50 Before 50: City #5 Strasbourg, France
I feel like maybe I’ve solved a riddle that U2 posed in their opus Joshua Tree album in 1987. I was 12, and I remember my mother and I listening to that album (on cassette) in my room on her birthday. I think I had bought her the album because she asked for it, or was it me who really wanted it and passed it off as a ‘gift’? Memories are strange things.
It’s a haunting ballad-quasi-gospel-like song about a quest from the“highest mountains” to“fields” to “city walls” in search of…love?…spirituality?…of whatever you want it to mean? Bono is fruitlessly searching for something, though we never really know who or what. Although he grapples with and struggles to maintain faith, he ultimately puts his trust in “the kingdom to come” (or, the “future” in general) despite, as the song says, still not finding what he is looking for. A passionate musical manifestation of a conjoined spiritual and physical journey. Ugh. Love you, Bono.
It turns out that maybe what I’ve been looking for is Strasbourg, France.
Right on the border of France and Germany in the Alsace region of France, Strasbourg is an uber-modern city of less than 300,000 people and has, throughout history, struggled with a bit of an identity crisis. In fact the latin term for Alcase’s name is Alsatia, meaning “lawless place” or “a place under no jurisdiction”, which is how it was seen for centuries. From around 320 AD to 1260 AD, Strasbourg was ruled by a bishop. Alors, the locals rebelled in 1262 in the Battle of Hausbergen and turned Strasbourg into an independent city. Conquered in 1681 by Louis XIV, the city became French until the Franco-Prussian war when in became German again in 1871. Then French again in 1918 after WW1. German again from 1940-1944 during WW2. After the end of WW2, it became French again, and has stayed that way ever since. It is now the capital of not only the Alsace region, but the Champagne-Ardenne and Lorraine regions as well.
It reminds me a bit of Texas, whose state motto is “Texas. It’s a whole other country.” Texas, though part of the United States, likes to think of itself as a kind of independent enigma. Neither purely German or French, Strasbourg has, over the years, blended both cultures cuisines, customs, beverages, into a most beguiling and charming independent identity. The street signs and menus are in both French and German (menus are often in English as well). It has its own blended dialect, Alsacian, which is a mash-up of German and French. The people are proud and pragmatic and extremely welcoming, and identify more with being Alsacian, rather than strictly French or German, thank you very much.
The town is the definition of adorable. Supremely walkable, it is uber bicycle and pedestrian friendly, as well as boasting a swanky Tram system to boot. The pace is not as fast or dizzying as Paris; the energy is more mellow and less frenetic. The language is French, the feel is Parisian/Venice, with some canals and some dozen bridges around the city, the architecture Germanesque. It seems the kind of place you can build a life, as well as make a living. Yes, I spotted a couple of Starbucks, but they are no match for the local cafes, where you can get a croissant, coffee, and orange juice for 3.90 Euro. And, because of it’s roots, is both beer and wine heaven. Grabbing dinner my first night in town, all I knew was that I wanted a glass of white wine. The waiter cocked an eyebrow. “Vous avez un preference?” Me: “Non. Vous choisissez.” He nodded, smiled, then brought me a fantastic glass of a local Alsatian wine that was light and perfect.
The Jetson-like train station sits on the west side of town waiting to whisk you off to any number of domestic or international destinations for a weekend. On the TGV (fast train), you can get to Paris in 2 hours flat. Only 11 hours by train to Budapest. Strasbourg is a seriously underrated international hub, at least by western standards.
I am lucky enough to have family living about an hour away in Germany who, thanks to a German holiday, were able to come in for the day for lunch and to walk around town. Magda had lived in Strasbourg for about 5 years at one time, so she knew where to go for a scenic lunch on the water. I followed Magda’s lead, ordering a local drink called a Monaco (grenadine, lemonade and beer) and a local alsatian pasta called spaetzle with mushrooms. Maybe it was the light rain, (which quickly cleared up), maybe it was the picture-perfect outdoor setting, maybe it was laughing with Krissy and Magda, maybe it was the beer, but it all added up to the best meal and half-day in Strasbourg.
Since my train to Paris didn’t leave until after 6pm, the morning of departure I decided to take a quick 20 minute tram ride to the Parc l’Orangerie. Idyllic for strolling, biking, picnicking, it is a great way to fill a morning and is way more manageable (for me) than New York’s Central Park. There was a cute swan couple and their babies, a lake, a waterfall, a central fountain. All the parc necessities. This one even has a bowling alley. And it’s right across the street from the European Parliament building, which is gorgeous and worth a visit as well. The parc comes with its own fun history. Here’s what Monument Tracker had to say:
“It was between 1804 in 1807, that architect Valentin Boudhors oversaw the building of the Pavillon Josephine, in the middle of the park laid out in 1692 in classical French style. The building was meant to house the remaining 140 orange trees brought over by CountJean-Régnier III of Hanau-Lichtenberg to decorate the famous gardens to his chateau in Bouxwiller, but which had been confiscated by the Revolution in 1793. The new building was named after the Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais, in memory of her trips to Strasbourg. The building suffered extensive damage in a fire in 1968, but was rebuilt to the same design soon after. The two sphinxes standing at the entrance come from the gardens of château Klinglin of Illkirch, which was refitted in the 18th century.”
Currently, there are only 3 orange trees left. Sigh.
A couple other Strasbourgian highlights:
*the Cathedral is not to be missed. It sits at the center of town and is a great starting/stopping/meeting point. If you are ever in Strasbourg, plan to be at the Cathedral (inside to be exact) at 12:30pm, when the most amazing astronomical clock you’ve ever seen does its thing. This third and current incarnation was designed by Jean-Baptiste Schwilgue and inaugurated in 1842. Read more about this marvel here: Strasbourg Astronomical Clock
*I had a moment at Place de la Republique. I only knew it as my Tram transfer point, until I hopped off to realize that the National and University Library, the National Theatre of Strasbourg and the Opera house were all on the same roundabout! I about cried I was so happy. Not to mention the center of Place de la Republique is a gorgeous little parc perfect for napping or eating or, ah, canoodling. It was just past 1pm and was searching for a place to have some lunch when I came upon the Opera house which, because this is Europe, had tables set up on the entranceway steps right outside serving very decent mid-day delectables. I was enjoying my new favorite summertime drink (a Monaco – thank you, Magda) and waiting for my quiche of the day when a group of about 30 musicians descended on the little green patch in front of the Opera house and began setting up instruments and arranging themselves in semi-circle all stealth-like, like some musical guerrilla operation. I had a bite of quiche on my fork en route when they busted out with Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” If you know me a bit, you know that I lived in and will always hold a torch for New York. So stunned at the alchemy of events, I dropped my fork and grabbed my phone to video a quick 3D snapshot of the event. It felt auspicious and right that this was my last meal in this petite and enchanting city. For now. Sometimes you get moments that are spun so serendipitously that for a breath, you can feel the underlying benevolence and connected consciousness flowing through all of us. The arc of the universe truly is to goodness, though skies might be blighted by clouds at times. These moments give me a glimpse of hope and arm full of goosebumps.
Below are just a sliver of the photos I took.