Explore this cultural city at the crossroads of Europe and work up an appetite for Alsace’s hearty cuisine, says Mary Novakovich
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.
Le Weekend SHORT BUT SWEET CITY BREAKS
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