Visitors to Strasbourg will find plenty of charm, medieval buildings, museums and other tourist attractions. // © 2016 Strasbourg Tourist Office/ Christophe Hamm
Feature image (above): Several canals flow through the city. // © 2016 © 2016 Strasbourg Tourist Office/ Christophe Hamm
There’s no question that France is among the traveling public’s favorite European destinations. Given that popularity, it’s hard to find an “undiscovered” part of the country. But one city does come close.
It’s Strasbourg. Tucked off in a corner of eastern France, the city in many ways is the epitome of what visitors seek: It’s picturesque and historic, yet quite literally off the proverbial beaten path. For this reason, not many land tours include it in their programs.
However, it is visited by a succession of Rhine River cruise boats, including Scenic Opal, among others in Scenic’s fleet. Although quite close, Strasbourg is not on the Rhine. Instead, the riverboats dock at the little German town of Kehl. From there, it’s just a 15-minute tour-bus ride into the heart of Strasbourg. There, laced by a network of canals, is a community of classical charm, medieval churches, excellent museums and an ambiance of fun and good living.
Those canals and rows of colorful, half-timbered houses immediately call up a comparison with Amsterdam, which is also on Scenic’s Rhine itineraries. There is, however, an important difference. As visitors travel through Amsterdam’s canals onboard its tour boats, guides point out that the 18th-century houses they’re seeing are now almost all occupied by financial institutions, law firms and other tenants able to pay the astronomical rents.
That’s not the case in Strasbourg’s inner city — the district known as Petite France that is, quite literally, a “living city.” Ordinary residents occupy centuries-old half-timbered houses, modernized inside, of course, to make them livable. Ground-level spaces are often given over to shops and other businesses, but by law, the exteriors must retain their traditional look.
The only exception is that today, owners can paint their places bright, vivid colors. The result of this attention to preserving the past is that the whole city center inside the arms of the Ill River, called La Grande Ile (Big Island), has been afforded UNESCO status as a World Heritage Site.
Curiously, this urban renewal is relatively new. As recently as the 1970s, those little houses, so highly prized today, were generally run-down, described by a resident as having been “unpleasant, poor, damp and neglected.”
Fortunately, any thought of razing the dwellings and replacing them with modern apartments or commercial buildings was dismissed in favor of the renewal effort. The result is a top European highlight.
While visually Petite France is quite breathtaking, there’s another element to visiting there. Strolling around the area can be an active as well as passive experience. Countless tiny shops offer locally made products, as well as more conventional souvenirs. But don’t be surprised if a shopkeeper pops out and offers samples, such as Mireille Oster, who delights passing tour groups by offering bites of her distinctive gingerbread .
Another surprise comes if you happen to be crossing one of the district’s many canals via the Pont du Faisan bridge at Rue des Moulins.
Should a tour boat approach, a young man appears and calls out the French equivalent of “Clear the bridge!” Pedestrians wisely scatter as he throws some levers and the iron bridge swings out to permit the barge to pass. (It’s no wonder the structure is also known as “Le Pont Tournant,” or “swing bridge.”)
Just a short walk away from the inner city is a structure well worth a visit: the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral, until the late 19th century the tallest medieval building in Europe.
Each of a succession of political entities had their influence on Strasbourg. It was a bishopric in the 11th century and a free imperial city two centuries later. The city’s merchants, artisans and tradesmen brought prosperity. And in the 16th century, with the end of the Middle Ages, Strasbourg became what has been called “one of the great centers of Humanism and Reform.”
Dating from this period are beautiful Renaissance buildings such as the Grande Boucherie (Old Butchers’ House), the chamber of commerce, hotel and restaurant Maison Kammerzell and Hotel Cour du Corbeau Strasbourg, a former Alsatian inn.
Before long, though, Strasbourg entered a period in which it became something of a pawn between France and Germany. In 1681, King Louis XIV took the city for France. Fortunately, the move enhanced Strasbourg’s stature and contributed to its prosperity.
Unfortunately, that may have attracted the attention of the Prussians, who annexed Strasbourg in 1871. They held the city until 1919, when, with the end of World War I, it was returned to France. In 1940, Nazi Germany occupied the region and held it until the end of World War II, when Strasbourg was liberated by French troops.
The years under Germany led to the development of a distinctive section of the city known as the German Imperial District, or Neustadt. Here, the architecture of various public and private buildings reflects a strong German influence.
While tourism has become a mainstay of the Strasbourg economy, the city also enjoys the prestige of being the official seat of the European Parliament. As such, Strasbourg can lay claim to the title “capital of Europe” as well as capital city of Alsace. The city is also home to the European Court of Human Rights.
“Strasbourg isn’t big,” said one resident, “but it’s important.”