Let me start this post off by saying that Luxembourg was a wonderful surprise for me, and something of an anomaly. When I was researching my trip here I heard nothing but exuberant praise for the capital city proper but there was a lot of radio silence on the rest of the country. I had no clue what to expect, but I owe the recommendation to my brother, a World War II aficionado who – upon me spontaneously demanding “Pick a country near Germany for me to visit!” – said, “Why don’t you go to Luxembourg?”
Luxembourg? It was a wild card suggestion, and frankly I didn’t know much about it other than it was tiny, landlocked, and they spoke German – or maybe French? It didn’t matter at that point, the power of random selection had spoken and I soon stumbled across the Mullerthal Trail in my research. The goal was set, and I was ready to get my hike on.
The Mullerthal Trail is a 3 loop hiking track through Luxembourg’s “Little Switzerland” region. Luxembourg, as a country, is markedly flat. No real mountains exist in this small but mighty nation, the highest point is only 560 meters high, a bit taller than the tip of the Sears Tower. Little Switzerland, however, is exactly as described – a miniature Alpine wonderland that is criss-crossed by well-preserved paths. The trail is just under 70 miles total and offers everything from picturesque villages, to medieval castles and idyllic countryside. You can enjoy biking, hiking, and kayaking, fishing – it’s an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise.
With just 3 days to enjoy the countryside I knew I wouldn’t be able to cover all three routes, but I did my best and was pretty happy with how much I was able to see in such a short amount of time! Luxembourg is small, which makes it easy to squeeze more into your itinerary, but the kicker is that all bus travel is free. Let me repeat that, buses are free! And super nice. Think tour bus and picture windows, not county commuter and mystery stains.
It may seem like this is a country that would do a number on your budget, but in reality it was one of the most cost-effective places I visited during my European journey. With free buses, cheap trains, and lots of low or no cost activities, a trip here really is what you make of it. You could certainly choose to go to all the best restaurants, hire a car, and stay in fancy BnB’s, or even spend your whole trip in the city proper – but hopefully if that’s your style you have the budget to back it up. My travel style is less “champagne taste on a beer budget” and more, “juice box taste on a stolen cheese sandwich from the hostel breakfast budget.”
Speaking of hostels – this was my home for the duration of my stay in Little Switzerland, simply named Youth Hostel Larochette. A little bit of trail magic happened when I arrived to the hostel on a beautiful sunny day. Picture this, I step up to the reception desk breathless from an unexpected amount of walking with my heavy pack, I’m bedraggled and highly suspect a developing sunburn, when the lovely attendant checks me in to a twin room and says “It’s just you.”
Accustomed as I am to sharing a room with a motley crew of 12 or more intrepid backpackers, her words didn’t even enter my consciousness. I trudged upstairs, opened the door, and laid eyes on two empty beds. No luggage in sight, no shoes carelessly strewn on the floor, no pile of snack wrappers on the single desk, and no clothes taking up more than half the closet space. Could it be? The realization hit me that I was gloriously blessed with a twin room all to myself. I kept waiting for the sound of a key in the lock, but it never came. I enjoyed TV dinners in my room every night and I never had to wear pants. I’d never felt more free in my life. If you’re looking for true peace and quiet, solitude, and a polite community of people who respect your space – GO TO LUXEMBOURG. It’s an introvert’s paradise, too.
I chose to stay in Larochette because of it’s easy access to routes 2 and 3. Each route has it’s own special charm, Route 3 boasts castles and stream valleys, Route 2 is perfect for exploring unique rock formations and to seek out the fairy tale Schiessentümpel Waterfall, and Route 1 takes you through forests and over hills for sweeping views of the landscape. Check out this handy map to see the routes, along with the towns I managed to walk to during my visit.
On my first day in Larochette, I explored the village and a bit of Route 3, as well as a path that lead to a gazebo overlook with a spectacular view of Larochette Castle. To reach the short out and back trail I only had to walk across the street from my hostel, where a side path twists it’s way up the steep, wooded slope behind a cemetery.
Bright and early on my first morning I hopped on a bus (the stop was a few steps from my hostel door!) to Echternach. Echternach is a larger town, and some might choose to use this as their home base for hiking the trail. I still prefer Larochette for it’s comparative calm, but Echternach has great access to routes 1 and 2. Fun fact! From here you can cross the border into Germany over a small footbridge.
I’m not gonna lie, I intended to see more of Route 1 than I did, but I got sufficiently lost at some point due to a simple error of not reading up on my trail markers before I left. Oops. Luckily I had a compass and an idea of what direction the nearest road was, so all turned out well. I also got a bit distracted by a goat whose horns had become tangled in a fence and spent an extended period of time trespassing to try and help him. At some point during my efforts I realized I could potentially die in a freak goat accident in the Luxembourg wilderness, and that just wouldn’t be fair to my mother. Angry goat friend, I hope your farmer came along and helped you out, I gave it my best.
After my detour on Route 1, I backtracked in the other direction to hop on Route 2 – my favorite of the three loops. Why? Route 2 features the “Gorge du Loup”, Wolf’s Canyon. There are no wolves, so don’t get too excited. Wolf’s Canyon is a gorge leading to a steep stone staircase that climbs up to breathtaking overlook and then down into the Labyrinthe where you’ll roam through ravines, boulders, and explore dark caverns. It’s like an adventurer’s playground! You couldn’t hope for more varied and unique terrain in such a small area.
I was most excited to explore the cave systems along this trail – remember to bring a flashlight and a jacket! Even on a warm sunny day, I was cold as I felt my way down into one of the dark cavities. The flashlight on my cellphone was barely bright enough to light two feet in front of my face, so yeah, it’s hardcore. Besides being sucked into a light vacuum, my second favorite part of Route 2 was most definitely the ridiculously steep stairways. Seriously, it felt like rock climbing at some points and you will most definitely be thankful for the chain safety rails staked into the rock. Come to think of it, I just really enjoyed pretending to be Indiana Jones in a nearly-deserted forest wonderland.
I split Route 2 over two days, so after exploring the top end extending towards Berdorf with it’s natural amphitheater, narrow passageways, and man made millstone cave, I caught a bus to Beaufort. A stop in this diminutive town requires a bit of a detour off the trail, but it was worth it to squeeze another castle into my itinerary. Beaufort Castle dates to the 11th century and is made up of medieval ruins and a renaissance chateau.
Beaufort itself is a town worth a pit stop. The country as a whole is largely free of tourists, but here I hardly found more than a few children drawing chalk pictures on the sidewalk and the occasional bus as it made it’s timely rounds. I found the perfect little bake shop with sun-bleached steps where the owner and her son sat eating powdered pastries. Inside there was an array of fresh breads and sweets, an ice cream freezer, and a small pantry of goods for locals to do their shopping. Ice cream is the one thing I can’t resist when I am traveling and I have no idea why, but everywhere in Luxembourg the ice cream was so delicious! They definitely have happy cows.
With the sun going down I caught a bus back to Larochette, where I rested blissfully alone in my empty hostel. I saved money each night by opting to buy my food from the gas station around the corner, which had a full service deli and super fresh salads. Turns out there was a grocery store hidden directly behind it, but I didn’t find that out until I was boarding a bus to leave. Oh well, c’est la vie. I was so pleased with myself for stretching my foreign language skills whilst gallivanting about the small villages of Luxembourg. In France it is intimidating to speak French because they are so protective of their native language. In Germany people can be so quick to switch to English that you hardly get to practice at all. But here, I only encountered friendly faces who did their best to communicate clearly in either French or German, and were incredibly patient when I had to think about the words I needed next.
The next morning I hopped on a bus to Christnach – the closest stop to one of the most photographed places in Luxembourg, Schiessentümpel Waterfall. It’s a 2 mile roadside walk to the cascade from Christnach, which is not too bad at all as long as you watch out for the stinging nettle. I’m going to venture a guess that Luxembourg’s roadside maintenance crews don’t believe in the use of herbicides (good on you, Luxembourg!).
At some point along the way you may want to trek onto one of the side trails, easy to spot by the stone steps leading up into the forest at various points. Keep sight of the road and you’ll eventually find yourself at the small parking lot where buses pull aside to lead groups to the falls. Follow the sound of water, a stone bridge spanning a babbling brook will appear before your eyes and you’ll know you’ve arrived. Did anyone ever watch Thumbelina? Luxembourg’s countryside feels a lot like that, but with fewer fairy princes and giant, kidnapping toads.
See me up there? It’s bigger than it appears. Along the walk I met up with two Amazing Aussies™ with equally amazing hair and thanked the travel gods for people who would take photos of me. Turns out we had been staying in the same hostel this whole time and we wound up spending the rest of the day together. #trailmagic
We set off, back on Route 2 and north toward Berdorf with all it’s fabled cheese. Alas, shortly after arriving in Mullerthal and passing a curiously placed sign we veered off course, ne’er to visit the town of cheese, but instead with the goal of seeing Vianden Castle before we all had to depart Luxembourg for good. I’d heard from multiple locals that Vianden was a must see, and it seemed simple enough to get there by bus until none showed up at the designated time in Mullerthal. No problem, said we, we’ll simply walk down this road to the next bus stop. Except that bus stop never came because the road had been shut down indefinitely for, based on the large rectangular chunks missing from the asphalt, major resurfacing. Touché, Luxembourg road maintenance, touché.
So we walked. And walked. And walked some more, until about 4 miles later we came to a bus stop in Grundhof, steps away from the German border. Here at last, after some crossing the road one too many times while determining which side of the road our stop was actually on, we caught a bus to Vianden.
Vianden is a bustling hamlet, but still not overcrowded. You’ll follow the curving cobblestone road up the hill to reach the castle and get a workout in the process. I can still feel it in my quads. Of course you’ll spot the castle way before you reach the hill, so be sure to stop for photos whenever you get a good view.
I’m not always a proponent of paying entrance fees but in this case it was well worth it! The tour was self guided and easy to navigate, plus with a student card you get a discount, bringing the cost from 8 euro to 4.50. Super cheap. There is so much to look at in here and you can even buy an audio guide for 2 euro, but it’s not hard to figure out what’s going on without one, especially with any knowledge of French or German.
Vianden Castle was built between the 11th and 14th centuries, and belonged to Henry I of Vianden – known as “The Sun Count”. His rule in the region was a time of prosperity and he enjoyed strong connections with the rest of Europe through his wife Margarete of Courtenay, a member of the royal French family. Unfortunately, under the reign of King William I of Holland in 1820 the castle was sold off piece by piece, leaving it in ruins. It wasn’t until 1977 that the state received ownership of the castle from the Grand Duke and restored it to it’s original glory. Since then Vianden castle has become recognized as one of the most beautiful castles in the world and multiple films have been shot there.
The castle was my last stop before heading back to the hostel to pack. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end my Luxembourg stint than gazing out over the river valley from my perch in a castle window. The strangest thing about Luxembourg is that while you’re there you can’t quite put your finger on why you feel so good. Until you leave, and then it hits you. Everything was so easy. Not once did I feel unsafe, I never worried about missing a bus or got nervous asking for directions. I got lost in the woods for Pete’s sake! And it didn’t phase me one bit. The hostel receptionist helped me put my heavy pack on when it was time to go. Luxembourg takes you in and makes you feel like you’re at your favorite grandparents’ house. Don’t worry, you’re taken care of little solo traveler, go out and have a good time (just be home by sundown, the buses don’t run all night).