CONRAD LANDIN explores a little-known side of Luxembourg
IT’S not for nothing that the south of Luxembourg is known as the Terre Rouge — or, in English, the Land of the Red Rocks.
The discovery of iron ore deposits known as “minette” in 1842 led to an industrial boom in the landlocked grand duchy.
By the time of the first world war, Luxembourg was the sixth-largest producer of cast iron in the world. And despite a population of only 260,000, it was the eighth-largest producer of steel.
Like much of western Europe, the country saw a rapid shift away from heavy industry in the second half of the 20th century.
Steel production is still significant for a country of its size, and the industry employs several thousand workers.
But considering both the wealth that metals brought, and the dispossession created when it became less profitable, it is striking how little is known about the country’s industrial and social history in the world outside.
At the mention of Luxembourg, you might think of a controversial tax regime or, at best, the admittedly delicious cremant cuvee produced in the country. A proud tradition of manual labour is unlikely to figure.
But a determined effort by the country’s tourist board could be about to change all that.
This summer, a number of sites of historical industrial importance were relaunched as the Minett Tour.
“When in Luxembourg, if you say ‘minette,’ everybody thinks you mean the southern region,” Lynn Reiter of the regional tourist office explains.
“But the southern region is not normally considered a touristic region.” The word minette is French for “small mine” — reflecting the low density of iron ore in the mineral deposits found in Luxembourg.
And the five sites on the trail reflect different stages of steel production. It begins in the west with the steam railway at Minett Park, a key element of the steel transportation infrastructure in its day.
Heading east, the trail reaches Belval — an industrial quarter of Luxembourg’s second city, Esch-sur-Alzette. Belval is still dominated by the huge blast furnaces that once powered the livelihoods of almost all of its people.
One section of the Arcelor-Mittal steelworks is still going, having switched to the power of electric arc furnaces.
The rest of the site has been handed over to Belval’s new designated purpose. Branded the City of Science, cold new buildings are occupied by research bodies and the University of Luxembourg, established in 2003.
Clearly a conscious effort has been made to leave key elements of the steelworks structures in place — an increasing trend with urban regeneration.
The resinated surfaces of these steel skeletons are preferable to the dark paint that encrusts many of their British counterparts, but they still fail to ward off the smell of sterility. They are cordoned off from public access with subtle, shallow water features.
The centrepiece, not yet completed, is a library of marble-effect glass, built around a massive works shed.
It is as striking as Britain’s repurposed gasometers are naff. And yet its opacity appears fundamentally at odds with the attempts at openness from the surrounding ancillary structures. It is a fitting crown for a university campus; a noble failure within a scrapyard of architectural experiments.
I visit on a rainy Saturday, before the site’s completion, so it’s no surprise that it’s missing the milling pedestrians of the artist’s impressions in publicity material.
I return in the evening when a glitzy festival has set up camp. I can’t help but join the assembled hipsters in awe as performers race through the crowds leaving a trail of fire in their wake, while others climb the outside of Blast Furnace A.
Mounting the furnace’s internal staircase — open to visitors but still, pleasingly, rather rickety — is an even more spectacular experience after dark.
The revellers are a welcome addition. But it’s no wonder they cling to the remnants of the industrial past, and don’t spread far out into the antiseptic surfaces of the surrounding campus.
The next two stops on the new tourist trail take us back in the steel production process — to the extraction of iron ore.
Heading south-east, the Museum of the Cockerill Mine lies closed in 1967 before being restored by ex-miners, and reopened as a museum in 1992. The pride of a labour force can be a powerful thing.
The mine was also, unsurprisingly, considered a valuable asset by Germany when it occupied Luxembourg from 1940. Its iron ore was exported to the Third Reich’s industrial heartlands, where it was used to produce armaments.
But Luxembourg’s heavy industry was also central to one of the great resistance stories of the second world war.
In 1942, the announcement of conscription prompted a general strike to spread across the country.
From steelworks to mines to schools to the central post office, the country’s infrastructure was speedily shut down. The authorities responded by picking out 21 ringleaders, who were sentenced to death.
The sacrifice of these men is commemorated every year, so it’s a pity that their stories aren’t given a prominent part in Luxembourg’s focus on its industrial history.
Perhaps that’s because the tourist board’s focus is, understandably, the connection between past and present. Luxembourgish steel is still to be found the world over, from the foundations of Manhattan’s Freedom Tower to celebrity chef Lea Linster’s excellent Pavillon Madeleine restaurant in Luxembourg’s quiet town of Kayl.
Back on the Minett Tour, the National Mining Museum at Rumelange is well worth a visit. The slow descent by train through the underground tunnels doesn’t have the terror of the opening passages of Zola’s Germinal or Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, but it does offer a sharp taste of a craft grounded in everyday struggle.
Signage is in Portuguese as well as French and German, reflecting the extensive migration from Portugal and Cape Verde towards the end of Luxembourg’s mining history.
The easternmost stop on the trail is the Documentation Centre for Human Migrations at Dudelange, which researches and archives the waves of migration that have propped up this small country’s workforce since its industrial revolution.
While in Dudelange, a rebuilt water tower at the National Audiovisual Centre has given a permanent home to a collection of photographs commissioned by New Deal agency the Farm Security Administration.
These depictions of 1930s rural life — and destitution — in the US were put together by Luxembourg-born photographer Edward Steichen in his final exhibition, at New York’s MoMA in 1962.
Seeing these images of struggle and not strength, I couldn’t help but wonder if Luxembourg’s admirable attempts to document its own industrial past could have benefited with a few more perspectives from the workers.