Strasbourg, the largest city in eastern France’s Alsace region, was another “rest” stop on our three-week cycling trip in Germany and France. I fell in love fast and hard. The dedicated bike lane with excellent signage that brought us to the busy city center was like the ultimate welcome mat. Over the next few days we gaped in awe at the behemoth that is Strasbourg Cathedral, marvelled at the flower-lined canals and charming half-timbered dwellings and lingered in romantic cafes. We were enchanted by a place that’s been tossed around like a ping pong ball between Germany and France, yet has an undeniably strong identity and proud people.
Strasbourg Cathedral: It’s impossible to miss
I’ve seen a lot of gorgeous churches in my day and Strasbourg’s Gothic style cathedral tops my current list. Its incredible size is amplified by the fact that it is wedged in among narrow streets and busy squares lined with low-rise shops and restaurants. It appears to have been dropped into its tight space from the heavens. The soaring cathedral tower—the world’s tallest structure from 1647-1874—is not just impressive but makes a handy navigation tool. The facade is covered with incredible sculptures that told stories of good and evil to the illiterate masses of the Middle Ages and inspire wonder today.
The canals of Strasbourg: Take a cruise or walk
Strasbourg’s old town and historic centre is an island – the Grande Île, a UNESCO Heritage Site – encircled by canals and the River Ill. There are loads of tourist boats that cruise along the canals. It’s probably a great activity, but the boats were jam-packed when we were there on a sunny autumn weekend. We opted for a walk. The old town is super compact with many pedestrian-only zones and there are plenty of bridges for glorious photo ops.
Petite France: A romantic place with a surprisingly distasteful past
Petite France is Strasbourg’s scenic historic heart located at the western end of the Grand Île. Although it’s busy with tourists it is utterly charming and romantic. The gorgeous half-timbered houses were originally occupied by tanners, millers and fisherman. Now, many of them house gift shops, restaurants and cafes. Ironically, this delightful area is not a place one would have wanted to be in the 15th century when Petite France was used to contain syphilis carriers.
One of the best views of Petite-France is from the terrace on top of the Vauban Dam, built in the 17th century based on designs by Louis XIV’s military engineer Vauban. From there you get a wonderful view of the 14th century towers that were built to protect the city and the Strasbourg Cathedral in the distance.
Discovering the essence of Alsace
As compelling as Strasbourg’s beauty, is its sense of identity and Alsatian heritage. It does not feel particularly French, nor does it feel completely German. This isn’t surprising given Strasbourg has flipped between German and French rule numerous times up until the end of WWII. Our tour guide Leo told us his grandfather had lived in the city his entire life and changed nationalities four times!
This German/French history has produced a unique blend of culture, architecture, food and even language. Some say, it’s the best of both countries. While French is the official language, many people, especially the older generation, speak Alsatian, a Germanic dialect with adaptations of some French words. Leo, and other people we met are very proud to speak the language of their forefathers. All the street signs in the historic part of Strasbourg are written in both French and Alsatian.
One of the most poignant symbols of Strasbourg’s tumultuous history is a statue in the Plaza de la République (Kaiserplatz). It depicts a mother holding two dead sons, one who fought for France, the other for Germany. She grieves equally for both. They are naked and holding hands symbolizing reconciliation and that we are all one people.
Leo stressed the strong relationship between Strasbourg and her German neighbours just minutes away. It seems fitting that Strasbourg is the official seat of the European Parliament and one of the capitals of the European Union.
During our city tours with Leo and Mathias from Happy Free Walking Tours—something I highly recommend—they enthusiastically told us about Strasbourg’s famous Christmas Market. Little did any of us know that just a few months later it would be the scene of a mass shooting where five people were killed and dozens more wounded. I’m so sad about the tragedy of December 11, 2018. Despite this terrible event I intend to return to the city I fell in love with and experience its beautiful Christmas Market.
There’ll be no ending on a sad note…
If you find yourself in Strasbourg looking for an afternoon break, stop in at Patisserie Christian. The cakes are delicious and the ambiance elegant. Don’t leave town without sampling a few Alsatian Rieslings, and my favourite, a sparkling Crémant d’Alsace. Happy Valentine’s from my French love, Strasbourg!
Next post: The postcard-perfect towns along the Alsace Wine Route (by bike).