A quick update on my weekend - I stayed in Strasbourg for less than 24 hours and it has been one of the most fun things I've done this year. It was a marvelous trip and a decidedly short one, so I can only hope to go back and see more of this wonderful city in the future!
Temperature-wise, summer would be more appealing a season to plan a trip to Eastern France. Clearly, I'm the kind of person to risk freezing to death (no exaggeration here - winter in Strasbourg is way too cold to handle) to see the capital of the Alsace region. December has a very particular feel to it, though, in that the city's all prepped up for the Christmas holidays.
Among the must-see attractions in France this season is the city's Le marché de Noël. Strasbourg boasts one of the most splendid Christmas markets organized in Europe. Thousands of people book hotels months in advance to get a glimpse of the holidays' magic. Was I lucky!
Located close to the border with Germany, Strasbourg's largest city of the Grand Est region of France. It's one of the de facto capitals of the European Union, alongside Brussels and Luxembourg, as it is the seat of several European institutions, such as the Council of Europe, the European Parliament and the European Ombudsman.
Sadly, I didn't get to see the buildings which are situated in the more recently built part of the city. I took walks solely in and around the historic city centre, the Grande Île, which has been classified a World Heritage site by UNESCO - it was the first time such an honour was placed on an entire city centre.
One of the island's districts bears the name La Petite France ("Little France"). It's derived from the "hospice of the syphilitic" (Hospice des Vérolés), which was built in the late 15th century on this island, to cure those who suffered from syphilis, then called Franzosenkrankheit ("French disease") in German.
It's here that the river Ill splits up into a number of channels that cascade through an area that was, in the Middle Ages, home to the city's tanners, millers and fishermen. The area made me think of Venice, as doors and balconies open to staircases descending down to the river's surface. Tanners used to wash the sheep's skins there and would later leave them in the house's attic to dry - the reason why the rooftops have holes to keep the air circulating inside.
Just upstream of Petite France, the River Ill flows through the Barrage Vauban, a defensive structure built at the end of the 17th century. Downstream of this, the river splits - one part flows to the north of the Grande Île, and the other, comprised of four channels, flow through the Petite France quarter before reuniting in the main channel of the river, flowing to the south of the Grande Île. These four channels are spanned by the Ponts Couverts, an earlier defensive structure of three bridges and four towers that, despite its name, has not been covered since the 18th century.
Downstream of the Ponts Couverts, the four channels flow through an area of largely half-timbered buildings which, together with the narrow lanes and footbridges that connect them, mostly date from the 16th and 17th centuries. The sloping roofs of many of the buildings include the open lofts where hides were once dried. Three of the four channels flowing through the quarter run over weirs that once drove mills and other industries. A building occupied today by the upscale hotel Régent Petite France was once a cutting-edge refrigeration establishment. Several rooms and machines have been preserved as part of the hotel development project.
Notable people like Marie Tussaud, the founder of the Tussauds museum in London, Gustave Doré and Jean-Baptist Kléber, a general during the French Revolutionary Wars whose name's been given to Strasbourg's central square, have been born here. Then, there were Johan Goethe, Louis Pasteur and Marc Bloch who spent their lives here. Mozart named a violin concerto after the city. Since the 1960's, Strasbourg's also been a twin-city of Boston, Leicester and Stuttgart, among others.
I spent the entire day going up and down the narrow winding streets. The restaurants - quaint but spacious, very warm and cosy, abuzz with the visitors' impressions and the clinking of cutlery - were full to the brim. In the end, I managed to get a coffee along with the chance to try a Tarte flambée gratinée - it's a specialty of the region and is the predecessor to the Italian pizza. It's positively delicious!
At last, the sun began to set and the streets took on the Christmas spirit. Thousands of lights were flickering in all colors hanging from the buildings' façades, people were popping in and out of giftshops and bakeries carying gift-wrapped packages for loved ones and sipping hot chocolate. The squares were covered in wooden counters overflowing with Christmas decoration, glittery toys and deserts. The air was heavy with the smell of cinnamon, chocolate and mulled wine (vin chaud). That moment was representative of everything that the spirit of Christmas should be!
Among the things I'm sad to have missed (and another reason to return to Strasbourg) is entering the city's Cathedral. It's widely considered to be among the finest examples of high Gothic architecture. It was the world's tallest building from 1647 to 1874. Today it's the 16th tallest church in the world and the highest extant structure built entirely in the Middle Ages.
Described by Victor Hugo as a "gigantic and delicate marvel", and by Goethe as a "sublimely towering, wide-spreading tree of God", the cathedral is visible far across the plains of Alsace. Sandstone used in construction gives the cathedral its characteristic pink hue. Many religious buildings stood at this site before the current cathedral's construction. It's particularly unnusual as it only has a single tower - the second one was never built due to the soil's instability, which is drenched by underground waters.
At that same square stands another edifice that's equally attractive to see. It's the Kammerzell House - the oldest and one of the most ornate and well preserved medieval civil housing buildings in late Gothic architecture in the areas formerly belonging to the Holy Roman Empire, its construction dating back to 1427.
Facing the cathedral, one would find the Hôtel de la Cathédrale. Strasbourg was a prized target during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, and was, therefore, one of the most highly defended cities in France. At one point, Prussian forces opened fire on the city, unleashing a massive attack and the siege didn’t end until France’s capitulation, with considerable damage done to the city. One such shell was never removed and is still visible on the façade of the hotel.
At one of the square's corners surrounding the cathedral, a büchmesser's situated. A support pillar served as Strasbourg’s belly-meter to measure the girth of the workers involved in the construction of the cathedral, to make sure they would fit in the tight nooks and crannies required during the work.
While the Notre-Dame cathedral gets most of the attention, and deserverdly so, the Protestant church Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune's a hidden gem worth visiting. Built from 1031 onwards on the site of a Merovingian chapel, the Gothic church was consecrated by Pope Leo IX, who himself hailed from Alsace. The base of the bell tower and a number of walls from the original Romanesque structure are still visible, as well as 14th-century frescoes, and remains from the 11th-century columns.
As if the quirks of Strasbourg weren't enough - it turns out that the largest private collection of West African voodoo in the world's located here. Château Vodou, located downtown in a converted water tower or château d’eau, presents intriguing and eerie objects of worship, divination, and witchcraft.
Yet another hidden gem that could be easily overlooked is the dozens of ancient barrels of wine tucked away in the cellars of an old medieval hospital, including one containing a vintage from 1472, said to be the oldest wine in the world. At one time medical care could be paid for with plots of land, many of which contained vineyards, and some winegrowers would entrust their products to the cellars for ageing.
Finally, every day at noon a mechanical rooster perched atop a street clock crows his best ‘cocoricoooo’, and a hen, in her nest across the narrow street, responds in kind moving slightly to reveal the golden eggs she’s just laid. I can't wait to plan my next visit to this magical corner of the world!