Most cities are defined by their most prominent buildings, statues, or natural wonders on display, in other words what is visible to the naked eye. The Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, Big Ben, The Table Mountain are prime examples of signature symbols that you couldn’t miss if you had two glass eyes painted over.
And yet, often people are fascinated by what they don’t see. Think about the tunnel complexes built by the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War. There are the Capuchin tunnels in Palermo, the underground command center in London, and the bunkers in Berlin, the latter of which will probably never become accessible to the public, owing to safety or image concerns.
Arguably the most popular tourist destination in Luxembourg is the Unesco World Heritage site of the Casemates. The Casemates, both the Bock and the Petrusse, are an underground military defense system engineered by too many nations to name here. The first Casemates were built in the 17th century by the Spanish and were eventually enlarged until they included more than 15 (!) miles of underground galleries, over multiple stories and carved out to a depth of well over 100 feet.
The term ‘casemate’ comes from the Greek ‘chasmata’, meaning of course chasm, or a bomb proof chamber situated in the body of a bigger building. Think vault or bunker, only that these Casemates are well above the ground, as far as we could tell, although probably beneath the grounds of the city center.
Nearly two centuries later after the casemates were first built, the fortress that stood was evacuated and dismantled, the Casemates themselves considerably reduced. Unfortunately, large tracts of the underground complex were destroyed to assist in extending the city itself and its more modern day demands.
What’s left of it is still remarkable. This is the spirit of Europe at its finest, the long tunnels and narrow staircases with the occasional barred window that allows for some incredible views of the city. At the entrance, people are warned about claustrophobia, which is understandable, at the latest when you are trying to squeeze past somebody within the staircases.
Of course, there were also two World Wars Europe had to deal with, which didn’t leave Luxembourg unscathed, either. The Casemates served as welcoming shelters designed to hold 35,000 people in emergency cases, like air raids.
We visited the Bock Casemates, the most prominent among them, with its incredible views through the loopholes. Here, you are treated to the dungeon of the old Luxembourg Castle before you reach the main gallery (about 100 meters long) with its holes, cannons and loopholes. The Bock Casemates could accommodate 1,200 soldiers and fifty cannons.
There is also the former prison, linking the city center with Kirchberg region. There is an old well that plunges 47 meters deep, and the bottom is clearly visible to anyone who cares to take a peek. The Bock Casemates were also used by the Habsburgs in the person of Marshal von Bender, who occupied these paces in the late 18th century against the French.
Although the Petrusse Casemates are temporarily closed, the Bock Casemates are open to the public and are a must see for any visitor to Luxembourg. Tourists can see for themselves that these places actually existed. This is Europe as people imagine it, the best its history has to offer.