The footbridge over the railway is surprisingly elaborate. With its elegant lights and handsome balustrade, this could so easily be the grand entrance to a venerable country estate. It is in fact the bridge that leads to ‘Little Italy’. It is a fairly modern structure, replacing an earlier, much simpler bridge which was just wide enough for people to pass as they made their way from the centre of Dudelange over to the town’s Italian quarter.
Dudelange is a small town set in a valley in southern Luxembourg, just short of the Grand Duchy’s border with France. The wooded slopes of the Ginzebierg lie away to the east, while across on the west side of the railway the land rises up equally steeply. The story of Dudelange is captured in the middle of town in an elaborate fountain and sculpture with figures of miners. It’s called Wou dat roud Gold gegruewe gou — the Luxembourgish for Where the red gold was dug.
The red gold which underpinned the wealth of Dudelange was iron ore. And it was that red gold which in the late 19th century attracted Italians to this valley. The centre of Dudelange is on the east side of the railway. “That was the smart part of Dudelange,” explains Nicolas Graf. “But the Italians needed to be close to the iron works. And space was made for them down here on the west side of the tracks,” he explains. Nicolas is a geographer by training; he works at the Migration Documentation Centre housed in the railway station right by the Italian quarter in Dudelange.
From the middle of town, the route to Little Italy inevitably takes the visitor over that smart footbridge which spans the railway. It’s called the Porte d’Italie (the Italian Gate). Walking from the bridge down into the Italian quarter there is a striking installation by the Luxembourg-born sculptor Yvette Gastauer-Claire, who also created the red gold sculpture in the middle of Dudelange. Yvette’s Italian district sculpture evokes the hopes and fears of the huge numbers of Italians who came to work in Dudelange in the 1880s and the 1890s. It is inscribed in Italian and Luxembourgish with a verse from the Gospel of St Matthew: “I was a stranger and you made me welcome.”
“The thing you have to understand,” says Nicolas as he ushers us into the former Italian quarter, “is that homes were not provided for the Italian workers. They had to build their own houses. And they did that in the manner they knew best, using designs with which they were familiar from their Italian homeland.” We climb tiled steps which skirt courtyards, duck through a narrow alley which dives in semi-darkness beneath a row of cottages, and stand in Luxembourg rain surveying the forlorn industrial wasteland where once stood the Schmelz — the foundries and smelters where the Italian migrants worked.