Travel Tuesday: Strasbourg, France

On my Europe trip in 2010, we ended up going to Strasbourg on a bit of a whim. We were on a road trip from Cannes to Paris, with no real road map in mind and kind of just ended up there. I am so happy we did, I only wish that we had had more time to visit, as the city was so beautiful and unique.

Strasbourg is the capital city of the Alsace region in eastern France, located very close to the German border. A lot happens in this city. It is the official seat of the European Parliament, and the seat of several European institutions, such as the Council of Europe (with its European Court of Human Rights, its European Directorate for the Quality of Medicines and its European Audiovisual Observatory) and the Eurocorps, as well as the European Ombudsman of the European Union. Busy place hey!

Strasbourg, to me, seems to be an amalgamation of so many things. Old and new. Work and play. History and progress. French and German. You see this represented in the language, the food, the drinks, the architecture and the colours. It’s just such a unique city.

Strasbourg’s historic city centre, the Grande Île (Grand Island), was classified a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1988, the first time such an honour was placed on an entire city centre. It is fused into the Franco-German culture and although violently disputed throughout history, has been a bridge of unity between France and Germany for centuries, especially through the University of Strasbourg, currently the largest in France, and the coexistence of Catholic and Protestant culture.

Strasbourg is situated on the Île River, where it flows into the Rhine on the border with Germany. A boat trip is, in my opinion, the best way to get to see Strasbourg because of the perfect view it gives you of Strasbourg`s main attractions: European Parliament, the German Quarter, the Middle Age Petite France, among many others. One thing I found really cool on the boat ride was that you have to pass through the locks I had never experienced this before. The boat goes through a canal which is a very tight fit and the lock gates raise it more than one meter to the upper level. It takes 5 minutes for enough water to be release to raise the boat. It’s interesting to watch the water level rise under the boat by seeing how different markings on the concrete wall beside the boat disappear under the water.

On the boat tour, seeing the architecture of the buildings and listening to the guide tell you about the history, you realize just how old this city is. Coming from a country that’s fairly young like Canada, it is incredible to think that you are in a place that is hundreds of thousands of years old. Maybe I’m just a nerd like that, but I find history so fascinating. The first traces of human occupation in Strasbourg go back 600,000 years.  Neolithic, bronze age and iron age artifacts have been uncovered by archeological excavations. It was permanently settled by proto-Celts around 1300 BC. That’s really old you guys!

The city is primarily known for its sandstone Gothic Cathedral with its famous astronomical clock, and for its medieval cityscape of Rhineland black and white timber-framed buildings, particularly in the Petite-France district or Gerberviertel (“tanners’ district”) alongside the Île and in the streets and squares surrounding the cathedral, where the renowned Maison Kammerzell stands out.

The Cathédrale Notre-Dame is a Roman Catholic cathedral. It is incredible to stare up at all the carvings and stonework, and to realize that people actually created that by hand. It is so detailed and intricate. A true piece of art. Although considerable parts of it are still in Romanesque architecture, it is widely considered to be among the finest examples of high, or late, Gothic architecture. Erwin von Steinbach is credited for major contributions from 1277 to his death in 1318.

At 466 feet, it was the world’s tallest building from 1647 to 1874, when it was surpassed by St. Nikolai’s Church, Hamburg. Today it is the sixth-tallest church in the world.

Victor Hugo had described the Cathédrale as a “gigantic and delicate marvel,” Goethe described it as a “sublimely towering, wide-spreading tree of God.” And widespread it is! It is visible far across the plains of Alsace and can be seen from as far off as the Vosges Mountains or the Black Forest on the other side of the Rhine.

The Strasbourg astronomical clock is located in the Cathédrale. I found it so odd to see science and religion together like this. Like I said, Strasbourg is nothing if not unique. The clocks main features, besides the automata, are a perpetual calendar (including a computus), an orrery (planetary dial), a display of the real position of the Sun and the Moon, and solar and lunar eclipses. The main attraction is the procession of the 18 inch high figures of Christ and the Apostles which occurs every day at half past midday while the life-size cock crows thrice.

Like I mentioned earlier, this city has so much to offer visitors, you should all go and experience it yourselves. I’m fairly certain that I will be back again one day…at least I hope so!


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