Roman Forum 2006

Roman Forum 2006
Foro Romano, from the Palatine Hill - a favorite photo from one of my favorite cities

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Bloggo Gioioso: Strasbourg in Three Days - a Love Match

All, right, I've asked Dottore Gianni to butt out for a bit, because he's jealous - see I just met a wonderful dame, and her name is Strasbourg - can't even remember her first name, but lets just call her Belle. 

I came upon her only yesterday, later than I'd hoped - you see there was a screw-up and I missed my 7:46 am train from Mainz. Oh, I was on time, in fact early, but there was a last minute change in platform and while I understood from the announcement that the train was delayed, I did not get that I had to move to another "gleis" to catch it. Fortunately Germany has an excellent rail system and many great workers on it. The Reiseburo in the station (that's part of the rail system that arranges and re-arranges trips) got me aboard another train - let's say trains - I had reservations on three trains as there were two changes - and of course it was last minute - but they got me on a 9 am train that took me first to Frankfurt Airport, then to a small but strategically located town called Offenburg (a lovely and smooth 90 minute ride during which I listened to Beethoven cello sonatas -doesn't everyone, when in Germany?). There I changed to a very local, two-car train to Strasbourg.

At first I worried that Belle, La Plus, let's call her Strasbourg, okay? nothing wrong with surnames...wasn't going to be very friendly. She can sport a stormy personality - in fact it was predicted. And when I arrived there were very dark clouds, but also a good bit of sun, and Strasbourg opened her arms to me, a rather weary traveler, who had also been rain-sodden for the last two days in the beautiful "Romantic" Rhine.

You get the point - I fell in love...with a city! Let me tell you why...what?!? NO Dottore Gianni, this one I'm doing on my own.

My hotel is almost hilariously campy - bare wood desks, tables and other "decor", and wild bright paintings all over it. 
This is not a joke
I thought at first I would have nightmares as a result of my room decorations! The breakfast is spartan, but I'm judging by German standards, where most of the time there is a wealth of cheese & meat as well cereals, bread, fruits etc. Here there are croissants, baguettes, juice and coffee or tea - curtain. But looking back on past trips to France, and to the kind of hotels I can afford, I seldom got more than that in the morning, and I still ate more here yesterday than I do at home for breakfast. Also it's very near the rail station. I always like being close to transport so that I can dash away if desired/needed.

After checking in and being helped with problematic wi-fi by the young woman at reception, I stepped out to find my way across a bridge to the old city. And then, somehow, I got lost. A walk that should have taken 10 minutes ended up more like a half hour, when it dawned on me that, while not quite seeing the River Ill, which surrounds the old town, I was following it around the old city rather than entering it. Finally a bridge! Any bridge would do (and I must admit that, now I know the city fairly well, I would be able to find my way back that route, which is fine with me. 

My "bridge to La Plus Belle Srrabourg

Once across the bridge the atmosphere changed, almost as if I had entered Brigadoon. Fortunately it was there the following day as well, and with any luck will be again today.  I remember feeling similarly when I visited Siracusa in Sicily, except that then I was staying on the magic isle, Ortigia, only a bridge-walk away, and entered the mundane world only when I crossed the bridge - I did that only twice.

The old center of Strasbourg is a warren of labyrinthine roads, each attractive in its own right, and happily all lead to 
Rome, though "Rome" here comes in the form of a cathedral, one of the most startling I've seen in Europe. I saw it from the train heading in. From that prospect it seemed to sit on a high hill above the rest of the city. It doesn't, it is merely mammoth. And while there are generous squares on at least two side of it, it seems almost impossible to take a photo of the whole of it, and believe me I tried. Its building began in 1176 but it wasn't finished until 1479. Its single oink sandstone spire (there was to be a second, but it was never built) is 466 feet high, the tallest in the world until the mid-nineteenth century.

But trying led me through tiny roads bustling with people and filled with restaurants and cafes. Yes, there are tourist shops, but beautiful as it is, Strasbourg, is not what I'd describe as "tourist hell" - only one mannequin, who'd come to life, especially when a child passed, as Charlie Chaplin. I knew there were more, as when I passed an almost empty square I saw two gold-bedecked, even be-faced young women sitting down, on their lunch break I suppose, but I never saw them again.

If I had not fallen completely in love with La Plus Belle Strasbourg in that initial foray around the cathedral, I 
My barge approaches the pier
certainly did when I boarded the "Batorama", a boat trip around it that starts at the elegant Palais de Rohan. By the end of the ride I walked away absolutely stunned by the city. It is one of the more interesting boat tours I have taken - and I've taken quite a few, some more than once - London, for example, and Paris (I'd include Venice, but hell, there it's the only way to go!). 

On the boat we passed all sorts of interesting looking buildings

This one not only takes you through lovely areas, medieval or baroque, but also into a lock, where the river rises significantly. So I experienced for the first time sitting as the water level gradually rose, the gates opened, and off we went a good bit higher if you will than weld been before. Of course once through a lock, in order to return to your starting point you have to enter another, to get back down to that from which you'd begun the journey, and we managed that feat as well. 

As you see, we enter the lock low in the water...

gradually the water level rises, and lo and behold, the gates open!
People really seemed to enjoy watching and waving at us

And down again we go!

You've got to love these houses!

As we moved along the river we entered posher neighborhoods

Not only is it a great river, but along much of it there are jogging/bicycling paths

We ventured farther up? down? how do you describe the path of a circular river? to where it commingles with the Rhine canal. Beyond that one of the most exciting parts of the boat tour was our journey past the area of European Union land. You knew of course that Strasbourg is the seat of the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights and the European Parliament(?). We passed startling architecture - and this very modern, not much medieval to be had - as our headset guide told us of the different reasons for the different buildings.

Part of the EU complex

The European Parliament

A moment's aside, while we're in the vicinity. It was not merely because of Strasbourg's beauty that the EU chose this place to inhabit. Location is everything, and Alsace-Lorraine has seen more than its fair share of European history. Associated for centuries with the Holy Roman Empire (HRE), it was an important center, during the religion-based Thirty Years' War it was of strategic military importance. Then, 
This building's title changed from "Gallia" to "Germania" and
back again, according to who controlled the territory
when NATION-alism crept eerily into the picture it became a sort of net for a brutal tennis match between France and Germany. Located on the "French" side of the Rhine, it was taken by military tug-of-war by the Germans, most notably in 1870, when the embarrassingly (for the French) short-lived Franco-Prussian war made it "German" again. France won it back in World War I, only to have it taken even more quickly, by "Blitzkrieg" at the beginning of World War II.  After the war of course it reverted to and hopes to remain in France while it retains a fascinating mix of both countries.

It's Gallia today, and probably will remain so

Of course there were other on-going struggles in Europe - that between England and France, centuries long, and within the always shaky structure of the HRE itself, between secular and religious right - then might made right, but the Rhine in general and Strasbourg in particular stand as symbols of the history of the continent. A fitting spot indeed.

Once off the boat I was a bit dazed from my experience with Ma'amselle Strasbourg - what a first date! So I continued, a 
A few of the lovely buildings in La Petite France
bit dizzy, along the water. For through much of the river journey round the city there is a path for walkers and bikers. I headed along the river in the direction of the most scenic part of the city, La Petite France, picturesque old buildings, most of them along tiny tributaries to the river Ill. By now I was beyond smitten, I wanted to LIVE here. And to eat every meal in La Petite France. That's where I had my first meal, a very simple one, but highly popular - a flammkuchen and a bier! 

I dined (with Strasbourg, not with Dottore Gianni - though he was there in spirit, and more than a wee bit jealous of me) at a ridiculously charming restaurant, Au Port St Martin. 
From my table in Au Port St Martin
Flammkuchen, or Tarte Flambée as the French call them (and almost everything here is written in German and in French) are very thin crusts topped with, whatever - nine with munster cheese and bacon - very like pizza, particularly continental (vs American) pizza, and yet...not - and thrust into a fiery oven. I discovered today that these doughy kuchen were originally thrust into an oven to determine how hot it was. When pulled out moments 
My meal - flammkuchen
later the Alsatians and Black Forest farmers who made it discovered not only the approximate temperature, but that the "flammed" kuchen made for good eating as well. Mine was delicious and really quite filling - should probably have had a salad with it but opted to not spend the extra money - the beer was all I needed, and then some. while there I was asked by a middle-aged woman also traveling solo if I would join her (my first proposition in more than two decades!) but politely declined. She was just being generous, I think, as she had a window seat and i did not. And the German family sitting across th aisle from me asked if the food was good, and we shared a toast. Two very welcome if brief encounters with the kindness of strangers.

Evening comes on apace to Strasbourg

After my late lunch/early dinner - so filling and tasty it was to be my last meal of the day - I was stuffed and I didn't want to ruin it by eating something possibly less pleasant later - I was drawn back as if by magnetic pull to the cathedral. By this time the sun (yes, SUN! after several dreary days the sun had popped out and stayed out) was beginning to set. I strolled a while longer, then found a much more direct route back to my hotel, where I managed my photos, wrote, and basques in the glorious beginnings of a beautiful friendship.

Would the morning after have the same appeal? Oh, yes and then some. As had my first, this morning started with some confusion. I wanted to take a brief morning trip to Colmar, a small village that has been described as a little Strasbourg, but I could not get my credit card to work in the ticket machines at the rail station and unlike German machines these did not accept cash.

The Museum of Modern and Cotnemporary Art

I was only a little frustrated, however, as I had a museum I wanted to pop into, and so I did. The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art on my side of the river and only very short walk from my hotel, is a delight -the building itself is exciting, and while much is meant to house temporary exhibitions there is a small but excellent walk through modernist art in several small galleries that begin with impressionism and end with dada and surrealism - a  very good intro to folks not in the know, and a fine reminder to those of us (like me and Dottore Gianni) who are in the know. 

Along with paintings and sculptures by masters of the forms (many of whom were French or centered in France) I discovered artists I'd never met. That's always pleasant. And the curators have cleverly set up "breaks" in the tour in the form of rooms that feature the work of one artist (Henri Riviere for example one, along with La Plus Belle Stratford, of my new acquaintances), or that are hands on for children, or that want to make a special point about something or other. After a room that featured small paintings by Kandinsky, designed to be set in a space, one walks into a room that recreates that space, with the larger paintings in situ!

The lobby space at the museum

Jean Arp, dadaist extraordinaire (later a sculptor), was born in Strasbourg and one or two galleries at the end of the permanent collection are devoted to his unique and wonderful work. At the other end of the permanent collection is a separate gallery devoted to the odd but interesting mid-nineteenth century artist Gustav Doré, who painted traditional landscapes and large religious works, but also dabbled in grotesque cartoons of fables, particularly those of La Fontaine.

Vauban's dam, covered bridge, and not art space - as well as viewing platform (note
the people atop it

When I left the museum I strolled over to an area adjacent, the site of the covered bridge/Vauban's dam/flood protection work. You can walk through the long covered bridge, looking at assorted art and history of the city. Just under that is the machinery that protected the town from rising waters, and you can also climb a few sets of stairs to the top of it, where you'll find some of the most pleasing views of the city. You can also get probably the most complete photo of the cathedral on the top. I was very impressed - built as a covered walk for protection, it also became a protection against floods and today offers protection, art and an excellent viewing point. Classy, just like the rest of Strasbourg.

I also finally got a view of most of the cathedral:

The magnificent cathedral at Strasbourg

Then I headed towards the cathedral.

The nave of the Cathedral, and its organ pipes

I had not yet seen its interior, nearly as stunning as its outside. I took my time walking through it, observing the fine pulpit, the almost dangerously placed organ in the upper left of the nave, and 
on the climb up - flying buttresses!
the famed astronomical clock, which is apparently much more exciting at the stroke of 12:30 pm every day, when crowds gather to watch its clever machinery do take its magical turn. After strolling through the cathedral I proceeded to climb up it, huffing and puffing my way up 332 steps to its viewing platform, still well below that amazing single spire. I couldn't quite see through to the Black Forest, because of a haze in the distance, but there are glorious views of a glorious city to be had, and the ascent is worth all the huffery and puffery!

Looking down from the viewing platform at the rooftops (and here an inner courtyard)
of Strasbourg

After the climb I needed sustenance, and obtained it in the form of a huge midday meal (served at about two pm). This 
took the form of another specialty of the region, baeckeoffe, a rich stew, the traditional form (which I et) combining lamb, pork and beef with potatoes, carrots, onions and much Alsatian wine, cooked slowly for hours and absolutely delicious - also absolutely stuffing! A slow walk back to the hotel got me back at about 4, and I had no need to go out for the rest of the day. Instead, spent that time editing photos and writing - including the beginning of this post.

Upon awakening on my last day in Strasbourg I immediately knew I'd be sorry to leave. My day started early (usually does) but the light rain in the morning kept me from heading out 
The rather cool-looking rail station at Strasbourg
until about 10 am. My first stop was to the rail station, where I checked into my train travel tomorrow, to Basel Switzerland. I then took a walk up to Place Broglie, the location of the Hôtel de Ville, the mayor's residence and offices, and some other government buildings. At the far end 
The opera
of it the Opéra National du Rhin is located. This is a very well thought of opera company. I know it better than some others, as when I was teaching my seminar on Performing Arts and the French Revolution I used a DVD of one of its productions, the cheerful, uplifting (not!) Dialogues of the Carmelites - it is set during the Revolution, with beautiful music by Poulenc, and in the last scene each of the nuns is guillotined - try to think how you'd stage that scene! So I was delighted to see the place in person, and nearly had an espresso in their cafe, but I had other business.

Not much other business, actually. I had bought a Strasbourg Pass, which was a bargain as by today it had got me onto the Batorama cruise, into the modern art museum, to the top of the cathedral, all for free (details, begs Dottore Gianni - okay , the pass costs Euro 16.90 and is good for three days. The Batorama ride alone was Euro 12.50, the art museum Euro 7.50, and the trip to the top of the cathedral Euro 30). As you see by the parenthetical, as of this morning it had already more than paid for itself, and I had two more things that 
The Astronomical Clock
interested me - not so much as the above-mentioned, but one was free and the other only half price. First I decided to have a look at the astronomical clock show in the cathedral. I'm not all that much on this sort of thing, though I have seen a similar clock's mechanics in Prague's Staro Namesti. This was more impressive, as before the stroke of noon - actually before 12:30, which was apparently noon in the medieval era when it was concocted - I understand these things not, nor even does Dottore Gianni, al La Plus Belle Strasbourg either would not or could not explain - and where the hell did that sentence go? I was pointing out that before the show began, there was a 20 minute film, narrated in French, 
All the action is at the top - death
on the lower level, Christ on the upper
German and English, about the clock, and about time. In it there were close-ups of many of the moves made - these include "death" with skull's head and holding a sickle watching as the four ages of man go by him - Jesus Christ is above him and each of the twelve apostles (twelve at twelve, you see?) goes by him and greets him - a cock crows - well, as you can tell from this far from brilliant explanation - a lot of work went into creating these "automata" as they are usually called. The clock is high overhead, and I could only hope to get distant and probably blurry photos of the show(and I was certainly right in that) so I appreciated the film almost more than the show itself.

The cathedral staff begin to let people pay their Euro 4 admission fee (which for me of course was completely free) at 11:30 am, the film started at 12, and then ten minutes of hushed silence as the crowd (and there WAS a crowd) waited impatiently ("the suspense is terrible - I hope it continues" says Gwendolyn of another important event in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest) - and the show commences! And lasts all of maybe two minutes. But it was impressive and I don't think I wasted my time, as the other "treat" the card allowed was a second museum, this time discounted by 50%, not a complete freebie. There are several interesting museums in Strasbourg but the Alsatian Museum is touted by Rick Steves (in fact he calls it the only one "worthwhile" - I sometimes wonder at his standards) and others. So I paid my Euro 3.50 fee (whilst other suckers paid the full 7 haha) and wandered through an old house with many articles from earlier life in Alsace-Lorraine. I was underwhelmed, but again, it was...fine. I dutifully took photos, which I will probably discard, but it was as good a way as any to top off my Pass.

By the time I left the museum it was about 1:30, the perfect time for a last meal. This time I chose a place close to the cathedral, Le Weber, where I ordered my third and last regional specialty, Choucroute - sounds fancy, right? Well, it's sauerkraut - but what sauerkraut, mixed with spaetzle (noodles) and chunks of meat - it was delicious!


I nearly got in trouble with my Belle, as another woman seemed to want to get into a photo my waiter took of me! Have a look at the right of this one:

I could have done worse...

Hell, I HAVE done worse!

But La Plus Belle Strasbourg was having none of it, or her! So, I took a slow stroll back to the hotel and have been here ever since, writing and working on photos and figuring out how to manage the next six days, which are going to be crazy, in Switzerland...but more of that anon. I mentioned earlier that I would LOVE to live in La Plus Belle Strasbourg, but while I know that's not possible, I'll always have Strasbourg, if only in my dreams. Belle, looks like this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship!

Au revoir, revoir, Strsbourg...