Sparkling river, age-old mill and imperial mail coaches
By Gery de Pierpont
Experience the life of a miller or of a postmaster in Luxembourg
The first thing that strikes you as you arrive at Asselborn Mill, in the north of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, is the rugged appearance of the Tratterbach Valley, interspersed between the dark green woodland and wild grasses, fields of grazing cows and meadow flowers. And of course the gentle river that flows down ribbed with angel hair from the Ardennes heights on its way to Clervaux.
This site was carefully chosen nearly one thousand years ago as the perfect spot for the region’s first grain mill. Not just to grind wheat, difficult to cultivate in this grazing area but also for spelt, rye and oats (groats) and barley. Today three fine bucket wheels still action two stone grinding wheels and a large star wheel, used to thresh (grain cleaning), sieve (sift flour) or activate the clover mill (seeds). The installation has also served at various times to crush walnuts, hazelnuts or beechnuts to extract their oil.
Today, this venerable old mill has been converted into a delightfully out-of-the-way rural hotel and gastronomic restaurant. Tucked away in the country, stout and indestructible, its bedrooms are arranged around an old paved courtyard where it is easy to imagine the clattering of horses’ hooves. A tower backing onto the oldest part of the building confers a castle-like feeling to the interior.
The roofs are covered with attractive, overlapping slates, these typical “cherbains” from the surrounding quarries. The workman who covered the steep roof has done it with consummate skill. One would think they were flexible tiles curving around the dormer windows or the lead of a gigantic crayon perched atop the tower. Several walls of the mill date back nearly a millennium, making it one of the oldest sites in the Grand Duchy. It is all but impossible to recognise them because the cemented joints have hidden the age-old lime mortar. However, today as in the past, the impressive amount of overlapping schist slates continues to amaze given their massive, solid appearance. In several rooms in the mill, the bed rock is flush with the surface, endowing the walls with its rough presence, accentuating even more its firm connection with the past.
The archives mention the various millers who rented this ordinary mill in Asselborn, property of the famous Abbey of St. Maximin in Trier. You will need to ask Léon Milles, who bought and restored the buildings in the 1980s, or the hotel manageress, Stéphanie Dauch, to tell you about these exceptional craftsmen – who were anything but lazy as the nursery rhyme has you believe. Several entertaining anecdotes will reveal the special status enjoyed by millers in medieval society.
This function and such delightful savoir-faire has inspired the Hotel-cum-restaurant owner to create an in situ Water Mill and Milling Museum where you can discover for yourself the thousand and one gestures and instruments of the “Flour Masters”. A museum located in its authentic rock and wooden setting, where the same fresh air in which nearly 30 generations of millers toiled still circulates. Each object has its rightful place, and every tool has a tale to tell, a weathered surface to touch … Should the lights fail, you will be plunged back almost two centuries into almost monastic obscurity (on no account can a candle be lit in a mill – flour dust is explosive!) Disturbing!
On the Asselborn mill site, the wheels are set in motion by a river which flows exactly along the projected Meuse to Moselle canal, a few miles from its subterranean passage at Hoffelt (1830). If the Belgian Revolution had not created such insecurity throughout the region and compromised the financing and completion of the work, long, narrow boats would have journeyed alongside the mill up to the middle of the last century … A well-documented trail invites you to discover the historical remains of this adventure.
When you go to Asselborn, don’t forget to visit the Auberge du Relais postal, with its delightful tavern and restaurant at the top of the village. This erstwhile post house of the Tour and Taxis family on the route between Flanders and Rome experienced its heyday in the 16th and 17th centuries. Within its walls many were the precious sealed messages from the great and the good of Europe that changed hands, as the postilions always followed the same route to the next staging post before returning with other letters destined for the opposite direction.
The former stables have found new life as a tavern but their initial vocation is clearly in evidence: a yellow coach (a faithful reproduction of the one that transported messages and passengers in the 17th century), travelling trunks, harnesses hung on the walls, replenished hay-feeders and messenger bags. Everywhere you look there are engravings, old photographs or postcards, reminders of the postmaster’s responsibilities and the lives led by their postilions. In the restaurant itself, once the main reception room for travellers, focus is on communications, with an unexpected collection of telegraphs, old radio sets and telephones with handsets. In a corner, one old cellar has been transformed into a children’s play area; in another, an ancient well is visible under glass. The head chef, in his medieval-looking kitchen, is in full view, under a hooded chimneypiece riveted like the Black Knight’s helmet.
If the schist walls on the ground floor have retained their original thickness (and various period alterations), the first floor has been renovated in keeping with contemporary ecological factors and presents a successful amalgam of wrought iron and steel with large glass bay windows and earth-straw flooring.
It is on this floor of the building that the bedrooms in this unusual hotel are located. Each has a theme linked to the history of the building: Tour and Taxis, the postmaster, the postilion and the art of writing. Various items of old furniture add a nice touch to the furnishings and form a harmonious whole with the sober lines and light tones of the renovated rooms. Each room (can be combined as a suite) has its own travelling trunk, complete with wooden bands and well-worn locks. Who knows which countries these padded trunks had to cross before getting here …
Nor is the visit over yet because the Asselborn post house has something else for its guests to discover: a little gem of a museum “Musée des écritoires” sandwiched in between the bedrooms and the restaurant: a collection of quill pens, ink pots, boxes, letters, school books, engraved stamps and flacons of ink. Tastefully displayed against a village school backcloth and wattle and daub wall panels.
A surprising stop in an enchantingly isolated spot (although busier in the past), where river and horse compete and flour, nature and culture form a rich dough.