name in English, then translates it  into another language,  then translates the translation into a third language, and so on until she runs out of languages. Eventually it emerges in German as “Kopfsalat” – which I am pretty sure means “lettuce” (literally “head salad”).  We are all quite tickled by this Chinese Whispers effect, and she spends much of the rest of the day speaking aloud in a language she has made up all by herself.

And to think they say the English aren’t good at foreign languages…