Even under grey skies, Strasbourg’s colors pop: ocre and salmon pink turned bright under the rain. The Rhine splits up into rushing canals, turning into deep shade of seaweed green once it reaches the River Ill and the Canal du Faux-Rempart. On first impressions, Strasbourg doesn’t have the classic French look with the homogenic Haussmann buildings you’ll find in Paris or the art nouveau curves of Lille. The triangular houses criss crossed with timber beams fits into the architecture you’d find across the border in Germany, or just a little further south in Switzerland.
The city’s heritage is Alsatian, whose people once spoke a language closer to German than French. Strasbourg is a truly European city, a melting pot of local European culture that you see in its architecture, people, language, and food. It’s not surprising that Strasbourg has become the European capital, home to the European Parliament and the European Council. If you look on the map, it’s lies right in the center of a circle where cities like Brussels, Paris, Munich, Geneva and Milan, among others, are within a 200km radius.
There is still something very French about the pace of life in Strasbourg. Locals crowd into the local bars and taverns, cheering France on in a game of soccer with a glass of wine at hand at tables covered with red and white checkered table cloths. Others flaneur along the banks of the river after dinner, appreciating the details and slow down.
I arrived straight from Switzerland, a transit point on my way to Rheims and the Champagne Region. It only took an hour and a half to get from Basel to Strasbourg. Arriving in the early evening, I grabbed a taxi to my AirBnB to Schiltigheim, a small town that blends into the suburbs of the town, where I stayed in a spare room at a bohemian apartment home to a costume designer and her adorable dog she rescued while shooting a film on Reunion. I was quite far out of the town, but worth the hike, traversing the modern glass building enclosing banks and businesses until I crossed a bridge and found myself in the center.
The city’s center, concentrated around the Grande-Île, makes the UNESCO Heritage list and is easy to get around on foot. At the heart, the Cathédrale de Notre-Dame rises up in Gothic splendor, where the rose window looks like a jewel as the light shines through at night. Around the cathedral, Strasbourg’s timbered houses thread in and out of rivers and canals, connected by cobbled bridges overlooking towers and old tanneries.
Both night and day, I found I could lose most of my time wandering the tightly woven streets of La Petite France. By night, the Barrage Vauban, a
17th century defensive dam glows in an eerie purple thanks to the creative lighting flooding its arches that reflect in the black waters below. During the day, this old Tanner’s Quarter invited me to explore its rain dappled streets along canals and channels whose houses hang over the water’s edge were once home to tanners, millers and fishermen. Foot bridges cross over locks and weirs that once drove the mills of the district. The whole quarter
looks like something off a chocolate box, but comes withspades of curious history. It’s name, Petite-France, did not come from a place of patriotism. Its name comes from a German slur, Franzosenkrankheit, the “French Disease” after the island became home to a hospice to treat those with syphilis. in the 15th century. Today, there is little left of its syphilitic history, but rather an abundance of cafes and winstubs, traditional Alsatian taverns.
Strasbourg is a city where you take things slowly, even if you’re only there for a night and day (as I was). You wander besides the canals, get a little lost, and then end up in a tavern with a huge tarte flambée a kind of Alsatian pizza topped with sour cream and specks of bacon.
Strasbourg is a unique city, much like the Alsace province it governs. France is a country defined by its districts and it’s easy to think of the country as being Paris and maybe its coast on the south, but getting to know different facets of France is fascinating, and Strasbourg is a key city in France’s culture. So next time you’re in the area, swing by, have a tarte flambée and get exploring.