A very early day for me today, as my transportation to #Strasbourg was the TGV leaving Metz at 8:09am. When planning, I had two city walking tours scheduled, as well as knowing I needed to spend a couple of hours at the cathedral, since walking the roof deck was something I wanted to do again. So I was up, packed and off by 7:30, at the station for security (yes, for the fast trains, security is needed) and on the platform as the EuroStar pulled in. Reserved aisle seat for a 50-minute non-stop ride, I watched the country side go by as I did a little more research using the train’s WiFi.
Gare Centrale Strasbourg is an old station with a modern face. The nineteenth century building has a glass bubble over the stone façade, allowing an all-weather view to the east. Leaving the station rolling big blue along, I crossed one of the many canals dug off the Rhine River that forms the French-German border further east. My hotel, Le Kléber, is in the northwest corner of Place Kléber, a big open plaza on this “island” of the old city. Using the five floors above retail space on the ground level, there are three steps up from the sidewalk. A small reception desk sits opposite a small lift alongside a small storage closet. Much too early, my rooftop room (yes, I’m frugal to a fault at times) would be ready at 3, so I checked in and left my roller.
On to the cathedral, which had opened at 7am, but closes from 11:20 for 90 minutes before reopening until 7pm. La Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg is also known in German as der Liebfrauenmünster zu Straßburg, as the Alsace Department has been a major squabbling ground between France and Germany and switched depending on who won the war. Constructed from sandstone from the Voges Mountains, it has a distinctive reddish tint. Built in high/late Gothic and Romanesque style, for 227 years it had been the tallest building worldwide and is now the sixth tallest church. The spire reaches 143m.
At the entry, I purchased a multi ticket, so that I could enter and tour the interior, take the 330 steps to the first roof platform over the course of the full day. There was an English language guided tour at 9:30 for 90 minutes, which I joined. With a dozen others, we began in the back of the nave near the west entry and proceeded down the north aisle until we reached the crossing. Approaching the crypt entry, we turned north to view the five spandrel stained-glass windows in the north transept wall. These are called the Emperor Windows, depicting Holy Roman Emperors.
Down into the just the entry to the crypt, the original Romanesque piers survive the changes of architectural style. Elements of the crypts from the first three cathedrals still are in evidence. Apparently, special permission is needed to gain access beyond the metal gates.
Traversing in front of the main altar to the south transept, we heard about the Astronomical Clock, a mid-nineteenth century reconstruction of the original 18-meter wide clock built 300 years earlier. The sound and animation are stilled until after midday Mass, so I had to return to hear and watch. As we moved across the transept we came to the carving known as the Pillar of Angels, a representation of the Last Judgement. From the left and right of this pillar, we were able to see into the chancel and sanctuary to the simple gold cross over the high altar.
Coming around to the central aisle of the nave, the guide had us look up to the stunning rose window over the main west portal. As we walked by the large ornate wooden pulpit and then looked up to the hanging organ and organ console, I was mesmerized by the stained-glass windows in the clerestory levels. Not as brilliant as in Metz, but stunning nonetheless. Apparently Germans introduced green glass to the French red- and blue-colorations.
Thanking the guide, I had to scoot. My first free walking tour, “Amazing Strasbourg” was due to gather in front of the Galeries Lafayette at 11:15. Guruwalk guide Joshua was gathering up his 8 charges as I hoofed it the half kilometer to the rendezvous spot. And I wasn’t the last to arrive. Josh, from Chile, is a psychologist and chef by education and training, having lived in Strasbourg for nearly 2 years. He blends the historic, the old center and the new center into a 2-hour walking talk. His aspiration is to give the first guruwalk pub crawl tour.
We began by walking up into the Place Kléber, away from other guides gathering their walks. We each gave a brief introduction, where I found we were half Yanks with two couples, from Calgary and Belfast, filling out the group. Place Kléber is where the (famous) Christmas market is held annually.
Strolling by the cathedral and hearing a brief synopsis, we advanced to the Palais de Rohan. From the eighteenth century, the Palais faces the south façade of the cathedral and is now a museum with an extensive collection of hanging art. Back across the front of the cathedral, we stopped to look at the Maison Kammerzell, a classic hotel and restaurant sporting windows with stained-glass, and sitting next to the tourism office.
Heading away from the cathedral down Rue des Hallebardes, we came to a smaller “square”, Place Gutenberg, which hosts a statue of the printer who lived in Strasbourg for ten years. What delighted me was the working carousel. Crossing the plaza, we headed down Rue des Tonneliers; we were on “restaurant row”, where Alsatian cuisine was at the fore.
With Josh’s chef hat on, he regaled us with the scandals and gossip of old and new, and kicking up my stomach a notch – it was missing lunch! We turned on Rue de l’Ail (garlic) to walk past more eateries, on our way to the Santo Tomás Church as Joshua called it, or l’ Église Saint-Thomas. This protestant church built in a late Gothic style houses an organ played by Mozart while the composer was visiting the city.
From the church we crossed from the Grande Íle over a canal to enter the historic quarter know as La Petite France, where houses lined the water’s edge. It was extremely photogenic. This was a shopping opportunity, plus a pitstop. I was able to find a hat pin, so I had one more thing off my list.
Walking along the more southern fork of this midstream island, we came to the three bridges and four towers called Les Ponts Couverts. Built as strategic defense barriers, they protected Strasbourg in the thirteenth century.
Walking south over the bridge, we walked west to the next bridge, to look at the Barrage Vauban, the 17th century weir bridge. It would provide a great vantage point to view La Petite France and Les Ponts Couverts, great for photographing the quarter, if one could enter one of the many two-story stone houses that line the bridge from end-to-end. Josh ended his talk here, collecting donations for this “free” walk, and suggested that we consider returning to the cuisine ghetto if we were hungry, or cross the Ponts Couverts and walk through La Petite France to get back to the western end of the Grande Íle.
With just less than 2 hours before my next walking tour, and being hungry, I decided I’d wander across to the Pont du Faisan, where I saw a canal cruise boat half way to the Barrage, thinking that might be a way to see Strasbourg on a future visit. Walking parallel to the quai, I came to l’Académie de la Bière, where I stopped for a beer (of course) and a plate of saucisson with sauerkraut and a piece of baguette.
Afterwards, I continued to walk, moving over to the Quai de Paris along the Canal du Faux-Rampart. Turning towards Place Kléber on Rue de Noyer, it was just past 3 as I achieved the square and I started looking for the magenta umbrella.
Celeste proved to be the wielder of said umbrella, as she gathered the 10 of us together. Introducing herself as a graduate student from Beziers, she asked us to give a similar brief bio. We were more European for this 2-hour walk, with a half dozen either British or Irish, 3 young Japanese women and me. Only one of the English lads knew where Beziers was (besides me), so we heard a little about the end of the Canal du Midi.
Beginning her talk on the Place Kléber, she pointed to a long building on the north side (which houses the Apple store) called the Aubette. Originally a monastery, it became a military barracks before being converted into commercial space in the 1920’s. The owners turned the decoration project over to three artists: Theo van Doesburg, Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp. Their designs were implemented; it is still referred to as the Sistine chapel of abstract art. With free access, we briefly entered the gallery.
Leaving Kléber and heading towards the train station, we stopped at Place de l'Homme de Fer. A square built after the destruction of World War II, five buildings guided the view through the space. With the introduction of the tram system, a glass rotunda was added at this transit point, reminding me of Sevilla.
Our next destination was (for me) to return to La Petite France. However, Celeste brought us to the swing bridge there, which I’d not heard about on Josh’s tour. This just reinforced my view towards any tour – every guide brings a different view and catalog of sites, so hearing another take on a city or church is always valuable. As it turns out, I’d walked it earlier without seeing it in action as I left La Petite France.
Without crossing the bridge, we walked past the Barrage Vauban and came around to the front of the Museum of Modern Art. A big building with a massive glass box over the entry, it houses four levels of twentieth century world art. We entered the lobby and were impressed. Celeste then explained that our next destination was over a kilometer away, but we would cross on the Barrage Vauban, a covered walkway below the houses on the bridge, take the little bridge so we could see the Petite France up close, before crossing the canal for the last time to then walk past St Thomas Church on our way to the Place Gutenberg. A stop at the bakery Pain d’epices was planned.
Celeste kept up a chatty patter, getting into private conversations as we all walked along. There were pauses for picture taking, and the Japanese stopped to use the public toilets without telling us. At the Gutenberg statue, we heard a bit about French printing, and how it had grown out of the Germans holding Alsace when the press was first being used. Heading east from here, we came to the cathedral, with the rest of the group heading over to the Palais Rohan and the Musée des Beaux Arts and Musée archéologique. I tipped Celeste and headed into the cathedral.
With just over an hour before the roof closed (the tour had run long), I was anxious to climb the stairs to get up on the platform. Situated above the great rose window over the main western entrance, the tower stands to the north, while to the east one looks out over the oxidized metal roof over the nave, and the buttresses over the side aisles. At the eastern end, over the crossing and choir and sanctuary is the octagonal spire. Off in the distance on this brilliantly clear day were the Vosges Mountains and Germany was visible across the Rhine. When I’d been here in May 1993, while sunny, the haze had kept me from seeing Germany, which I’d not visited yet. I was really pleased to have had the chance to return here and see Germany this time.
Coming down the stairs, I decided to make one more pass down the aisles and across the transepts, expecting that the rose window would be getting a full blast of sun, and was right. I found a chair off a bit to the side of the main aisle and just sat and relaxed, waiting for the half hour on the clock to chime. Tomorrow would end my time in France, another phase of the trip, and I’d revisited four cathedrals, all named Notre-Dame. I reflected that I often tell people that Notre-Dame de Paris is not the only cathedral by that name, and I’d even added 3 more to my roster.
Leaving the cathedral content, I walked back to the Place Kléber and the hotel. I collected my bag and key, took the lift to the roof, and looked out the window over the square towards the great tower over the cathedral. Sitting for a bit, I began writing this posting, as well as scribbling thoughts into my journal. I’d had too few breaks in my day, so my feet appreciated this pause.
A bit after 7, I decided I deserved a “cocktail”, so I headed to the plaza. I’d expected to find a café-bar on the square, but only one restaurant down beyond Starbucks was visible. Heading down the western side of the square, I entered the commercial district which was slowly closing. I kept an eye down the side streets, as I usually find gems that way.
Taking a diagonal street, I spotted l’Atelier d’grand-père, which had a bustling sidewalk business going on, with college kids, office workers and commercial staff all hanging out smoking and having a drink. Walking inside, I found a chair at the bar. This was not a real touristy place, so I kept to French, although my accent must have announced I was an “étranger”. The woman behind the bar, très sympathique, suggested a pression, and I was happy to have a local draft beer, a Fischer. I pulled out the journal and wrote more as I remembered my day.
Remembering Josh’s emphasis on the food ghetto, I finished my beer and headed south. I kept wandering around, not wanting to eat Asian or Italian, looking for a French place.
Spying Au Petit Tonnelier, it had a velo, or bicycle, in the window. Yup, it called my name. With outside, inside and out back seating, I had my choice, and opted for inside to keep the light (and avoid the cigarettes.) Sweet vermouth to start, I had the foie gras du canard maison, chutney de fruits. The main was a galette de pommes de terre, truite saumonée, fromage blanc a l’aneth. I asked for a glass of the local white wine with the salmon. Dessert was streusel aux pommes et poires a la cannelle with a decaf Americano. I thought I’d risk the caffeine. And this was all the “formula”, so it was prix fixe of 21€ before beverages.
Departing, it had darkened, and I figured I’d take a shot at maybe getting a few night shots of the cathedral. Up the street to Place Gutenberg, I headed the three blocks over to the Place de Chateau. While I haven’t looked closely, I think they came out okay. From there back to Gutenberg and up the wide Rue des Grandes Arcades to the Place Kleber. Across the square, I headed to the hotel and then the room. Shoes off, I downloaded the pictures, got busy writing this post, set everything to charge and will crash as soon as this posts.