Strasbourg: Walking, eating, drinking…. and eating AGAIN?!?
We got to Strasbourg this Saturday afternoon, my head still buzzing from the night out in Paris. We were bummed when we saw it was raining, and it felt like we were gonna spend a slow, lazy day of rest, and only get going on the visiting on Sunday. BUT THEN we met Florian, our host for the weekend. Florian is a very nice, always smiling guy, around my age. He has only been living in Strasbourg for 2 or 3 weeks, because he is an Erasmus student, coming to study from Germany (he speaks excellent French though!) And Florian had big (and great!!!) plans for us. So we didn’t get the rest we thought we’d get in Strasbourg, but instead we got the best experience of the city we could have had.
A host who knows how to fill your belly
When we first got to his place, Florian offered to get us something to eat. Neither of us were hungry, but to be polite and also as sitting together to eat or drink is the customary way to get acquainted with hosts, we accepted. We definitely made the right choice. He went to the bakery to get some fresh chocolate croissants and fresh baguettes. On the table were also a lot of German sausages, cheese, jam, fruit, Nutella, and so much more. We ate like kings, even though we had had lunch on the train merely 2 hours before. On Sunday morning, we had the same kind of meal except we ate even more. This guy sure knows how to prepare the greatest brunch.
An historic tour of Strasbourg
Florian later called up a friend he had made through Couchsurfing, from the first time he had come to Strasbourg. This guy (Nicolas) was a history buff and knew pretty much all there is to know about the history of the city and its building. The three of us met up with him and a couple of German students in front of the cathedral, and he offered us all a free guided tour of the city. He started with a brief review of the history of the place. Laura and I almost felt ashamed of Quebec City and its recent 400-years celebration, as Strasbourg celebrated, 22 years ago, its 2000th anniversary. We also got to understand a lot of the particularities of the place. Strasbourg is part of Alsace, a region of France that is right next to the German border. The German influences are very obvious there, from the food to the beer to the architecture. It actually got passed around between France and Germany quite a few times during the years. It became French for the last time only in 1918.
After the brief history lesson, we entered the cathedral. The front of it was beautiful, but very dramatic, in gothic style. There were little statues everywhere there was space for it. A weird thing about this cathedral is that there is only one tower instead of two. The cathedral took over 200 years to build, and when they got near the end, they thought that if they built 2 towers, the cathedral would probably sink into the wet marshland that the city was built on at the time. The inside of the cathedral was also very beautiful. Highlights include a gigantic stone sculpture that represents Jesus and all sorts of Christian elements that I can’t remember, and a huge clock, that calculates not just the time of day, but also the date, the day of the week, the month, the year, and the position of the planets. The clock is really breathtaking, and the church thought so too, because they actually blinded the guy who made it so he couldn’t make another one elsewhere. They regretted doing that when it stopped working a few years later!
French and German architecture
After the cathedral, we set out on a walking tour of the city center. All of the city is very old. There are almost no modern buildings. We saw some buildings that were classical French architecture, like a palace that was built for the bishop of the city 500 or 600 years ago, who also happened to be a son of the King of France.
One thing that is a bit surprising is that there is a neighbourhood called “Little France”, in which all the buildings are of German influence. We especially liked the timber framing. A particularity of those houses in Strasbourg is that a lot of them have a ground floor that is smaller than the higher floors, so the rest of the house is a bit over the street. That’s because there used to be a tax that depended on the ground area covered by the house. Those houses are also not exactly like the ones in Germany. Their roofs are built in the Alsatian tradition, over several floors.
We also got to see other examples of German architecture that dated from the 18th or the 19th Century. These included other large palaces that are now used as government buildings or official residences. Strasbourg is one of the rare places you can find this kind of architecture, as most of the same kind that was in Germany has been destroyed over the course of the two world wars.
A traditional Alsatian meal
After the tour, Florian and Nicolas took us to a typical restaurant that served all the specialties from Alsace. The place was very nice and the decor looked very authentic. Although we could choose between several dishes, including Alsatian sauerkraut (which, unlike traditional German sauerkraut, is not only cabbage but is mixed up with lots of different meats and vegetables), we were strongly urged to try the Baekeoffe, which is a kind of stew with lots of potatoes, pork, beef, lamb and onions. The food was abundant and excellent. We also tried a local beer that was very nice.
The guys then took us to a weekly couch surfing meeting in an Irish pub. I had my usual Guinness while Laura tried the Hoegaarden which was excellent. We met some other travellers and particularly enjoyed the traditional French band (it reminded me of the bar La Petite Grenouille in Quebec!). We were glad to finally get a table inside, because at first we had to stay on the terrace outside and we were frozen. It has been a shock coming to Strasbourg, as we had some 25 degree weather in Paris, and it got down to around 10 or 12 degrees in Strasbourg, although we were told this kind of weather was really unusual, and was more similar to November weather for them.
A view of two countries
On Sunday afternoon, after another huge breakfast courtesy of Florian, he took us on another little tour, this time taking us to the student and immigrant neighborhood, where the restaurants where less traditional and were you could also find some party boats. We then returned to the cathedral and paid the few Euros it cost to have access to the platform at the top of the cathedral. After an exhausting ascension (our cardio and our knees aren’t what they used to be!), we spent some time there to enjoy the view and take pictures. On one side we could see the Vôges mountains in France, and on the other we could see the mountains in the Black Forest in Germany.
An illicit free tour of Strasbourg
When we got down to the ground again, Florian offered to take us with him on a tour of the city that was given by the association for foreign students in Strasbourg. After touring the cathedral another time and visiting some radio station, we got on the “bateau-mouche” for free. This boat took us around the different canals that cross the city. The little audio guide described the buildings we were passing by and gave us some more insight into the history of the place. That is, when we were awake! With the little ambiance music in the headphones and the slow moving of the boat, the whole thing was very relaxing and with our lack of sleep, it was hard to stay awake the whole time.
We got to go a bit north and see the different buildings for the institutions of the European Union, including their Parliament and a palace. The whole thing was very modern, circular, and was divided by the river, though a walkway linked the two parts of the complex.
Free food too! And great beer! Again !
After the boat tour that took a little over an hour, the group of students were all going to some “brasserie”, where the association had payed for all of them to get a Flammeküche, which is another specialty of Alsace. It looked like a very very thin pizza, with cream mixed with cheese, onions and lard. We each took a different kind so we could have a taste of each. We had the classic, the regional (with sauerkraut) and the “forestière” (with mushrooms). The best one was either the classic or the regional, as the mushrooms didn’t add much taste to the dish.
After the restaurant, although we were pretty tired, we went along with Florian and some of his German friends, who wanted to get a beer before going home. We walked in circles around the city for a long time, as we couldn’t find the pub they wanted. Fortunately, we ended up going to “L’Académie de la Bière”, where we tried a Weißbier from Germany. This was a 0,5 L bottle of beer that was served in one very very tall and curvy glass. White beer is a little like blond beer but less transparent and with a stronger taste, I thought. It was excellent and we started to realize we would miss those foreign beers when back in Quebec. We also had dessert, which were also Flammeküche, but one with apples and cinnamon, and the other with chocolate and bananas. They were also very delicious.
As we are leaving Strasbourg on Monday morning, we are really thankful to Florian for the great weekend we spent there. We ate more than we have eaten at any time on this trip, and it was all very inexpensive and delicious. Next: Germany!!! Ein Bier bitte!!!