Wednesday, April 2, 2008

1 December: A Successful Trip to Strasbourg

Back in October 2005, one month into our stay in Germany, we drove over the French border to visit Strasbourg, only to find the city overrun with Germans on their day off. We scoured the streets for a parking space, only to depart in frustration without even stepping foot in the city. Today, with only a few short weeks left in Germany, we decided to try once again to visit the fabled city, home of the European Parliament and unofficial capital of Europe. Having secured Frau Dörr’s enthusiastic agreement to walk Cody one last time, we headed westward into the gloom of a drizzly December morning.

With our faithful navi Susie and some rather vague directions from our Fodor’s guidebook, we managed to steer ourselves towards the heart of Old Strasbourg, situated on an island in the middle of the River Ill, and found a parking structure with space available near the Pont St. Nicolas. Using the enormous bulk of the Faculté de Medicine and Hôpital Civil as our landmarks, we bundled up against the chill and armed ourselves with umbrellas, then set off in the direction of the single red sandstone spire of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame, which marks the city center (photo, right). We crossed the river and set off down rue Leclerc towards the cathedral. The square in front of the cathedral was just as I remembered it from my last trip to Strasbourg at Christmastime, some thirteen years ago at the end of my semester in Montpellier: crowded with festive market stalls selling a vast array of holiday decorations, tourist kitsch, and freshly-baked holiday treats. What I love about Strasbourg is the collision of French and German culture – at any one food stall you could find steaming salted bretzels (pretzels), sugar-covered beignets (donuts), jam-filled crêpes, and gaufres (waffles) topped with whipped cream. The quintessential hot spiced wine is billed as both vin chaud and glühwein. After strolling around the market for a bit and taking a pit stop at a public restroom, we headed into the cathedral.

Begun in 1176, the ridiculously ornate façade of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame gives way to a stark Gothic interior, complete with original stained-glass and stunning rose window. The cathedral was swarming with people and we soon found out why: just before noon, a voice echoed through the interior informing anyone who did not have a ticket to view the daily chiming of the 16th-century Horloge Astronomique (astronomical clock) to leave the premises immediately. A bit dismayed by our curtailed visit, we filed out with the rest of the ticketless and decided to head up instead – 330 feet up, to be exact, to the viewing platform at the base of the spire. After paying a few Euro for the privilege of making the ascent, we headed up a series of narrow spiral staircases to the windswept platform. Some people don’t like the hike due to the open grillwork of the stairs, but I can assure you that climbing the spire at Ulm was much worse! (Of course, the Ulm spire was built in the 19th century while this one dates to the 15th, so you have to put your faith in those medieval engineers.) We were a bit disappointed that we couldn’t climb further up the spire, but we still got some nice views over the rooftops of Strasbourg (photo, right). It was windy and spitting rain, so we didn’t linger long.

Back on solid ground, we continued our stroll through the market stalls and peeked into a couple of shops. I bought a small wrought-iron kitchen towel rack at one store, my requisite cheesy Strasbourg magnet at another, and then we spied a couple of very cute hats in the window of La Chapellerie, a tiny magasin du chapeaux (hat shop) near the cathedral. I indicated to the young woman who waited on me which ones I would like to try on, butchering the French language in the process (although I did manage to spit out dans la fenêtre for “in the window”), and successfully completed my purchase of a darling brown suede chapeau.

We were starting to get hungry as the afternoon was wearing on, so we purused our Fodor’s guide and decided to take a stab at squeezing into Maison Kammerzell, the most prominent restaurant on Place de la Cathédrale. Unfortunately they were fully booked, so we had to satisfy ourselves by admiring the richly-carved 16th-century exterior. Throwing caution to the wind, we started walking away from the cathedral towards the neighborhood of La Petite France and found a small restaurant on a quiet backstreet that looked promising. By promising, I mean that the place specialized in Alsatian cheese and potato dishes. Since the combination of cheese and potatoes is one of my personal obsessions, I knew we would find something here to hit the spot on this cold, damp day.

Unfortunately they didn’t have any tables available on the main floor, which was a very atmospheric space of ancient stone walls and arches, but were shown downstairs into the rather plain basement dining room instead. Regardless, it was warm, crowded, and we were starving! We both ordered sampler platters featuring various combinations of potatoes and sausages smothered with several different varieties of cheese, accompanied by a nice side salad and a thick slice of baguette slathered with goat cheese. Let’s just say I was in cheese heaven! We decided to skip dessert, although the options looked enticing, and headed back outside to take advantage of the last hour or two of daylight.

We walked along the river’s edge (photo, above), admiring the beautiful pastel-hued half-timbered houses, and watched a tour boat pass through a lock. The streets of La Petite France, lined with leaning houses featuring bold black-and-white half-timbering, were crammed with tourists, so we pushed our way through and eventually found ourselves near the monumental stone towers marking the Ponts Couverts (Covered Bridges, although they have lost their wooden shelters; photo, right). From here we could see across the water to the Barrage Vauban, an immense brick dam dating to 1682. We climbed to the grass-topped roof of the dam for a dramatic panorama of the Ponts Couverts and, beyond, the towers and rooftops of Old Strasbourg (photo, below).

We walked through the interior of the dam to get to the other side of the river and found ourselves in a long, arched hall lined with fenced-off chambers crammed full of jagged chunks of stone, gargoyles, and broken sculptures. It was unclear where they all came from, but my guess is that they were bits and pieces of the city’s buildings and churches that had been damaged over the years, or perhaps were part of the destruction from the war.

We made our way slowly back to the center of the city, passing by the École Nationale d’Administration, Strasbourg’s famed school of political studies. By now, dusk was falling and the Christmas lights had been turned on, transforming the winding streets into a fairytale world of twinkling stars and angels. On our way back to the river, we stopped at a street vendor for a couple of sugared pretzels (think French beignet meets German bretzel) and cups of hot chocolate. Thus satiated, we headed back to the car for the two-hour drive home to Stuttgart. The weather hadn’t exactly cooperated, but we enjoyed our little weekend jaunt to Strasbourg and I was glad to finally check it off my travel list!

More pictures of Strasbourg:

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