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Luxembourg's history reads a bit like the storybook background its landscape suggests. Though the area's occupation actually extends back further than the Roman era, present-day Luxembourg stems from the loins of Count Sigefroid of Ardennes, who raised a castle here in 963 AD and sowed the seeds of a dynasty that's spawned rulers throughout Europe. By the end of the Middle Ages, Sigefroid's city had the Burgundians, Spanish, French, Austrians and Prussians all waging bloody battles to conquer and secure it. Besieged, destroyed and rebuilt more than 20 times in 400 years, it grew to become the strongest fortress in Europe after Gibraltar.

Listed as a French 'forestry department' during Napoleon's reign, Luxembourg was included in the newly formed United Kingdom of the Netherlands, along with Belgium, in 1814. It fragmented 16 years later, when Belgium broke off from the Netherlands, taking half of Luxembourg along for the ride. This division heated up the Grand Duchy's desire for independence, and in 1830 the Dutch portion became present-day Luxembourg. The 1867 Treaty of London reaffirmed this autonomy. Soon after, the country declared itself neutral in international affairs and - an appropriate symbol of its nascent neutrality - torched its much contested fort.

The discovery of iron ore around 1850 ushered Luxembourg into the 20th century and pushed the country to the frontline of European economic influence. (Steel exports continue to make up roughly a quarter of the country's export trade.) When the industry slumped in the mid-1970s, the Grand Duchy reacted quickly by wooing big spenders from abroad with favorable banking and taxation laws. In 1948, after Nazi occupation during WWII, Luxembourg gave up its position of neutrality to join in various economic, political and military organizations, including NATO and the United Nations. The formation of Benelux - an economic union between Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg - was among the more prominent of these groupings. It also served as a model for today's European Union, of which Luxembourg was a founding member.


After centuries of foreign rule, it should come as no surprise that Luxembourg's population is composed of about 30% foreigners - the highest ratio of any EU country. Today's invading hordes, however, cross the borders quietly, caps in hand, nurturing sweet dreams of employment opportunities rather than pillage and plunder. Luxembourg's per capita GDP was the world's highest in 1997, its standard of living consistently rates among the best, and its workforce boasts a remarkably low unemployment rate. Not bad for a country with a population about 30 times less than that of Los Angeles.

Squashed in between two major historical world powers (and having been conquered at times by both of them), Luxembourg takes a good deal of its identity from its neighbours' contributions. This shows itself both in the generally amicable relationship between the countries and their citizens and in their shared linguistic traits. Multilingualism is universal among Luxembourgers, and both the German and French languages are used in the press, in politics and in daily life. French is most common in government and schools, though Luxembourgish is the language you'll hear most frequently on the street. English is widely understood in tourist areas.

Luxembourg's cuisine is similar to that of Belgium's Wallonia region - plenty of pork, fish and game - but also features some heavy German influence in local specialties like liver dumplings with sauerkraut. Its beer (like that of neighbouring Belgium) is not too shabby; neither are the Moselle Valley's fruity white wines.

Few Luxembourg natives are internationally famous in the arts, which probably explains why Edward Steichen, a pioneer in American photography, is held in such high regard in his homeland. While the capital has a few good museums and galleries, few of the native artists seem to exhibit beyond the country's border. Expressionist painter Joseph Kutter brought modern art to Luxembourg. Roger Mandersheid is a respected contemporary writer who often publishes in Luxembourgish.

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