Tales of foodie, sports loving Aussie expat in the Netherlands.

A summer day in Strasbourg

November 23, 2017/France

When I first visited Alsace a few years ago, I was super-duper excited about Colmar. I’d seen all those online lists championing it as one of the prettiest small towns in Europe, and I was chomping at the bit. I agreed to do a month of cruises on the Upper Rhine just so I could get to see Colmar.

Colmar was okay. Yes, it’s pretty, but I just felt it to be a bit fake and not lived-in. I suppose that’s something to write about another time. What stole my heart, however, was the big city down the road. A city I hadn’t really ever thought of before. That city was Strasbourg.

I could live in Strasbourg. Big call, I know, but I’ve never said that about anywhere else in France before. Maybe it’s because Strasbourg, to me, has the best bits of France and Germany. It’s got the food, the chic-ness and a bit of the ‘c’est la vie’ attitude from the French, but the architecture (you all know how much I love my half-timbered houses), work ethic and general organisation level of the Germans. The locals like to say that’s Alsace for you.

I find the Alsatian culture and history fascinating. It bouncing between France and Germany from the days of Louis XIV on; the dialect that’s developed; the local sentiment around the recent merger of the regions to form Grand Est; the fact that so many locals have French first names and German surnames. The region straddles that great fissure in Europe – the Franco-German divide – and I love delving into how the two mix.

And just how close are the two cultures? Well, if we’re talking physically, the German city of Kehl is a short drive away, just on the other side of the Rhine. What’s more is that since April this year, you can even catch a local tram between the two cities. This isn’t a new thing, historically speaking at least. A tram connected Kehl and Strasbourg between 1896 (when Strasbourg was in German hands) and 1945 (the end of the World War II). It’s more than a little symbolic that once again, the tram is running.

I returned to Strasbourg last summer, as part of a road trip Paul and I planned along the Alsace Wine Route. (More on that one later. It’s fantastic.) I was keen to show off the city to Paul. The sun was out, the people were in the beer gardens and the whole city was shining.

What makes Strasbourg so liveable, I think, is the fact that the centre is comprised of a number of parts and the bulk of tourists stick to the square around the cathedral and Petit France. The cathedral is actually one of the more memorable ones in Europe (get somebody to explain the astronomical clock inside and you’ll understand why) and Petit France is a colourful wonderland of fachwerk (half-timber, but much more fun to say in German) and canals.

Ninety-nine per cent of the postcards of Salzburg will depict one of those two places, and the other one percent will probably show off the European Parliament. We checked the latter out, of course – Paul even theatrically threw the contents of his wallet at it, ah the things we do for photos – but that area’s pretty soulless. The nearby Parc de l’Orangerie is a much better bet; you might even be able to spot some storks. Yes, they actually do exist.

No, instead of the postcard spots, I love wandering the rest of the inner city, away from the cathedral, cross-crossing my way through the back streets. Here’s where you can find patisseries selling eclairs, cafes dishing out flammekueche and top-end restaurants flogging their foie gras. In between drooling, we played our usual game of trying to find half-timbered houses with numbers or carpenters’ marks (we are easily amused) and just got lost.

Eventually you’re bound to pop out again in Petit France, and that’s not a bad thing. I’m still a little in the dark as to why they call this very Germanic-looking neighbourhood ‘Little France’, but I digress. It’s probably a little too polished and neat to be properly authentic these days, but hey, it’s pretty. We joined the locals for a beer, watched the little tourist boats get raised and lowered in the nearby lock and thought, “yep, this is the life”.

Often what you’re looking for isn’t where you expect it. Sometimes it’s in the regional capital just down the road.

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