Strasbourg: The heart of Europe
For a blend of French and German culture, Margaret Campbell heads to Strasbourg
Saturday 14 January 2006
On France's eastern border, Strasbourg came into being as a Roman military outpost located on a small island between two branches of the Ill river, a couple of miles from the wider Rhine. Over the centuries, the region was shunted back and forth between French and German control. Strasbourg's architecture and cultural life now display an intriguing mix of modern French influence and traditional Alsatian roots, overlaid with a certain international flavour.
This elegant city prides itself on its post-war vocation as home to the European Parliament and the Council of Europe, and on its well-deserved status as a World Heritage site. Its wines and hearty dishes have a distinctive place in the patchwork of French regional cuisine.
Despite the city's soubriquet as the "crossroads of Europe", the only direct link from the UK to Strasbourg is on Air France (0870 142 4343; www.airfrance.com/uk) from Gatwick. From Strasbourg's Entzheim airport, take a shuttle bus to Baggersee, from where the efficient tram system will glide you into town for a total fare of €5 (£3.50).
Ryanair (0906 270 5656; www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Baden-Baden in Germany, from where buses connect to Place d'Austerlitz in Strasbourg (journey time one hour) for a fare of €15 (£11). Alternatively, travel by rail via Paris, from where the current journey time is four hours (due to fall to two hours 20 minutes when a new TGV line is inaugurated next year).
Accommodation is plentiful but gets booked up quickly, especially when the European Parliament is holding one of its monthly four-day-long sessions. At other times, there may well be discounts available on the rates quoted here.
The Hotel Beaucour (5 rue des Bouchers; 00 33 3 88 76 72 00) is appropriately named: a peaceful courtyard leads to a friendly and well-decorated hotel, housed in an 18th-century private residence near the canal. Double rooms start at €135 (£97), with breakfast a further €11 (£8) per person. The four-star Regent Petite France (5 rue des Moulins; 00 33 3 88 76 43 43; www.regent-hotels.com) offers wonderful views over a narrow lock in one of city's most photogenic districts. A double room costs €169 (£121), with an extra €20 (£14) per person for breakfast. The central Hotel Maison Rouge (4 rue des Francs-Bourgeois; 00 33 3 88 32 08 60; www.maison-rouge.com) is comfortable and welcoming. Prices for a double room start at €130 (£93), with breakfast at €13.50 (£9.60).
The tourist information office is on Place de la Cathèdrale (00 33 3 88 52 28 28; www.ot-strasbourg.fr). It opens 10am-7pm daily, and has a specialist hotel reservation service on 00 33 3 90 41 15 60.
Quite simply, the Alsatian capital is a superb place to spend a weekend. The island at its heart is surrounded by a shimmering labyrinth of canals, linked by a variety of camel-back stone bridges, and shelters dozens of well-preserved medieval and Renaissance buildings. Away from the centre, the student hangouts of the Krutenau area and the neo-classical Prussian architecture of the "German district" have their own attractions. Predictably enough for the capital of a renowned wine-growing region, the city's restaurants set themselves high gastronomic standards.
Strasbourg's narrow shop-lined streets are perfect for post-Christmas retail therapy: the January sales continue until 18 February. Numerous museums and galleries reflect age-old and contemporary art. Yet this city is resolutely forward-looking too, with one of the most modern public-transport systems in France; its tram lines are currently being extended.
A new ice-rink (00 33 3 90 20 14 14), on rue Pierre Nuss in the Cronenbourg district opposite the Rotonde tram station, was inaugurated in December, and a Centre for Music and Dance is due to open in a converted grain warehouse near the port later this year. On 1 July, Strasbourg will receive one of the highest honours bestowed on a French community: the Tour de France will start at Place Kléber.
The city's cultural life is lively and varied, ranging from opera and ballet on Place Broglie to the latest music and dance trends at La Laiterie. The city is also an excellent base for exploring the neighbouring Vosges mountains, currently alive with winter sports, or sampling the dozens of white wines produced along the Route des Vins.
No visit to this city is complete without popping into the Cathédrale Notre-Dame: a red-stone Gothic masterpiece, its unmistakable single spire towers over the roofs of the Old Town, while its stark silhouette, visible from miles around, is softened by lace-like stonework, leering gargoyles and dozens of statues depicting historical and Biblical characters. On sunny days, the stained-glass windows gleam with colour.
An elaborate astronomical clock chimes "noon" at 12.30pm each day, when figurines of the 12 apostles appear in parade. The 330 steps to the platform are not for the faint-hearted, but on a clear day the views across to the Black Forest and Vosges are their own reward. Also on the cathedral square, the Maison Kammerzell's ornately carved wooden façade hides painted stone arches under which merchants once sold their goods.
The touristy Petite France district is largely pedestrianised: a picturesque network of black-and-white half-timbered houses, canals, bridges and geranium-filled balconies. Meander along cobbled streets to the Ponts Couverts and the imposing Barrage Vauban for a view across the city ramparts - and of the giant horse statue outlined against the glass façade of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art at 1 Place Hans Jean Arp (00 33 3 88 23 31 31, open Tuesday-Saturday 11am-7pm, Thursday noon-10pm, Sunday 10am-6pm, admission €5/£3.40). All of Strasbourg's museums are worth a visit, but this one stands out, for the building in which it is housed as much as for the artworks themselves. The permanent collection includes works by Ernst, Gauguin and Kandinsky; an exhibition on Le Corbusier - focusing on the architect's hands-on involvement in designing books about his work between 1912 and 1960 - is running until 26 February, alongside the first French retrospective on the Latvian artist Gustav Klucis, one of Malevich's first pupils.
Strasbourg's compact size makes for easy strolling, but an even more relaxing way to take in the sights is to jump on a boat behind the Palais Rohan (once a bishop's palace, now home to the Fine Arts Museum). One-hour boat trips around the city (00 33 3 88 84 13 13) cost €6.80 (£4.70) and pass by the Petite France area and the grandiose European Parliament building.
What to take back? One of the seven local varieties of white wine; kougelhopf (a sweet brioche); blue-grey pottery from the village of Soufflenheim Betschdorf; or anything resembling a stork - the migratory bird winters in the region, and several pairs can be spotted in the Orangerie park.
FIVE FOR EATING AND DRINKING
Treat your partner to dinner at La Casserole (24 rue des Juifs; 00 33 3 88 36 49 68) if you're trying to impress. Excellent quality, imaginative presentation and a very tempting wine list (closed Sunday and Monday).
Typical Alsatian cuisine, served with local beer, Riesling or pinot noir, is both hearty and filling, but in the hands of a good chef it can be surprisingly refined. Le Clou (3 Rue du Chaudron; 00 33 3 88 32 11 67) serves delicious and time-honoured local fare. Ham shank marinated in Pinot Noir is a house specialty, but this is also the place to sample a heaving plate of choucroute.
Secrets de Table (39 rue du 22 Novembre; 00 33 3 88 21 09 10) is ideal for a quick lunch. The menu features home-made soup and tartines (slices of bread with toppings such as salmon or spinach and walnuts). And there's another one across the road in the Galeries Lafayette.
Big-name breweries and small brasseries co-exist happily in Alsace, so don't miss the opportunity to sample local beer. Les Trois Brasseurs (22 rue des Veaux, 00 33 3 88 36 12 14) is open from 11am to 1am daily: busy, lively and full of atmosphere. You might have to wait for the oven-cooked tarte flambée, but a degustation of local beer - small amounts served in cognac glasses - should help pass the time.
Always reliable, the stylish Café de l'Opéra on Place Broglie (00 33 3 88 22 98 51) is a good place to start or finish an evening out.
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