The first time I went to Strasbourg, France was in the late summer of 1997. I was on a fact-finding mission for my company. We were contemplating opening a European office and I was charged with determining if we should and where it should be located. That trip took me to Paris, Brussels, London, Cologne, and Strasbourg. I had only been to London before that trip.
I fell in love with Strasbourg from the beginning. Even though I was there when I received that one of my musical heroes, Rich Mullins, had been killed in a car accident, the city still holds fond memories for me.
Most people have never heard of Strasbourg, but it is the headquarters for the Council of Europe. The Council of Europe’s purpose is to uphold human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in Europe. It was founded in 1949 and has 47-member states.
It is also in charge of the European Court of Human Rights which makes decisions regarding the violation of human rights that are reinforced through the European Convention on Human Rights. Strasbourg also is home, one week every month, to the European Parliament, which is the ruling body of the European Union. These are the main reasons we ultimately located our initial office in Strasbourg, but it is not the reason I love city.
I have spent the summer in Strasbourg four different summers. I also lived there with my wife and son before our daughter was born. She was almost born in Strasbourg. We were living there on September 11, 2001 and the terror-filled days that came over the next week. In fact, we flew back to Atlanta on a Delta flight the first day that international flights were allowed back into the United States. Those days were some of the darkest of my life, but we managed to get through them by staying out of sight and praying a lot.
First, Strasbourg is an international city; therefore, it has a lot to offer any visitor. Second, it is a big city that has everything a person might need on a visit or to live; yet, it is small enough to still be manageable on foot or by the local tram which is easy to understand and use. Third, English is an official language of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, so most everyone in the city speaks English very well.
Strasbourg has many notable sons and daughters, as well as some famous residents. Marie Tussaud was born here. She went one to create Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in London. Ludwig I of Bavaria was also born here. He was the King of Bavaria in Southern Germany. Another famous son was Marcel Marceau. Notable residents include, Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press. John Calvin lived in Strasbourg. As did Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Louis Pasteur, and Albert Schweitzer. Marie Antoinette first met King Louis XVI in Strasbourg at the Palace Rohan, where Napoleon and Josephine also resided when they were in the city.
The heart of the city of Strasbourg is the Cathedral Notre Dame which is named after the Cathedral in Paris. It is built according to the same plan. The French make fun of the Cathedral in Strasbourg because it has one spire instead of two. This is because when they were building the Cathedral it was to follow the original plan for the Cathedral in Paris which called for two spires. They were not built in Paris because of financial concerns. In Strasbourg, the engineers were afraid that the structure would not hold both spires, so they stopped building after the first one. Thus, leaving the Cathedral in Strasbourg unique at the very least.
The carvings on the main entrance way to the Cathedral are ornate and overwhelming. The attention to detail of the entire outside of the Cathedral is worth a walk around the building before you enter. Gaze up at the roof, the spires, and enjoy a Cathedral built at a time when attention to detail was critical and workmen knew what they were doing. Also, enjoy the fact that this monument to God has spared no expense. Instead it was built to remind the locals centuries ago about the power and majesty of God.
The old center of Strasbourg sits on an island, the Grand Isle, that is formed by canals of the Ill River. The city’s eastern border is the Rhine River, so this is a crossing point into Germany. Strasbourg sits about 12 miles east of the Vosges Mountains and 16 miles west of the Black Forest of Germany. So, it is ideally situated for day trips into the German Black Forest or up into the Vosges Mountains. It is also located at the northern end of the famous Wine Road.
The front entrance to the Cathedral is a beautiful pedestrian plaza that is a great place to relax, shop, or sit down for a meal at one of many outdoor restaurants. There is also the visitors center which is just to the left of the Cathedral if you are facing the Cathedral. This plaza and the streets surrounding it, many of which are pedestrian only zones as well, are a hectic place that draw people from all over Europe.
Inside the Cathedral has an amazing astrological clock that sits in the right rear corner and is a must see. Take an hour or so and explore the interior of the Cathedral. Sit for a few minutes and pray in its wide-open spaces or enjoy the art work in the windows and the carvings in the rest of the building. If you are full of energy, climb the stairs to the top of the Cathedral and enjoy the views of the area. It seems like every pathway in the city leads to the Cathedral.
A short walk from the Cathedral is Petite France. This area was a hospital during the 15th Century for those who had syphilis. This way the sick were quarantined from the rest of the city, so it was more secure. Today it is a smorgasbord for the eyes. Much of Strasbourg is built in the stucco half-timber style of building that is reminiscent of Germany. That is no surprise once you understand that Strasbourg has been a part of Germany almost as much as it has been a part of France. German and French are spoken here by the locals.
In Petite France you can watch the tourist boats ride through the locks of the canal. You can have a great cup of coffee and some of the best pastries you have ever tasted. I have met a lot of missionaries from Europe who all agree that Strasbourg has the best pastries in all of Europe. I agree! Many of the stores here are touristy so, if you are looking for pictures of the city to hang on your walls at home, or other touristy trinkets, this is your place. The architecture alone is worth an hour in Petite France.
One of the nice things about Strasbourg is that it has yet to be discovered by American tourists. For the most part they do not come to the city. There are, however, lots of British and European tourists who come to the city in the summertime. Nonetheless, this city is made for walking and exploring. Start at the Cathedral and work your way out and around. The canals will always bring you back into something interesting. Many of the streets are pedestrian in this zone, but the French do not always abide by the law so be careful.
I also recommend you take the boat tour. It takes about an hour and a half, but it goes from the Cathedral to Petite France, around the city, to the European Parliament buildings and back. This is a great way to relax from all the walking and provides a great view of the city. It is also a great way to learn what is what in Strasbourg, so, it will help you on your walking tour as well.
If you have children with you I highly recommend you go to Place Gutenberg and ride the carousel. Also, this is France, so virtually any restaurant you step into is worth stepping into. Remember, German and French are spoken here, but most restaurants also have an English language menu. They will, however, make you ask for it.
I will regal you with stories of Strasbourg in another blog, but for now, take the time to hit this out of the way jewel of France. Give it at least a day. More if you have it. You will not be sorry!
Strasbourg considers itself the Christmas capital of the world and I think they have a pretty good claim to that. I will share about that in another blog.
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