Sunday, March 14, 2010

Weekend in Strasbourg

Susie and I spent the weekend in Strasbourg, the capital of Lorraine's neighboring region of Alsace. We had a great few days, learning about the city, strolling the streets, riding on trams, attending Friday-night services, eating (a lot), climbing 328 steps up the cathedral's bell tower, and touring museums. Over the next few blog posts I'll write in greater detail about some of these, so here I'll provide an introduction to our visit to this wonderful, interesting city.

Walking from the central station to our hotel, we crossed one of the branches of Ill river, which defines central Strasbourg as an island. A profusion of half-timbered houses, tall roofs, sandstone facades, and street signs in both French and Alsacian all combined to give the city a distinctly Alsacian feel contrasting with that of Metz. Likewise, a modern tram system running through the city streets, tour boats moving on the branches of the Ill, upscale shop windows lining the sidewalks, and a large number of restaurants ranging from winstubs to Michelin-starred landmarks combined to give Strasbourg a prosperous, big-city feel.

The most charming places for strolling were the narrow, largely pedestrian streets near the cathedral and, especially, in the district called "La Petite France"--little France, which boasts whole streets of half-timbered houses, bridges that swing so boats can pass, mills over river channels, and a dam/bridge built by Vauban.

Johannes Gutenberg lived in Strasbourg from 1430-1444, and in this span he invented the movable-type printing press. One of the main squares is named for him, and his statue in the square shows him holding a page with French words for "let there be light." As a result of Gutenberg's revolutionary technology, Strasbourg developed into the most active early center for printing. In addition to Gutenberg's Bible, Strasbourg produced first versions of many classical works, including, in 1470, the first printed edition of the works of the Roman playwright Terence. Strasbourg's city history museum has a copy of Terence's plays published in 1496; here's a picture of the first page of this book.

In addition to the city history museum, we also visited the museum of daily life in Alsace (which was founded in 1906), the museum of modern and contemporary art, the museum of decorative arts, and the archeology museum. More on some of these in due course. We rode the trams for a while to see some of the outlying districts, which were resolutely modernist, but didn't make it to the European Parliament, which I saw only from the bell tower of the cathedral. For many years it was the tallest church in all of Europe. The cathedral still rises with an intense verticality communicated by a host of spires, and its highest parts have an amazing openness.

Nearer the ground, many of Strasbourg's buildings combine a kind of solid but ornamented stonework with peaked roofs, which do much to create a kind of Mitteleuropa esthetic. No Mansard roofs here! I can barely imagine what it must be like to live in the upper floors of an attic like the one in this building in the heart of the city.

We left Strasbourg on the 4:51 p.m. train, which wound through fields, mountains, villages and tunnels, and along rivers and canals. As we neared Metz, the setting sun provided an appropriate closing curtain for our weekend in Alsace.

No comments:

Post a Comment