Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Chapter 22: Strasbourg, the Crown of Alsace

As Memorial Day weekend approached, which conveniently coincided with our 32nd wedding anniversary, I wanted to plan something special for Lawna and me. My first thought was to set up a weekend trip to Paris, and I spoke with a travel agent on base to see how much it would cost to book a room downtown and travel by train. It was all more expensive than I had anticipated, and he warned me that a lot of people would be visiting Paris on Memorial Day weekend. Additionally, I had seen reports on Euronews about mass demonstations and even a public suicide in Notre Dame Cathedral over the new legislation to legalize gay marriage in France. Not what I had in mind for an anniversary weekend. We will be in Germany for three years. We still have plenty of time to visit Paris.

So, I looked closer to home and checked out some good gothic cathedral towns on Kayak. The closest, and, it looked to me, the most interesting overall was Strasbourg, the great center of Alsatian culture. Until the twentieth century, Strasbourg Cathedral was the tallest church in the world. I would also like to see Chartres, Rouen and Notre Dame de Paris, but Strasbourg would be a perfectly respectable and imminently doable starting point. It's only two hours away from Spesbach by car. I keep wanting to travel by train, but every time I look at the ticket prices, I think, let's just drive. Fuel prices are high, too, but not as high as train tickets, especially with on-base fuel discounts.

I booked a room at L'hotel Maison Rouge, right in the downtown area. On Saturday morning, we set off down the road for Strasbourg.
And what a beautiful ride it was. The country roads wind through farms and forest areas, some of which are continuations of the tip of Germany's Black Forest region. The day was sunny, and everything was green from the rains we have had. We stopped at a local bakery in a small lumbering town, hoping for a bathroom, but France is short on public restrooms. Most businesses don't appear to have them. In cities, the municiple government provides them at the street level. No bathroom, but a warm, freshly baked loaf of dark (noir) bread and some flaky croissants launched us back on the road. Closer to Strasbourg, we finally found a rare French rest stop with a convenience store and RESTROOMS! It's tough to grow old!

Strasbourg is a smaller city than Paris, and, I'm sure, more manageable for a weekend. Most of the center is historic, a pleasant collection of buildings from all periods of French history, radiating out in narrow walkways, town squares and parks and streetcar tracks from the crown of Strasbourg, Notre Dame Cathedral.
Driving in such a downtown is a fright for an American. In the US, a driver mostly needs to be concerned with other cars. In European cities, one must look out for crowds of pedestrians who consider the streets theirs, bicyclists, boisterous streetcars and narrow, serpentine one way streets that sometimes look more like sidewalks than anything for a car. Much of downtown is paved with cobblestones or brick, and signs direct cars into areas where most Americans instinctively think they don't belong. It is a cultural perspective shift. Cars can legally go almost anywhere pedestrians can go, even on curbs, but don't dare hit anyone.  Added to that, American cars (even our Honda Civic) are big in Europe. I don't mean popular--just big in size. Even a Civic is tricky to maneuver into downtown parking spaces. A Smart car is just about right.

I was ecstatic to finally have our car parked in the underground Kleber municipal parking lot for the weekend, and then we pulled our wheeled suitcases up a ridiculously narrow spiral staircase (there is also a coffin-like elevator)  from under the streetcar line, and then along the cobblestones of Rue de Francs Bourgeois about a block to our hotel. The street was alive with pedestrians and bicyclists, and a busy street car platform. Ah, Strasbourg!

We had arrived well before check-in time, but the maitre di allowed us to store our two suitcases in a luggage room. Then we set out to find a good cafe.

Finding a good cafe is absolutely no problem in Strasbourg. They are on every corner. Every place we ate, including breakfast at the hotel, was excellent. Not cheap, mind you. But excellent. About the only way to eat cheaply in downtown Strasbourg is to either bring your own food or rely on Turkish Kebop and Pizza shops. They stay open on days when other Europeans take the day off, and they undercut most everyone else on price. But, who wants to eat just kebop and doners on a French vacation? Crepes, duck, outrageous desserts. . .that's what I'm talking about! And plenty of red wine and Kronenburg amber or pilsner (that's the local Alsatian brew) and, of course, espresso.
On Saturday, a sunny, mild day, we walked all over the downtown area and visited the great cathedral. On Sunday, it rained pretty much all day, so we made that our museum day. Most of the important museums in Strasbourg are adjacent to the cathedral. A medieval art museum is housed in the old church tax assessor's and stonemason's building which dates back to the 11th century. The collection is astonishing and gave me a new appreciation of medieval art expressiveness. Today's cathedral is built on top of two other places of worship, beginning with an old Roman temple, then progressing to the original 11th century church, which eventually burned to the ground, to be restored by a Romanesque church, part of which still stands, but is mostly built over in the grand Gothic style. The museum houses archaeological pieces from the old churches, as well as items that for one reason or another were removed from the cathedral (Revolution, War, Reformation zeal, etc.) Some of them have had remarkable lives, passing from one hand of history to another, and finally returning full circle to Strasbourg, which was also damaged significantly by bombing during World War II.
The other museums of interest, a fine arts collection and an archaeological museum, are both housed in the adjacent Palais Rohan, a grand seventeenth century palace originally built for the cardinal of Alsace. Later, it also housed at various times Marie Antoinette and Napoleon. Much of the interior has been restored after damage incurred by allied bombings. To see the opulence of the place, one begins to appreciate why the French started a revolution. The eighteenth century one percent! The original occupy movement, though unfortunately much more brutal! 
The history around Alsace is extraordinary, dating to prehistoric times. Some of the earliest fossils in Europe were found in this area, and these were the people that Caesar wrote about in the Gallic Wars. There has been rich and detailed archeological activity occurring here for a long time, and these museums are a culmination of that. Fascinating stuff. Strasbourg is beautiful, friendly and educational at the same time. And the pastries are to die for!

There's much that we did not see. The modernist Parliament of Europe is located in Strasbourg, and reportedly the city boasts one of Europe's most awesome train stations. We still have three years. Next time maybe we'll hop a train.

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