When making the decision to tactfully blend two cultures – in order to produce an amazing hybrid – it is important to make those two cultures French, and German (or cultures of equivalent grandeur).
Of course, this decision was no more ‘made’ than such a happy accident could have occurred. Over hundreds of years, many cultures and civilisations fought and died over the small city of Strasbourg, and it was time to find out why.
The two-hour train trip from Paris ushers you through some of the most beautiful French countryside, launching you headfirst into the gardens of the Alsace region. (Passing through Lorraine - but passing up on the quiche - became a notable regret.)
The remarkable dichotomy of the inner, older part of the city, and the outer, more recent, becomes instantly apparent when arriving to Strasbourg by train. The latter, appearing industrial, worn and bland, swiftly juxtaposed with possibly one of the most gorgeous town centres I have had the pleasure of visiting. It’s imperfect, yet perfect cobbled streets leading you through an array of meticulously nurtured 16th century buildings. Some of which, for a brief period, convincing you it is the age in which they were built.
I had booked a room in a cosy, two star ‘hotel’ right in the thick of it. At least, that’s how I might describe it if I was marketing the place. I don’t consider myself a snobby traveller, but the first thing this hotel boasted was an impressively large collection of staircases between the lower level, and the room I had booked. I decided that this may be where I draw the line in regards to accommodation compromises. Luckily the hotel owner, in addition to her hospitable nature, was an industrious and opportunistic young lady, who owned another hotel, just down the road, with a lift, and a fully renovated suite that would later prove priceless.
“We only have two rooms left, and they are both suites…” were the first words I heard from the receptionist’s mouth as she looked up at me, after tediously toying with her computer, endlessly bashing on keys, seemingly at random. ‘Darn it’, I thought. I was looking for something more low-fi. Removing the tongue from my cheek, I followed her up the quaint yet adequate elevator to inspect one of these ‘last resorts’.
It’s a cheeky thing inviting someone up to a room such as this when having just come from a 2 star facility. Almost as though she required praise for it’s brand new fitting and décor, rather than just ‘checking that it was satisfactory’. Of course it was satisfactory. It was over-the-top if anything. I registered my disapproval of her facetious tour with a slight look of confusion before folding with something like; ‘Of course we’ll take it, do we look stupid?’ Besides, what better way to spend your 4th anniversary, than in a place with a brand new freestanding bathtub (a modern convenience sure to drown any small issue that may cause a disagreement, like say, whether TripAdvisor is a perfectly acceptable form of restaurant address procurement).
After settling in, a short stroll down the road was to unveil what I can only describe as one of the most beautiful and imposing structures I have had the fortune of seeing in the flesh. The Strasbourg Notre Dame (slowly revealed to me as I turned the corner into the square), imposes structural dominance over everything adjacent it, and commands a particular respect I have seldom found in other buildings. Perhaps due to its close proximity to the other buildings which it dwarfs, and the relatively small square on which it sits. But also due to it’s (arguably) aggressive architecture. Originally built in the 12th Century, the Strasbourg Cathedral’s central irony (as far as I was concerned) was its boasting of an enormous astronomical clock, within. An early and strange confrontation of science and theology. My girlfriend also pointed out how easily one could have been coerced into a life of religious devotion when such an imposing structure was the centrepiece of your existence. I tend to agree, but still maintain the building is beautiful despite is fear-inspiring appearance.
Venturing further down the paths of discovery (offered in plenty by this gracious city), one would find themselves grinning at the endearing melange of gastronomy offered by many of the quaint restaurants and cafes lining the streets of Strasbourg. Only the best of both cultures involved in some of the most unique collaborations of foodstuffs this side of Spain. Sauerkraut, and old favourite, a staple of most menus, followed by confit de canard and a precession of warm soups, comfort food, and winter favourites. I can indeed say this with the straightest of faces - If by some unfortunate stretch of the imagination, you believe in reincarnation - let me tell you this now; Strasbourg is not the place to come back, as a pig.
Supplementary to the recent enquiry as to how much food our stomachs could actually hold, it was decided a brisk walk could aid in the digestion of the meals, and possibly the question. It was at this stage that we (not unintentionally) embarked upon our exploration of the ‘Jewel of Strasbourg’ – Le Petite-France. A small, yet impressive, collection of 15th Century timber buildings and baroque structures, with a flowing canal system and sense of charm not found anywhere else outside of Venice. This – I would have to say – was to be the highlight of my adventure to Strasbourg. No more efficiently could you be whisked back in time hundreds of years, than a gamble through the prominent promenades of Le Petite-France. After dinner drinks worldwide have something to live up to after having spent an evening on the shores of it’s canals, trying tenaciously to spot the differences in the buildings, and their respective reflections on the still waters. And an old homemade biscuit shop on its outskirts provided the perfect ‘thank you’ gift for our gracious hotelier.
Note of coincidence: On the second last day in Strasbourg, Lauren and I (on a mission to get lost) were bee lining through a back street when a man on a bike who had just rode past us, stopped. Turned around and yelled at me in French, asking me if he had perhaps seen me in Paris last week. He had happened to be riding his bike down Rue du Louvre and noticed me. Okay. I know that I may be a more remarkable or unusual site than some, but honestly, what are the fucking odds? It made me wonder how many lives actually cross paths dozens of times without being noticed… even if one was not on a ‘Tour de France’. Food for thought.