WELCOME TO STRASBOURG: A LITTLE BIT OF GERMANY IN FRANCE
We got into Strasbourg late yesterday and, apart from checking in and taking a quick a look around the neighbourhood to orient ourselves, we didn’t actually get to see much of our first French city stop. We more than made up for that today though, with an early start and whole day of exploring. The verdict? Strasbourg is superb! Just a few kilometres from the French border with Germany, this is a town straddling 2 cultures. And it does so effortlessly and beautifully….
We intentionally set out early this morning, keen to see some of the city streets and canals* before things got busy. And boy are we glad we did! The sky was gloriously blue overhead, the river still and glassy, and the early morning coolness made everything seem fresh and new. The best bit, though, was seeing the empty streets gradually come alive as people set about their days.
*Strasbourg is built across a number of small islands on the River Ill. The river has been tamed over the centuries, with bridges and locks and dams built to control the flow of the water through and around the city. The end result is a miniature version of Amsterdam, with perhaps a sprinkling of venice for good measure.
From the comfort of a seat in one of the many little squares around town we watched as women exited boulangeries with the day’s baguettes clutched under their arms; as fruit and vegetable vendors set their wares out for the day; and as side walk cafés began to set their table and chairs out for the day. It’s all just so… so FRENCH! Hearing people speak, and casting an eye across menus, however, it becomes obvious that, under the skin, Strasbourg also has a real German streak to it.
The Germanic undertone here is unsurprising, given the region of Alsace* (of which Strasbourg is the capital) was historically German-speaking and was part of Germany for many years – most recently from 1871 to 1922, and then again during World War II. This corner of Europe has been heavily contested and Strasbourg changed hands between France and Germany some 80 times over the last few centuries. No wonder the town seems like a hybrid between all things German and French! We pondered these things over croissants and café-au-lait, taking our time to enjoy a slow start to the day.
*Yes – as in Alsace of “Alsatian dog” fame.
Suitably enbreadened* we decided to start our explorations of Strasbourg around Petite France, an area of Strasbourg located on the Grande Île (Main Island), where the River Ill splits up into a number of canals. Here the water runs through a small area of beautifully preserved Medieval half-timbered houses.
*Enbreadened = our own made up word meaning “to be suitably stuffed full of bread, pastries, and bread-products”. A state that’s easy to achieve in France.
Though highly gentrified and touristy now, Petite France was the leather tanning and slaughterhouse area during the Middle Ages. Many of the houses still standing from that era are still named after their original purpose – such as “The Tannery”.
Most of the buildings on Petite France were built in the half-timbered style as the area was prone to flooding and these homes were easy to dismantle and rebuild; or, at worst, dismantle and transport elsewhere for rebuilding. The characteristic half-timbered houses, narrow lanes, canals, and locks of Petite France combine to create a truly unique cityscape – especially early in the morning when it’s practically deserted!
Interestingly, we thought Petite France was given this moniker due to some resemblance to France. Turns out, however, that the area was once also home to a hospice for people with syphilis that was built there in the 15th century. Given that syphilis was then known as the “French Disease”, the whole area got dubbed with that tag and its rather unsavoury connotation. Doesn’t seem so romantic now does it…
The River Ill splits into several channels at the Ponts Couverts of Petite France. The Ponts Couverts (i.e. covered bridges) were built in the 13th century and formed an integral part of the city’s defences. They were originally built of wood and roofed with tiles, but were replaced with stone in the 17th century.
Nearby too we saw Le Barrage, an enormous dam dating from the end of the 17th century, designed to prevent attackers from entering the city. In the event of a siege, engineers would close the dam completely, backing up the river and flooding the enemy armies off the plains. This dramatic defensive strategy was last used in 1870 against a German siege.
Further into the old town we stopped by the town’s main square, once the hub of day-to-day life in Strasbourg, but these days more the hub of the tourist trade. Still, despite the tacky souvenir shops and the multitude of over-prices cafés and restaurants, it’s still a magnificent town square, surrounded by some lovely old buildings.
Loveliest of all the buildings in the main square was the Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasbourg. This immense Gothic cathedral is more than 750 years old and, at 142m tall, its towers were the world’s tallest man-made constructions until 1874. Sandstone from the Vosge Mountains used in construction gives the cathedral its characteristic pink hue.
Inside the cathedral is equally spectacular, with some sublime stained glass windows we had to stop and admire and a ceiling full of Gothic arches.
At the very back of the cathedral we found the Astrometric Clock, which was constructed in the 18th century and shows the phases of the moon and the movement of the stars, as well as the time.
Around the cathedral we saw the Maison Kammerzell, one of the most ornate and well preserved Medieval homes in the world. Dating back to 1427 this was once the abode of a very wealthy local merchant; today it houses a restaurant.
Further around the corner was the Palais des Rohan, a French style palace, built after the acquisition of the town by the French in 1681. Today it is home to a collection of museums, none of which really grabbed us, so we kept moving.
We walked down another beautiful street, Rue du Maroquin, where there were a few more stunning Medieval buildings for us to admire, and a whole lot of shop windows that we just had to stop and drool at. Fresh baked bread, pastries, chocolate, cakes, wines (the Alsace region is famous for its white wines), and of course, cheese. Though admittedly the fromagerie (i.e. cheese shop) didn’t so much make us drool as make us gag – man they like their stinky cheeses here! And a whole shop of full of stinky cheese actually smells a lot like a whole shop full of unwashed feet.
Further on we found a less touristy restaurant to stop at for lunch. Here we indulged in a typically Alsatian meal of tarte flambée (i.e. pie baked in flames), also known as flammkuchen in German. It’s basically like a type of pizza, just with a VERY thin base covered with fromage blanc rather than a tomato-based sauce. Topped of with jambon or thinly sliced onions and lardons (i.e. little bacon croutons), these were truly delectable.
After lunch we decided to take it even easier and spent the next 90 minutes on a cruise through the city’s canals and river ways. We retraced many of the routes we walked in the morning, and got to see the sights from a slightly different angle (and with way more people around!).
The boat did take us to one part of Strasbourg we HADN’T seen ourselves: the EU district. A number of European Union institutions have their head offices here – including the European Court of Human Rights, and the European Parliament. In contrast to the half-timbered and Baroque buildings of the old town, this was all very modern and flashy, with glass and stainless steel being the main building materials of choice.
Having been well baked by the hot August sun on the boat cruise, we hopped of after our tour and sought the shade and quiet of a small square where we people watched for a while before containing on and aimlessly exploring a few more of Strasbourg’s beautiful streets. This is such a beautiful town to lose yourself in!
For dinner Shane found a traditional Alsatian restaurant for us to try. Given it’s my birthday today we splashed out and enjoyed a wonderful evening down by the canals in Petite France. Not a bad way to celebrate one’s anniversaire is it? If it continues like this, I think France is going to agree with us just fine…