On the trail of sweat and steel

Transforming ExperiencesMinett Tour

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From the puffing steam train via imposing blast furnaces to gloomy mines where miners once toiled: feel the spirit of  Luxembourg’s steel past on the Minett Tour.

Photos
Renata Lusso

The men worked hard in the Land of the Red Rocks. They mined iron ore, or “Minett” in Luxembourgish, hewed galleries in the living rock, rode rattling railways into the heart of the hills and brought rock to the surface in wagons. The iron ore was washed, mixed, heated, and made into steel. And soot, sweat, coal, heat, steel – these were the ingredients of economic success in southern Luxembourg.

Because from the middle of the 19th century onward, steel was exported from Luxembourg worldwide, where it is still used – be it in the foundations of the One World Trade Center in New York City or in the world’s biggest skyscraper in Dubai.


Past and future

The blast furnaces have lain dormant since 1997, but visitors on the Minett Tour can still immerse themselves in this world. They can start in Esch-Belval, for example. Where the blast furnaces once spewed smoke, it is on the university that hopes of success are now pinned. Modern buildings are home to the sciences, with additional disciplines being added all the time – be it in the medical field, the humanities or computer science. But amid the university’s ivory towers, the rusty, weather-beaten blast furnaces still defy the present. They have been lovingly conserved for posterity. And they make for a very special atmosphere.

Visitors on a guided tour can scale blast furnace A and enjoy the view of the campus. The headquarters of Esch 2022 as well will be moving in shortly, with Esch-sur-Alzette becoming the European Capital of Culture in 2022.

Adventure - packed stops

Esch-Belval is a mecca for architecture enthusiasts and only one of five venues on the 35 km-long Minett Tour. The former major mining area of Fond-de-Gras, for example, boasts several locations where there is something going on at the weekend. An excursion there is a journey into the past. People of all ages can take the steam locomotive “Train 1900” from Pétange to Fond-de-Gras through the very heart of the Land of the Red Rocks. Ever since 1973, volunteer helpers have been keeping the train line alive. “I’ve been a regular here at weekends since I was a child, initially with my father. I love tinkering with trains”, says Romain Baumann. The 36-year-old is president of the “Association des musées et tourisme ferroviaires”, riding the “Train 1900” sometimes as a stoker, sometimes as a train driver. It’s true that in days of yore the train hauled iron ore from the vicinity of Fond-de-Gras, rather than people. But one shouldn’t be so historically pernickety.

The small grocery “Epicerie Victor Binck”, which was in fact previously located in Differdingen, is now part of the Fond-de-Gras. “It’s simply marvellous to see the old products and the traditional shop” says 82-year-old Lori Gatti, on a detour with friends to Fond-de-Gras. “My brother used to work in the grocery. The steel industry has left its mark on us”, says this daughter of Italian immigrants, who like many Italian immigrants used to buy ingredients for polenta in the shop. Because that too is “de Minett”: people who came to Luxembourg from the south to work and find a new homeland.

Wild woman and rumbling wagons

As too in the small village of Lasauvage, which owes its name to a “wild woman” who is said to have lived there in the old days. On the one hand she scared the living daylights out of people but on the other hand, depending on which version of the tale you hear, she is also said to have been a healer.

Later, long after the “wild woman” had died, Lasauvage was home to workers employed exclusively in the mines of the industrialist, Count Fernand de Saintignon. Houses, a school and a bustling community came into existence. The last mine closed in 1978. To this very day, a changing room with showers and hooks on the ceiling are testimony to how hundreds of workers washed themselves clean of the dust and grime after their shift.

Nowadays one can reach the enchanting small community of Lasauvage by car or with the “Minièresbunn”. In days gone by the “buggies”, the wagons, were used to transport iron ore, but today they transport visitors into the dark galleries. After a few metres of rumbling in the dark, they disembark and are then allowed to hew a little rock from the walls themselves. How would the workers have felt in the constant darkness? You can try it for yourself. At least a little. And then quickly back into the daylight. Where the rock is red.

Other stops worth seeing:

Museum of the Cockerill Mine, Esch-sur-Alzette:

The restored Katzenberg mine site with the Museum of the Cockerill Mine displays the miners’ tools and machinery, a large collection of old photographs of the strenuous everyday grind, transport material and fossils found while mining the ore. A working forge can be visited at the weekend.


National mining museum, Rümelingen:

The bulk of the collection is to be seen in the mine’s subterranean galleries where it was previously used. The traditional sightseeing tour starts aboard a small mine train. The train takes you through old opencast mines before entering the underground mine through the Langengrund tunnel.


Nature reserve with orchid treasures:

Nowadays, the former opencast mining area “Prënzebierg - Giele Botter” is a nature reserve covering several hundred hectares. A discovery trail leads through the Land of the Red Rocks, where new habitats have come into being – after Minett extraction ceased. Here for example you will find rare orchid species. On the nearby Titelberg, excavations revealed an important settlement built by the Celts in the 1st century BC.


Eat like the miners did:

Traditional hearty dishes are available in the “Bei der Giedel” restaurant in Fond-de-Gras. The former rustic style miners’ café serves fondue, raclette, vegetable tarts and other specialities. The terrace is also a good place to sit and soak up the atmosphere.


Steam Punk Convention:

Once a year, in the early autumn, Fond-de-Gras hosts a spectacular Steam Punk Convention. It is inundated by fans of wacky, old-fashioned, techno-retro look clothing. There is street entertainment, concerts, a Victorian market, an exhibition of steam punk creations, historical steam engines and much else besides to discover.


www.minetttour.lu

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