The Highs and Lows of a Trip to Strasbourg

La Petite France in Strasbourg
La Petite France in Strasbourg

As mentioned in previous posts, from Freiburg you can easily travel to many places in Europe. Strasbourg is just across the border from Kehl, northeast of Freiburg, so once again we hopped on a regional train to visit the city hosting the European Union parliament.

Flush with our success in using the 9-Euro monthly pass to travel to Basel in Switzerland, we looked up northward regional trains and took the same RE 7 we had used for Basel, in the opposite direction. From Offenburg, we took another regional train to Strasbourg.

As soon as we crossed the border at the Rhine River, a French conductor came on board. We showed him our German monthly pass. He charged us 50 Euros each! He insisted it was not a fine, but the cost of the ticket. This turned out to be untrue. I entered a claim to the SNCF (the French rail company), as I found this entire incident scandalous. I felt as if I had been scammed!

Fortunately, as soon as we exited the train station, we felt the energy of the city, along with the peacefulness of the waterways that cross it. We walked down a series of streets filled with stores, cafés, fast-food restaurants and bakeries. Strasbourg seems to offer a mix of traditional French pastries (photo above in the middle) as well as German-style cake; French bread is displayed alongside German and especially southern German "Bretzels."

When we reached the famous Strasbourg Cathedral, I understood why it was so famous. For 227 years, it was the highest edifice in the world, until 1874. The walls are covered in sculptures, like lace. It's awe-inspiring. We stood in line - we heard three languages spoken by groups of tourists. But by the time we reached the front, the church had closed down for about 90 minutes. It was about 10:15 am.

We wandered off to see the neighborhood called "La Petite France" ("the little France"). It is a picturesque neighborhood, with typical Alsacian half-timbered architecture overlooking several canals. Nowadays there are many restaurants catering to the many visitors. The name doesn't have any romantic origin: it used to be the name of a hospital for syphilis patients, named, in German, the Franzosenkrankheit ("French disease"), located in the neighborhood.

We found a low-key restaurant called the Lohkas, where the waiters are rather gruff, but efficient and nice. We shared escargots in the traditional butter-garlic-pastry sauce, excellent bread, a small green salad, and a "Tarte Flambée," the local equivalent of the German Flammkuchen (an ultra-thin-crust pizza minus the tomato sauce and plus the cream and bacon). The dish shown in the photo to the right, above, is of the pretty plate hidden by the salad bowl. (Cost with 1 small glass of wine: 31.20 Euros)

We looked up other sights and found the Orangerie Park. As we were unsure about using public transportation, we walked the 2 or so miles to get there, along more waterways and churches, To my surprise I spotted some Art Nouveau architecture (turn of the 20th century), hidden behind trees, and a few blocks later there was a historic home, known for "Strasbourg Art Nouveau," the Villa Schutzenberger. Personally I found that the first building featured more interesting architectural elements.

After a few more blocks, to our left we found the European Parliament buildings, and to our right the entrance to the park. It's not central to the city, but it reminded us of Central Park in New York City with its small zoo, lake, and an interesting old building, the Pavillon Josephine. The name Orangerie came from the orange trees donated in the 18th century. There was an entire family of swans grooming themselves at the lake, paying no heed to the humans around them. As a matter of fact, some of the humans didn't seem to care all that much, either. In much of the park, as well as in the tiny zoo, there were many storks, and stork nests on top of trees and roofs; The nests can last for several years. They're so large that I can now understand why kids used to be told that storks brought babies!

We were too hot to attempt walking all the way back to the downtown area, so we waited for a bus and paid the driver 2 euros in coins, for a reusable ticket.

Having checked into our Airbnb, we set off for an apéritif in one of the busy café/bars. The Airbnb owner recommended a restaurant near the Cathedral for dinner, stating they had an excellent choucroute. That was our second low point of the day! Yes, Maison Kammerzell is in a beautiful historic building. Some seats have a view of the cathedral. The bread basket was good, as was the appetizer. But the main courses were terrible: chewy steak, tasteless choucroute, and incredibly for France... stale French fries! We received no credit, but didn't kick up a fuss as our neighbors had already done that. We felt so stupid for choosing a touristy restaurant. (Cost: 101 Euros and change. Ouch.)

After dinner (left partially untouched on our plates), we walked some more around La Petite France, and saw the Vauban structures and the covered bridges and locks.

Strasbourg Cathedral in light show
Cathédrale de Strasbourg

We had seen a poster mentioning a Light Show at the Cathedral. By the time we arrived, around 10 pm, the area was crowded. We found a spot leaning against a wall and waited. The show started at 10:30 pm. Then stopped: computer glitch! Fortunately it was taken care of, and the show started again. It was magical, and lasted about 10 minutes.

The next morning, we went off for breakfast in a charming café on one of the main drags: Caupona (109 Grand Rue). Their omelet was a lot better than the meal yesterday! (Cost: 19.60 Euros for an Omelette Complète, 2 café crème, and a fresh-pressed orange). I had a chat with the waitress, Morgane, who told me that during Covid lockdown she returned home to the Vosges.

We've been usually leaving a tip around 10%. In Europe, wait staff usually is paid a normal wage with benefits, so 20% is much more than expected. I used to forget and wait staff would be flabbergasted.

I managed to sneak in one fashion purchase, at La Fée Maraboutée, one of my favorite brands. Sales are controlled in France, and have set dates.

We took in one museum visit, to the Historical Museum, which lasted about 3 hours.The history of Strasbourg is very complex, thanks to its bridge over the Rhine. It went back and forth between French and German rulers. Jewish people did not fare well much of the time; interestingly, they did better under Louis XIV. Schoolchildren would need to turn on a dime and write their assignments in a different language, depending on who was in charge. People would move away and then back. It was not an easy history for a long time.

Then we returned to the train station, bought our tickets using the Deutsche Bahn app - for 3.90 Euros each - and returned to Freiburg.

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