Echternach is the oldest city in Luxembourg, full of history and surrounded by beautiful countryside. It is also home to an unusual and ancient dancing procession. So it is not surprising that many tourists, whether arriving from the city of Luxembourg, or from across the border in Germany, should choose to spend a day in Echternach.
Why Visit Echternach?
Situated in the north of Luxembourg, Echternach can trace its history back to Roman times. Visitors can explore a Roman villa, medieval town walls, and an ancient Benedictine abbey. And there are miles of hiking trails in and around the town.
The town has two UNESCO inscriptions. It is part of a Global Geopark, and the Dancing Procession is recognised as an example of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The Oldest Town In Luxembourg
The presence of a Roman villa shows that the area was inhabited in ancient times. However the main history of the town of Echternach dates back to 698 CE. This was when Saint Willibrord, an Anglo-Saxon missionary, founded a Benedictine abbey here. What you see today is the medieval town, with a large central market square, narrow streets, and old buildings.
Apart from the abbey a major reminder of the Middle Ages is the remains of the city walls, with large sections still visible. Several towers have survived, now mostly incorporated into later houses and apartment buildings.
As you walk towards the river you will see a customs house with the words “Douanes Zoll” written on the side. The reason for this becomes apparent when you cross the bridge and realise that you have walked into Germany!
Roman Villa Of Echternach
A pleasant tree-lined walk towards the lake takes you to the Roman Villa of Echternach. Built around 70 CE this is considered to have been one of the most important Roman buildings in northern Europe. It was a large and luxurious residence built on two floors, with mosaics, marble walls, and underfloor heating.
At the time of my visit the site was closed to visitors. However we were able to look at the remains of the villa from a viewing point.
Historically the Abbey was a place of pilgrimage, as the burial place of St Willibrord. Today it has a small exhibition area, and you can walk around the crypt to see the tomb of the saint, and some ancient frescoes on the ceiling.
The former abbey buildings, arranged around a courtyard, are now used by a school. They also house a small museum with some famous illuminated manuscripts (not open in the winter months).
The Dancing Procession
The abbey is best known today for the dancing festival which takes place each year on Whit Tuesday. There are various stories about the origins of this event, one being that it is based on a local violinist called Guy le Long who was condemned to death for the murder of his wife. It is said that he evaded execution by enchanting the local populace and forcing them to dance compulsively while he escaped!
Another version is that the procession is connected with the cult of St Willibrord. Either way, it is a very popular event, attracting up to 10,000 visitors each year. Because of the longevity of the tradition (first performed in the 12th century), and its mixture of pagan and religious origins, it is now recognised by UNESCO as an example of Intangible World Cultural Heritage.
A UNESCO Global Geopark
Echternach is located within the Mëllerdall UNESCO Global Geopark, also known as Luxembourg’s “Little Switzerland” area. The area is characterised by steep gorges and ravines, rivers and woodland, and offers a wide range of hiking tracks.
Within the town you will find trails along the riverside. You can also walk a short distance to a large artificial lake with hiking and cycle trails, fishing and boating.
When To Visit Echternach
Echternach gets very busy in the summer, when the population apparently swells from 5,000 to 15,000 people. When I visited in March it was very quiet: there were hardly any visitors but, on the other hand, the museums were closed and there was a certain amount of renovation work going on.
Spring or autumn might be better times for a day in Echternach. At these times everything will be open, it is warm enough for riverside walks, and you will avoid the worst of the summer crowds.
How To Get To Echternach
Echternach has good bus and train connections throughout Luxembourg and Germany. The bus from Luxembourg city runs regularly from Limpertsberg and the journey takes around 40 minutes (an added bonus is that all public transport in Luxembourg is free).
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