Strasbourg has led a double life the past century or so, being first a part of France, then a part of the Kaiser's Germany, then a province of France again after World War I, and part of Hitler's Third Reich for five years during World War II. French again since then -- and very much so -- it has become, perhaps fittingly, one of the capitals of the new European Union, the buildings for that hugging the Ill River in the northern part of town, less than a mile from the Rhine and the border between democratic Germany and democratic France today.
Once known as Strateburgum ("the town at the crossroads"), Strasbourg grew from a Roman camp of some 2,000 years ago. Located here now are the headquarters of the Council of Europe, the European Parliament and the Human Rights Commission of Europe, as well as the headquarters of ARTE, the European TV station. Since the addition of several new countries in 2004, many from the former Soviet bloc, there are now 25 member nations in the Parliament of the European Union, with 25 flags and 25 official languages. (If you can translate simultaneously between Maltese and Finnish, you can probably get a job right now, observers say.) The Council of Europe has 45 member nations (they can't all be members of the Union, though many are trying to be) and has been functioning since 1949. In Strasbourg itself, there are 46 embassies and 30 consulates serving the European community.
Getting There is Easier
It's now simpler to get to Strasbourg, which lies midway on an east-west rail axis from Paris to Budapest, and midway on a north-south axis between Hamburg and Barcelona. There are 16 high speed luxury TGV Est trains running from Paris daily, taking only 2 hours and 20 minutes (formerly 4 hours on the old trains). More on the TGV at www.raileurope.com.
A fine way to see Strasbourg is on a boat tour, lasting about 70 minutes and costing just 7.40€ ($10.21, less for children, etc.). Departing from the Palais de Rohan near the cathedral, it passes by such famous sites as the Saint Thomas and Saint Nicolas churches, the lovely Petite France historical area, and the splendid modern buildings of the European Parliament. (Daily from February through December 31, every half hour and sometimes more often. Batorama, 15 re de Nantes, Strasbourg, tel. 03-88-84-13-13; www.strasbourg.port.fr.
Another good way to see the town is by tram (how sleekly modern they are), bicycle (400 km., about 250 miles, of bike trails) or on foot, with many pedestrian-only streets. You can buy a Strasbourg Pass, good for three days, giving you entry to museums, the riverboat, bikes, and more, for just 10.60€ ($14.63).
After you've seen the magnificent Cathedral of Notre Dame (11th century and later), check out one or two museums. There are 250 of them in Alsace, seemingly several dozen in Strasbourg itself. The best of the Museum d'Alsace could be, in my opinion, the mill bran sifters, grotesque stone masks from ancient mills handling oats. The two most outstanding museums in town are the Palais de Rohan, an 18th-century former prince-bishops' residence with works of many famous painters, and the Musee de l'Oeuvre Notre Dame, whose hall dates from the 13th century, with artwork from the cathedral and elsewhere. Admission for each is 4€ $5.52), and both practically adjoin the cathedral.
As part of the welcome to the new fast train from Paris, the TGV Est, in June of this year, city officials and the SNCF (French Rail) built an enormous greenhouse in front of the old (1883) rail station, in the shape of an egg. (Locals call it "the pregnant blister," someone said.) It will at least shelter people in line waiting for tickets and trains from the weather, but it also covers a new subterranean shopping center and tram line.
Great traditional dishes from Alsace include many you know already, such as foie gras, sauerkraut and Munster cheese. Some are less familiar but just as delicious, including baeckeoffe ("baker's oven," a pot of marinated meat with potatoes baked at least three hours, so often must be pre-ordered), flambé tart (a kind of delicate pizza, thin dough with cream, bacon and onions), or kougelhopf (a sweet brioche molded like a small angel food cake).
The seven traditional wines here are Gewurztraminer, Muscat d'Alsace, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sylvaner and Tokay. Beer, perhaps thanks to constant German influence, is also better here than in most regions of France.
The best meal I had during a brief stay in Strasbourg this summer was at the brasserie/restaurant L'Ancienne Douane ("Old Custom House") overlooking the Ill River in the heart of the Petite France district, with a big terrace hanging above same. Start with a warm tarte flambé, the traditionnelle version, perhaps, with bacon and cheese, for 7.20€ ($5.94). For a main course, consider the elegant carpaccio de saumon with olive oil at 7.80€ ($10.76) or tasty hot onion tarts at 6.40€ ($8.83). They have also four choucroute dishes, with 5, 6 or 7 types of meat, or the fishy version, ranging from 16.50€ to 20.30€ ($22.77 to $28.01). L'Ancienne Douane, 6 rue de la Douane, Strasbourg, tel. 03-88-15-78-78; www.anciennedouane.fr.
Former French president Jacques Chirac is said to have chosen Chez Yvonne as his favorite restaurant in Strasbourg, and it's a charming place, but we probably had different menus. I had their choucroute garnie (sauerkraut) dish at 15.60€ ($21.53), rather dry, with overcooked ham, undercooked fatty bacon, two kinds of dry sausage, a liver dumpling and a new potato. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Chez Yvonne, 10 rue du Sanglier, Strasbourg, tel. 03-88-32-84-15; www.chez-yvonne.net.
Maison Kammerzell is probably Strasbourg's most famous restaurant, and the best sited, being right next door to the cathedral. This is every traveler's dream of a medieval building, with lower stories from 1427 and overhanging floors from 1589. Their big deal is sauerkraut with fish at 19.75€, ($27.25), which I regard as an abomination, having tried it once here and twice at other restaurants hoping to be trendy. The fish juices dilute the flavor of the sauerkraut, to begin with. Their choucroute Strasbourgeoise with pork sausages (18€, $24.84), is fine, and has been for many decades. Try a glass of Riesling Klipfel with the main dish. This building has been on the French version of our National Register of Historical Places (L'inventaire Supplementaire des Monuments Historiques) since 1929. Maison Kammerzell, 16 place de la Cathedrale, tel. 03-88-32-42-14; www.maison-kammerzell.com.
Alsatian crafts are still to be found if you look carefully in small villages, especially. These include pottery, ceramics (in Bestchodrf or Soufflenheim), glassware, crystal (along the wine route), woodcarving, weaving (around Ried) and fabrics (southern Alsace). Shops near the Strasbourg cathedral also have these wares, but at higher prices.
Location is the big thing for the Best Western Monopole Metropole in Strasbourg, as it's just about 300 yards from the rail station, on a quiet side street. Some rooms have traditional Alsatian design, others more modern motifs, as did mine, resembling a luxury ship cabin. 86 comfortable rooms, doubles from 100€ to 135€ ($138 to $186.29), excellent buffet breakfast 12€ ($16.56). Monopole Metropole, 16 rue Kuhn, tel. 03-88-14-39-14; www.bw-monopole.com.
The Maison Kammerzell is a three-star hotel (named L'Hotel Baumann, after the restaurant chef and owner) in addition to being a famous restaurant. There are only 9 rooms, double room prices 105€ to 117E€ ($145 to $161.45). Breakfast costs 10€ ($13.80). You have to climb the stairs to get to your room however. See restaurant for contact information.
The Strasbourg Tourist Office, right on the cathedral square, has free maps and directories, and inexpensively priced guides (from 1€ to 4.50€, about $1.38 to $6.21, including a fine map of the European Institutions area). Strasbourg Tourist Office, 17 place de la Cathedrale, tel. 03-88-52-28-28; www.ot-strasbourg.fr.
More information about the Alsace region can be found at www.tourism-alsace.com.
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