STRASBOURG, FRANCE

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DSC02161STRASBOURG, FRANCE
Strasbourg, a city in the north-east of France, near the German border, is a name vaguely familiar from school history lessons. It is situated in the Alsace region, which used to be ceded to Germany then back to France then back again and back again. That is why there are many names, signs, foods and traditions which are a harmonious blend of both countries. Today, the city is home to several international institutions, like the Court of Human Rights and the European Council. Its Notre Dame Cathedral, built from pink sandstone, was steadily erected through the centuries, beginning in the 11th and ending in the 15th. In 1280, the citizens, recognizing that the cathedral would need a lot of maintenance work, formed a foundation which functions to this day. It is an awesome structure both outside and inside. Though glimpsed from most anywhere in the city, it is not easy to photograph due to its size. One can climb 330 steps up by the narrow winding stairs and enjoy the view from above, then climb back down. Inside, one can find the celebrated Horloge Astronomique, the astronomical clock. Every day by noon, huge crowds gather in the southern transept which houses it, to watch the parade of the twelve apostles when the clock strikes at 12:30. Admittance fee is 2 euros; it includes a film and a commentary. On Sundays and public holidays, admittance is free, without the film but with the commentary. Before going to Strasbourg, I wisely checked all the main points of interest, and marked them on the map. It is very beautiful, with innumerable quays, intersecting rivers, bridges, multicolored old houses, boats, churches, parks. In spring, it looks and feels like a fairy-tale place. The Old Town, wonderfully preserved through the ages, is actually situated on the island in the middle of the Ill River.
To take a good picture of the old guard towers, one has to climb on top of the medieval weir called Barrage Vauban. The panorama is breathtaking. From the weir, one can walk to the district called Le Petite France, snapping pictures on the way. One can also sit around in any of the numerous cafes and restaurants right there on the river banks, watch the passing boats and the fearless ducks and swans. I was even lucky enough to see a muskrat swim leisurely to the bank and climb out. The opening and closing weir doors always attract a great number of watchers. The excursion boats run around all day long throughout the year. Just take a few steps from the cathedral, stand in line, get your tickets and go. There are earphones on every seat, so one can listen to the commentary in any language. It’s a good way to see the whole city, including the new buildings. One may hear an unexpected comment, like the one about a pretty white church: after it was built, the carpenter was given a good beating, because the church contours were deemed “funny” for the house of God.
When one returns from the boat trip, one can go back to the cathedral, and from there either visit all the souvenir shops and enjoy more lovely views, or walk to the Gutenberg Square with its statue. Johann Gutenberg was the German inventor of the first printing process, and the printer of many books, including the Bible. It is believed that he had lived in Strasbourg for several years, and maybe even made his discovery there. From there, it is easy to walk along the shady old streets, past the medieval Customs House which is now a restaurant, to St. Thomas’s Church. Tucked into ancient buildings all around it are many cheese shops, with the popular storks figures everywhere. There are also old bakeries which sell traditional German gingerbreads in all shapes and sizes, as well as French tartalettes and croissants.
The old train terminal is covered by a modern glass oval, with the main building intact inside it. When one emerges from the terminal into the square, one can see a lot of hotels circling it, a post-office, and a number of restaurants including a MacDonald’s. One can walk past the MacDonald’s until one crosses the first bridge, and then either go straight on to the Cathedral, or walk along 22 Novembre Street to Galerie Lafayette, the famous huge store, and to Place Kleber, named after the famous French general born in Strasbourg in 1757. There are plenty of shops, cafes and a pretty fountain in the center of the square. One can turn right, to Barrage Vauban and Le Petite France. Alternately, one can cross the terminal square and can walk slightly to the left, along Kuhn Street, then turn left at the intersection, cross the road where the Commercial Center is clearly seen, and walk a few steps along the street. On the left-hand side, there is The English Bookworm, a very nice bookstore. The Commercial Center has all the usual shops and boutiques, as well as a large foodstore. Public toilets are to be found all around the city, with signs pointing to them; they are free, but there are discreet Thank You plates placed near the sinks, so one is expected to put a coin in them.
Maybe spring is the best time to visit this lovely town. All the trees are in bloom, with white, yellow, pink and red large chestnut “candles” giving the whole town a magical look. Blue wisteria flowers climb over many houses and embankments. In front of the university founded in 1538, there are lots of lovely pink and purple trees. There is also a botanical garden which opens daily at 2PM. Tender willows with very long thin green branches hang over the water. Huge plane trees stand majestically everywhere. One of the largest plane trees in Le Petite France, we were told, was used by musicians who would sit on the branches like in giant chairs and play their music in the evenings while the citizens were having dinner. Today, of course, the music often comes from a box.
Strasbourg is an amazing place which manages to preserve its complicated history and its charm.
©gretag2013

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