This has always been one of Europe's great historic cities, best known for arguably the world's greatest Gothic cathedral as well as a picturesque medieval quarter. It's also somewhat underrated as a tourist destination, due partly to its distance from Paris and partly to its awkwardness as a traditionally German-speaking city within France. Strasbourg is, after all, Straße-Bourg -- the town of many roads.
In fact this was where the nations of France and Germany were born, some 1200 years ago when the Oaths of Strasbourg split Charlemagne's empire along the Rhine. Sitting on the French side of the Rhine directly opposite the mystical Black Forest on German soil, Strasbourg has achieved over the millennium a brilliant amalgamation of cultural heritage, architecture and culinary traditions. Think French mastery of culinary techniques combined with hearty German portions.
But it's also been the frontline of conflicts -- over the past 150 years Strasbourg has changed hands 4 times between Germany and France. Somehow the city's historic core of Grande Île escaped miraculously undamaged, enough to become the first city centre in the world to be protected a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its entirety. That's a chapter that most tourists miss as they stroll amongst these adorably cartoonish medieval houses.
Today's Strasbourg is the European poster-child on international cooperation. The European Parliament meets here half the year (and jacks up hotel prices in the process), the European Court of Human Rights oversees issues such as religious freedom, and the University of Strasbourg has emerged as one of Europe's premier learning institutions. It's an international metropolis with great regional flair, as any visitor to the delightful Petite-France district can attest.
This is a district of 16th Century timber-frame houses, claustrophobically clumped together between cobblestone paths and cradled by a system of still-navigable old canals. At its centre is the Maison des Tanneurs and an amusing swing bridge that opens up every time a cruise boat passes through.
I must say that we were a little underwhelmed as we arrived at Petite-France -- while the scenic quarter does possess some charming street corners and pleasant canals, as a whole we simply found the medieval centre of Colmar, and the fortified rural villages of Riquewihr and Ribeauville, to be much more complete and aesthetically pleasing representations of traditional Alsatian communities. There are other landmarks that speak more uniquely of Strasbourg IMHO.
One such landmark is the Maison Kammerzell, an incredibly extravagant half-timber Gothic building that somehow survived centuries of fires, plagues and warfare since Year 1427. Beneath these intricate wooden carvings used to be a medieval shopping mall shared by multiple merchant families under the shadow of the great cathedral. Even today it's still prime real estate, charging upwards of 130 Euros per night as a 3-star hotel and restaurant. I would have been tempted to book here, if we didn't have to catch an early train the next morning.
Next to the Kammerzell is everyone's favorite sight in Strasbourg, the magnificent Cathédrale Notre-Dame with its skyscraping single spire and towering arches of pink sandstones. This was once the tallest building in the world, and even today remains the tallest building surviving from the Middle Ages.
Look at this brilliant grandeur of high Gothic architecture -- no wonder Goethe called it the most sublime and beautiful cathedral in the world! You simply can't stand in the midst of its colossal columns and soaring vaults and not feel awestruck.
To me it simply felt right -- the illusion of space created the tranquility of a temple of spiritual worship and sanctity, shielding from the relatively small groups of guided tourists armed with cameras and phones. Out of the many World-Heritage-listed cathedrals we visited on this 24-day journey -- Cologne, Aachen, Trier, Bruges and Strasbourg -- this was by far my favorite.
There are other captivating details such as a superbly preserved Romanesque crypt dating 1000 years back, a famous astronomical clock that calculates equinoxes and planetary positions, and our favorite of all, this exquisite organ case from the late Middle Ages. We considered climbing the 332 steps up the spire to the viewing platform, but decided to conserve our energy for our afternoon walks to the rest of the Grande Île.
We took a pleasant stroll on the southern edge of the city's historic core, enjoying the charming 18th Century cityscape along the banks of the Ill River. While people had told me that Strasbourg was small enough to be navigable on foot, I personally found the trusty trams to be a lifesaver for those trips between the sights around Grande Île and our hotel closer to the Gare. 4.1 Euros for a 24 hour pass was definitely an excellent deal.
Strasbourg also hosts one of my favorite small museums anywhere in Europe -- the Musée Alsacien.
What really impressed me wasn't so much the exhibits, but how the museum preserved several historic houses and integrated them with a maze of wooden balustrades and hidden passages. The result is an atmospheric quadrangle of overgrown vine around a cobblestone courtyard, complete with exposed medieval timberframes for that rustic Alsatian flair. This was by far my favorite photospot for portrait shoots, and the best part was, visitors were so few that we had the place mostly to ourselves for the majority of our visit.
And then there's the fascinating collection, mostly objects of folk art, furniture and artifacts of folk religious practices in rural Alsace. It took us more than an hour just to quickly breeze through the winding route of four storeys, and we could have taken much longer if we didn't want to return to our hotel for the luxury of an afternoon nap in the middle of our sightseeing. But before we headed back to the hotel, we made sure to drop by our choice of restaurant to reserve a table for dinner.
I've been waiting to write this review -- this was our favorite dinner over our 24 day journey through 6 countries. The food was exemplary, prices were reasonable, the servers were friendly, and it's centrally located in an 18th Century cobblestone square just 200m from the Cathedral. This was our best discovery in Strasbourg, a little informal restaurant called La Table du Gayot.
I knew we've found the right place when my wife's eyes lit up at all the "de Canard" dishes on the menu ... foie gras, terrines, gizzards and breasts. On this night she would indulge on an exclusive feast of nothing but ducks, starting with this heavenly rich foie gras. This was just as excellent as the foie gras we had a few days earlier at L'un des Sens in Colmar, with as generous a portion, for 2/3 of the price. And this was only the start.
The next appetizer would get even better ... a confit of duck gizzards that was at once succulent, flavorsome, soft to the bite and yet retaining that characteristic chewiness of gizzards. The healthy heap pictured above was only an appetizer portion for a measly 8.5 Euros. If you're as into ducks as my wife, consider ordering the main dish portion for around 13 Euros.
Main dish for my wife was this perfectly sauteed duck breast served with pearl onions and ratatouille. According to her this was the best duck breast she's ever had ... and this is coming from someone who orders duck at restaurants any chance she gets. Enough said.
In my opinion though an even better dish was my pork cheek confit in red wine with the regional variation of Spätzle. The pork cheeks were just impossibly tender ... enough to disintegrate in the mouth with even the softest bite. Still I'm not sure if this was my favorite dish -- everything was so perfectly prepared that I probably had three favorite dishes.
Bill for Two Persons
|Foie Gras||10 Euros|
|Duck Gizzards||8.5 Euros|
|Magret de Canard||18 Euros|
|Joues de Porc||15 Euros|
|Pinot Gris 1/4 Litre||9 Euros|
|Carola Bleu 1/2 Litre||3 Euros|
|TOTAL before tips||63.5 Euros (CAD$88.9)|
This meal was certainly worth every Euro Cent. And since the restaurant was practically steps from the Cathedral, on our way back we had another chance to stop for some spectacular night scenery. This would be our only evening in Strasbourg, and we took our sweet time to savor it all.
This was also our last night in Alsace and in France, as the next morning we would take the 06:47 train to Metz en route to our day trip in Luxembourg. Tomorrow would be the start of the next segment of our journey, a slow tour of Germany's Mosel Valley.