Seat of the EU parliament
www.otstrasbourg.fr. First German, and then French (with the odd Prussian incursion), Strasbourg is the capital of Alsace, and a seat of the European Parliament with its attendant court and councils. The city was built at one of the major ‘crossroads’ of Europe (from which it derives its name), and between its historic heart and modern satellites offers an enduring tradition of commercial prosperity and humanist ideals.
Johann Gutenburg invented moveable type here in the 15thC, the university was founded in the 16thC, and the Reformation was preached from the city’s pulpits. Surprisingly, perhaps, Strasbourg rather than Marseille is the home of the Marseillaise, composed by Roget de lisle in 1712, and first performed in place Broglie as the Chant de Guerre de l’Armée du Rhin.
The Old Town is conveniently encapsulated on an island in the River III. At its heart is the magnificent Gothic Cathédrale de Notre-Dame, a cloud-spearing, pink-brown monster festooned with carvings, a forest of pinnacles and a 142-m spire with a viewing platform. Inside, the stained glass is sensational, with colours so rich and patterns so dense that the interior is almost pitch black. In the south transcept the Pilier des Anges is adorned with 13thC carvings; and an astronomical clock goes through its paces at 12.30 pm daily. A coin in the light meter by the pulpit reveals a virtuoso masterpiece of stone carving reminiscent of petrified lace.
South of the cathedral, Strasbourg’s main museums are conveniently grouped together starting with the Musée de l’Oeuvre Notre-Dame, 3 place du Château, which displays sculpture rescued from the cathedral fa√ç¬µcade, stained glass and medieval and Renaissance art. Next door, the swanky apartments of the 18thC Palais Rohan, built for the powerful prince-bishops of the Rohan family, house three museums (all closed Tue) with room to spare: the Musée Archéologique, one of the richest in France; the Musée des Beaux-Arts; and Musée des Arts Décoratifs. A short distance west, the Musée Historique, 3 place de la Grande-Boucherie, augments local history with a notable military section featuring uniforms, weapons and serried ranks of painted cardboard soldiers.
Across Pont du Corbeau, crafts and costumes, folklore and furniture cram every inch of space in the delightful Musée Alsacien, 23 quai Saint-Nicolas. And Strasbourg’s notable Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain is scheduled to re-open in a brand new purpose-built gallery on the site of the Ancienne Commanderie des Chevaliers de Saint-Jean on the banks of the III in 1997. In addition to a broad selection of contemporary art there are works by Monet and Picasso, Klimt’s Embrace, Maillol bronzes and Arp’s smooth stone sculptures). For all these museums, see www.musees.strasbourg.eu.
From the river, rue Martin-Luther leads to Strasbourg’s premier Protectant church, the Eglise de Saint-Thomas with its elegant clusters of pink pillars, whitewashed walls and monumental marble tomb for Maréchal de Saxe. The south-western corner of the island is known as Petite France, an old tanners’ quarter developed for tourism, where a suitably photogenic collection of half-timbered houses balances on fingers of land behind brick prows. There are pretty views from the ponts couverts – covered bridges which are no longer covered – and better ones from the walkway on top of the Barrage Vauban.
The University lies to the east across the III, where allée de la Robertsau continues north to the futuristic Palais de I’Europe. Across avenue de l’Europe, the greenery and flower gardens of the Parc de l’Orangerie were laid out in honour of Empress Josephine in 1804, over an original plan by Le Nôtre.
The information-packed tourist office has full details of diversions from guided walks and mini-train tours to Alsacien folk-shows in the Palais de Rohan, boat trips and brewery tours courtesy of Messrs. Kronenbourg and Heineken amongst others. The main shopping area runs north and west of the cathedral starting with boutiques and department stores before merging into the alluring but expensive craft and gift shops of Petite France. Food and accommodation are not cheap in this city of expense accounts, but a couple of genuine winstubs have survived right in the town centre: a favourite is Chez Yvonne, 10 rue du Sanglier (tel. 03 88 32 84 15); also Winstub Zehnerglock, 4 rue du Vieil-Hôpital (tel. 03 88 23 17 42).