We made a mistake the first time we visited Strasbourg France. As the terminus of a lovely three-day cruise of the Mosel and Rhine rivers, we didn’t leave enough time to fully explore this lovely city.
Since then we have come here several times. And each visit reaffirmed how fabulous Strasbourg is. Located in the northeast corner of France, the shared border with Germany comes through with its atmosphere, food, culture, and language. And as the capital city of Alsace, it is also right near the Alsatian Wine Trail, where one can find excellent Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir, and Riesling wines. But more on that in another blog.
Old Town Strasbourg and La Petite France
Strasbourg has an incredible old historic section. The Old Town area in the center city stretches over the entire Grande Île. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is filled with twisted cobblestone alleys, canals, and 500-year-old pastel and half-timber buildings with sloping roofs.
Many of the buildings have been renovated. They house innumerable restaurants, cheese shops, wine stores, charcuteries, boulangeries, foie gras shops, and all other venues for celebrating the region’s foods and wines.
La Petite France
La Petite France is one of the picturesque parts of old Strasbourg. The beautiful neighborhood is built around a network of canals that are guarded by imposing towers.
It is fronted by a fortified covered bridge. The top of the bridge housed canons and troops to provide the first line of defense against ships. Walking through the inside of the bridge takes you past several primarily religious sculptures from the old city. The structure is lined with traditional slit windows (wide on the inside, narrow on the outside) for archers to target land invaders.
And as the third line of Strasbourg’s defense, the bottom of the bridge contains a number of dams that allow the surrounding area to be flooded, making a land invasion more difficult.
A series of watchtowers (three bridges and four towers) guard the river’s entrance to the city.
La Petite France has many canals that were used to supply the warehouses, tanneries, foundries, and other businesses that either depended on river transport or were too dirty and odorous for resident areas. Other than one renovated warehouse, the area is now green space.
The residential sides of the canals, meanwhile, are lined with lovely 16th-18th-century multistory, half-timbered buildings painted in all shades of pastel.
The 466-foot tall Notre-Dame cathedral is the centerpiece of the city. This ornate Gothic gem was built in the 11th century. It is as beautiful as it is imposing. Its stained glass windows, especially those that have been restored to their original shimmer, steal much of the show. The fact that they almost didn’t survive World War II makes them all the more wondrous.
The cathedral, however, has another even more interesting claim to fame–an incredibly elaborate, highly complex, and very accurate astronomical clock that was built in the 16th century.
The incredibly complex mechanical clock tracks days, months, years, and astrological periods, as well as minutes and hours to an amazing accuracy of 8 seconds within the roughly 24 years that it takes Saturn to orbit the Sun.
The clock is a major tourist attraction in itself. Hundreds of people pay and wait in long lines to watch the mechanical noting of the passage of time.
The clock was inoperable for about a century until a local 19th-century boy became fascinated by it and vowed to fix it. He became a clockmaker and after much consternation from the powers who were reluctant to further damaged the masterpiece, made good on his commitment. He not only engaged in a multi-year effort to repair the clock but also produced a manual that still guides the device’s maintenance and periodic repairs.
Housed inside the cathedral, the clock with multiple dials and glassed cases of hundreds of interlocking ratcheted metal wheels is indeed impressive. It operates daily shows that begin with a glitzy movie that explains the history of the cathedral and the clock in a quasi-mystical manner. After the way-too-long 30-minute movie, the clock does its thing. It marks hours and half hours with Christ blessing each of the disciples, babies turning sand dials, human figures ringing bells, and a mechanical rooster (allegedly the oldest such mechanic device in Europe) crows. Between the long wait in line, the wait for the movie to begin, and the movie’s length, it is a pretty long process. It is, however, definitely worth seeing this mechanical masterpiece.
Exploring Alsatian History and Culture
We were anxious to learn more about Alsace and its history. The very interesting Musee Alsatian provides more insight into old Strasbourg homes.
A series of inter-connected period buildings showcase how people lived. It explains the design, layout, and functionality of the different structures. You learn about the water and heating systems of traditional homes and view traditional furniture, furnishings, and dress. It also explains the customs and religious practices of the people and the roles of farming, winemaking, and cheesemaking in the region’s economy.
Strasbourg has a very interesting museum that contains 18,000 paintings, sculptures, and graphic art from the 1870s to today. The first floor provided a high-level of the French vision of the Evolution of Modernism. It began with an interesting portrayal of the creative synergies and tensions that emerged between the then-new medium of photography and painting in representing landscapes. Impressionists and Post-Impressionists were both:
- Fascinated by the immediacy of the moment captured by photographs (which influenced their adoption of quick strokes to capture the essence of light at a given moment) and by the shaky images that resulted from long exposure times; and
- Challenged to produce works that were clearly differentiated by the photo’s precise representation of the subject (which helped prompt them to portray the mood and feelings invoked by the subject rather than the precise details).
It proceeded to portray both the realistic, early 20th-century decorative artistic bronze sculptures of people and animals and the sweeping Art Nouveau-ish-like movements of dancers with flowing dresses and capes of local sculptor Francois-Rupert Carabin.
Several of the Avant-Garde movements of the early century followed. Abstraction of the 1910s included works of Kandinsky (whose influence stretched across multiple periods) and especially Frantisek Kupka. A special portion of the display demonstrated the impact of classical music on Kandinsky’s art.
It next had a number of interesting pieces by artists from the 1930s and ‘40s. Displayed works including Jean Helion’s evolution from Abstraction to Figuration and especially his abstract-figurative blending of his 1945 “Le Songeur. Artists such as Picasso and Braque represented Cubism. Geometric paintings were by Mondrian and others. Surrealism included Max Ernst and a number of fascinating pieces by Victor Brauner.
It also has a large section on modernist portrayals of nudes that were shaped and inspired by Picasso’s groundbreaking 1907 oil “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (which is at New York MOMA, not in Strasbourg).
The museum’s second floor houses a number of temporary exhibits.
Formlessness disposed of taxonomies by creating non-representative art (with examples by Arp, Kandinsky, Miro, and others), disposable and alterable art (including several rope sculptures), and videos including Angie Leccia’s “La Mar” video of surging water.
Opinion Piece was a collection of subjective, often satirical interpretations of current events that have their roots in the works of artists including the 18th-century Francisco Goya and the 19th-century Honore Damier.
Alain Sechas’s “The Spider” is a room in which a large, movable (via cables connected from the ceiling) sculpture of a black-boot, top hat-wearing white spider sits. The room’s walls were covered by 51 satirical drawings, all of which are intended to represent the “social inequalities, excess consumerism, artistic snobbery, and collective neuroses” in the 2010s. While the images portray satire, most are comic strip-like bubble captions in idiomatic French which even Joyce could not effectively interpret.
Stéphane Belzère’s Mondes Flottants (Floating Worlds) was a rather bizarre exhibit that portrays the French artist’s obsession with anatomical specimens in the Paris Museum of Natural History in which he spent years painting and sculpting images of thousands of specimen jars. While most are hyper-realistic, a few are highly abstract and can be barely recognized.
Natural Histories is a series of works that attempt to demonstrate man’s renewing ties to nature, our similarities to nature (as with a giant sculpture of a man’s torso that resembles a tree trunk), and how this will transform ourselves and nature and lead to more harmonious relationships.
Parliament City and the European Commission Parliament
About a half-hour outside of the city center in the European Parliament, the Council of Europe (which is charged with upholding human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in Europe) and their administrative offices. As Parliament was in session, visitors were not allowed inside. But we did at least get to see these and dozens of other modern government and commercial and residential buildings that have transformed a previously established, middle-class residential area (parts of which still remain) into what is now known as Parliament City.
The Parliament building, in particular, is a huge, domed structure surrounded by its members’ flags. It has a 200-foot tower and several seamlessly integrated wings that are set next to a scenic lake surrounded by walking paths. The Council is housed in two interlocking circular structures that are almost reminiscent of flying saucers.
These and the dozens of other buildings that make up the so-called Parliament City are also close to the large, pretty, nicely landscaped L’Orangerie park.
Strasbourg Food, Wine, and Lodging
We greatly enjoyed our time at this Michelin-starred restaurant where the service was practically flawless. Our excellent main courses were: roasted seabass with artichokes, chanterelles, tomato sauce, louche (a freshwater eel) ceviche and yogurt cream; and rabbit saddle stuffed with black garlic, braised rabbit shoulder, and seared leg with gremolata, fennel, and citrus.
We paired these with a bottle of dry 2018 Cote de Rouffach “Domaine Mure” Alsatian Pinot Gris and glasses of 2019 Domaine Kientzler Ribeauville Alsatian Riesling and 2019 Domaine Schoech “Arthur” Alsatian Pinot Noir.
The meal came with several amuse bouches and interim tastes. These included German cake with nuts; radish with cheese pug and coffee cream inside a crispy fennel shell; and foie gras with plum and raisin toast. We were however less inspired by the house’s favorite dessert of caramelized beer brioche with beer ice cream and beer-roasted pear. We paired the dessert with a 2020 Maurice Schoech late harvest Vendage Tardive Reisling. And if that wasn’t enough, the restaurant provided final tastes of coffee ice cream with candied walnuts, candied pear, chocolate sponge cake, and nougat. Yum.
We had lunch in this historic complex that has a sweepingly designed circular stairway. Joyce’s chanterelle tarte flambe with ricotta cheese and loads of baby chanterelles was very good. Tom was disappointed in the veal tonnata. Its over-engineered tuna sauce (with cheese, tomato, chopped egg white, caper berries, and more) masked rather than enhanced the subtle veal. After tasting a disappointing Alsatian Pinot Noir (from Cave de Truckheim) we both had a glass of pleasant, slightly off-dry Paul Blanck “Rosenbourg” Riesling.
We had lunch at this archetypical Alsatian restaurant. Our two appetizers were delicious: escargot in herbed garlic butter and goose foie gras on toast. However, we were disappointed by our entrees. The seared duck foie gras in a sweet reisling beef broth sauce was overdone and the mushroom sauce wasn’t as tasty as we had hoped. Nor were we excited by the sautéed cep mushroom with crayfish and coriander in a cream sauce. In order to explore as many local wines as possible, we paired glasses of four different varietals (Riesling, Sylvaner, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Blanc) with different dishes. Unfortunately, none of the wines were really to our taste.
Make Your Own Meal
We decided to create an in-room dinner for another meal. We selected our favorite cheese (Epoisse) and a local Aged Gruyere recommended by our friendly cheese monger, picked up a baguette, and then paired the cheeses with two wines that we tasted at a wine store (an Alsatian Wolfberger Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris). And feeling the need for more foie gras, we felt that we needed more. So we bought a can of Du Ried duck foie gras and cocooned for the evening. While not a Michelin-star experience, it was wonderful.
The location of this Marriot Autograph hotel was perfect. It is in the Old Town area, a short 5-minute walk to the Notre Dame Cathedral and La Petite France. As expected in cities, our room was not very large in spite of being an upgrade. But it was comfortable and the staff was wonderful.
If you are driving to the hotel, get directions in advance as the hotel is in a pedestrian zone. We were within a block of the hotel and couldn’t get there. After going around in circles, we finally parked the car and walked to the hotel. Speaking of driving in the city, don’t. Even with a GPS, we had to drive miles to get to a location that was blocks away. As the hotel is 900 meters from the train station and is right on the tram line, you do not need a car.
On another trip, we stayed in another beautiful luxury hotel in the Old Town area. The building is a historic monument that, for five centuries, was an old inn. The 2009 renovated building gives one a flavor of what it was like to live in Strasbourg in earlier times. The rooms are connected by a small medieval alley.
We really enjoyed the room which, after a walk down a short, dark hallway contained a side room with a toilet, next to a very modern bathroom, and finally opened up to our bright and spacious bedroom that included a small table. We had plenty of closet space (with numerous small closets tucked along the hallway as well as in our bedroom), bathrobes, coffee/tea service in the room, a safe, and a flat-screen TV. It was all very comfortable and combined modern amenities with the wonderful character of an old building. Our only issue with the room was with its layout, in which the door to the shower/sink room blocked the door to the room with the toilet when it was open.