If you were to do a word cloud about Vianden, I’m pretty sure ‘fairy tale’ would be by far the most used phrase about the castle that looms dramatically over the town. To call it picturesque is simply insufficient, this is one of the most iconic sights in Luxembourg and one of the most spectacular castles in Europe. If the views of the castle are beautiful, the views from it over the town and rolling countryside below are extraordinary.
If the castle is the show stopper, Vianden itself is well worth a visit. It’s a small, pretty town nestling on the banks of the River Our only a couple of hundred meters from the German border. You could walk to Germany in a few minutes. A scattering of ancient buildings in the town, including the 13th century Trinitarian Church, and some 16th century town houses built by the nobility close to the church, are worth nosing around.
Arriving early from Luxembourg City, we started our trip with a stroll along the river past the house where Victor Hugo, the author of Les Misérables and critic of Napoleon III, lived in 1871 while still a political exile. We had an al fresco breakfast in a square just off the Grand Rue, before heading to the most exciting activity the town has to offer: a chairlift that whisks you over the river to a spot just above the castle.
It’s pretty hard to beat a chairlift that gives you wonderful views of beautiful landscapes and drops you off on a wooded trail leading to a medieval castle. The trip only takes a few minutes, but it was wonderful to silently climb up to the hill above Vianden, the views over the surrounding landscape ever expanding. At the top, you’re deposited at a restaurant and can hike down a short trail to the castle.
The castle has a long and checkered history. There was a Roman fort here, but the first written mention of the town came in 698, when ownership of it was given to nearby Echternach Abbey. The castle you see today was built between the 11th and 14th century, and was surrounded by a complex of defensive walls, fortified gates and towers, little of which remains.
The Counts of Viaden who lived here up until the 16th century were some of the most powerful people in this region. The castle reflects both the power and wealth of the family, but when the county passed into the hands of the Nassau-Orange dynasty who also ruled the Netherlands, Vianden became a backwater and the castle was effectively abandoned.
In the early 19th century it had fallen into a dilapidated state, so William I, King of the Netherlands and Grand Duke of Luxembourg, sold it for 3,200 florins to local merchant, Wenceslas Coster. He began dismantling and selling it off piece by piece – tiles, ironwork, stone staircases, wood panelling, masonry, doors, windows. It’s said that many houses in the town incorporate parts of the original castle or hide valuable castle furnishings.
Realising he’d made a mistake and caused unrest in Vianden, William I bought the castle back at a significant loss and began the work of reconstructing it in 1851. It was only finally completed in the 20th century though, when the Luxembourg government bought it. A visit today through the nicely reconstructed rooms is a trip through that troubled history.
When we’d finished mooching through the castle, we walked down the hill to the town and back to the river. It would have been nice to spend an evening in this historic spot, but we had to be back in Brussels that evening. The drive though, through lovely rolling countryside, convinced us we should spend some more time in this region.