Wednesday, March 25th 2015
You may or may not have guessed from the clues that I gave you in We’re off to S… that our destination is the ancient city of Strasbourg in the Alsace region of France. I had been there on numerous occasions in the past but not for a couple of decades. Tigger had never been there and while the city would be entirely new for her, I expected that much would have changed for me.
The modern name of the city is Strasbourg in French and Straßburg (Strassburg) in German. Today, it is a French city but one that retains its own unique character, derived partly from its history (see below) but also from the character of the people of the Alsace region to which it belongs. Alsace is a land of small farms, vineyards and forest. The Vosges, a low range of pine-forested mountains, offer fine walking, magnificent views and a peaceful tranquillity. Alsace is also a land of small towns and villages and even people who live in the towns often still have family in the villages and will serve you slightly cloudy wine or schnapps from bottles with hand-written labels.
Where Strasbourg spreads its mass today, the Romans built a fort called Argentoratum. The area was marshy from the local river called the Ill but the settlement thrived. By 1262 it was a free city in the Holy Roman Empire but in 1681 it was annexed by France because of its strategic importance. This is reflected in its name which is said to be formed from two particles, stras-, meaning ‘street’, and bourg, meaning a town or borough.
In the 18th century, Strasbourg became a major city and increased in wealth and importance. Though it suffered in the French Revolution, it recovered and developed in wealth and prestige during the the 19th century.
During the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), Strasbourg was annexed to become part of the new German Empire and remained German until the end of the First World War. With the fall of France to the German armies in 1940, Alsace, and Strasbourg within it, was once more made part of Germany until the Liberation in 1944. Today, it is the seat of the Council of Europe and of the European Court of Human Rights.
French is the official language of Alsace but alongside it a local dialect is spoken. This is characterized as a Low German dialect and is called Alsacien in French and Elsässisch in German. As with many local languages, the Alsatian dialect came under pressure in the 20th century, being regarded as the language of villagers and the ill-educated. It was threatened with extinction but has continued to survive and in modern times to experience a revival, though its future remains uncertain.
Our journey was to consist of two parts, the first by Eurostar from St Pancras to the Gare du Nord in Paris, and the second by TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse), France’s high-speed electric train service, from the Gare de l’Est in Paris to Strasbourg. We had booked our tickets online (it is the Modern Way, after all!) and would need to extract our travel documents from the machines at the station.
Our train was due to leave at 08:31 so we arrived at St Pancras good and early, knowing that there were formalities to complete. The first task was to have breakfast and for this we went across to King’s Cross Station and the Giraffe cafe-restaurant there. We ordered a solid breakfast, something that later turned out to be unnecessary, as I shall explain…
Back at St Pancras, we typed our reservation number into a ticket machine and inserted the credit card that we had used for payment. (This is to check that the person claiming the tickets is the rightful owner.) Then we made our way across the walkway to the Eurostar entry gates. Here, you present your ticket to an optical reader which checks it and, if satisfied, opens the gate for you to go through. Not everyone realizes that this is how the gates operate and there are no notices to enlighten you. You may, therefore, get stuck behind someone who needs convincing to present his ticket to the machine.
Once through the gate, you must queue to put your luggage, handbag, camera, coat, etc and any metal objects such a your belt, into trays which a conveyor belt transports through the X-ray machine. In addition, you have to walk through a detector gate which sounds an alarm if it detects anything suspicious. In that case, you are treated to an individual frisking by security personnel. When these security measures were introduced some years ago, they were greeted with a chorus of outrage and accusations of invasion of privacy but, today, people accept them as perfectly normal. I also noted that the security personnel directing operations did so quietly, politely and as unobtrusively as possible, in contrast to those in the airport in New York who had shouted at us and marshalled us as though we were convicts being transferred between jails.
Following the baggage inspection, we next had to show our passports to both French and UK officials. I wondered whether the officers of the French Police aux Frontières stay in London for a time or travel back to France on the last Eurostar service of the day. I will ask if ever I get the chance.
The baggage inspection is similar to what happens at airports. Similar too, is the way passengers are kept in a departure lounge until about 20 minutes before the train is due to depart. Apart from that, Eurostar travel is more comfortable and less fraught than air travel, which I cordially hate. Mind you, we did have a slight advantage: because of our long legs we had booked “Standard Premium” instead of plain “Standard” because this provides roomier seats and plenty of space for luggage. What we had overlooked is that Standard Premium passengers are served a meal, so we found ourselves eating a second breakfast! We could have saved time and money by skipping our visit to Giraffe, had we known.
The journey to the south coast was uneventful. We paused briefly at Ebbsfleet and then entered the Channel Tunnel. It takes about half an hour to travel through the tunnel but it always seems longer than that. Then, suddenly, you emerge into daylight and find yourself racing through the French countryside. Eurostar is a high-speed train but it doesn’t feel fast: you need to look at the terrain close to the track to gain an impression of how fast you are moving.
We had switched off our mobiles during the passage through the tunnel and now turned them on again. They latched onto the local network and we chose a new setting for the clock to bring it to French time. We accordingly shot forward through time by one hour.
I relaxed comfortably and alternately dozed and watched the view through the window. It was almost a disappointment to find ourselves entering Paris. I would have been happy to continue my high-speed relaxing for a while longer!
We left the train and crossed through the Gare du Nord to make our connection for the next part of the journey. On our last visit to Paris (see Paris 2008) we stayed in a hotel very close to the Gare du Nord and therefore know the area. We knew that the Gare de l’Est is but a short walk away.
We had about an hour to wait for our train to Strasbourg but didn’t feel like roaming around with our bags so we sat and waited. When the platform for our train was announced, we went aboard and found our reserved seats. Then came the announcement: owing to “technical problems”, this train was being withdrawn from service and we must transfer to another train on platform 1. It is not only in Britain, then, that such things happen, though whether this is reassuring or depressing I am not sure.
When we reached Strasbourg, we left the station and looked for the taxi rank. Our hotel – with the imposing name Ibis Strasbourg Centre Ponts Couverts – wasn’t all that far away but in order to find it for the first time and with bags to carry, taking a taxi seemed a good idea.
Our taxi driver was somewhat taciturn and unreactive, so much so that I wasn’t sure he had understood where we wanted to go. It seems that he had understood (and he cheered up later when I gave him a tip – though he had done little to deserve one) and conducted us safely to our destination.
The hotel is large and of a fairly imposing design but when we reached our room, we found this to be tiny. The bathroom was like a cupboard and the “wardrobe” was a space behind a partition, barely deep enough to hang three garments. Fortunately, we were not intending to spend much time in the room.
After arranging things in our room and making a cup of tea, we set out on foot for a first look around. Strasbourg has a modern tram system and this interested us as a possible way to get around. We soon discovered that there was a tram stop close to the hotel and that one could catch a tram to the station – this would be useful on our last day when we needed to go to the station with our bags.
We returned to the station because we had seen a tourist information office there and wanted to know whether Strasbourg had anything like Lille’s City Pass (see Lille 2014) providing travel on public transport and admission to museums and galleries. We discovered that there is no combined pass like that in Lille but that there is a Strasbourg Pass, costing €16.90 which allows free or reduced admission to a number of important galleries, museums and other attractions, such as the Astronomical Clock in the Cathedral.
Strasbourg Station is very big and very beautiful. It was built between 1878 and 1883, when Strasbourg was part of Germany. (The photo above is a composite made from several shots and I have left the curly edges rather than trim them and lose parts of the picture.)
With its noise and bustle, its shops and restaurants, ticket offices, waiting rooms and offices, the station is like a small town and is very busy. Though it is big, it is not too big, considering the amount of traffic that passes through it.
A glass canopy has been added to the front of the station. This provides a second concourse and expands the area protected from the weather. The façade that was once the outer face of the station is now an interior wall.
The above photo shows the glass canopy from outside. As it is a composite picture, the curvature is somewhat exaggerated but if you allow for that it gives a good impression of the structure. While the canopy could be criticised for obscuring the original station façade, it does at least protect that from the elements and we can see still it (and photograph it!) inside the canopy.
Strasbourg is quite a watery place as this map centred on Place Kléber shows. The river that flows through it, the Ill, splits into several branches and there is also a canal.
There are therefore many bridges and many traces of warehouses and factories that once relied on the river for transport or for water. The above two photos were taken looking in opposite directions from the bridge that carries the Rue du Maire Kuss over the river. If the bridge has a separate name, I was unable to discover it.
We came across this church and were intrigued by it. It is called Saint Pierre-le-Vieux (St Peter-the-Old) apparently to distinguish it from two other churches dedicated to St Peter, Saint Pierre-le-Jeune (St Peter-the-Young) and Saint Pierre-le-Jeune Catholique. What struck us was that Saint Pierre-le-Vieux seems to consist of two churches stuck together, one Catholic and the other Protestant. Piecing the story together is quite difficult owing to the paucity of information and the brevity of sources (see, for example, this French Wikipedia article).
The building visible from the street and shown in the above photos was added in the 19th century but the original church was built in the 12th century and was, of course, Catholic. During the Reformation, Strasbourg became a Lutheran city and Saint Pierre was converted to Lutheranism. When Strasbourg was taken over by the French, King Louis XIV decreed that the church be divided by a wall so that both Catholics and Protestants could use it but in separate parts. We could not go into the church and see for ourselves but I understand that this schizophrenic arrangement still obtains though a door was made in the dividing wall in 2012.
As mentioned in my Preface, there are many old buildings in Strasbourg, mostly well preserved and still in use. A good place to see examples is the part of the city known as Petite France (Little France). The half-timbered houses in the picture date from the 16th century and the large one on the right has a special feature. The presence of water made this district a good one for tanners and the building is called La Maison des Tanneurs (Tanners’ House). You may be able to see that the roof is not smooth and continuous as is usually the case. In several places there are openings. These were made to allow the circulation of air for drying the skins being worked by the tanners. The noisome tanneries are long gone, happily, but their buildings remain and serve other purposes.
The river Ill was once use for transport and wharfs and landing stages are still to be found along it, though only pleasure craft sail upon it today. Changes in level necessitate locks (écluse, in French) and the Petite France lock is shown above.
After this burst of activity, we decided to return to the hotel to rest, make tea and think about what to do next. One important thing-to-do-next was to have supper and so, as darkness fell, we ventured forth once again, this time in search of food.
Like most cities, Strasbourg is transformed at night. The lights illumine but they also obscure. Some features are revealed in all their glory and others disappear in deepest shadow. We quickly discovered two things that affect the diner especially the vegetarian diner.
The first is that, unlike London where you can get a meal at any time during the day, in Strasbourg there are fixed meal times and outside those hours, restaurants will not serve food. As the magical hour of dinner approaches, restaurants may look open but if you go in they will tell you they are not yet serving. The implication is “Go away and come back later.” The second is that Strasbourg is a meat-eaters paradise and makes minimal efforts to cater for vegetarians. A few restaurants offer a vegetarian dish on the menu, most do not. To be fair, though, I think this is a general problem in France, not just in Strasbourg. On the other hand, Strasbourg does loudly boast of its facilities for tourists and should therefore cater better for vegetarians.
After what seemed hours of wandering and reading menus, we settled for a small restaurant that served pizzas. It was a family-run business and we were the only diners. (It was still not quite the official dinner hour.) Service was polite and friendly and the food reasonably good.
Our search for food had brought us back to Petite France. allowing us a night-time view of some of the sights we had seen in daylight. In the above photo, the roof openings in the Maison des Tanneurs are easily visible.
At night, the lock is dark and somewhat sinister, filled with black water. You can hear the water rushing through the sluices and you would not want to fall into the eddying currents.
On previous visits to Strasbourg I had visited a bar-restaurant called the Lohkäs and had thought I might take Tigger there as it is a typical example of its kind. In fact, I failed to see it until I went through my pictures and found I had photographed it! The name, incidentally, goes back to the times when tanners were at work in this district. The restaurant’s own explanation reads as follows:
The name Lohkäs comes from the profession of the tanners, especially developed in this quarter of Strasbourg. The craftsmen used the vegetable tanning which is composed of oak’s bark and chestnut’s skin. When the residue which was used to tan the leather didn’t contain enough tannin, it was dried in a cheese mould and sold as fuel to many families of Strasbourg. This product is called lohkäs and was sold by the Lohkästreppler.
Having eaten, we roamed around for a while because everywhere we looked were picturesque sights that demanded to be photographed. The combination of water and lights is always fascinating.
This picture shows another important use of the river in the past: as a source of motive power through water mills. In the left background to can see the mill race of one of the old mills. Whether it was used for grinding flour or for some other purpose I do not know. The mills in town are no longer used and simply add interest to the scenery.
The coloured panels in the above photo belong to the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain (Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art). This is very near our hotel and it therefore serves as a very useful beacon by which we can find our way back to the hotel at the end of the day! And that is where we headed now, having clocked up quite a few miles since our (first) breakfast at Giraffe, King’s Cross, this morning.