Like all cities Strasbourg has a unique identity formed by its geography and history. In this case, the geography is a major factor – with the River Rhine alongside sometimes providing the boundary between France and Germany and sometimes not, and along with the evolved Roman roads setting Strasbourg at the heart of European trade routes. The historic city, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, is on the Grand-Ile – an island bounded by the River Ile which has the great 15C Gothic cathedral at the centre and large numbers of medieval timber framed houses in amazingly good state of repair. The best examples of the vernacular architecture are to be seen in Petite France – a smaller area on the south and west of the Grand Ile where the Ile River is separated into several branches with covered bridges that allowed the installation of water mills. In medieval times the mills attracted tanners who consumed large quantities of water. Their houses typically have open galleries and roofs where the hides were dried.
We are staying in the historic Petite France area. Our apartment is on the ground floor of a four-story timber framed house. Just like our old house in West Cork the walls are massive and the damp courses only to be wondered about. The apartment fronts onto one of the branches of the river and we have a terrace some 10 feet above river level that gives amazing views of the barrage (covered bridge). We are very fortunate to be here for a reasonable time that allows us to get to know the city and its surroundings.
In our first week we quickly gained the context of the city, the wonderful tram system (just like Dublin but with much more comprehensive coverage of the city) and the maze of small streets with a profusion of boulangeries, charcuteries, restaurants, bars, speciality shops and more. The city is obviously a very popular tourist attraction. However, it is quite different to say Prague or Bruges in that the sheer numbers of tourists is not so overwhelming, and we detect there is not the same thirst for consuming excessive quantities of alcohol. Certainly, we are staying right in the heart of the historic district and we are not disturbed by overnight noise, nor by parties of revellers. In fact the city feels lived in, and obviously indigenous inhabitants are strongly in evidence.
Chatting to one group of tourists we learned they were on a cruise ship on the Rhine, and it seems likely this would account for quieter evenings on the city streets. The visitors are strongly French, German, Japanese and American. Not many Brits in evidence here in the heart of Europe! Of course Americans will be themselves and we chuckled to ourselves as we heard the comment from a lady looking at a tanners house saying, “It’s so cute, I feel like we are at Disneyland”.
Also in our first week we visited the European parliament [see separate blog entry] and the lovely Botanical Gardens in the university area. These are a little way outside the Grand Ile easily reached by tram in twenty minutes and allow us to explore a little around the Neustadt – the German influenced areas of the city, which BTW were also granted UNESCO heritage status in 2017. The area is evidently typical of a Germanic architecture that has been lost to bombing in Germany and the Neustadt area is teeming with a diversity of architectural styles which make this historical district very attractive. A place with wide tree lined avenues where Art Nouveau and neoclassical buildings sit contentedly side by side.
Having lived in West Cork for years we are having great fun learning to be city dwellers again. We even have a bit of a routine of clearing the terrace every morning, watering the tomato, pepper and lettuce plants in their raised beds, going out to the boulangerie to purchase wonderful croissants and baguettes. Sometimes we treat ourselves and go to a boulangerie for breakfast and just inhale the ambiance. And looking after the cat! Yes we are minding a tiny 8 month old beautifully marked kitten, and she’s minding us. Several mornings I have been woken to the sounds of battle in the kitchen. And, being cat owners down the years we know exactly what’s going on. First time it was a mouse; easily dealt with. Second time was a small bird. And you know what happens the cat will play with the bird (or whatever) until it loses interest when it no longer moves. When I took it from her she disappeared off and very shortly came back with a pigeon! Fortunately the bird was too big for her to bring in through the cat flap, so I was easily able to deal with it. This morning it was a mouse – alive this time, and she promptly lost it. So I had to encourage her to go under the book case and retrieve it so I could deal with it. She promptly went off in a huff and I’m expecting a rat shortly, at the very least!
We are also loving not using the car, it’s sitting in a garage. We’re walking and taking the tram everywhere; shopping on a day by day basis; dropping into a bar or café or restaurant by chance and always getting wonderful food and service. We have been to three concerts so far. A chamber orchestra from Zagreb playing Mozart, Grieg, Sorkocevic and Britten. The Britten Simple Symphony was incredible and overall it was an outstanding performance played with energy and confidence that reminded us of Katherine Hunka and the Irish Chamber Orchestra. A piano recital by young man Samuel Aznar, playing Debussy and Chopin, and demonstrating a huge talent for jazz. An unusual orchestral performance by OrchestraUnlimited – a very large orchestra with minimal strings but significant brass, wind and percussion, playing classical and popular pieces in a modern mode, including some Star Wars pieces that we ourselves have a more than passing acquaintance with. It was interesting that at all three concerts we felt like we were in West Cork – because the audience were very clearly predominantly local, meeting and greeting as you do. The orchestral concert was also very obviously a university crowd of hugely enthusiastic youngsters.
Finally there is dancing in Strasbourg – it appears there’s an Alsatian equivalent of Morris dancing happening on many of the city squares most evenings. We haven’t joined joined in!