LUXEMBOURG — It was as if we were flying back in time: The tiny F-27 Luxair propjet flew above lush green hillsides, its twin engines droning dependably.
Over France the lone stewardess announced that it was a "meal flight" and proceeded to serve small trays of finger sandwiches. Then came the crowning touch: Coca-Cola in the original six-ounce glass bottles.
We were on our way to the largely overlooked country of Luxembourg, at the heart of Europe but on the sidelines of that continent's tourism boom. While millions of Americans elbowed their way through the rest of Europe, we chose a more tranquil approach.
Findel Airport in Luxembourg is a quiet, efficient place where the walk from the plane is a short one, and where your luggage often beats you to the carrousel.
The airport is all that many Americans know about the country. For years Luxembourg was famous as the tiny place served by Icelandic Air (now called Icelandair), once the principal cut-rate airline from New York to Europe. It was the country into which today's baby boomers flew as college students and then scattered by bus or train to neighboring nations.
Remember the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg?
Verdant and sparsely populated, Luxembourg is, quite simply, an undiscovered jewel that offers a separate peace. Between France, Germany and Belgium, it is 999 square miles big, which makes it smaller than Rhode Island.
It's a mouse that doesn't want to roar, a place given to gentle hills, a cool climate and quiet nights. It is the Europe of 20 years ago, a country where you can enjoy the proverbial bottle of wine and loaf of bread in relative privacy by just pulling off a road.
Last year slightly more than 200,000 Americans visited Luxembourg, a fraction of those who visited all of Europe. One reason is that many Americans don't know where the country is.
Streak of Independence
"It's all right with us that Americans are bad geographers," says Jean Dondelinger, Luxembourg's secretary general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "But it's important for people to know what we are."
That streak of independence, not atypical of such a small country, is reflected in a line from Luxembourg's national anthem: "You may come from Belgium, France or Prussia--we will show you our country, but we want to remain what we are."
"Luxembourg," says Dondelinger, "is not one of those places that is a capital for operetta. It is not one of those charming places on a rock or in a nice valley that mints coins or postage stamps. We are a happy constitutional monarchy, an international center of politics, business and international finance. But we get very little attention in the world press. I can only surmise that happy people don't catch all the interest they sometimes deserve."
Dondelinger may be right. Try as we might, it was hard to find something negative to say about Luxembourg. In fact, in more ways than not, the country is a charming caricature.
Luxembourg is a Renoir painting filled with flowers, storybook villages cradled next to peaceful rivers, and castles sitting where castles sit--at the top of tidy, green hills.
The quiet capital city, also called Luxembourg, is centered around a deep valley, the Petrusse, which offers shady walks by a fast-flowing stream. Far above the valley are mammoth fortress walls that kept would-be conquerors out after the walls were built in the late 1600s.
In the city's Old Town you can still see bits of the 18-mile network of underground, fortified chambers called casemates that were built in the 1500s. Because the town was not ravaged by world wars, the architecture almost everywhere is stunning.
One-third of this tiny country is covered with unspoiled forest. The hunting, especially of boars, is superb. There are two-star restaurants; hotel prices are nearly half those in cities a couple of hours away.
There is something to be said for a country that embraces only the most positive aspects of provincialism. Luxembourg has a declining birth rate, virtually everyone is employed and poverty is literally a foreign concept. The country does have a standing army, but with only 550 soldiers. And 80 of those are in the band.
How do you talk to the prime minister of Luxembourg? In our case we walked unchecked to his office and simply knocked on the door. Official security consisted of two uniformed gendarmes polishing the prime minister's car in the small circular driveway outside his office.
"The beauty of this country," says the 48-year-old prime minister, Jacques Santer, "is that I can walk through the streets and greet everyone. But when you're a country of 360,000 people, it's difficult for Americans to understand that Luxembourg is a sovereign state."
Sometimes, he adds, it's just plain difficult to find the place. "For us," he says, "tourism is very important, but at the same time we are trying to be prudent. We don't want too many people or hotels."