Echternach – home to rich Romans, a famous abbey, the wolf gorge and extreme biking
Probably best known for its Benedictine abbey and basilica, founded in the 7th century, the picturesque medieval town of Echternach was a Roman trading post on the routes to Reims, Arlon, Trier and Bitburg.
The town’s heyday as a scriptorium from the 8th to the 11th centuries produced the Codex Aureus of Echternach and you can see pages from it in the abbey museum. Its most famous inhabitant is undoubtedly Saint Willibrord, founder of Echternach Abbey and a missionary for the region. His remains now rest in Echternach (they had to be brought back), and every Whit Tuesday there is a unique UNESCO-recognised Hopping Procession, in his honour.
Echternach continued to benefit from royal patronage even after St Willibrord had died, this time from Charlemagne, and in 1236 it was granted a city charter. Unfortunately, following the French Revolution, the town was sacked, and many of the valuable scripts of the abbey were auctioned, with some ending up in the National Library in Paris.
Architecture and museums
The pretty town square and cobbled streets invite you to explore its medieval past where you can still see five preserved towers (and actually stay in two of them that have been converted into holiday apartments), from the 20 towers and gates of the original city walls.
One of the town’s gothic houses on rue du Pont, also known as the Hifhof, is home to the pre-history museum. It dates back to the 15th century with a Gothic facade. The museum has some 30 cases which include chopping tools, arrow tips, axes, grinding stones and prehistoric skulls mostly from the region but some from as far afield as Africa and the Americas. It also houses porcelain from the 19th century that was made locally when the abbey was turned into a porcelain factory during that era. It’s open from April to November from 10.00 to 12.00 and 14.00 to 17.00.
Echternach also has a justice cross in the market place, once presided over by the abbots of the city. The version you see today was built in 1982 to replicate the 18th century one. The residents of Echternach wanted to tear the cross down in 1774 and replace it with a fountain, but it was actually destroyed some 20 years later by French Revolutionary troops who also plundered the abbey. It was rebuilt in 1938, but that version was destroyed during the Second World War.
The former courthouse or Denzelt, now the town hall, dates back in parts to the 14th century and you can see both Gothic and Renaissance elements on its façade. In 1898 statues of the Virgin Mary, King Solomon and the four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, courage and temperance) were added.
The Church of Saints Paul and Peter is located on a Gallo-Roman archaeological site adjacent to the Hifhof, and has a Celtic stone sculpture as a reminder. It served as a chapel and hospice, but was donated to Saint Willibrord in 698 (together with the land the abbey and basilica are located) by the Abbess Irmina of Trier. The church has been restored and rebuilt several times and has Merovingian, Gothic and Romanesque elements. Inside you can discover recently-restored frescoed ceilings, and windows made by local artist Franz Gillen, a crypt, and an old well that dates back to Roman times.
This landmark abbey has been built five times over seven centuries and the current Romanesque building houses the remains of Saint Willibrord.
Built originally in the 11th century, Gothic ornamentations were added two centuries later, and the chapel of Saint Sebastien (to the left of the quire) in the 17th century. In 1939 the church was granted the status of Basilica. The stained glass windows depict the life of Willibrord, and there is a 16th century painting of the Hopping Procession.
Perhaps the greatest importance of the abbey lies in its scriptorium, one of the most renowned in Europe, and responsible for the Codex Aureus of Echternach. You can read more about Echternach Abbey in our Architectural Icon series here, and find out more about the tradition of the Hopping Procession here.
Next to the basilica is an orange garden with statues of the four seasons, plus a Rococo pavilion built in 1761. In the 1700s the garden had some 400 fruit trees, but is a nicely laid out, symmetrical affair today, with a water feature. On the first floor of the pavilion you can watch an audio visual presentation on Echternach Abbey’s influence on rural architecture with information panels outside that give details of the garden.
The abbey museum is located in a building that dates back to 1727 and was built in Lothringen style to look like a princely residence. Its vaulted cellars hold gold-leaf pages from the Codex. The museum is open from April to November and costs €3 for adults (free for under 21s) with audio guides available in several languages including English. The tourist office runs Top Secret Tours where you can visit the cloister and the monk’s former dining room (these may be postponed due to current restrictions).
On the edge of the town you’ll find a beautiful artificial lake. Excavations for the lake led to the discovery in 1975 of a sumptuous Roman villa from the 1-5th century, claimed to be largest north of the Alps. The excavated ruins are now part of a lovely little thematic museum which gives details of the life of Romans, depicting everyday scenes using life-sized models, reconstructions and 3D displays. The Roman garden also has 70 plants and you can wander about the villa ruins.
The 30 hectare artificial lake has a path around it and others that lead into the forest nearby. You’ll find the Vitalweg am See path which includes “movement” stations made from wood, perfect for entertaining children. There's also a playground opposite the Roman villa.
Although you cannot swim in the lake now, a swimming area is being created that will open in 2022, and you can fish with a permit, and it’s a great place to find a secluded spot for a picnic.
Walks and hikes
If you want to get to know Echternach better, then the Via Epternacensis is a 15-stage circuit that follows the former town wall, taking you past the pavilion, town hall and abbey, providing information panels along the route.
A 10.9km circular trail takes you past former mills – Nonnemillen, Oligsmillen, Specksmillen and so on, then through the Haardt forest following a wooden path to the Lauterburerbaach valley then taking the Mullerthal trail to the Trooskneppchen viewing point. A shorter 5.4km circular walk covers the Wolf Gorge with its unusual rock formations and narrow passageways, and then follows the banks of the River Sûre, taking about 1.5 hours. In between you’ll find a middling difficulty 7.1km circular walk that takes in Echternach lake, and the woods of Haardt.
For something more challenging, hiking trail E1 starts at the basilica and traverses through the Halergaas pedestrian street of shops and restaurants, before rising steeply to the Trooskneppchen viewing point with lovely views over the town below. You then enter the Wolf Gorge and walk up to the high rocks at Paulsplette and the Huel Lee (Hohllay) Caves, a natural amphitheatre and former millstone quarry, before returning to town, covering a total of 13.5km.
If you’re up for a challenge, then the Mullerthal trails 1 (36km) and 2 (38km) can be joined at Echternach. Slightly shorter, at 20km apiece, the circular walk Felsenweg 1 starts at rue du Pont and heads into the forest, through the Wolf Gorge to Berdorf, crossing into Germany and Weilerbach Castle with its pretty French gardens. The Graulinster Youth Hostel trail takes in the Liembierg forest, and follows the Fred Welter path to Kasselt, then on to Graulinster, from where you can catch bus 111 back to Luxembourg City.
For those with limited mobility, there is a wheelchair route in the communal forest of Ierelchen and a 50m path to the Paulsplette viewpoint, which includes a ramp.
You can find more details on all these walks and hikes here.
You’ll be spoilt for choice if you’re a keen cyclist or mountain biker in Echternach and surrounds. The 54km L3 Mullerthal Light route starts in Echternach and follows the River Sûre to Reisdorf before going uphill to Larochette and Christnach. It’s then down hill through the Black Ernz valley passing the famous Schiessentumpel waterfall, before another climb to Berdorf.
The 55km L4 Border tour starts at Echternach lake and follows both the River Sûre and the River Moselle taking in several towns and villages including Biwer, Boudler and Berbourg before returning to Echternach.
For more of a challenge try the 71km M5 trail which includes a 5km strenuous climb to the Berdorf plateau passing the Perekop rock formation. For the ultimate challenge, try the 100km Mullerthal Xtreme with eight uphill climbs including the steepest at 16% from the Sûre valley in Born to Boursdorf.
A less difficult MTB route runs 23km and starts at the youth hostel. Rentabike Mellerdall, based at camping Echternach has 13 locations. You can rent bikes Monday to Friday from October to March, Monday to Saturday from April to June and September to October, and daily in the summer months of July and August. Bikes rent for €12 a day (€10 for children’s bikes), child seats and trailers cost €5, whilst mountain bikes are €20 and e-bikes between €25 to 30 a day. Helmets and locks are provided for free.
You can find more details on cycling and mountain bike routes here.
Festivals & outdoor cinema
Echternach is also home to two festivals – e-Lake and Ectherlive. It’s not clear yet if these will go ahead but the former takes place in August, and is targeted at young people, showcasing the best in indie, electronica and rock plus numerous DJs. The concert is free and you can pay for camping on site. The latter takes place near the abbey in July and promises international performers, art and a food village.
During the summer months outdoor cinema's are often set up either by the lake or in the market square.
There’s a market selling fruit, vegetables, meats and other foodstuff, in addition to clothes and leather goods, every second Wednesday from 08.30 to 13.00, whilst at Carli’s Coffee at 31 Route de Luxembourg, you can pre-order bagels, vegan bowls, cakes and brunch boxes – perfect for a picnic or a lunch stop on one of the circular walks.