FRANCE Fast and fabulous
pour into town on December weekends from Germany and Switzerland, as well as le tout France, bound for the famous but tacky Christmas market.
It is the proximity to those borders which give Alsace such distinctive architecture. Yet in spite of the ornate quality — every available surface seems to be carved or hand-painted — the effect miraculously avoids tweeness.
Some of the most spectacular carving is on the facade of the 16th-century cathedral, which took four centuries to complete. Its interior repays a noon visit to see the fabulous astrological clock kick into life with its mechanical pageant of religious symbolism.
Outside, the intricate portal holds a figure of Synagoga, carved in 1230 as a highly prejudicial representation of Judaism, though it was several decades before expulsion hit the first-wave community.
Within a few hundred years, Jews were back and prospering, and a wealth of their artefacts from the 18th and 19th centuries is on view at the Musée Alsacien. A combination visitor pass includes admission to this and other museums, the cathedral clock and tower and the bateaux mouches which provide an excellent orientation to the city. From outside the Palais Rohan, these boats float through the heart of Petite France with its ancient watermills, past the covered bridges and into the European Quarter to allow a gasp of admiration at the dazzling new Court of Human Rights and Euro-parliament.
One of Strasbourg’s great charms is its small hotels. One of the nicest is the Hannong, near shops and cathedral and offering elegant rooms and good breakfast. Even closer to the shops and the railway station is Maison Rouge.
For dining, the winstubs, warm, highly-decorated, pubby restaurants serving regional specialities, are a must, and Finksteubel in Petite France gives any of the city’s Michelin-starred restaurants a run for its money.
In the Old Town, Le Clou battles it out with Chez Yvonne and while the observant may head to the city’s kosher restaurants, a good local dish is cream and onion tart, while fresh fish abounds. The cuisine and architecture may be somewhat less distinctive in the flatlands of Champagne, but it has the world’s most rated bubbly and some fine pockets of culture, particularly in Troyes, which recently celebrated the 900th anniversary of the death of Rashi.
Rashi, the Sting of his generation, chose a distinctly catchier name than the one he was born with (Schlomo ben Yitshak) in 1040. A wine-maker before pursuing his vocation, his commentaries on everything from women’s rights to making kosher wine have influenced Jewish learning worldwide.
The city now has a modern Rashi institute and a few half-timbered houses of the Jewish quarter which survived the fire of 1524 and though the synagogue is officially inaccessible, visitors might be admitted if they arrive on Shabbat. It would also be a shame to miss the city’s spectacular churches.
The Royal Hotel offers comfortable, well-priced lodgings on the edge of the walkable city centre, and agreeable ea-
teries include L’Illustrée, which has live jazz. Local delicacies include the mild Chaource cheese and Rose de Riceys plonk. But nothing is perfect: there is no connection between Troyes and the new TGV-Est station near Reims, though trains run from Paris.
Reims itself is a grand, slightly stuffy town dominated by a magnificent Gothic cathedral where the major wine-growers are not quite as accessible as those of the Alsace. How- ever, small Champagne producers are more welcoming, and their wares can be a surprising bargain. Many of the grandes marques, including Moet et Chandon, are located in Epernay, where the doors are thrown open to visitors for a weekend in December with fireworks and a street procession on the magnificent Avenue de Champagne, as well as the chance to enter the grounds of the great houses and taste their reasonably priced offerings.
Strasbourg’s dazzling new Court of Human Rights and Euro-Parliament
The magnificent Gothic Cathedral that dominates the town of Reims