Strasbourg, France – Population ca. 276,000
In antiquity, Strasbourg was a Celtic village. Over time, a Roman garrison settled in the area and Strasbourg was then known as Argentoratum. When the Franks captured the city in the 5th Century, they named it Strateburgum, whence the present-day Strasbourg. Today Strasbourg it the official seat of the European Parliament.
During the Middle Ages, the city flourished and was a centre of artistic and commercial activity. As the city prospered, it grew to three times its original size.
From its architectural and cultural history, past and present, Strasbourg doesn’t disappoint. A ten-minute walk from central station, we crossed one of the twenty-one bridges that connect the city to the Grande Ile (big island). We walked to the heart of the island to la Petite France, built in the 14th. Century. The island is surrounded by five of the ill River’s tributaries. The picture perfect sights belie its poor beginnings, when hard labour and trying circumstances overcame the gnawing hardships.
Three of the ill’s 1,8 m (59 Ft) high waterfalls, were at the genesis of the milling industry. Tanners and millers did a booming business, which turned around people’s fortunes. Thriving river trading, which allowed easy transport of barrels of wine from Upper Alsace to the island’s docks, contributed to the economic upturn.
Roaming the island, ancient street signs tell the story of a German-French past. Bilingual French-German (Alsatian) street signs make for an interesting linguistic study. The Alemanni who settled in the area in the 5th. Century, spoke Alsatian; a German dialect. With the on again off again wars between France and Germany, the latter having occupied several times, it’s no wonder that dialectic vestiges pop up on street signs and buildings.
Half timbered houses grace the riverside, forming a picturesque tableau of days gone by. We decided to have breakfast on a rustic barge, docked along the esplanade. We had the choice to indulge in croissants, a full English-style breakfast, or enjoy generous portions of fruit and yogurt muesli and assortments of bread, cheese and jam.
After a leisurely meal, we meandered to the main square, with its imposing Notre-Dame Cathedral but not before checking out some Alsatian specialties such as the Pain d’Épices, which is similar to gingerbread but with umpteen varieties and quite a bit sweeter). On the savoury side is the Flammkuechen or Tarte Flambée, which is on a very thin pizza-like crust and traditionally with onions, ham and cheese.
Notre-Dame of Strasbourg Cathedral,
is graced by numerous amazing sculptures. Its sandstone walls, cast splendid and playful pink reflections in the sun. Construction on this Gothic masterpiece started in 1015 and took a mere four centuries to complete! With its 132 m (433 Ft) spire, the Cathedral beckons far and wide.
The central entrance invites pilgrims to pause and take in the Passion of Christ, sculpted on the arch frame of the door. The sculpture on the left door provokes pilgrims to ponder how virtues overcome vices, while the sculptured tableau of the wise and foolish virgins, on the right door, warns on being spiritually prepared for the life to come.
Crossing the cathedral’s threshold, one can only stand in awe of the magnificent interior. The rose window, adorned by 32 ears of corn, reflects the city’s wealth it enjoyed during the Middle Ages. Aligned above the rose window, the Twelve Apostles stand watch.
The suspended 14th. Century organ, shows of the artistic prowess of its creators. The organ is still operational.
Walking from one stupendous artwork to the next, is the Renaissance Astronomical clock. With its multitude of dials, it boasts an intricate and unique system, meant to incorporate scientific theory and information. At the strike of 12:30 pm, the Apostle Parade files out of the clock to the delight of onlookers.
Beside the clock is the Angel Pillar, also named “Pillar of Last Judgement”: a vertical column depicting twelve elaborate sculptures representing the four evangelists and angels with trumpets, culminating with a sculpture of Christ as Judge, alluded to in the Book of Revelation. This vertical column was, considering the era, an absolute technical triumph.
Near the Cathedral, the 15th. Century Kammerzell House is allegedly the most famous structure in Strasbourg. Formerly home to the merchant Kammerzell, it now functions as restaurant. A peek inside betrays vaulted ceilings, solid beams and ancient furnishings, emanating a cosy and inviting ambiance.
Museum Oeuvre Notre-Dame
We chose an informal eatery nearby to cap the day. As we headed to our lodgings, we noticed that the Museum was still open. We found out that it was part of the midnight attractions and quickly took advantage of the extended hours. The museum traces seven centuries of Upper Rhine and Alsatian art. Rooms in the connecting buildings of these 13th. Century houses, showcase paintings, sculptures and sacred art as well all stunning stained glass windows. A gothic garden, accessible to the public, offers a glimpse of Strasbourg’s history.
The next morning, another glorious sun-drenched day, we took in more musea, starting with the palace of the prince bishop.
Built between 1732 and 1742, the palace houses the Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Decorative Arts (the apartments of the cardinals, furnishings and art collections), and the Museum of Archeology. The latter spans the history of the Alsace from Prehistoric times to the early Middle Ages. As you can imagine, it took us the better part of the day to see all three musea. The Palace was definitely worth the visit.
Enjoying our last day, ambling the streets, we were struck by the large groups of tourist who literally took over the narrow streets and barely made way for others. No wonder European cities are starting to impose tourist taxes for visiting the old historical centres. Europe is not alone of course, any country or city with popular sights, attracts over-tourism. We discussed the phenomenon, and how we could avoid being part of the problem. Seeing hordes of people descending on a historic centre is disconcerting, imagine, we opined, how this affects the local population.
As more people travel, and as travel has become more affordable, the sheer numbers are only increasing. This made me painfully aware that I may have to look at travelling from a new, more wholistic perspective. Travelling off-season, is one solution. I will be giving the matter more thought, including becoming more intentional how I go about enjoying other cultures and their history. As a matter of fact, as I started researching, I came across this site: here Quite a few sites speak of “responsible” and/or “sustainable” travel. So, while over-tourism is a cause for concern, there are also ways to counter the imbalances and negative effects. We can make our travel experiences enriching and at the same time be mindful of the quality of life of those we visit.