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A Rambler in Strasbourg


I fall in love with cities easily, at least while I'm there. It's part of what keeps me traveling. But a few somehow make such a strong impression that I feel drawn to return, and can feel myself there even after I'm gone. Strasbourg has become one of them.


It's certainly a city with a unique history, both ancient and recent, and that history shows in its physical face as well as in the culture, the food, everything. Its roots are German as much as they are French, and perhaps more Alsatian than either. It appears to have been a close call in 1918 whether the area wanted to rejoin France or declare its independence!

24-20170906_191724After centuries as an independent city in the Holy Roman Empire, ruled sometimes by its bishops and sometimes by its burghers, it has passed between Germany and France since the 1680s, and each has stamped it, right down to the architecture.

04-P104089705-P1060164When Louis XIV took title to the city, he allowed the largely Protestant locals to keep their faith, but insisted on returning the Cathedral to Catholics. And he sent a French bishop to take over.25-P1060446

The new bishop built the Palais Rohan, above, across from the cathedral as his residence. To this day, it is so different from its surroundings it could almost have been airlifted in from Versailles. On the other hand, the 1870-1918 period of German rule brought German architectural styles to the new rail station, the university and much more.


But despite the monumentalism of imperial architecture, most of the city, still centered on the Grand Ile that sits between branches of the Ill River, looks as medieval as modern, with hundreds of centuries-old timbered buildings lining its streets.


Actually, quite a few of the others are much older than they seem; the two buildings are of similar age, but the one at the right has had upper-story 'remuddling' and had its beams plastered over.


Because so much of the town's center is on the Grand Ile or just across from it, the river seems to be everywhere; walk a few blocks and you will meet it or see it, sometimes bucolic and sometimes busy.

23-20170906_191511And sometimes, it's just a place to sit after school and wait for whatever's next.


Those students, by the way, are from the Le lycée international des Ponton-niers, a state-run international high school that prepares students in many European languages and Chinese. If the main buildings, below, seem ancient, they were meant to, but aren't. The school was built in 1902 as a girls' high school under German rule, and were meant to represent German 15th-century 'historicism.'


It's an extremely walkable city (and bike-able to, if you like: there are 500 km of bike trails in the region). Almost no place in the central city is more than a 20-minute walk, and the area is criss-crossed by trams as well. And since so many of the streets curve with the island, you don't even need to really follow a grid.


There's some whimsy to be had; for almost our whole week there, Johannes Gutenberg wore a life-preserver, apparently stolen from a riverside rescue post, on his head. We reported it to the Office de Tourisme, but only on our last day did it disappear. Gutenberg wasn't born in Strasbourg, didn't invent printing in Strasbourg, was sued by a jilted fiancee in Strasbourg...but fame is fame, and his statue's here, next to a grand carousel.


Another, smaller, carousel is near a small market outside the Thomaskirche, where there's wonderful tarte flambée made over open flames to be had. And a small menagerie of whimsical creatures to make the wait easier. 


The Thomaskirche is on a site that's had a church for nearly 1500 years, though the present one dates back only 900 years. Only. Since Louis XIV gave the Cathedral back to the Catholics, this has been the main Lutheran church, and is sometimes called the Protestant cathedral. Famous Reformation preachers worked here, including Martin Bucer.


But its fame doesn't lie only in the distant past: It has two fine organs, one of which was played by Mozart, and the other, built in 1905, was designed by the church's organist Albert Schweitzer, who was also a professor at Strasbourg's university before moving to Africa.


Unlike the Thomaskirche, Old Saint Peter's Church wasn't left with the Protestants and it wasn't given to the Catholics. On the King's orders, it was one of several that were divided. For nearly 350 years, there was no connection between the Protestant nave and the Catholic choir. In 2012, a symbolic door was cut between the two and opened with great ceremony. In general, though, it stays closed.


We always manage to find (well, Joan works at finding) the best yarn stores as we travel; there's always the possibility of locally-sourced yarns that can't be found at home. In Strasbourg, we bought the wool that will make a new copy of this jacket.


And we found, at the yarn store, a notice for the weekly meeting of a local stitch-n-bitch knitting circle, held in the courtyard of a pleasant tavern. Because Strasbourg has so many European institutions, the knitters spoke a variety of languages aside from French and English.


Back to churches for a moment, or more precisely to the Fondation de l'Oeuvre Notre-Dame and its museum, opposite the cathedral. It's actually the Fondation that has been responsible for construction and maintenance of Strasbourg Cathedral since 1246. It not only employs 30 or so stone-cutters and other artisans to work on the cathedral; it also provides training for others to work elsewhere.

07-P106017808-P1060180Its museum is full of exhibits about the cathedral, and also full of pieces that once were part of the cathedral. Some have been replaced by copies, some became surplus as different periods added different decoration, and a few are rescues from elsewhere. And one, below, is included here just because the look on his face and in his eyes tells me that he's tired of posing for his portrait.


Oh, and food. I've written elsewhere about food in Strasbourg and the Tourism Office's self-guided food tour, so no details here. But, it was wonderful to feel that food was such a big part of the city. We were lucky to have one of the twice-a-week open air markets at our corner.


Baked goods were everywhere: here, at a well-known bakery, two of the best local specialties: Kugelhopf, and the pretzels that I remember from New York streetcorners of my childhood, and which are nothing like the ones we get now!


And the glory of late summer: Mirabelles. Tiny plums, hardly bigger than large cherries. Wonderful in plum tarts. Wonderful in jam. Wonderful to eat while walking down the street. And wonderful to be in Strasbourg when they were in high season, only to disappear by the time we reached Paris.


While most foods come from the countryside to markets, in Strasbourg we found a clever exception. Beneath a busy riverside street, under the arches of the roadway, a colony of beehives.


It's four months now since Strasbourg. It's taken me longer than I though to write this blog because I've taken so much time daydreaming while writing, feeling the warm September sun, tasting the choucroute garnie, smelling the breads, watching the river flow by...I'm ready to return!



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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Alsace was our favorite destination for relaxing, taking the Rue de Vin for picnics, and enjoying the cuisine and slow pace of life.  Colorful timber houses and festivals added to the richness of this region.  A couple of our photos.  My wife Diane with a local policeman, the cathedral and a canal.


Diane with Strasbourg CopStrasbourg CathedralStrasbourg

George G


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  • Strasbourg Cathedral
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