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.
Thursday, March 26th 2015
Today is our first full day in the capital of Alsace and, armed with our book of museum tickets we have a particular visit to make. The first transaction is to find breakfast. We do not have breakfast at the hotel because experience has shown that hotel breakfasts in France make little or no concession to vegetarians and that it is therefore better to find a pleasant cafe where you can enjoy coffee and croissants.
I mentioned yesterday that the hotel is in the Ponts Couverts district which takes its name from the city fortifications of which parts still remain. In the 13th and 14th centuries, Strasbourg, still an independent city within the Holy Roman Empire, was expanding and needed more space to house the influx of new inhabitants. Its expansion took its border across the river and its fortifications were accordingly extended. These included bridges and four tall and robust towers. The bridges were of wood and provided with a wooden roof (hence the name Ponts Couverts, ‘covered bridges’) but those early bridges have long since been replaced with unroofed bridges of stone. The four towers,of which three are visible in the photo, no longer needed for defence, have at various times been used as prisons, an isolation hospital and for other purposes.
Strasbourg, like any city, has walls which have been decorated with graffiti or street art, though this is not nearly as prevalent as in London, which is fast becoming a gigantic gallery of street art. We spotted this portrait on a telephone junction box. It is signed by Dan23, who is also known as Daniel Bussière. Such a painting apparently takes the artist about 15 minutes to complete and I would say that the speed of execution adds to the vigour and spontaneity of the work.
Strasbourg is known for its many beautiful old beautiful old buildings which date from various periods of its history. Most have been well cared for and are still in use, though perhaps not the use they were intended for originally.
Strasbourg was, and is, a wealthy city. It was a centre for trade, culture and the administration of the area. Rich merchants and manufacturers spent money beautifying their own establishments and therefore the city as a whole.
I do not know of any French equivalent of the English Heritage list of worthy buildings in the UK, though there may well be one, and I have therefore not researched the above three examples. That is the reason for the lack of captions.
This building, however, is famous. It is called the Maison Kammerzel (‘z’ pronounced as ‘ts’) and was completed in its current form in 1589 as the home (and perhaps business premises) of a cheese merchant, Martin Braun. The ground floor is of stone (sandstone is plentiful in the region and was widely used as a building materiel), and the upper floors of wood. The upper part of the house is lavishly decorated with sculptures representing scenes and figures from history and from religious stories. It is a unique and uniquely beautiful construction of both historic and aesthetic value.
The Maison Kammerzel is on the corner of the Place de la Cathédrale (Cathedral Square) and it was the Cathedral that we had come to visit or, more specifically, something inside it. Because of its size and the closeness of other buildings, it is impossible to get a photo of the whole cathedral from the ground so we could only take partial shots. If you look on the Web, though, you will find aerial shots such as this one.
La Cathédrale de Notre Dame de Strasbourg (The Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasbourg) as we see it today is about the third building of that name. It was built between 1176 and 1439 and was never actually finished: the North Tower was duly completed (and was, between 1647 and 1874, the world’s tallest building) but the South Tower never materialized. This gives the cathedral its unique appearance and accounts for its becoming the symbol of Strasbourg.
We had come particularly to see the Astronomical Clock, considered a marvel in its own right. Publicity information said that it performed an interesting display at twelve noon daily. This is the third clock built for the cathedral. The first was made in the 15th century, the second in the 16th century and the current clock was completed in 1843. For more details of the history of the cathedral clocks, see here.
In addition to telling the time, the clock performs a number of functions such as showing the configuration of the planets and the phases of the moon and calculating the date of Easter.
As well as the dials showing the time and astronomical information, there are figures that supposedly move when the clock chimes.
We knew that there would be a lot of people visiting the clock for the display and we therefore entered the cathedral in good time. Even so, we found ourselves at the back of a large crowd which made it difficult to get good photos of the clock. Nothing happened for a long times though the lights were on and we could see the clock clearly, if at a distance.
Suddenly the lights clicked off, leaving us in semi-darkness and a film began to be shown on a nearby screen. Each section of commentary was repeated three times: in French, English and German. The film was agonizingly long and told us nothing that we could not have found out from many other sources. It was also larded with religious babble which did not help me contain my patience.
To our relief, the film eventually ended and the lights came back on. We waited a few more minutes while the hands of the clock moved towards 12 noon. When the moment arrived, a bell was struck and at the top of the clock there was a parade of the Twelve Apostles before Jesus. I have to say that the whole thing was a damp squib and didn’t match up to the publicity about the clock. We agreed that we were glad to have seen it but wouldn’t be in a hurry to repeat the experience.
I admire the knowledge, engineering skill and sheer cleverness of the maker of the clock, Jean-Baptiste Schwilgué, and mechanism is a true wonder. It would be better, though, if less extravagant claims were made about its displays to avoid the disappointment that naturally follows a visit.
Light levels are fairly low inside the cathedral, and it was a challenge to get photographs of the interior. The above photo and the following one give some impression of this.
On the other hand, the resulting photos can be quite dramatic and colourful. The lighting is not even but comprises brighter spots and areas of dark shadow, creating interesting contrasts.
After viewing the clock, we explored the interior of the cathedral and above and below are a few of the photos that I took.
Here is the conventional church view, looking towards the main altar. The human figure in the central aisle gives some idea of the scale of the building.
This is the contrary view, looking back towards the rear of the building and it also shows a portion of the arched ceiling.
Above us, half hidden in shadows, a stone man seemed to be keeping watch on everything we did…
Attached to pillars along the nave are rows of figures, presumably saints whose various postures no doubt identify them to the faithful.
The large size of the cathedral allows space for a huge installation representing Christ on the cross, complete with soldiers and spectators.
As you might expect, there was an abundance of stained glass and though I am no expert most of it seemed very fine to me. While the above shows the patron of the cathedral, St Mary, with Jesus on her knee, the one below…
…shows four emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, Otto I, Otto II, Otto III and Conrad II and thus harks back to a time when Strasbourg was an independent city state within that empire.
Exposed above the nave is the most gorgeous set of organ pipes that I have ever seen. One source dates them to 1385. The detail shown on the right is the lower decorative element, apparently called a pendentive, and shows a man riding (or struggling with?) what appears to be a headless lion. Quite a remarkable piece of work. (Update: For a plausible interpretation of the pendentive, see WOL’s comment below.)
After visiting the cathedral, we went on a ramble of the city without any particular route or destination. At one point we found ourselves in Place Broglie, a principal square which contains a number of important buildings and monuments. Here too is celebrated the fact that France’s national anthem, La Marseillaise, was composed here in Strasbourg by army officer Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, a fact of which the city is proud. One of the afore mentioned important buildings is the Opéra National du Rhin. Destroyed in the Franco Prussian War in 1870, it was rebuilt to the original plan in 1873.
A more recent work is the Fontaine de Janus (the Janus Fountain) which was designed by Tomi Ungerer for the Millennium. One one side, an inscription reads ‘ARGENTORATUM MM’ and on the other ‘STRASBOURG 2000’. You can probably guess from this that Argentoratum was the name of the city (then just a military outpost) under the Romans.
In the centre of the fountain is a gigantic head with two faces. This, of course, is a representation of the god Janus, who looks both forwards and backwards, and is the ‘god of beginnings and transitions’ in the felicitous phrase of the Wikipedia article. You might also guess, correctly, that Janus is used here to recall the dual German and French history of Strasbourg.
Later in town I saw the sculpture I would have taken home, had I been able to. Not inhabiting a noble monument, it was on the front of a shopping centre. I assume it is modern though it could reside quite happily on the front of the Cathedral of Strasbourg.
Friday, March 27th 2015
We had several activities planned for today and the first was a visit to the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain, Strasbourg’s gallery of modern and contemporary art. Happily, it was within easy walking distance of our hotel.
Wanting to make an early start, we arrived too early: the gallery was not yet open. Fortunately, it was a sunny day and so we filled in the time wandering and sightseeing. The above photo shows the row of towers that were built as fortifications along with the Ponts Couverts (see Strasbourg 2015 – Day 2). There are four towers altogether but they comprise two sets. Three of them (those to the right in the picture) were built in the 14th century but the one on the left is of an earlier vintage. Called the Tour du Bourreau or Henckersturm (the Executioner’s Tower), it was constructed in the period 1202-20.
The design was copied with slight differences in the other towers, built in the second half of the 1400s. For a while, La Tour du Bourreau, no longer needed for defence, served as a prison. I do not know whether executions or torture (the bourreau was also the official torturer) were performed there but it seems likely.
Another surviving piece of Strasbourg’s ancient fortifications, is the Barrage Vauban (the Vauban Dam). It is named after its designer, Sébastien Le Prestre, Marquis de Vauban, who was, among other things, a military architect. The actual building of this impressive structure was undertaken by military engineer Jacques Tarade. As military technology progressed, the medieval fortifications of the Ponts Couverts were perceived to be less effective than when built and between 1686 and 1700, the city now belonging to France, the Barrage was constructed, its purpose being to block the flow of the river and flood the surrounding area in the event of an attack. It was used for just that purpose during the siege of Strasbourg in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.
We returned to the Musée, to see whether it was open. The coloured glass panels of the gallery were shining becomingly in the sunlight but the gates were still firmly shut. We would have to wait a little longer…
We went back into the streets and found a cafe where we could have breakfast. It is called Le Rive Gauche (the Left Bank), no doubt in honour of the famous Left Bank of Paris.
We returned thr the gallery and, after a short wait, the gates were opened. The public entrance is closed by two heavy metal gates but each has a pivot in the centre. They open by rotating 45 degrees and can easily be handled by one person, despite their size and weight.
Strasbourg’s Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain is quite large and well stocked, so there is plenty to see. I cannot show everything and have selected just a few samples.
Rodin’s famous Penseur (‘Thinker’) needs no introduction and must be one of the best known sculptures in the world. The only point at issue is that there are now getting on for 30 copies of the work in various galleries and other places. What you might consider the original, the bronze, currently resides in the garden of the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, not in the Musée Rodin in Paris, as you might expect. Whatever we might think of that, the fact remains that whenever you come across a Rodin Thinker, it is likely to be one of the copies, as here.
The Belgian artist René François Ghislain Magritte is known above all for his surrealist paintings which are often visual puns that are both witty and challenging to our perception of reality. Here he has created a sculpture. It shows a coffin, flexed as though to allow the occupant to occupy a seated position on a chaise longue or couch. Beside it is a tall, delicate lamp stand. Graveyard humour, indeed, but what is it telling us? The title, of course, gives the game away. Madame Récamier was a celebrated society hostess of the late 18th and early 19th centuries during the age of the “salons”, social gatherings of the artistic, intellectual and political élites. The artist Jacques-Louis David painted a famous portrait of Madame Récamier which is in the Louvre. It is to this Madame Récamier de David (David’s portrait of Madame Récamier) that Magritte is making reference, transforming it in order to… what? Is it a joke? a challenge? a message? Perhaps it is left to individual viewers to make of it what they will.
In this room, a number of works attracted my attention, though I can show only a selection of four.
This stained glass window, whose design is somewhate reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts & Crafts Movement, is an anonymous work entitled Allégorie du Printemps (Allegory of Spring). It is colourful and very pretty, if perhaps a little old fashioned in design (though some of us don’t mind this!).
Jean-Désiré Ringel d’Illzach (1846-1916) was an Alsatian artist who worked especially with engravings and sculpture. Many of his works were inspired by music, including a set of nine figures, each representing one of Beethoven’s nine symphonies. This wax bust incarnates the Ninth Symphony.
François Rupert Carabin (1862-1932) was also Alsatian, a carpenter and sculptor. This remarkable armchair (fauteuil in French) was made in 1893 and shows the influence of Art Nouveau. While I like the cats and the mice, I must admit that I have mixed feelings about this chair given that it is support by two human figures in servile postures. (Click to see details.)
This is another work by the same artist, a full-size sculpture of a woman with a cat and a monkey. The title, La Volupté (‘voluptuousness’, ‘sensuality’) suggests that she is a symbol of an abstract concept rather than a person. Abstract she may be but, for all that, she is the very embodiment of that which she represents.
There are plenty of paintings in the exhibition, of course, though I do tend to concentrate on sculpture and other ‘solid’ forms as I find them easier to photograph. I liked the above work by Max Liebermann (1847-1935), showing a scene in the communal orphanage of the town of Amsterdam. All is quiet and activity is at a minimum. We imagine speech is hushed and even the two moving figures are so placed as to balance the composition and convey a sense of stillness rather than movement. Is this an earthly paradise or are these orphan girls bored out of their wits? The viewer decides. The artist painted at least one other picture of the orphanage: Free Period in the Amsterdam Orphanage.
Here we enter the realm of modern art and living artists. This piece by Giuseppe Penone (b. 1947) is the sort of thing that I have railed against in the past, I admit. In this case, though, I find myself vaguely attracted to it, perhaps because of its animal appearance. There is something of the gazelle in the delicate feet and of the anteater in the poise of what one supposes is the head. But there is something of the insect also. The title means something like “Proceeding in a vertical direction” but I suspect it cannot be translated literally. The title, especially with the number, suggests an emphasis on processes rather than on representing recognizable entities and I expect my attachment to it is an example of that ‘mnemonic irrelevance’ (thoughts and emotions dragged in from the viewer’s own experience that in fact have nothing to do with the work itself), that those experienced in art criticism warn against.
Yes, my little joke. On the other hand, it did strike me that the view through the heavily framed window did have something of the painting about it, especially with the asymmetric cathedral standing starkly on the skyline – a case of reality imitating art, perhaps.
Recent times have seen more revolutions in art than you can shake a stick at, revolutions in form, in artistic language and even in the nature of art itself. Daniel Dezeuze belongs to the group Supports-Surfaces which seeks to – that word again – deconstruct painting in order to find out what it is or perhaps to build a new version. Who can tell? His colourful, three-dimensional and delicately latticed Pavillon (‘pavilion’) fits into this programme somehow. Yes, but do I like it? Hm, well maybe…
We began to make our way out of the gallery. The sun was shining through the panes of coloured glass, creating a warm and joyful impression. I took this photo from a suspended walkway. But we had not finished with the art. Not yet…
In the yard of the museum stands this figure. His form carries overtones of the Michelin Man or rolls of pastry. The work is robustly formed from metal. On the label this is described as fonte de fer oxydée, ‘rusty cast iron’. Actually, there is a more common word for ‘rusty’ in French: rouillé(e). Oxydé(e) like ‘oxidised’ in English, is a more technical or scientific term. Does this mean to indicate that the figure is not just rusted through neglect but has been carefully ‘oxidised’ as part of the artistic endeavour? Thomas Schütte (b. 1954) has apparently made many of these Geister figures, hence the number in the title of this one. In each case they were made in sets of different materials. Here we have only one to judge him by. Click to see other views.
We proceeded (in orizzontale, not in verticali) into town. We crossed the Ill by the Pont Saint-Nicolas from where I took this photo. Included in our book of tour tickets was one for a boat tour run by Batorama and that’s where we were heading.
Boat tours can be interesting, instructive and fun but they have one disadvantage. This is that you are completely enclosed. Yes, I know that’s to stop idiots falling overboard and suing the company but it rather cramps your style if you are a photographer. Glass, especially tinted glass, as on the boats, stops you getting the sort of quality of image that I like. So I usually put my camera away for the duration.
This picture shows you what I mean. It’s not worth the effort of craning your neck and dodging other people’s cameras to get shots like this.
On the other hand, I was interested enough to take this photo of the Maison des Tanneurs which I showed you on our first evening in Strasbourg (see Strasbourg 2015 – First day).
On the boat there is a commentary on the passing scenery that you can listen to over earphones. There are versions in several languages. Tigger listened in English and I listened in French. We compared notes afterwards and found differences between the two. They must think that speakers of different languages are interested in different things.
Walking to our next destination, we passed the Palais Rohan. This magnificent Baroque structure was originally built for Cardinal Armand Gaston Maximilien de Rohan, Bishop of Strasbourg, between 1731 and 1742, replacing a previous bishop’s palace. A number of important people stayed here, including Marie Antoinette and Napoleon but between 1872 and 1898, it served as the German University of Strasbourg. From 1898, however, it served to house several important museums. Damaged in the Second World War it was restored and is now classed as an Historic Monument.
Along the front of the palace is a row of decorative faces, all different from one another but all very expressive. I show just two of them above.
I also liked these mouldings in the form is heads at the bottom of the drainpipes. I am not sure but I think they are supposed to be dolphins’ heads but they could be some sort of imaginary fish.
Our last visit of the day was to a place known as the Aubette. Its history began in the 1760s and 1770s when it was built as part of the Place Kléber, then being developed. It became a military building and acquired the name ‘Aubette’ from the fact that the changing of the guard took place at dawn (aube, in French).
During the 19th century, the building experienced mixed fortunes. It housed a paintings museum, was badly damaged by fire in 1870 and renovated in 1973-5. Its modern history began in the 1920s when modernizing architect brothers André and Paul Horn rented the right wing to create a leisure centre. In 1926, the interior design was entrusted to a pair of avant-guard artists, Hans Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. They were joined by the Dutch painter and architect Theo Van Doesburg and between them created what was considered a revolutionary new style of design. Part of their decor was restored in 1985 and 2006 and the whole is now classed as an Historic Monument.
To be honest, I was not impressed. To me it is like so much of the decoration of public places in the post Second World War periods. Cinemas, ice rinks, ice cream parlours and other such public places all had these patches of bright colours and in the end it became a cliché. This site may be of historic interest but, for me, that’s where the interest ends.
And finally, here is one of the paintings from the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain. I was caught by the lively depiction of the prancing horse and the fish-headed rider. What it ‘means’ I do not know. I only know that I like it. (Pas compliqué, moi!)
Saturday, March 28th 2015
The main business of today is returning to London. Our tickets are for the TGV leaving Strasbourg Station at 10:46 and so, though we do not need to hurry, there is little time to do any sightseeing.
We found a cafe for breakfast and then went to the station where we could leave our bags in a locker. Then we jumped on a tram to see where it would take us and how long we dared stay aboard until nervousness about missing the train caused us to return!
The tipping point came when the tram stopped on the bridge that carries Avenue de la Marseillaise across the Ill. I don’t know whether this road bridge has a name because I haven’t been able to find one. While waiting for a tram back in the opposite direction, we took a couple of photographs. Above is a general scene along the river.
This photo shows the prettily sited Church of Saint Paul which stands on a headland where the river divides, meaning that the church is clearly visible and not obstructed by buildings around it. In front of it is a bridge called the Pont d’Auvergne but that adds to the view rather than detracting from it.
If this were Britain, we could say that this was a Victorian church. It was, after all, built between 1892 and 1897 in the standard Victorian neo-Gothic style. But this is Strasbourg, where history took a different course. This church was raised during the period known as L’Annexion, when Alsace-Lorraine were taken back into the German fold. This might also explain why such a splendid church is Protestant and not Catholic, as you might expect.
Reluctantly, we took the next tram back to the station, reclaimed our bags and sought our train. The journey to Paris was uneventful and we disembarked at the Gare de l’Est. Travel may broaden the mind, it also seems to stimulate the appetite and by the time we reached Paris, breakfast was long forgotten so, as soon as we left the Gare de l’Est, we looked around for somewhere where we could have lunch.
We found a suitable menu at the Bistro Lorrain and had an enjoyable lunch before walking the rest of the way to the Gare du Nord and the Eurostar. We duly found our train, climbed aboard, stowed our bags and settled down for what we hoped would be a speedy and trouble-free passage to London. And it was, though a surprise awaited us.
You may recall me recounting that on leaving London aboard the Eurostar we, as Standard Premier ticket holders, had been served breakfast, despite our having already breakfasted on the station. Now, you would have thought that we had learnt the lesson but apparently we had not. We had lunched between trains as I mentioned above but now, barely had the Eurostar got under way when they came along and – yes, you’ve guessed – served us lunch! We could have saved the expense of the meal at the Bistro Lorrain but I don’t regret it. Let’s just hope we remember for next time.
Soon the Eurostar was pulling into St Pancras and the announcer was admonishing us, in French and English, to take all our personal belongings with us. As the crow flies (assuming a crow can fly through brick and stone walls) the distance from the train to the street is only a few yards but disembarking Eurostar travellers are sent on a long journey down escalators and along passages and through doors until they at last emerge into the noise and bustle of the main concourse. We shouldered our bags and walked down the road to King’s Cross Station and the bus stop. In a very few minutes we were at home and the kettle was boiling water for tea.
Our trip to Strasbourg went well and I enjoyed seeing the city again. I had not been back for some years, though, and had therefore seen it almost as I would a place I had not visited before. We only scratched the surface of Strasbourg, of course, because you cannot see the whole of a city of that size, let alone come to feel that you know it, after three days. Perhaps we shall return one of these days and when we do, there will still be new things to see and do.
Tomorrow I am off to Chingford to fetch Freya home and make the family complete once more.