Ex­plore this cul­tural city at the cross­roads of Europe and work up an ap­petite for Al­sace’s hearty cui­sine, says Mary No­vakovich

France - - Contents -

Ex­plore the his­toric heart of this city at the cross­roads of Europe.

In Stras­bourg’s Pe­tite-france quar­ter, half-tim­bered houses fes­tooned with flow­ers line the River Ill, whose waters rush through a patch­work of canals and locks. The scene is achingly pretty, ef­fort­lessly draw­ing tourists to the 16th- and 17th-cen­tury build­ings and cob­bled squares, all try­ing to cap­ture its essen­tial love­li­ness.

It is easy to get bowled over by Stras­bourg’s beauty. Its long his­tory of be­ing bounced back and forth be­tween Ger­many and France – while re­tain­ing its Al­sa­tian char­ac­ter – gives it a de­light­ful Ger­manic-gal­lic mix in ev­ery­thing from ar­chi­tec­ture to food.

Much of the plea­sure is in the de­tail. Strolling through the cob­bled streets of Grande-île – the heart of the city ringed by the River Ill – with my guide, Is­abelle Hincker, I am shown the stitch­ing in Stras­bourg’s seams. A Ger­manic oriel win­dow sits be­side a French wrought­iron bal­cony; a crenel­lated roof re­veals the city’s old affin­ity with other cul­tures along the Rhine. The fra­grant streets of Pe­tite-france used to be­long to tan­ners, the lofts filled with mal­odor­ous hides left to dry out. It was only in the early 1980s, when the city cen­tre was vy­ing for Unesco World Her­itage sta­tus, that this pic­turesque cor­ner smartened up.

We pass more hand­some half­tim­bered houses as we head towards the mag­nif­i­cent Gothic Cathé­drale NotreDame and its sand­stone fa­cade. Just around the cor­ner is the Palais Ro­han, the first sig­nif­i­cant French build­ing to be erected af­ter Louis XIV an­nexed Stras­bourg to France in 1681. Fin­ished in 1742, this sprawl­ing Parisian-style epis­co­pal palace is home to three mu­se­ums, in­clud­ing the Musée des Beaux-arts.

We walk past the me­dieval cus­toms house, which had to be com­pletely re­con­structed af­ter it took a pound­ing dur­ing World War II. Op­po­site is the tiny Rue des Ton­neliers, whose name harks back to the days when wine and beer bar­rels would be lifted out of the cus­toms house and sim­ply left to roll down the street to the many bars and restau­rants in this nar­row lane. It is now one of the buzzi­est streets in the cen­tre,

and home to the world’s largest glass cheese dome at La Cloche à Fro­mage restau­rant.

All this talk of cheese and beer is mak­ing me hun­gry, so I go in search of one of Stras­bourg’s spe­cial­i­ties, flam­mekueche, or tarte flam­bée. At the funky Au Brasseur mi­cro­brew­ery, I tuck into this de­li­cious, very thin, pizza-like dish cov­ered in fro­mage blanc, lar­dons, sliced onions and mush­rooms.

Later in the af­ter­noon I find my­self back in Pe­tite-france, specif­i­cally at the Bar­rage Vauban, the late 17th-cen­tury dam planned by Louis XIV’S ubiq­ui­tous mil­i­tary en­gi­neer. In the 1960s, the au­thor­i­ties came up with the ex­cel­lent idea of build­ing a panoramic ter­race across the top. It is a won­der­ful spot from which to see the 19th-cen­tury sand­stone bridges that re­placed the me­dieval ar­caded Ponts Cou­verts.

Evening brings the chance to sam­ple one of my favourite Al­sa­tian dishes, chou­croute gar­nie, which takes hearti­ness to a new level. Sauer­kraut and pota­toes are gar­nished with gi­ant chunks of salted meat – pork knuckle, bacon, sausages – which I make a valiant at­tempt to fin­ish in Chez Yvonne. This cosy restau­rant is typ­i­cal of the tra­di­tional Al­sa­tian win­stubs that sprang up af­ter Stras­bourg fell into Ger­man hands in the early 1870s. A glass of ries­ling to go with the chou­croute is al­most manda­tory.

Al­sace prides it­self on be­ing the only re­gion in France in which both wine and beer are pro­duced, and holds its own on the sparkling wine front. A glass of cré­mant d’al­sace is a re­fresh­ing night­cap, par­tic­u­larly in the friendly sur­round­ings of Bar le QG in one of Stras­bourg’s most con­vivial squares, the café-filled Place du Marché Gayot near the cathe­dral.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing, I am ready to take in the splen­dours of the cathe­dral. One mar­vel fol­lows an­other un­der enor­mous vaulted ceil­ings, from 14th-cen­tury stained-glass win­dows to Gothic sculp­tures. Vis­i­tors are jostling to get a good view of the as­tro­nom­i­cal clock, which springs into ac­tion ev­ery day at 12.30pm. I es­cape the crowds by slip­ping out­side and tack­ling the 332 steps to the plat­form at the foot of the soar­ing spire. It is a gru­elling climb, but worth it for the views of Stras­bourg’s rooftops, the Vosges moun­tains and the Black For­est be­yond.

Back on the nar­row cob­bled streets, I head towards Miche­lin-starred Au Croc­o­dile for lunch. The or­nate baroque in­te­rior makes me think of a hushed, awe-filled tem­ple to fine din­ing, but the room is pos­i­tively hum­ming with the sound of en­joy­ment. The filet de mai­gre (a croaker fish) with fen­nel purée and dill is one of the most sat­is­fy­ing dishes I have had in a long time.

It is not just the starry lunch that makes me fall for Stras­bourg. There is a pleas­ingly cos­mopoli­tan air, helped in part by the pres­ence of the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment, the Coun­cil of Europe and the Euro­pean Court of Hu­man Rights. It is a city at ease with it­self: civilised, classy, cul­tur­ally rich and re­laxed.


ABOVE: The tow­ers and the for­mer Ponts Cou­verts across the River Ill; LEFT: Half-tim­bered houses in the Pe­tite-france district; BE­LOW: Stras­bourg Cathe­dral; Flam­mekueche at Au Brasseur

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