Pauline - Unloved Countries
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Ode to unsung places
VIANDEN CASTLE: VISIT THE CASTLE & VILLAGE AND TRAVEL BACK IN TIME!
Two dayS visiting (taking your time)
An architectural gem dating back to medieval times, framed by greenery and where the spirit of a famous French writer lingers on…Welcome to Vianden, a village enclosed by rolling hills located in the Our Valley, in the Luxemburg Ardennes.
A stunning feudal castle
Like any other self-respecting medieval castle, Vianden castle was built on a rocky spur. As we drive around a corner during our journey to Vianden, the imposing castle suddenly comes into our field of vision. As soon as we spot this fairytale castle towering above a glistening river, we are utterly gobsmacked. The former residence of the Counts of Vianden faces us on the other side of the river. Majestic, spellbinding and – most importantly – intact. This last detail is quite important, fact we will only come to understand the following day, when we visit the castle.
The castle was for the most part built between the 11th and 14th century, on the remains of an ancient Roman castellum (a small roman fort) and what appears to have been a Carolingian sanctuary. Up to the 15th century, the castle will be the main abode of the Counts of Vianden. Nowadays it is considered one of the most striking examples of Romanesque and Gothic architecture in Europe.
In the 13th century, Vianden is at the peak of its glory
During the course of centuries, quite a few transformations and trimmings were added to the castle, and the huge building spreads out over 3 sizeable floors. I am utterly and totally enthralled by the Byzantine Gallery and the Upper Chapel.
The first is a huge open gallery with the wind rushing in through ornately decorated glassless windows. Each window boasts the three arches that are typical of Byzantine architecture. I decide to linger there for a while longer to admire the breathtaking view on the surrounding hills. I am a history and architecture buff and the castle still has quite a few surprises left in store. Just around the corner, at the end of the rampart walk stands the Upper Chapel. I am totally enthralled by this beautiful chapel decorated in a wide array of colours. I feast my eyes on the red, ochre, blue, white colours that decorate the pillars, the arches and even the walls of this small yet fascinating hexagonal room, that dates back to the 12-13th century. I must admit I hadn’t expected medieval architecture to be this colourful. Although, know I think of it, the Albi cathedral in France is another example to the contrary of the medieval love for colours.
A castle restored to its original appearance
While we visit the lower chapel, we learn that the town citizens used to come here to attend mass. This means they were allowed in the Counts’ dwelling! The chapel is a double oratory, with two separate floors. This way the nobles and the townsfolk could attend the religious ceremonies each on their own floor, without ever crossing paths. The two levels were connected by an opening in the middle, so everyone could hear the priest’s voice. The coming and going of the citizens lasted until the construction of the Trinitarian church in 1248. Vianden is then at the peak of its glory and the townsfolk now have their very own place of worship. During the rest of our tour, we discover the bedrooms, the kitchen, the Knights’ Hall, the Banqueting Hall and even the wine cellar!
But the castle hasn’t always been this magnificent. An exhibition is held on the top floor, and this is where we learn that the monument was partly reconstructed between 1978 and 1987. In the 19th century, the castle was sold off and subsequently dismantled. The building is stripped of many of its ornamental features and even ends up without a roof! The roof is eventually entirely rebuilt and some of the rooms such as the Byzantine Gallery, the Counts Room and the Upper Chapel are entirely renovated. Thanks to plans drawn up by Vauban and historic drawings, the restoration works are carried out in total respect of the castle’s original architecture. Castles that have fallen into ruins may possess a certain charm, but this castle is playing in a totally different league! For once, we do not need to use our imagination. The beauty of the castle as it was during medieval times stands before our eyes.
A walk on the High Town’s ramparts
But medieval Vianden also lives on through its ramparts. It is equipped with turrets (corbelled corner turrets) this once defensive wall surrounds the upper parts of town, and is tangible proof of the existence of a majestic fortified city at the foot of the feudal abode. In the Middle Ages, the city is even the capital of the County of Vianden! At the time, the County comprised no less than 136 villages and stretched out over a surface area that is equivalent to that of the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg.
We continue our exploration of the castle by walking along the rampart walk that runs along the wall. It’s a lovely walk, with very few tricky bits and it allows us to satisfy our innate curiosity and take a sneak peek at the locals back courtyards and tiny gardens. And by the way, it is from these walls that you can enjoy the most stunning views of the castle. The ramparts then slope down until they almost reach the river before ending just opposite the narrow alley leading to the “Brasserie des Arts” pub near the bridge. A long time ago, the walls had 24 towers and 5 gates, all of which have now disappeared.
At the foot of the castle, we make a detour and visit the Hockel Tower which used to be a part of this defensive wall. Built in 1603, it is an authentic watchtower that - contrary to the other turrets - could also be lived in. Currently the tower is used as a bell tower.
The Trinitarian church and cloister
After travelling the ramparts and letting ourselves be carried away by these history-laden walls, we round off our visit in the Trinitarian church and cloister, located in the heart of the village.
When we go in, the dimly-lighted building, turns out be totally empty. Here reigns a noble atmosphere, maybe because of the church’s rococo decoration. A huge slab of stone resembling a tomb has pride of place opposite the altar. It’s the recumbent statue of the last descendant of the Counts of Vianden, Marie de Spanheim (1400). Next to the monument, stands the former cloister, which is now open to the public.
The most stunning view in Vianden
Even though the view of the village from the castle is rather nice, you need to climb up a bit higher to be able to enjoy an overall view of the fortified city. On the second day of our visit, we buy return tickets (5.50€ a piece) for the chairlift. It is the only chairlift in whole Luxemburg.
It travels over the whole city and literally crosses above the main road towards the hill overlooking the castle, at a dizzying altitude of 440 m! Once we arrive at the top, we go for a drink in the adjoining restaurant. The view of the village is quite simply breathtaking and the sky is radiant, and when we leave we have sun-kissed cheeks and our faces are glowing with happiness.
On the banks of the river Our
Once we’ve roamed the village, we go and unwind along the banks of the Our, the river that flows through the village. We spend quite lot of time just sitting there, watching the ducks and their cute ducklings swimming to and fro between the river banks on the lookout for food. We even spot a grey heron perched high up on a tree!
A museum dedicated to the author of “Les Misérables”
As I mentioned in my introduction, the spirit of a famous French writer lingers on in this small village in the Luxemburg Ardennes: the spirit of Victor Hugo! The French novelist lived in Luxemburg for a couple of months during his exile and made several trips to the area. Nowadays, the house he once lived in can be visited. It is located next to the bridge, in the lower part of town.
During his time in Vianden, it is thought that Victor Hugo wrote about 50 poems and made around sixty drawings and wash drawings. The house has been turned into a museum and retraces this lesser known part of the author’s life. He had voiced his opposition Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s coup d’état in 1851, and thereafter lived in voluntary exile for almost 19 years!
My top tips
We enjoyed several tasty meals in a restaurant called “L’ancien cinema” (the old cinema) that serves all kinds of reasonably priced dishes, especially compared to the rather expensive restaurants on the riverbanks (the view probably explains the price). The restaurant is decorated to resemble a cinema, and you can even bring along a film of your choosing and watch it at the back of the restaurant, which is equipped with a projector! Books on the subject of movies and are scattered all over the restaurant and even the menu is filled with references to the Seventh Art.
And if you like Ardennes charcuterie, you definitely need to pay a visit to the shop adjoining the Victor Hugo Museum.
If you are travelling with a camper van, you definitely need to visit one of the most beautiful camper car parks in the Ardennes. It is located on the riverbanks at less than 1km from Vianden. From there, you will enjoy lovely views of the river and the surrounding hills as well as the hilltop castle on your right. The place is absolutely enchanting. It costs 15€ to spend the night. Showers, sanitary facilities and electricity are available (you will be charged a supplement for electricity)
You can also spend the night in one of the hotels in the town centre, among which the one Victor Hugo stayed in, just opposite the Museum bearing his name.