Wiltz – castles, counts, and the last windmill
With the festive holidays looming and uncertainty about travel plans, our new series Inside Lux gives you the lowdown on what you can do, where to eat and stay overnight in some of the Grand Duchy’s most popular destinations. First stop - Wiltz.
A bit of history
In the heart of the Ardennes, Wiltz or Wolz, has an upper town where you’ll find its castle on a plateau, and a lower town, in the valley of the river. It takes its name from the Celtic word meaning “on the creek” and indeed there was a Celtic settlement on the River Wiltz first documented in 764AD. Under the patronage of the counts of Wiltz the settlement gained town status in 1240.
In more recent history, the town was occupied by the Nazis after the Battle of France in May 1940, and remained so until it was liberated in January 1945 by American troops.
The citizens fought hard against their occupiers, holding a general strike in August 1942 against enforced conscription into the German army. The strike started at the Ideal leather factory but soon spread to other factories in the locality. Twenty Luxembourgers including 4 teachers were executed.
From the locality, a total of 27 families were deported, and 43 young women and 164 young men were forcibly recruited into the Wehrmacht. The Battle of the Bulge also destroyed 80% of the homes in Wiltz.
The strike memorial, shaped like a lighthouse, was erected to commemorate those who died in the strike and were conscripted or deported. A memorial service is held every year on 31 August. Roger Wercollier planned the building and Lucien Wercollier, who created the stone sculptures, said that to reflect the resistance of the “small Luxembourg people against the Nazi colossus” he used David and Goliath in one relief and in a second, the strike victims falling under enemy bullets.
Wiltz was later named a Martyr Town. There is also a Sherman tank parked in the town’s main square, which was used by US forces in the liberation of Wiltz. It’s an M4-A3 series, weighing 31.6 tons.
Wiltz Castle and its Counts
The Counts of Wiltz were amongst the oldest families in Luxembourg. They originally built their castle in the valley, but its poor location left it open to attack, so the Counts chose a rocky promontory in the part of town known as OberWiltz and began to build their new residence in the 12th century.
In 1388 French besiegers set fire to it, prompting a larger rampart to be built. It was destroyed for a second time in 1453, this time by Philip of Burgundy. The Witches tower is the oldest remnant of the castle, dating back to 1573, and graced by a statue of Count Jan (Count John VI), the legendary armoured knight considered the guardian of Wiltz. The square tower dates back to 1626, but in May 1631, Count Jan began building his new Renaissance castle.
Work commenced in 1631 but was dogged by famine and war, so was not completed until 1720 under Count Charles-Eugene de Custine (the last count of Wiltz), with the final element, the monumental staircase to the gardens finished in 1727.
Lineage of the Counts can be traced back to Walter the First, and continued for 21 generations until the 18th century. The final Count fled the town in 1793 when French republican troops arrived, and is thought to have died some six years later. The castle was a private girls' school from 1851 and a retirement home in 1950.
Museums and windmill
Situated in 600 acres of lawns and gardens, the castle has been home to the Wiltz festival since 1953, showcasing international, classical, rock and jazz music acts in June and July.
The castle stables now house the National Museum of Brewing, tracing the history of beer production over 6,000 years. In addition to exhibitions, the museum houses the world’s smallest micro-brewery which gives a view of the brewing cycle from grain moulding, brewing and fermentation to the local spelt (known as dinkel) found in the surrounding countryside and used to brew beer since the bronze age.
Inside the castle you’ll also find the Tannery Museum, recounting the history of the leather industry that was so prominent in the town from the 1640s. There were 28 tanneries in Wiltz in 1868, of which only two survived into the second half of the 20th century before finally closing. In the interwar years, the tannery factories employed over 1,000 people, so when the final factory closed in 1963 it ended a 400-year tradition.
In the same complex is the Museum of the Battle of the Bulge. Founded in 1970, the museum covers the Ardennes Offensive from December 1944 until 21 January 1945, when Wiltz was liberated. Its founding principle is to remind visitors of the suffering of both soldiers and the town’s inhabitants and it does this through photographs, paintings, documents and war memorabilia including uniforms.
All three museums are open September to June from Monday to Saturday 9.00 to 12.00 and 14.00 to 17.00 (daily in the summer months from 9.00 to 18.00). You can find more information on visiting them here.
A more recent addition to the town is the Fire Brigade Museum on An der Géitz in the town’s former fire station, which opened earlier this year. You can look at historical fire engines and learn about the equipment and the daily work of firefighters. It's open every Saturday from 10.00 to 18.00.
The Niederwiltzer windmill known locally as the Tëschent den Hoen, was built in 1777 then damaged by lightening in 1847. It was one of eleven mills that served the tanneries, and ground the bark of young oaks from the surrounding woods into a brown powder used in leather production. The powder was put in a pit together with the animal hides on the banks of the River Wiltz. The last surviving windmill in Luxembourg, it’s a testimony to bygone times.
Parks, gardens, churches and memorials
A beautiful place even in winter, the Jardin de Wiltz is a 2.5 hectare public garden designed as a form of living art. The garden was created and is maintained by a group of artists, craftsmen, people with disabilities, and the long-term unemployed, and was founded in 1983 by “Der Blaue Kompressor”. It’s open year round, and is home to sculptures as well as foliage.
The Decanal church is dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul and dates back to the Middle Ages. The oldest part, the tower, is where you’ll find the graves of the counts of Wiltz. In the grounds of the church you’ll find the Plague cross, erected in 1635. Wiltz was badly affected by this disease, and the 65 families living here in 1623 were reduced to a mere 17 families by 1659.
Two hundred years later, cholera raged through the town claiming the lives of a further 60 inhabitants. Exposed to the elements for several centuries the inscription on the cross is no longer legible.
Just out of town, you’ll find the Shrine of Our lady of Fatima which was built in 1951. On the sides of the monument are the names of 108 war victims. In 1962 families of Portuguese migrant workers made a pilgrimage to the shrine, and since then every Ascension, the Portuguese community in Luxembourg gather at the Decanal church and walk in procession to the shrine.
The Simon Park has existed for some 150 years. It houses the Rodange-Renert Memorial. National poet Michel Rodange (1827 to 1876) wrote his famous work Renert whilst living in Wiltz, and his former apartment still stands today (as part of Café Renert). The monument, in four parts, takes the visitor on a circular tour past sculptures and water features including a lion’s head, a wolf fishing, a symbolic door and a column. Each stop also highlights stanzas from Rodange's epic poem.
One Penny Monument commemorates the British Lord Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the scouting movement in the 20th century. It gets its name from the fact that the monument was funded by a penny contribution from each boy and girl scout. Representing the scouting virtues of serve, help and obey, the monument, also the work of Lucien Wercollier, has three boy scout figures leaning back to back. Wiltz is a leading international scout centre with eight chalets and eight tent sites providing facilities for visiting and local scout troops.
In feudal times, justice crosses were set up as local courts. Lay judges elected by the community would pronounce judgements at these crosses. The one in Wiltz has the coat of arms of Wiltz and Burscheid, since the cross was erected by the Burscheid family. The cross was damaged during the French Revolution and again in the Ardennes Offensive. It remains the only original justice cross in Luxembourg.
There are two cultural trails in Wiltz. The 3km Yellow Trail travels through the upper town and has 21 panels that cover how Wiltz received its title of Cité de Martyre (Martyr town). It takes in the delightful Jardin de Wiltz, the parish church of Notre Dame with its baroque high alter, and although there are some steps en route, families with a pram or stroller can use an alternative pathway via rue de la Montagne.
The second Red Trail is approximately 4.5km and goes down to the Nieder-Wiltz bridge and up to the sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima, past the Decanal church with its decorated keystones in the old choir that date back to 1510. It also passes the last windmill in Luxembourg.
You can download a PDF plan of the town and the cultural walking routes here.
A remembrance trail, Schumanns Eck (Schumanns' corner), leads past the rifle holes in the trees to the corner where American and German soldiers fought and died during sub-zero winter temperatures. Artillery and machine gun attack alternated with hand-to-hand combat in some of the deadliest fighting on Luxembourg’s soil. At Schumanns Eck you’ll find a tomb to the 28th infantry division and the National Liberation Monument.
If you’re looking for a longer hike, then the 13km circular route starts at the war monument at the edge of Wiltz and travels through the wooded hills above the valley.
Trails starting from the upper town also include a 7km one that takes in Wiltz Castle and the Jardin de Wiltz, and a shorter 6km one that climbs from the church up Roullinghen hill. From the lower town there’s an 8km hike past Simon brewery, that passes an unfinished sanatorium that was meant to care for tuberculosis sufferers but was never completed, as well as the windmill and several memorials.
Another takes in the old leather factories and the National Strike Monument, whilst a longer 14km trail climbs to the Steekämmchen lookout point. You can find more details of all these trails here.
Circuit 07 starts at Wiltz Castle and leads past the National Strike Monument towards Bastogne, before climbing uphill towards Roullingen. It takes in the villages of Kautenbach, Merkholtz, and Erpeldange before returning to Wiltz town. The shorter circuit 08 is ideal for families.
There is also a 21km cycle path that travels over a former railway line to Bastogne, with information boards along the way. You can find out more about these cycle paths here.
For something to entertain the kids, MIGO adventure indoor mini-golf and play park is located nearby in Eschweiler and provides a 1,500m² indoor play space for children under 12 years. Contact the owners directly to check if the play park or golf routes are open for timed slots on 28 20 26 66.
Places to stay overnight
Aux Tanneries de Wiltz is located on Am Bongert. It has singles, doubles and family rooms, Wi-Fi and an indoor pool, sauna and Hamman (which may not re-open on 15 December). Reviewers recommend the restaurant and say that the facilities are well organised to ensure guests keep a social distance. It also takes the government vouchers if you still haven’t spent yours.
If you prefer to stay in the heart of town on Grand Rue then Hotel-Restaurant Beim Schlass has a restaurant, bar, and free Wi-Fi and parking. Guests can also hire bikes to explore the surrounding area. It has double rooms, ones for families (bed and sofa bed) and an Apartment with 4 large double bedrooms for larger families.
Grab a bite
For a historic feel, try Café Renert, which offers schnitzel, steaks, salads and vegetarian options, whilst Café a Tasquinha dishes up Portuguese specialities including bacalao. For pizza, visitors recommend La Fourchette Dorée.
Housed in the Prabbeli socio-cultural centre (the former Gruber brewery buildings) Restaurant Eis Kichen is an inclusive, non-profit co-operation, where the kitchen and serving staff are mostly people with special needs. It offers three dishes – a typical Luxembourgish one “Le Tradi”, a vegan one, “Geméising” and an international classic dish “Dal Mondo”.
Under current restrictions restaurants and bars are not open but many offer a takeaway service.
You can find more information on tourist activities in the surrounding area and in Wiltz here.