There are many cities that are worth a visit in France, and it’s a bit complicated sometimes to pick one of them when you have to. However, some cities are easy picks, and Strasbourg is definitely one of them. If you like half-timbered houses, gigantic cathedrals and churches, romantic strolls along the banks of of a river surrounded by old willows, and if you also come to like, by any chance, good food and good wine, look no further : Strasbourg is where you need to go.
Located in Alsace, a region famous for its gastronomy and its great white wines (my personal favourite is Gewurtztraminer), the most Eastern city of France is also one that is at the center of Europe, at equal distance from the Northern Sea, the Mediterranean Sea and the Adriatic Sea. This central position made it one of the richest cities in the region in Middle Ages, and today, one can still witness the rich past of Strasbourg not only by admiring the richly adorned facades of the old houses that are scattered around the city, but also by gasping in awe while discovering its massive cathedral, Notre-Dame de Strasbourg, which used to be the tallest building in the world until the spire of the cathedral of Hamburg was built in 1874.
Notre-Dame de Strasbourg is indeed so tall one can see it from far away when arriving by train at Strasbourg. The spire is 142m-tall, which is pretty impressive considering its construction ended in 1439. Though the cathedral was meant to have two spires, the second spire was never built due to financial restrictions, which is quite a common fate for such constructions. There’s now an observation deck instead. This gives the Cathedral of Strasbourg quite a unique look. It’s the most impressive of the numerous cathedrals that were never completely constructed according to their plans, and it’s become one of its distinctive characteristics. Despite its aborted completion, it still remains so massive that it’s impossible to frame even with a wide-angle lens, so much so that I had to be a bit more creative to take the spire into picture.
The red colour of Notre-Dame de Strasbourg comes from the pink and brown sandstone from the Vosges mountains – which are only 40km-far from Strasbourg – that was used to build the cathedral. This light and easy-to-carve material explains how such a massive and yet elegant and lace-like spire was made possible. Unfortunately, it is also very hard to clean, since it is fragile, and the pollution of the city has darkened some of the walls of the cathedral.
The frontispiece of the cathedral is one of the most famous in all France. The main rose is gigantic, and yet elegant, while many statues adorn the main entrance of the cathedral. The crown above the main entrance also impresses. Even the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones look dull in comparison.
The interior of the cathedral is quite unusual. Despite it high spire, Notre-Dame de Strasbourg’s nave is not very high, though it is quite broad. The choir is quite small also, compared to more traditional French gothic cathedrals like in Amiens, and it is quite dark due to the colour of the pink and brown sandstone that was used to build the cathedral. Yet, it is so well-preserved that it is one of the most impressive cathedral interior I have ever visited. Many statues and paintings decorate the place. The stained glass windows filter the light coming from the outside and transform it into colourful arrays that sublimate the cathedral when they enter the nave. The main organ, the astronomical clock dating from the 16th century and the Hammer pulpit are some of the wonders that you can see while visiting the cathedral.
On the Hammer pulpit, one can see a little dog patiently waiting. It is called “The little dog of Geisler”, after the name of Johann Geisler von Kaiserberg, who was one of the most famous preachers of the 15th century. Local people stroke it on the head to bring good luck on themselves, as my friend told me, and we sure haven’t skipped that traditional stroke.
Before leaving the cathedral, I couldn’t help but take some pictures of the candles that had been lit all around the nave of the cathedral. Who knows what prayers and hopes were conveyed through these tiny and fragile flames?
Strasbourg also has many other churches that are worth a visit, and unfortunately, I wasn’t able to visit them all. However, I was lucky enough to visit Saint-Thomas of Strasbourg, a beautiful fortified church that was completed in 1521. The light there was impressive, as well as the main tower, as massive from the outside as it was delicate from the inside. In the back of the nave, a huge mausoleum was built in honour of Maurice de Saxe, one famous Marshal General of France under Louis XV. One of these hidden wonders I’m happy I have not missed, since Maurice de Saxe, as the great victor of the Battle of Fontenoy, which some consider as a victory that saved France from invasion by the Dutch, English and Hanoverian troops during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740 – 1748), is one key historical figure in French history.
On my way to the “Little France” district, which is the oldest one of the city, I also chanced upon some puddles, which I couldn’t resist to use to take some reflection pictures in the beautiful streets of Strasbourg. Some habits never die, I guess!
When I arrived at the “Little France” district for the first time, I was just amazed at how beautiful the place is. With its typical half-timbered houses that look generously fat, its cobbled-stone narrow streets, the Ill river that reflects the facades of the surrounding buildings, it is one of the most beautiful places that I have ever seen. So beautiful that I came back the next day to take advantage of the weather that was sunnier and take loads of pictures. It used to be a place where tanners, millers and fishermen lived, and it is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and a great place to wander, eat and have a glass of Alsacian beer. The name “Little France” comes from the Hospice of the syphilitic that used to stand there. In German, syphilis is called Franzosenkrankheit, which means “French disease” (interestingly, the French used to call it “Mal de Naples”, which means “Naples disease”). Quite far from the romantic place it has become today!
At the West of the Little France district, the Vauban dam stands proudly. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take the picture I wanted to take there. Fortunately, it also means I’ll have to come back someday to take it right. However, I had the chance to visit a tiny house which is covered with wisteria: it illustrates pretty well how charming the city can be, in my opinion, with its numerous willows sleeping over the banks of the rivers, and wisteria hanging on the old walls of half-timbered houses.
During my weekend in Strasbourg, the friends of mine who kindly invited me and made sure I could enjoy Alsace to its fullest also drove me around Southern Alsace, not far from Colmar, on the Alsace Wine Route. It was a great opportunity for me to spend some time in charming villages such as Ribeauvillé and Eguisheim, two medieval villages that are famous for their typical medieval architecture. Though the weather was not perfect, it was nice enough to let me take some pictures, see some storks, and enjoy the local food (I love Spätzle). I hope I can visit some more villages (and maybe Colmar) the next time I visit Alsace. All I can say is that I can’t wait.
All in all, this weekend in Strasbourg was one of the most exciting weekends I’ve spent since I’ve decided to explore France a bit more. Not only did I visit one of the most beautiful cities you can find in France, but I also discovered some charming villages and spent a great time with friends while at it. When I left Strasbourg, all I could think of was to plan my next trip to the city in order to explore it more in depth and discover new villages nearby. Strasbourg, and Alsace in general, have so much to offer that it’s difficult to leave them, and I guess that even after you’ve visited it all, it’s still tough to leave a region that has so much charm and where life seems pretty sweet. Strasbourg has a lot for it, and it’s definitely a place I would be happy to live in.