The extraordinary lightness of being in Luxembourg

  • Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Sep 20, 2014 18:23 IST

If you can make sense of European history, then you are a better person than I am. I remember being confounded at school by the complexities of the Schleswig-Holstein question (something to do with a territorial dispute between Germany and Denmark, if I remember correctly) until my teachers told me not to worry about it. Only three people knew the answer to the Schleswig-Holstein question and two of them had forgotten it.

So it was with the regions of Alsace and Lorraine which kept shifting back and forth between France and Germany. These days we think of Alsace mainly in terms of the Riesling and Lorraine only because of the quiche.

But if you had to write a history paper then it was hard to remember whether they were German or French at a specific point in history. (They are French now – or at least I think they are but who the hell knows?)

I was reminded of all this historical confusion when I drove from Frankfurt airport to Luxembourg. Most of us, I am willing to wager, know nothing at all about Luxembourg.

We are dimly aware that it is somewhere in Europe and some of us have heard that it is a tax haven but equally, we may very well be confusing it with Liechtenstein (which is also very small and a tax haven too!)

It wasn’t till I got to Luxembourg that I realised how tiny it was – the population is around half a million or less than the population of Karol Bagh or a north Bombay suburb.

Street magicians perform at a town square in Luxembourg.

The second thing that struck me was how rich it was. It has the second highest per capita income in the world (around $80,000 per head or so) and is only beaten by Qatar – but that doesn’t really count because the Qataris have oil and the Luxembourgers only have their wits to help them get so rich.

And though there is a fairy-tale quality to its castles, picturesque town squares with street magicians and bands, their famous macaroons and yes, Indian restaurants, there is also an air of great but unflashy wealth about the country.

There is a Grand Duke (Luxembourg is a Duchy) but he is a ceremonial head. Luxembourg is a fully functioning democracy and was one of the founders of the European Union.

Luxembourg borders France, Germany and Belgium so its inhabitants are hard to classify though most speak at least three languages: French, German and their own Luxembourgish.

More confusingly, many live in neighbouring countries and drive to work in Luxembourg each day, crossing international borders as you and I would cross a traffic signal.

But then, that’s the strange, confusing and yet very special character of Europe. I was in Luxembourg at the invitation of Nicolas Luc Villeroy, a leading member of one of the two families that own

Villeroy & Boch

, probably the oldest and best-known family-owned company in the luxury crockery space.

Nicolas Luc is French but his family have partnered through the centuries with the Boch family, who are German. Luxembourg is widely regarded as the centre of the family company but their head office is actually only a few miles away – in Germany.

My guess was it suited Villeroy & Boch to be thought of as a Luxembourg company because a Franco-German union could be complicated given that the two countries routinely went to war with each other.

A crockery set from Villeroy and Boch

But it was even more complicated than that. When Villeroy & Boch was founded in 1748, the French Revolution had yet to take place and modern France, as we know it today, did not exist.

Michel von Boch, the member of the family who is most fascinated with India

Neither for that matter did modern Germany. It took several decades for Mettlach, the village where the Bochs are based, to become part of Germany after the unification. And even Luxembourg owed allegiance to the Austrian empire, so the Boch family had to ask the Austrian emperor for permission to set up their first factory there.

The more I heard about the Villeroy and Boch families (the company is still controlled, like Hermès, by about 50 members of the two families), the more intrigued I became by two questions.

The first was self-evident. This may well be the oldest luxury company in the world to remain in family hands. But how did the two families cope when their countries went to war?

The answer was simple enough. They remained close friends personally and dedicated enemies in martial terms. During both the First and Second World Wars, the Villeroys signed up and fought for France. And the Bochs enlisted in the German army and fought the French.

Through it all, the friendships and the business partnership survived the conflict. In the 1940s, when France was in a bad way (the Germans had occupied the country), the Bochs told their partners, the Villeroys, that nothing had changed and that they would not only continue in business together but that they would take all the precious Villeroy family artefacts and store them in a warehouse in Germany for them. (Sadly, they chose a warehouse in Dresden, which was later flattened in the worst Allied air raids of the Second World War.)

My second question was as obvious. All of us have seen the Villeroy & Boch symbol on plates at the world’s most expensive restaurants. So yes, we know all about the prestige of the firm’s luxury crockery lines.

But those of us who have travelled to Europe will also have seen sinks and bathtubs at fancy establishments which bear the Villeroy & Boch symbol. For instance, last month at the

Bristol Hotel in Paris

, I was intrigued to see that the plates and the chamber pot in the bathroom were both made by Villeroy & Boch. Didn’t this cause some confusion?

All in the family:Nicolas Luc Villeroy is a leading member of one of the two families that make luxury crockery

Nicolas-Luc had obviously thought about this – and he’d heard the same question many times. So he gave me a little history lesson. In the old days, before indoor plumbing, there were no sinks. Instead, at the end of a meal, servants would arrive with a large ceramic bowl. You would place your hands over the bowl and then they would pour water on them till you were satisfied they were clean.

Villeroy & Boch made the original ceramic bowls and when indoor plumbing arrived, they just played around with the shapes to turn them into sinks – the principle is exactly the same.

So it was with bathtubs. In the days of European aristocracy, Villeroy & Boch and other ceramic-makers would create large tubs into which hot water would be poured. The aristocrat in question would then climb into the tub, splash around a little and declare that he had washed his upper-class body. When plumbing arrived, they just added taps to the tubs. (The same principle applies to WCs but you can use your own imagination.)

Over time, ceramic manufacturers began to segregate the two businesses arguing that people might be embarrassed to eat off a plate that bore the same brand name as their bathtub. But Villeroy & Boch persisted with the traditional practice. After all, they said, the roots were the same – high quality ceramic design.

The area around Mettlach and Luxembourg is known for its stunning countryside and its old schlosses or castles. Nicolas Luc arranged for me to stay at his guesthouse, an old castle that was at least two centuries old and possibly haunted. (Well, aren’t all old castles haunted?)

I was particularly taken with a forest at the centre of a meandering river and was surprised to learn the next day at dinner that it belonged to Michel von Boch, the family member most fascinated by India.

Like some latter day Jean-Louis Dumas, Michel has been to India several times, has taken the photos for a book on the tea gardens of Darjeeling (published by Penguin) and is working on a picture book of Indian railway stations (I’ve promised to help with the writing!)

A forest at the centre of a meandering river that I was particularly taken with.

In any case, both families seem very knowledgeable about India – they hoisted the Indian flag the day I visited and Nicolas Luc spent half an hour discussing the origins of the Hindu holy trinity with such depth that I could barely keep up.

But in some ways, that conversation seemed to me to sum up the connections between an old, old family firm in a particularly confusing part of Europe and an old, old culture in a country that foreigners often find confusing – and which has just rediscovered luxury!

From HT Brunch, September 21
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