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France III: 19-21 May: Strasbourg

Updated: Nov 6, 2023

Leaving the Speyer room at 8;30, I walked the country road to the station and waited for the 9:15 train to Karlsruhe. Nearly empty, I had hopes for the rest of the journey. In Karlsruhe I had an hour to wait, spending it outside in the warm sun as the platform gradually filled up. On the 11:07 train, I lucked out with a seat and space for the bags, and rode for 50 minutes. After a half hour waiting at my train change, my last (and most crowded) train took me for 35 minutes to Strasbourg. On that leg I stood with a German woman with a broken wrist; she heading to Basel for the weekend.

Out of the station in Strasbourg, I was faced with a half ring of tall buildings with radiating streets and a half-circle park. It took identifying the hotels to figure out which "wheel spoke" I needed to get to the Hotel Victoria. They were able to register me and assign room 204. It was small with a single bed, small bath, little floor space. Workable, as the wifi was strong, and the front door staffed 24-hours. My next stop was the Tourist Office on Place Kleber, the square filled with a dry goods market. I collected a city map, and then spoke with a second staff member who reviewed the cultural activities available that weekend.

Around a few corners and the cathedral stood, fed by two rather long lines: free into the church itself, and the other for ticketholders who had bought access to the towers and rooftop. Security was checking bags, controlling the flows. To me, they looked like the huge unruly crowds I remembered when entering Notre-Dame in Paris, as both buildings are quite large.

My noon walking tour was my next step, and, of course, I headed in the wrong direction initially as I had to be back at Place Kleber. Erick was waiting, and a trio joined us: a couple from Jacksonville and Kennebunkport, and her brother from Concord, Massachusetts. Erick’s tour started by telling us of the importance of Jean-Baptiste Kléber. A military man under Napoleon, he defied orders and captured Cairo. Later assassinated, he had been born in Strasbourg. I’d encountered the name in numerous cities, so this knowledge was welcome. Circling l’Eglise Neuf, we walked to the front of the cathedral, where we learned the story of the doors: left side being the nativity, center the passion and right the final judgement. As we moved around to the left side (and the line to the top), Erick continued to expound on the history and importance of the cathedral.

Then across a plaza to the Palais Royale of Louis XIV. To Gutenberg Place, where the plates' contents mimicked the continents, and a statue memorialized Eric Schweitzer. We stopped for samples in his favorite cheesemonger’s shop, then next door to a whisky and saucisson shop. Our next points were the locks on the canals that divide the city’s arrondissements, a bridge, and, as the northeast trio split back to their hotel, the two of us went up on the wall fortifications, which have great views of the city rooftops and the cathedral off in the distance.

Wandering randomly but with some actual intent, I managed to see St Thomas (Protestant) Church, before finding those cheese and whisky shops. I managed to talk my way into buying 3 small pieces of cheese (he wants to sell kilos, I want less than a tenth of that). Getting a bottle of French whisky next door, the seller was gracious to slice a small saucisson for me. Deciding to head to the hotel, I stopped at Bar Bier for a Fischer amber, needing to begin journaling before I stopped remembering. The bar was a big place, and I found a spot toward the rear under a skylight, which gave me enough light to write.

Back to heading to the hotel, I picked up 3 bananas and two bottles of mixed fruit juice. At the hotel I collected my replacement phone which had arrived from Florida, immediately faced with the technical issues of putting the SIM in and charging the equipment. It felt smaller and thinner, and I would need a new case and protective glass - a task for the following day.

Nearing 8pm, I looked for dinner, and entered Spuntino, where I got a half liter of a Brindisi DOP Riserva, which accompanied a cheese plate to start: taleggio, gorgonzola, pecorino sarde, stracciatelle, provola fumee with roquette and pesto rouge et vert. My main was lasagna a la bolognaise, which arrived too cool so I request a hotter portion. It was barely warmer on its return. The cheese options, while intriguing, turned out to be quite bland, so I considered the meal a fail.

For Saturday the 20th I had plans for a day trip to Toul, via a return through Nancy. My notes indicate that it was a difficult trip to the Strasbourg station and platform, as my back and hips were in pain, and I’d had muscle cramps in my right leg during the middle of the night. In hindsight, this is probably tied to lifting the luggage (2 train changes) and carrying too much in the string backpack, as well as not enough water.

Passengers on the train from Strasbourg to Nancy
On the train from Strasbourg to Nancy

The first leg to Nancy was on a fairly empty train, arriving 5 minutes late which cut into the 10 minutes I had to switch trains. I made it down and up stairs in time, and two stops later exited into Toul. The walk through the city took nearly a half hour, putting me first at the Tourist Office and then at the cathedral.

Side facade, Former Cathedrale Saint-Etienne de Toul
Former Cathedrale Saint-Etienne de Toul

The former Cathedrale Saint-Etienne de Toul is another huge edifice with two towers. The interior ornamentation is limited, mainly large 19th century oil paintings. The lack of statuary, Stations, embellishments is probably attributable to the Napoleonic thefts (pillage?) as the army secured anything of value to pay for its needs.

Overall, I’d describe the church as tall, very bright inside, with gold highlights in the vault and rich burgundy drapes on the columns. I found the high altar, in the rear of the apse, to be pleasing, with framed portraits filling the arch. While my inital outside shots had been from the east, passing into the side garden for a profile shot may prove to be a better representation, albeit it’s not a view I prefer.

Continuing through town with the tourist map in hand, I visited the Collegiate Church of St-Gengoult, nearby and associated with the cathedral. It has an octagonal tower that peaked my interest, but repair construction both inside and out limited my visit. There are several chapels that are lovely. The cloister garden was spectacular.

My options for return were two trains, separated by hours. I resolved to not race back on the midday train, and rambled through Toul, picking up a bottle of water at a Spar. My note suggests that I should have also bought a sandwich, but survived on a snack bar I had in the bag. Just before 2 I was back at the station to head back to Strasbourg via Nancy.

My next note indicates that I’d thought I’d need tickets to take the bus for the following day’s trip, but found that my Eurail pass was sufficient. I shopped for some bread to have with my cheese and saucission in the room, after which I had a nap. My dinner was at La Petite Alsace, with a glass of Auxerrois, water, a mixed salad, choucroute garni (knack, mont belaird, smoked kassler, streaky bacon, smoked bacon). On my return to the hotel, I got online and published a snarly review of my Speyer lodgings.

Sunday proved to be a great adventure. A region in France that has always intrigued me, I would be visiting Les Vosges by taking a train and switching to a bus. From Strasbourg, I took a train to Selestat. About a dozen got off, but I was one of two to board the bus continuation, which started late because an idiot car driver had made an illegal turn into the space in front of the bus and then had a difficult time extracting themselves. The route lasted about an hour, taking us through some absolutely gorgeous countryside, and through the Tunnel Maurice Lemairre, which is just shy of 7km long!

St-D-des-Vosges is a charming village. From the bus stop, after crossing the river I had to walk the length of the wide main street, filled with vendors under canopies, selling mainly household goods, and others with eco-friendly promotions. The locals were strolling in the sun, chatting with friends and the merchants. At the far end was a roundabout, with the red-stoned cathedral up a flight of steps.

Front facade and stairs, Cathédrale de Saint Dié
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Saint Dié

I crossed the plaza in front of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Saint Dié, a rebuilt twin-towered church with a cloister, and an older abbey church to the side. Entering, I noted that the light was intriguing, as there was a marked difference in the windows: on the cloister’s side, the windows were large and filled with abstract stained-glass, while on the south, the windows were small and higher. Down front at the Marian altar the windows were older and traditional.

The organ was a replacement for the one burned during the war by the Germans.

A baptism was underway at the main altar when I entered, so I left and went into the cloister. A well-kept enclosure, the grounds were green, a contrast to the red of the stones. Gargoyles abound, ringing the square. I tried to enter the adjacent church, but it was closed, and I returned to the cathedral nave.

Admiring the clean lines, I appreciated the moderate space, although the high altar was placed up a short flight of steps. In the north transept was a small altar and seating, all at floor level. The cure who’d baptized the infant told me that next door is a museum where the New World was first referenced as America. It is now a bibliotek/museum to Pierre Noel, and was closed the day I visited.

The return bus was an hour off, so I sat at the Bar de Boussre (The Compass) to quaff an Affligan Ambrea and eat a Plat Lorraine, a quiche with pate and a salad. I walked to the river, the Meurthe, which was quite tame in its channel. I figured it probably ran the entire length of the valley. After dining, I returned to the pickup spot, chatting with a woman there who would be returning from the market. That Sunday just past midday, there were more passengers, many looking to be students with small luggage. Once at the train station in Selestat, the platform was full, and the train pulled out crowded, with many standing and bicycles blocking any passage. Fortunately, it was a non-stop back to Strasbourg.

3/4 front facade, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-Strasbourg
Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-Strasbourg

Exiting the Gare de Strasbourg, I headed directly to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame, as I wanted to visit the interior if I wasn’t getting back up onto the roof. (I’d been to Strasbourg in 1993 and have a picture taken on the roof in the Cathedrals to the Glory of God.) That Sunday late afternoon, it was much less crowded than earlier in my visit to Strasbourg. The north transept was blocked, but the bright sunlight outside brought the wonderful stained-glass windows to life.

While the glass was from different periods, I gazed at the multiple rose windows, trying to capture them with the Nikon. Searching for the cathedra, which turned out to be made of stone, I found the main altar up 7 steps and roped off. The crypt was closed, and the Eucharist chapel was restricted for prayer only. A huge horologe, a mechanical astronomical clock caught my attention. At the high altar, 8-panels bracketed the tabernacle in a gold reredos.

Outside, I went on a hunt for my pin souvenirs, which I found. Thinking to have more beer, I chanced upon the Grand Cave au Sous-sol near Salle Mozart. A wine bar, it was set back from the street but crammed between buildings, a quiet respite in an otherwise busy quartier. Ordering an Alsace riesling from Clos Rebberg (Marc Kreydenweiss), it had a yellowish glow with good mouthfeel and excellent finish.

Speaking with the staff, they asked about my day and when I mentioned going to the Vosges, they asked why. My reply was a blend of both the visit to the cathedral, and to remembering a novel I’d read in 2017 where an orange (natural) wine from a small town in the Vosges had triggered an interest in me on my Danube bike ride that year. I asked for the foie gras and a second glass, l’Alsace du moment. The foie was a touch too cold, but melted in the mouth, a creamy dream which slowly warmed to room temperature. The second wine was a pinot blanc-pinot gris blend which was darker, and had been aged in oak barrels for 2 years. It had more of a cognac feel than wine, and lacked the lengthy finish of the first.

Seeing as I had a bit of knowledge, the server then gave me a blind pour, which I failed to recognize as cairanne; from near Rasteau, the Domaine Richaud ‘20 was very dark, red-black, a bouquet of cut green wood, forest, floral soap and a taste of sour berries, black currant, unripe blackberries (sour.) It was a “bio”, an organic offering. To clear my palate, he poured me a GSM from L’Ebrescade: this was probably the youngest of this Provençal blend I’d ever tasted, and reinforced my preference for aged reds from the CdP-Gigondas region.

Sated, I headed back to the hotel, nibbled a bit on my cheese and saucisson while I packed up for my pending departure in the morning.

Book: Cathedrals to the Glory of God
Cathedrals to the Glory of God

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(or have me send it as a gift) of

Cathedrals to the Glory of God

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