Strasbourg, France

Sometimes geography winds up playing a major role in where you end up traveling. When I was planning this trip, I hadn't anticipated making a stop in Strasbourg, and there wasn't any one tourist attraction in the city that I was dying to see. However, I needed to travel from the previous group of locations I had been visiting in the Low Countries to a new set of destinations in the Alps, and I could either waste a full day traveling, or stop to see something along the way. Strasbourg was conveniently located in the middle of this path, and I decided I might as well spend a night in the city. Strasbourg is the historic capital of Alsace, the often-disputed region that straddles that French/German border and had a local culture that blends together elements of both. I would have an afternoon here to investigate the city's Gothic cathedral, its warren of medieval buildings, and its future as the home of the European Parliament.

This was one of the very few mornings of my trip that did not require waking up at an obnoxiously early time. There was only one train all day that would be headed from Luxembourg City to Strasbourg, and it didn't arrive until 11:30 in the morning. I took advantage of this opportunity to catch a few more hours of sleep than normal. The train itself was one of France's famous TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) high speed rail vehicles, and required booking online in advance to ensure a seat. This particular train was headed all the way to Montpellier in southern France, and it would be arriving there in only a few hours of travel time. The high speed of the TGV wasn't as interesting as it might sound; this particular section of track wasn't one of the fastest parts of the overall network, and there wasn't all that much difference between passing farmland at 60 miles/hour versus 120 miles/hour. The train did reach Strasbourg very quickly in any case, taking only about 90 minutes to make the journey.

When I arrived, I found that the Strasbourg train station presented this strange facade to visitors. Most of the building was constructed in the late 19th century by the local city authorities... by the local GERMAN authorities since Strasbourg was part of Germany at the time. This region has passed back and forth between German and French control in 1871, 1919, 1940, and again in 1945. The station featured a good number of Victorian-era statues dedicated to the promotion of commerce and industry. I imagine that their presence has been somewhat awkward at times for the current French government, but it does speak to the overlapping French and German influences on the city. In the first decade of the 21st century, this historic structure was refurbished with the addition of a huge glass roof that entirely covers the building. It creates a striking sight, with the old original building peeking out from inside a transparent shell of glass and steel, almost like a big clear Easter egg.

Walking from the train station into the city center, the first place of note that I came across was the above church. Known as the Old St Peter's Church (Église Saint-Pierre Le Vieux), this building of red stone loomed large above the shops and cafes that I had been passing along the way. This church has a peculiar history, having been shared by both Luthern and Catholic congregations for centuries. That continues down to the present day, although fortunately with a lot less antagonism between the two groups nowadays. The interior looked a bit different from some of the churches that I had been visiting further north, with lightly colored painted walls taking the place of all the unrelieved white that had been so common in many of the Dutch Calvinist houses of worship. While this was not an especially famous or significant location, I did appreciate the stained glass windows that surrounded the altar. They felt especially colorful when viewed through the afternoon sunlight.

The original heart of Strasbourg sits on an island formed by a division in the Ill River. As a result, walking around the historic part of the city means crossing over a number of bridges where many of the original buildings have been preserved down to the present day. On this sunny Friday afternoon the waterfront was absolutely beautiful, a wonderful place to walk about and take in the scenery. I was hardly the only one thinking this way, as there were scores of other people out enjoying the fine day for themselves, eating a meal or simply relaxing in the shade next to the water. These pictures are from the southwest corner of the city, in the area known as "Petit France", where three tiny islands are connected together by bridges and share a public park. Many of the bridges had flowers blooming in small pots on their railings, adding another splash of color to the scenery. I couldn't ask for a much better day than this.

There were a number of boat tours taking place on the river, which looked like it would have been fun to do. This tiny little pedestrian bridge had been built to accomodate those pleasure boats; it rotated in a 90 degree angle to move out of the way and allow the boat to pass. That was a very clever way to maintain a historic structure while still allowing watercraft to pass through! There was also this hotel located right next to a small portion of rapids in the water. Not only did this swanky place have riverfront views on all sides by virtue of sitting on one of those three small islands, it was actually built so that the river passed underneath part of the hotel. Needless to say, I wasn't staying in that picturesque (and expensive) location. As for the rest of the nearby old houses, they had the characteristic design that I associate with Germany or Switzerland, lots of wooden beams on the outside surrounding the windows and steeply sloping roofs on top. This was noticeably different from the historic buildings in places like Delft or Amsterdam, and it wasn't the kind of style that would be found in the rest of France. The construction was definitely influenced by the nearby German border.

After leaving the riverfront and passing through some of the narrow medieval streets, I reached the main square in the center of Strasbourg. This is known as Kléber Square (Place Kléber), and today it hosts a series of restaurants, cafes, and shops. (For better or for worse, the square had an Apple Store and a Starbucks when I visited.) The square is named after Jean-Baptiste Kléber, a French soldier during the revolutionary period who was born in Strasbourg, and the statue in the center unsurprisingly depicts this individual. The Nazis tried to rename this square after one of their local toadies during World War II, but needless to say, the attempted renaming was a failure. Kléber Square has been designated as a world heritage site due to its role as the traditional gathering place for the people of Strasbourg. This is more or less located in the center of the main island, and it's easy to see why it has remained the heart of this city over time.

The next destination that I wanted to see was the most famous tourist attraction in Strasbourg, its enormous Gothic cathedral. Known officially as Cathédrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg, it's considered to be among the finest examples of medieval architecture in Western Europe. Unlike Cologne Cathedral, Notre Dame de Strasbourg was actually completed during the Middle Ages, with the original core of the building dating to the 11th century, and the whole structure finished in the early 15th century. Standing at 460 feet in height, this was the tallest building in the world for the better part of two hundred years before being supplanted by more modern structures. I found it difficult to photograph the height of the whole building, due to lack of space in the small square surrounding the cathedral. Notre Dame de Strasbourg also stands out due to its asymmetrical design, with a tower extending an additional 100 feet on the north side of the building, and no similar tower on the south side of the building. There was supposed to be a second tower there which was never built due to lack of funds. Standing in front of the building, the cathedral was an imposing sight, dominating the immediate square and towering over the rest of the city.

Here are some more details of the statues ornamenting the front entrance of the cathedral. Like many other cathedrals from the medieval period, a mind-boggling amount of detail went into the creation of these religious figures. A close inspection will reveal that many of these statues are replacements, the originals having fallen off or been destroyed at some point in time over the last seven hundred years. Notre Dame de Strasbourg has weathered the religious conflicts of the Reformation, the radical atheism of the French Revolution, shelling during the Franco-Prussian War, and repeated bombing during World War II. It's not surprising that a lot of the stonework has been lost to time. Fortunately a handful of the original stone carvings are still clinging to life here and there, and modern restoration has replaced the damaged figures.

The interior of the Notre Dame de Strasbourg was reminiscent in some ways of Aachen Cathedral, in the sense that it combined together two different architectural styles. The main theme here was High Gothic, with the familiar high arched ceiling, two rows of stone pillars holding up the enormous weight of the roof, and rows of stained glass windows to let in light along the walls. For such a tall structure, Notre Dame de Strasbourg had a surprisingly low ceiling in the central nave. The stained glass was exquisite, however, both of the two rows of windows along the sides of the building and especially the rose window above the main entrance. Set high up in the walls, that window is 45 feet in diameter from one side to the other. This is the more recent part of the cathedral, and it looks similar to many other Gothic cathedrals scattered across Europe.

The eastern edge of the cathedral is the oldest part of the structure, the section that dates back to the 11th and 12th centuries. This area behind the altar was constructed in the Romanesque style, with the same features that I had seen a few days earlier at Aachen Cathedral. A central round dome was the defining featuring, extending up directly above the altar, with painted religious icons in the Byzantine style adorning the wall in the back. There was only a single stained glass window here, and it was clearly a later addition to this part of the cathedral, with the art style of the stained glass not matching the style of the painted figures. I was struck again at this fusion of two different architectural designs into a single building. It's easy to group everything from the medieval period together since it all occurred so long in the past, but there was a significant break in time between the two components of this cathedral. The oldest part was constructed about three centuries before the newest part, as far in the past for them as the War of Spanish Succession is for us. If your response to reading that is, "what was the War of Spanish Succession?!", then that's kind of my point. This building is an ensemble work, like many of the other great medieval cathedrals, built by many different people over a long period of time, and with significant changes in architectural design over the intervening years.

Notre Dame de Strasbourg also features this astronomical clock that stands about 50 feet in height, one of the largest astronomical clocks in the world. The current version dates from the 1840s, although apparently the cathedral has featured an astronomical clock of some kind since the 16th century. The machinery that animates the figures on the clock supposedly still works, but the cathedral doesn't put on shows except for very special occasions. The astronomical clock and the much newer pipe organ pictured above were all located on the south side of the building, and these were some of the most photographed attractions for the tourists passing through.

Like Cologne Cathedral, this building also had an optional tower climb that could be undertaken for a small fee. I found myself seeking out these tower climbs in each city, as they provided an excellent opportunity to get a bird's eye view of each location from the oldest and most historic part of each city. Notre Dame de Strasbourg's tower climb was a bit smaller than the one in Cologne, this time extending upwards 330 steps and about 200 vertical feet. It was also much, much less crowded than the tower climb in Cologne, which was a good thing because the spiraling staircase here was if anything even smaller and more cramped. There were also some parts of the staircase that were partially open to the air, and while that was less confining, it was worse in some ways because the long drop down to the pavement was easily visible. That was only something in my head, and this wasn't dangerous or anything, but feeling the wind blowing into the little staircase passageway was slightly disconcerting.

Fortunately the view at the top was magnificent again, where a small platform opened up to display 360 degree views of the surrounding city. I could see Old St Peter's Church and Kléber Square, in addition to the river glinting off to the north and south as it wound its way around the central island. Best of all were the much shorter buildings in the immediate vicinity of the cathedral. Many of these houses were very old indeed, and the surrounding pedestrian streets around the cathedral were unchanged from the medieval period. The view looking down at these buildings wasn't too far removed from centuries earlier. These were some of my favorite pictures yet that I'd been able to take on this vacation.

After finally departing the cathedral, I walked to the north and crossed the river again, reaching another public square. This green expanse was known as Place de la République... but also, crucially, as Kaiserplatz. This was another standout example of the dual cultures influencing Strasbourg, with this lovely expanse of grass and flowers claimed by both the French Republic and the long since defunct German Kaiser. Today the buildings flanking the square are mostly used by French government agencies of some kind, along with a library for a local university and the Strasbourg theatre. But again, the fourth picture above of the building with the dome is the former Kaiserpalast (now the Palais du Rhin), built by the German government in the 1880s as a local residence for the kaiser and his family. The competing pull of French and German cultures is impossible to ignore in Strasbourg.

I have no idea why there was a sculpture of a giraffe wearing a collared shirt and dress pants outside this television/radio station, but I figured it might as well share it.

More seriously, Strasbourg's history as a focal point for conflict between France and Germany makes it a highly appropriate location to house some of the institutions of the European Union. Ever since the European integration project began under the European Coal and Steel Company in the early 1950s, reconciliation between France and Germany has been at the heart of the endeavor. I know that the EU can be a controversial subject for many and I want to keep that out of this travel blog, so I'll merely point out here that the EU and its earlier predecessors have been successful at keeping the peace in Western Europe for the last seven decades, something that would have been viewed as inconceivable by my grandparents' generation. When grumbling about the latest decisions made in Brussels by faceless bureaucrats, it's easy to forget that the alternatives to integration and cooperation in the past have usually been much, much worse things.

Anyway, Strasbourg is the home of the European Parliament, which is housed in this huge circular building of steel and glass. The EU structures are situated out on the eastern edge of the city, and it was a good walk to get over here from the historic part of Strasbourg, but I wanted to have a chance to see what it all looked like. These modern structures were certainly a contrast from all of the historic buildings that I had been visiting throughout most of the day. The European Parliament was another place where I wanted to take a tour, and despite repeated emails before leaving on my trip, I couldn't find anything that was open for visitors on this particular day. I would have been fine with taking the tour in a non-English language, but there just wasn't anything available. Ah well. I had to be content once again with taking pictures of the building's exterior. I had now been to all three cities where the EU's institutions are housed: Brussels, Luxembourg City, and Strasbourg.

Having walked all the way out to the edge of the downtown, now I had to walk back again to reach the hostel where I was staying for the night. On the way, I passed by this local church named Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune, the "Young Saint Peter" church to contrast with the "Old Saint Peter" church that I had visited earlier, and hopped inside to take a quick look. It seemed like a nice enough place overall, with the one distinguishing feature of having this amazing stained glass window. I don't know the story behind this image, or why all of those angels are playing musical instruments, I just thought that it looked really neat. The hostel for this evening's stay was named Ciarus, and the hostel was built into a narrow vertical part of this larger building, with my room up on the fourth floor. This was the nicest place that I had stayed to date, with a shared bathroom within the unit and all of the furnishings looking newly built. If I was going to stay in a shared room, this was the way to do it.

My next few days were about to be spent in Switzerland, stopping first in the capital city of Bern before heading on to the Alps. For all that I had seen thus far, I was only eight days into my month-long trip across Europe.