The Casemates of Luxembourg: an underground tour with a difference

Corridors within the Bock Casemates Luxembourg

Corridors within the Bock Casemates

Taking an underground tour is hardly an unusual experience these days. There are tours of sewers, bomb shelters, abandoned train lines and natural caves in almost every major city. So what makes the 23 kilometres of tunnels known as the Casemates of Luxembourg different and worthy of special attention?

For a start there’s the age of this network of roughly carved passages. Most were built in the 17th century by the Spanish, who at the time were masters of Southern Netherlands (which included Luxembourg). Since the tunnel’s construction Luxembourg has ‘welcomed’ Italian, Belgian, French, Austrian, Dutch and Prussian troops. All made use of the defensive strengths of the casemates and most made adaptations or extensions that can still be seen today.

Prussian cannon in Petrusse Casemates Luxembourg

Prussian cannon in Petrusse Casemates

Wander down the narrow corridors of the casemates beneath one of Europe’s smaller states and you’ll be faced with facts that appear impossible to believe. How could they get horses down there and use them to transport supplies and weaponry to troops? How could 35,000 people have fitted in here when the tunnels served as a civil defence shelter during the two world wars? And perhaps most intriguingly, just how secure are the Bank of Luxembourg’s vaults, found behind the locked entrance to the casemates deep under the bank itself?

A quick look at a map of Luxembourg will reveal a sharply winding river valley that has formed the city’s famous central gorge. This meant that one focal point for establishing the city’s defences would never be adequate and indeed there are two sets of casemates, each with its own network of tunnels and look-out points. Both are open to the public (€4 entry for each casement).

'Don't forget the sand' - Petrusse Casemates Luxembourg

'Don't forget the sand' - important instructions in the make-shift toilets used when the Petrusse casements served as a wartime shelter

At the Casemates of Pétrusse you must take a 40 minute guided tour as you climb 450 steps from the city centre to the bottom of the river gorge and back again through a maze of stairwells, storage rooms and make-shift shelters. There is even an original 1834 cannon in position by an opening in the rocks, left behind by Prussian troops when they moved on.

You can make your own way around the Bock Casemates at the other end of the city. The entrance to the underground tunnels is also the site of the 10th castle built by the city’s founder Count Siegfried (although there is ample evidence to show that a Roman settlement had existed here long before Siegfried came along). The Bock Casemates even play host to a series of theatre productions, played out in one of the larger and lighter rooms carved within the giant rocks.

Bock Casemates Luxembourg

Small openings of Bock Casemates

On a superficial level the casemates offer a great place for children (and adults) to get lost along narrow stone corridors and enjoy fabulous views across the Pétrusse river valley. Their real marvel however lies not in what you can see, but in spotting the various clues that hint at what must have gone on in this underground maze back in the 17th century and even in the last 100 years.

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Freelance travel writer

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