Our TGV wove through threatening cumulus clusters and according to the ground it looked like rain, an ample amount, but one couldn’t tell by our windows to the world of eastern France. Nothing sticks, it seems, at one hundred seventy miles per hour. You’re lucky if the colors of the French countryside adhere to your optic nerves.
Strasbourg was upon us long before our feet were ready to mount another unknown direction. As we approached the city it was completely unfamiliar, looking more like Raleigh, North Carolina than Disney’s magical Alsatian hamlet. Factory outlet stores, franchised retail venues and auto malls. They’ve learned much from the West, maybe too much.
It was raining when we pulled into Gare de Strasbourg and for the first time I regretted not taking my mother-in-law’s advice of packing a little collapsible umbrella. Progress thwarted the regret though since the entire facade of the train station had been enclosed in a glass dome and the Place de la Gare had been reconstructed into a park with traffic, pedestrian and train connections all subterranean, keeping us mostly out of the weather, but away from that first sensory input of France’s greatest secret. Part of the dome is seen behind these Scotts.
Strasbourg’s been a fickle piece of real estate. She’s bounced from France to Germany and back, and thanks to academic types and higher learning along with bureaucracies and diplomats, the city has been a bridge for these two empires as well as the seat of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament. Her residents have included Gutenburg, Goethe, Pastuer and Schweitzer. The US and allied forces bombed the hell out of her in 1944, evidenced to this day of the cathedral’s single spire. There used to be two.
Every left step felt as if a nail was being driven through the ball of my foot right at my index toe. Mindy was suffering, too, though I couldn’t get much complaining out of her. We walked beyond the Place de la Gare and into the streets of the city on Rue du Maire Kuss, which sounds an awful lot like what I was doing. We made it a block in the the maze as night fell and came upon the Hotel Le Grillon. The rate was reasonable, the décor modern Russian along with its young proprieters. Perfect for us where we initially decided to stay for three nights, if for nothing else than to let our feet recuperate from the day’s trek in Paris.
We stashed our burden in our unusual but tidy and clean room and went back out on the street to survey our environs. We were getting warmer to the Strasbourg I remembered. Just a couple of blocks was all the feet could stand though. We found a pub just down the street from our hotel and had a wonderful dinner of steak/frites, Mindy had a brioche of chicken with vegetables. Off we were then to our room for a night’s rest.
The morning next we had breakfast at the hotel, a petit dejeuner of a hard-boiled egg, a croissant, ham and juice and coffee.
We shuffled our way to and from it, barely able to rest full weight on our tender soles. Undaunted though, we mounted the streets of Strasbourg and set out to find Alsace. Just over Pont Kuss we zig-zagged our way to Grand Rue, a former thoroughfare being converted to a pedestrian walkway. It was down one of the cross streets where I saw the signature Alsatian architecture and we walked our way to Petite-France, the heart of Strasbourg and things Alsatian.
Mindy soaked it in immediately confessing that this is what she was looking for and wanted to feel. Me too, for both of us. Its ambiance and charm took us over displacing the pain of walking, inviting us around each corner until we had turned them all.
Old Strasbourg is an island in a river diverted for its own defense at one time, I’d imagine. The river feeds into a trident whose banks make up Petite-France. A stroll around this quartier is transforming, turning the dense into airy and the ambivalent into empathic. You smile at everyone as they smile at you and life fills your being instead of lists.
Past the locks we walked along the river to Rue Salzmann that took us en ville past a protestant cathedral and into the streets of the center of Strasbourg.
We followed other pedestrians and signs to Rue Merciere that leads right to the place of Our Lady, the Cathedral Notre-Dame de Strasbourg. Look down the rue and it rests there like the eye of Moby Dick at the gunwale, only bigger and with scaffolding.
Inside it’s instantly diminishing. If you ever need to feel really small you can go to the ocean or visit here.
We’d walked off the boiled eggs and croissants and after our visit sought after the typical lunch, a baguette with cheese and fruit. The baguette came by a boulangerie, the grape from a corner market, and the cheese we bought from a fromagerie, or in Mindy’s words, “The stinkiest shop in the world.” And it was pretty stinky, but in a good way.
We picked out a couple of soft cheeses and then I asked Mr. Fromagerie for a recommendation and without hesitation he pulled out of his case a wedge of Munster. “This is the cheese of the region,” he says in French. There was an indigenous woman patron waiting to be helped and I looked at her face for a nonverbal read. Her suppressed grin and eyes to the floor were a give-away, but ever the good sport I told him to wrap it up with the others.
We walked back to Petite-France and found a spot on the corner of the river’s bend by a rotating draw bridge and had the perfect French picnic. Delicious to all the senses, except for the olfactory insult that is Munster.
Would this ever get old? Would we ever tire of the optimism of a city that survived the worst hell ever imposed by tyrants and fascists? Strasbourg is gracious despite her past, a grace I believe I’d live with well.
We walked some more after lunch, found another model car shop where Mindy endured only half the amount of time I spent in the one in Brussels.
This scale model of a Ferrari was only 3995 euros. $5400 to you and me.
Evening is hard to tell given the sun’s indiscoverable position in the sky. We rested our feet back at the bar of Hotel Grillon with a Stella Artois for me and a Smirnoff Ice for her.
I think it was there we talked about the uncertainty of things, what was next, where would we go and how. It became bothersome to me, unrelieved by my Belgian beer. We had a budget, tried to stay within and the economic winds of the time were blowing in our favor with the dollar gaining on the euro. That didn’t abate, though, that niggling little thought that I needed to balance time with resources and wind up in the right place at the right time for the ride home, all the while delivering us to the most anticipated part of our journey, Tuscany. There were so many unknowns in all of this for me inflating the uncertainty and tarnishing my fun.
Three nights here would be one too many, we decided. As we left the hotel for dinner I canceled the following day’s reservation to the genuine chagrin of our Russian hostess.
The original idea for this leg of the trip was to rent a car from here and make the rest of our way en route, but I couldn’t fathom that for some reason. I still wanted to visit Nancy and Metz and in my little brain the only way to do that was by train. “Let’s do that by car instead,” she said. Clarity. No bother anymore, fun instead.
Back to the gare where we found a rental car agency. Booking there at the desk of the agency was about twenty percent more than if we did it online, so we put it off to Mindy’s Mac when we retired for the day.
And that’s the other big change, connectivity. Access to the Internet was ubiquitous though not as free chez nous.
We ate at an Alsatian pub that night. I had a tart d’onion (an Alsatian specialty) and Mindy steak/frites. Delicious.
This was a hopping place, perfect in its ambience but attended by only one person, and he didn’t miss a beat with any of his patrons. Like all our other meals there is assumed an amount of time for digestion, no one is quick to collect the facture. Coffee is the order of the evening after its meal, and conversation, a ritual long extinct among us Westerners, something I’d like to bring back with me.
I’d like to bring back public transportation, craftsmanship, and manners as well. And Stella.
After dinner we walked back en ville to take some souvenir night shots, but again, the day’s hike and our hammered blisters were getting the best of us. We shot a few within gimping distance and retired to our room, booked a car to pick up the next morning at Strasbourg’s station and rested our weary bodies and minds.