I first learnt about Alsace (and, by extension, about Strasbourg) when I was in school studying about the Franco-German tussles over this bit of land. Later, in college, while studying hotel management, I learnt more interesting things about this city: that it’s the home of the almost legendary pâté de foie gras. Then, a couple of months ago, when I was creating an itinerary for a trip to Western Switzerland, my husband and I decided we wanted to spend a few days somewhere either in neighbouring France or Germany. I posted a question on the IgoUgo Travel Forums, and among the suggestions I received was one from midtownmjd, to whom I shall eternally be grateful.
Really. Strasbourg is divine.
From our Strasbourg 2008-2009 guide book (bought for €1 from the Tourist Information Centre next to the railway station), we learnt that Strasbourg began as a Roman camp called Argentoratum, back in 12 BC. From that period in time, the guide book skipped straight on to the Middle Ages, when Strasbourg began to make its presence felt: in the 12th century, work began on the massive Cathedrale de Nôtre Dame. It continued till well into the 15th century, by which time other interesting events had begun to happen in this city, which was now pretty well established on an island of the River Ill. By the 1500’s, Strasbourg had become an important centre of the Reformation (which probably accounts for the number of Protestant churches that still stand in the city—Strasbourg’s largest church, after the Cathedrale de Nôtre Dame, is the Protestant church of St Thomas).
Industry and commerce weren’t lagging behind, either. The millers, tanners, carpenters and fishermen (after whom streets in present day Strasbourg are still named) continued to ply their trade and live in half-timbered houses.
More importantly, Strasbourg began coming up in life: in about 1455, a local scion, Johannes Gutenberg, invented the printing press and instantly put Strasbourg on the map. And, with Strasbourg’s annexation to France, the city became a regional capital: Mozart performed in concerts here, Goethe studied at the local university, and Marie Antoinette, en route to Paris for her wedding, stopped by at the Palais Rohan and spent the night. Today, Strasbourg is half historical, half modern. The island in the Ill is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the more modern part of the city has some of its major buildings along the river.
For us, Strasbourg proved to be a city of different flavours, sights and sounds. The railway station—dull and boring as stations are apt to be—proved, on closer inspection, to have a façade of carved stone (unashamedly baroque) and stained glass windows. On the outside, it was all enclosed in a vast mostly-opaque glass bubble, but still: a city with a main train station like that couldn’t be bad.
And Strasbourg certainly proved itself. Five minutes’ walk from the railway station, we were across the river and onto the island. This is where Strasbourg comes into its element. In the northern half of town—around Quai de Paris, Quai Kellerman, Quai Schoepflin, Rue de la Fonderie, Rue de la Mesange, etc—the streets are mainly modern. Oh, we came across the occasional old fountain or column (there was one in the tiny park in front of our hotel, the Best Western de France on Rue du Jeu des Enfants) and some churches, but by and large, this is an area of banks, offices, shops (Galerie Lafayette included) and boutiques like Edouard Artzner, Strasbourg’s best-known producer of pâté de foie gras.
South of this area, we began seeing more prominent signs of a bygone age. At Place Kléber, a vast paved square with a now-green statue of Strasbourg-born General J B Kléber, people stroll and chat, eat and drink in front of an impressive edifice, all carved stone columns, statues and scrolls. We never did learn what it was. Further south, down the Rue des Grandes Arcades from Place Kléber, we arrived at another square, this one with a statue of Johannes Gutenberg. Place Gutenberg also has a fully functional carousel dating back to 1900: striped canopy, painted medallions along the rim, lovingly crafted wooden horses racing around the edge and one even on top of the canopy, like a weathervane.
Just a couple of minutes’ walk from Place Gutenberg is the square in Strasbourg, Place de la Cathedrale, home to the magnificent Cathedrale de Nôtre Dame. This is where we decided there was no point putting our camera back in its case: there is just too much around that’s utterly picturesque. The cathedral, of course, from all angles, inside and outside, and at all times of the day—especially at sunset, when the beige stone is gilded and glorious; and the buildings around.
There is, for instance, the Maison Kammerzell, with its windows of rounded panes of stained glass, and its profuse carving. Across the square is the Palais Rohan, baroque architecture at its zenith, but better known for the three excellent museums it houses. The other great museum next door is the Musée de L’œuvre Nôtre Dame, full of original art from the cathedral. And as if that wasn’t enough, there are a few half-timbered houses facing the cathedral. Half-timbered houses, as we later learnt during a Batorama boat tour, are easily dismantled and can be shifted. In Strasbourg, at least, "Half-timbered houses were treated more like a piece of furniture than a building!"
Behind the Palais Royal runs the Ill, and I’d recommend a leisurely walk along its banks, shaded with plane trees and with the occasional swan or duck swimming along. Very good for the soul, especially if you decide to carry a packed lunch (foie gras? A bottle of cold Reisling? Tarte à l’oignon? Maybe even a tarte aux myrtilles) and picnic on one of the grassy stretches along the way. You can, of course (as we did) make it a wholly sightseeing trip, in which case you’ll enter the very picturesque area of Petite France, named after a hospital which once stood in the vicinity. The hospital cared for those suffering from venereal disease, and since venereal disease was believed to be of French origin, the entire area came to be known as Petite France. Today, Petite France is innocuous enough: a picture-postcard perfect quarter of river, canal, plane trees, swans, narrow cobbled streets and half-timbered houses. A happy meander through Petite France will bring you to the edge of the quarter, where three solid square-sided towers are all that remain of what was once the Ponts Couverts, the covered bridges. The towers were used as watchtowers, with gunners stationed at the top to keep a watch on the southern border of the city. A tiled roof covered the bridge and the towers, which accounts for the name of the bridge. Beyond the Ponts Couverts is the Vauban Dam, a multiple-arched structure which could be used to flood the southern half of the city in case of an invasion.
There is more to Strasbourg. In the more modern part of the city, you’ll see the edifices that today make it an important centre of political affairs: the European Parliament and the Human Rights Building. There are older structures too, like the Palais de Justice and the Palais du Rhin, both imposing buildings of the Imperial German Quarter, set against manicured lawns, flowerbeds and shady trees.
For me, at least, Strasbourg will always mean rows of half-timbered houses, with geraniums crowding the window boxes. It’ll mean a swan preening itself in the waters of a gently flowing canal. It’ll mean a trio of buskers playing "Sway" in Place de la Cathedrale. And it’ll mean an amazing city that manages to blend France and Germany so beautifully that you never think it strange that each street and each square has actually two names: Place Benjamin Zix is also Zixplätzel, Grand Rue is also Long Stross, and Rue du Fosse des Tanneurs is also Gerwergrawe.
The last time I was so fascinated by a city was in Rome. Well, Strasbourg may not be as big and as famous as Rome, but it’s as unforgettable.