Thursday, December 19, 2013

Sightseeing in Strasbourg

Jeudi, 19 décembre.

I had been looking forward to our trip to Strasbourg since August, when Molly and I first sat down to plan our semester full of adventures and decided to make the pilgrimage to the city's world-famous Christmas markets. And, as the final trip of my study abroad experience, it did not disappoint.

Allan and I got a little preview of the city on Saturday morning, during the couple of hours between our train from Montpellier and our bus to Heidelberg -- it was rainy and wet, but after a ten hour night train, we were just excited to have made it! After 24 hours in Heidelberg, we returned to Strasbourg on Sunday night. Molly arrived the next morning and the three of us explored the Christmas markets until Allan had to go  back to Montpellier. But Molly and I still had one more day before we finally left on Tuesday afternoon! Strasbourg isn't a very large city, so during the course of a couple days, we wandered through most of it several times. For the sake of not confusing you too much, I've given up on explaining our trip chronologically. Instead I'm dividing Strasbourg into "sightseeing" and "christmassing." You can read more about the city's world-famous Marchés de Noël here, but in the meantime, here are all the slightly less-festive (but still VERY cool) sights!

My first stop on both Monday and Tuesday mornings was Petite France, a historic neighborhood in Strasbourg that is full of maisons à colombages -- those beautiful half-timbered houses you see on postcards. The style, called "half-timbered" in English, is typical of the Rhineland region and definitely makes you feel the city's German influence. Also it's just gorgeous.




Because we were there so early, we had the streets pretty much to ourselves. I loved taking advantage of the quiet to grab some up-close pictures of the beautiful buildings!


Also located on the city's historic Grande Île ("Main Island") is the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg. We stumbled across it as we walked through the city streets and let me just say ... WOW.


Construction on the cathedral began in the twelfth century, at which time the architects planned on building a Romanesque church. When another architectural team showed up with the idea of a Gothic cathedral, they torn down what they had built and started again! The cathedral is everything you could want a church to be -- beautiful, ginormous, old, and very important. During WWII, it became a symbol of the war between France and Germany: Hitler swore he would turn it into a German monument, while Leclerc promised not to stop fighting until the cathedral was controlled by the French.


One of the coolest features of the cathedral is its astronomical clock. I'm going to be honest: I don't really get it. But I know that it's a big deal: people pay money to watch it strike noon every day! (I was not one of those people, so perhaps that's why I'm confused.) From what I understand, the clock is important because it's very old and hasn't stopped working in centuries and because it uses remarkably complex computing to calculate dates and religious holidays.

Just across from the cathedral is another beautiful building: le Palais Rohan. The palace is a Baroque masterpiece and although it now houses some of Strasbourg's art and archeological museums, it's had a really fascinating history: Marie Antoinette and Napoléon Bonaparte both spent nights here!

After circling around the beautiful Palais Rohan, we ran into the Ill River, a Rhine River tributary that starts in the Alps and flows through the city. It's the same river that flows through Petite France. In fact, the river was the original reason for the development of the neighborhood: it powered all the mills and tanneries that were first established there!

Further along the river, we stumbled upon the city's Place de la République, a square that joins the historic part of the city with its newer counterpart. The square is bordered by some seriously beautiful buildings, including the Palais du Rhin. Although originally built as a Prussian imperial palace, the building has had a fascinating history -- it served as a hospital during WWI, headquarters for both Nazi and later French forces during WWII, and even as the region's department of "fine arts and national furniture" during the 1930s.

The square is also bordered by the Préfecture and the Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire -- two more beautiful buildings!

However, one of the most interesting parts of the Place de la République is the square itself. The whole park is designed around a giant WWII memorial. It's a sort of secular Pietà, alluding to the complicated history of Strasbourg instead of the death of Christ. The mother, a representation of the city of Strasbourg, holds the bodies of her two sons -- one French, one German. To represent their equality in death, they are depicted without their uniforms.

Although you can't see it in this picture, the statue's engraving is even more fascinating. Unlike most other French war memorials, which are dedicated to those who died pour la patrie ("for the fatherland") or simply pour la France, this monument simply reads A NOS MORTS ("to our dead"). It's an epitaph found only in Alsace, where the history of the region -- sometimes French, sometimes German -- makes it inappropriate to dedicate a memorial in memory of those who fought and died solely "for France."

Oh well. I thought it was interesting!

In addition to sightseeing and exploring the Christmas markets, Molly and Allan and I had a lot of fun just walking around the city and posing with all the fun random things we found...


And of course, we ate. You can't go all the way to Alsace and not try some all of their specialites! You can read more about some of the traditional holiday dishes we tried on my Christmas Market post, but here are some of the delicious Alsatian pastries we tried! On the menu? Lunette au flan -- a pretzel-shaped pastry filled with cream. Streussel -- a yummy pastry covered in crumb topping. Kugelhopf -- a fabulous combination of brioche and bundt cake that you can read more about here. And, last but not least, Croix à la cannelle -- a flaky cinnamon-flavored pastry in the shape of a cross.


1 comment:

  1. Wow! I had no idea about the memorials. So interesting! I remember so little from our visit there. Guess I will have to return. Heehee!
    Love, Mommy