A Weekend in Strasbourg - Alsace region
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I’m standing in the rue Merciere looking up at thousands of magnificent, intricately sculpted, pink limestone figures crammed onto the west façade of Strasbourg Cathedral de Notre-Dame. There they all are, looking down at us in our clumpy, comfy, walking shoes, dangling a bottle of water from one hand and a digital camera from the other. Quite a few are not looking up at all but, instead, stare transfixed at their electronic gadgets. The blue glow lights up their boredom, even on this summer’s day. The contrast between ancient and modern is stark but not unpleasant. We are what we are. Snatches of mundane conversations which are the fabric of our lives waft about on a summer breeze that smells of the waffles being served along the way there, where that queue of people stand patiently in line, showing each other their souvenirs; the tea-towel and the earthenware mug with the name of an unsuspecting recipient who will no doubt smile gratefully and say “thank-you” more than once, while listening to the drawn-out story of the purchase, simultaneously reflecting on the strange spelling of his/her name. If you look up for long enough, the cathedral tower seems to topple towards you, so you look away feeling slightly dizzy and then look up again, just for fun. The north tower on this stunning Gothic masterpiece was completed in 1437 and at 142 metres high, it was the world’s tallest building from 1647 (when St. Mary’s church Stralsund Burned down) until 1874 (when St. Nikolai’s church in Hamburg was completed). Seriously big then. A south tower was planned but never completed.
Oh! There’s a tour guide beckoning her flock. A petite French lady with ‘Beryl’ written on a large post-it note stuck to her t-shirt, is brandishing a long pole with a rather grubby blue and white teddy strapped loosely to the top to attract attention. It’s certainly doing that. I guess her reasoning is that even if they can’t see her, they will see dangling ted. After a bit of shuffling for position, (show-offs at the front who can’t wait to bore everyone else with their superior knowledge, the middle group who are fairly happy to be there and the stragglers at the back who will disappear with sheepish grins and cries of “catch you up!” at the first opportunity) the group set off into the cool dark interior and, before I know it, I’m flashing my Strasbourg card and following them in. I hover to the side of the ‘couldn’t care less’ contingent and, almost immediately, a couple start trading rather dull insults with each other, in stage whispers, chanting almost; “Shut up!” “No YOU shut up!” “Go to hell!” “No YOU go to hell!” The impervious guide strides ahead and stops in front of the Astronomical Clock where a party of Japanese tourists have just vacated a spot large enough for the group to squeeze into. Japanese tourists do not like to be separated from each other, so when they turn en masse to walk somewhere else, just get out of the way. I would probably feel the same in Japan if I couldn’t understand the language of the country or read a single sign. Clingy would be an understatement. A couple of them bow as they pass and smile too, which is rather sweet. Gosh! Did one of them just take my picture? Surely not?
At 18 metres in diameter, the clock is one of the largest of its type the world, with handsome animated characters that are set into motion at different hours of the day. An angel sounds a bell while another one turns over an hour glass. There are so many different characters; an old man parades in front of death and, on another level, the Apostles pass in front of Christ. The workmanship is astonishing. I must buy a postcard of this on the way I think – I forget of course. The clock also indicates solar time, the day of the week (each represented by a God of mythology), the month, the year and the sign of the zodiac. It also shows the phase of the moon and the position of several planets. And we thought we were clever. Beryl’s French accent is charming and lilting and, if she has noticed me there, she has decided to ignore the fact. We move off at a cracking pace to gaze at the truly splendid rose window on the west façade. Its diameter is 13.6m (45ft to you and I). Rose windows, or wheel windows, are very characteristic of Gothic architecture. Honestly, it is totally stunning. While we are all staring upwards and trying not to admit to the creeping pain in our necks, nodding politely to show we are listening, Beryl informs us rather randomly that Hitler visited the cathedral in June 1940, intending to transform the church into a national sanctuary for the German people. During World War II, all the stained glass was removed in 74 cases and stored in a salt mine near Heilbronn, Germany. Good job too, as the cathedral was hit by British and American bombs during air raids on Strasbourg’s centre in August 1944. After the war, it was returned to the cathedral by the U.S. military. Teddy is bobbing his head at us again but, you know what? I’ve had enough for today, beautiful and awe-inspiring as it all is. I’m off to meet my partner Derrick in a little bar called ‘Le Roi et son fou’(the King and his Fool) in rue du vieil hopital (if you are standing facing the west front of the cathedral in ru Merciere, turn right between Villeroy & Boch and the tablecloth shop and it’s down the short passage on the right). It’s only a stone’s throw from Cathedral Place, yet it’s a haven of quietness and they serve good food as well.
Yesterday was D’s birthday and after much deliberation on how to celebrate in an enjoyable but low-key way, he decided he would like to go and see a film that was showing in the early evening, at a cinema called L’Odyssee (in rue Francs-Bourgeois) that has a dark and mysterious looking bar just past the entrance. It was showing an iconic black and white film ‘The Lady from Shanghai.’ L’Odyssee is a little independent cinema where the lovely girl selling you the ticket is also the one opening the gate and showing you the way downstairs. We nestled back in our armchair-type seats and the film began immediately. No advertisements and, even more brilliant, a total lack of popcorn, ice cream, rustling, chewing and slurping. The people in there had actually come to watch the film. Heaven. There is something a bit naughty and sort of brave about railing against the tourist stereotype and going to the pictures when the sun is beating down outside, and it felt strange for a moment as we stepped out, blinking in the light to join our fellow travellers once again. We walked along and had supper at a place called ‘Flam’s’. It’s an inexpensive restaurant in rue des Freses that serves the local speciality ‘Flammkueche’ – a very thin delicious pizza-type base, topped with anything you like. The menu is enormous and the atmosphere is very laid back and unhurried. A glass of Alsace wine goes down a treat too. There’s Derrick now and I’m so pleased to see him. We order our drinks and sit chatting about how to spend the rest of our last day in Strasbourg and settle for another walk through Petit France and then over to the Museum of Modern & Contemporary Art (1 place Hans Jean Arp.). Considering the bombing I mentioned earlier, it is incredible that little seems to have changed in the medieval centre since the middle ages. The narrow cobbled streets are still edged with half-timbered houses and criss-crossed with pretty canals. No wonder then that it was classified a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1988. If your feet start to ache as ours did, there is a little train that runs through the centre of town, including Petit France, towards the art gallery and you can jump on and off at will. The gallery is relatively new, I think it opened in 1998, so lots of light and air-conditioning and room to move around in. They have some work by Max Ernst and Kandinsky which is worth seeing but it doesn’t have to be a serious tour. Some of the work is just pure fun and will having you saying “I could do better than that!” for sure. The icing on the cake is that the museum has a beautiful restaurant. Sad to say, but food is never far from my mind.
We stayed at the hotel Hannong – 15 rue du 22 Novembre. Shamefully, I didn’t know beforehand that this hotel sits on an historic site of one of the china factories of Strasbourg and copies of some of the china pieces are on permanent display in the hotel reception. A buffet breakfast was included in the price, thankfully, as it was a bit on the pricey side at 16Euros per person. Our room was a little small and there was no fridge but it was still nice and very quiet. There was an outer door and an inner door which meant that we heard nothing of passers-by in the corridor. One strange thing though, our bathroom walls were made of semi-opaque glass which could be slightly off-putting if you didn’t know each other well! You could definitely see whoever was in the bathroom and you might find it a little awkward/irritating, if one of you needed the facilities during the night as, when you turned the light on, it glowed blue in the dark, lighting the whole room up and not many people would be able to sleep through that. Personally, I found it a bit disconcerting to, er, use the loo at first. Having said that, we would go back as the welcome was warm and it had free Internet access in the room which we found very useful. Also, the hotel was situated very centrally, with a row of tempting cake shops and cafes right next door. Not far away is a supermarket called ‘Simply’ where we bought big bottles of water and all sorts of goodies to keep in the room. On the way back to the hotel, we walked past the beautiful Lutheran St. Pierre le Jeune (St Peter the Younger) church in 3 rue Nuee Bleue, to have a last look. We attended a morning service there on Sunday morning and were so pleased we had made the effort as the interior is beautiful and the welcome warm. The service was read in both French and German. There is lots of information on the internet about this church so I wont go into detail here!
Off we go then, back to the airport. We walked back to the Main train station from the hotel (15-20 minute walk at an easy pace). There are trains going to the airport (Entzheim) every 20 minutes. It’s tricky buying a ticket though, so allow time. The machines defeated me, although that’s not difficult! Most of them don’t take cash so I paid using the credit card and it cost 3.80euros each. There is no bus as stated on the airport site!!! We flew with Air France/KLM from London via Amsterdam. Not sure I would do it that way again as we were late leaving London, which made it a bit tight catching the connecting flight at Schiphol, which is a very large airport! We had an hour between flights and needed every minute of that to get from one terminal to the next, with added stress because the U.K. doesn’t have a Schengen agreement, so we had to go through passport control and security all over again. No, we didn’t have a conventional stay and there are loads of sites that we missed, including the Court of Human Rights, but we did enjoy ourselves very much indeed in a relaxed, bordering on lazy, sort of way. Strasbourg is only two miles from the German border, yet it retains its unique French culture so well. I’d go back in a flash.
Nearly forgot, there is a wonderful tram system that is clean, modern and frequent that will get you anywhere but Petit France, which is traffic free.
126 people found this review helpful
This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.