The term 'Capital of Europe' looked about a trite as it sounded, especially when the claim was made by a city other than the obvious candidates of such a moniker -- the likes of Paris, London, Brussels, or Berlin. But was one other city that could rightfully consider itself one of the 'Capitals of Europe' as it was home to the European Parliament, one of the primary European Union institutions. That city would be Strasbourg, in the northern Alsace region of France, near the Franco-German border. But such an honor would not have been bestowed upon this city were it not already a tremendously attractive city to begin with and a major cultural center to boot. Strasbourg was, in my opinion, one of the prettiest-yet-often-overlooked cities on the continent, but its being 'overlooked' was quickly becoming a thing of the past. The first photo shows an example of why, showing la Rue du Maroquin (Maroquin Street), with its classic Alsacian-style architecture, lots of flowers, and the famous Strasbourg Cathedral in the back.
As a Franco-German border city that changed hands more than once, Strasbourg captured the best of both cultures. It was a serene city with a gorgeous Altstadt built on an island formed by the Ill River in the Rhein Valley. It has become a very popular tourist location due to its bright colors and tri-lingual orientation (nearly everything was spoken and written in French, German, and English).
Strasbourg had a wide array of landmarks to visit. I developed a list of four favorite areas based on my three trips there. The Cathedral Square was a must for souvenir shopping and eating. I loved Petit France for the Alsacian architecture and the color. The Rue des Grandes Arcades toward La Place Kleber often had special events and great shopping available, plus it was the spot to pick up a tourist train. As for modern architecture, there was little to beat a boat ride out east toward the European Parliament district. While it sounded like a lot, I had little trouble doing all this in one day.
I'll start with Cathedral Square from the first photograph. I loved the Strasbourg Cathedral -- its beautifully ornate exterior and marvelous interior. My favorite part was inside, the ecclesiastic calendar device adjacent to the altar. It was unlike anything I'd ever seen before! Meanwhile, the best eateries in town (my opinion anyway) were right across the street along Maroquin and across the Rue des Orfevres. Alsacian food was about the best around -- a grand mix of French and German cuisines, served in massive portions. I typically did either the choucroute (sauerkraut with mixed sausages) or the wurstsalat (literally a sausage salad made of sliced wurst, cheese, peppers, onions, and seasoned vinaigrette).
Petit France was prettiest section in town, and the Maison des Tanneurs (second photo) was probably Strasbourg's most photographed building. I took this photo from a tour boat that circled the island, and it was going through a lock that took it up to a higher level on the Ill. To the left of this photo, similar buildings lined up along the river, while the opposite view was toward a series of shaded outdoor cafés.
Continuing beyond, the tour boat did a circle around the massive and magnificant Ponts-Couverts, partially shown in the third photograph. This photo only showed one of the four watchtowers that divided the Ill River into four canals going through Petit France, rejoining at the opposite side of the city.
The main shopping district was pretty big. La Rue des Grandes Arcades began a block from the front of the Cathedral at the Place Gutenberg, marked by a carousel. From there, it extended through the middle of the city eventually reaching the Place Kleber, shown in the fourth photo. The Place Kleber was Strasbourg's main market and festival square -- during one of my previous visits it hosted an outdoor music festival, and on the occasion of this photo an artificial garden platform was erected over top of its usual concrete base. The shopping district extended several blocks in both directions along the way, and along the Grand Rue, which ran from the carousel toward the train station. The Grand Rue was more budget-oriented, I would say, while les Grandes Arcades was more 'Fifth Avenue'.
The final district was best visited by the tour boats, because getting to them by road or on foot would take too much time. Besides, one could only see the outside anyway. There were about a half dozen massive aluminum and glass structures that were asymmetric in shape and clearly emphasized style as much if not more than function. They were laid out along a canal of the Ill River such that it seemed like the tour boating was part of the design, as some of the buildings were arranged in a watery cul-de-sac where the boats turned around for their return to the city.
The eastern part of downtown had some older government buildings made of classic stone, which I honestly preferred. For example, across from the city Theater lies la Place de la Republique and its fantastic Palace of Justice. Other beautiful government buildings were found across the way along the aptly named Avenue de la Liberté. St. Paul's Church, shown in the fifth photograph, was between the downtown island and the Place de la Republique, and it too was best pictured from a tour boat.
For such a small and lesser-known city, Strasbourg had quite a lot going for it, and I didn't even do any of the museums or palaces! For a complete listing of these, take copious notes during the tour boat ride, because they did an excellent job of pointing all of them out, and the recordings were in eight languages! Yet another indicator that the city was truly earning its fame as a 'Capital of Europe'.
Trips taken 28 April 2001, 2 June 2001, and 30 July 2002 -- Page last updated 12 October 2006 -- (C) 2006 Tom Galvin