Surprising Strasbourg: a fairy tale visit

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I had been looking forward to visiting Strasbourg ever since I was booked on Viking cruise of the Rhine River . But as with a lot of places you don’t know much about, discovering Strasbourg was an adventure—and in this case, a pleasant surprise.

My vision of Strasbourg was a lovely, quaint city with good food – something like a scene from the movie Amelie. And in fact, the city has a lot of quaint places, and plenty of good eateries. But it has some other amazing things I wasn’t expecting, both in the old city and the new.

I could have taken the public tram across the bridge from our berth in Kehl, Germany to Strasbourg’s city centre: here, as in many other places, France and Germany face each other on opposite sides of the Rhine. But I decided to take Viking’s free walking tour, which opened my eyes to things I wouldn’t have expected.

Our bus cruised by the Orangerie, an extensive and beautiful park where the aristocracy once grew oranges in lovely greenhouses. Those orange trees are gone now, victims of World War II. But the park still has a special attraction: a line of trees along one side sports bushy “hats” — the huge nests of storks who return each year to the same breeding grounds. The birds are welcome guests – after all, Europeans still love the old story about them bringing babies.

Next, another attraction I hadn’t expected. I knew Strasbourg was the capital of the region of Alsace, but I didn’t realize it was one of the hubs of the European Union. In fact, it’s sometimes called the capital of Europe.  The EU Parliament building is here, as well as the European Court of Human Rights, and their modernist headquarters are well worth a look.

EU building Strasbourg

But you don’t come to Strasbourg to see the EU. You come to see the old city, which is located on an island surrounded by the Ill River. The medieval centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it’s just as you imagined – only more.

Our tour led across a bridge and through an area called Little France – tres charmante, as you’d expect. However, this was once the enclave of the city’s tanners, and a pretty smelly place to be back in the day. But today, the tanners’ old half-timbered houses are a lovely sight, reflected off the water of the Ill. This was the first of many iconic photo ops.

Strasbourg Little France

Strasbourg canal

Wandering down narrow streets, we soon found ourselves in the Place Kléber, a hub of the old city where booksellers had set up stands, perfect for browsing. The centre of the square is dominated by a statue of general Jean-Baptiste Kléber, a Strasbourg native who met his end in Egypt in 1800. His body was later repatriated and buried under the statue erected in his honour — only to be dug up and moved during WWII by the Nazis, who renamed the square after a German hero. Then they left, and the citizens of Strasbourg put him back in his place.

Place Kleber Strasbourg

This odd tug of war is not unusual for Alsace: this an area that has been part of both France and Germany over the years. It’s proudly French today, but even more proudly Alsatian. Many of the signs in the old town (like the one on the restaurant below) are in the Alsatian language, which looks a lot like German – but don’t tell the locals.

Strasbourg restaurant

Part of that Alsatian tradition is a love of food. The windows along our route were filled with delicious-looking pastries and sandwiches. And restaurants on all sides offered local specialties like onion pie, ham knuckle with potato salad, and white asparagus – a seasonal specialty that drives European gourmets mad. It was all hard to resist, even though we’d just had breakfast.

pastries Strasbourg

But we were on our way to Strasbourg’s major attraction: the Cathedral of Nôtre Dame, which towers over a spacious square near the river. The term “towers” is well deserved: at an amazing 426 feet, it’s the tallest medieval building in Europe.

Notre Dame Strasbourg

That immense height is felt the moment you step inside: if ever a building made you feel tiny, this is it. Huge, intricate stained glass windows line the walls, and an immense organ soars overhead, ready to fill the huge space with sound.

But the real treasure is in the back of the church: a famous astronomical clock that tells time in a half-dozen different measurements, and announces the hours with a little religious glockenspiel. The climax comes when a skeleton rings out the hour on a little bell, much like the glockenspiel in Prague. Something about this reminder of mortality seems to have appealed to medieval Christians.

Notre Dame astronomical clock STrasbourg

The cathedral is just as amazing outside, as well. Every facet seems to be covered with stone carving of the highest order. Saints line the doorways, and scenes from the Bible are played out in succession. Even the highest reaches are graced with statues, and watching over it all is a carving of a stork – a fittingly Alsatian touch.

We spent another hour strolling the streets of old Strasbourg, watching the tour boats glide along the channels and admiring the views on every side. A quaint café here, a half-timbered house with the beams carved in intricate designs, a high school looking more like a palace, a majestic church rising up in the distance — it was a photographic feast.

It was a memorable morning, despite the less than balmy weather. Discovering Strasbourg was something I had long desired, and it did not disappoint. In fact, it will go on my list of places to revisit, and spend a few days. That list is getting longer and longer …

Strasbourg lycee

I was a guest of Viking Cruises on this trip; however, the opinions I express are my own

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

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