Alsation sensation: French and German influences combine in Strasbourg, France
By DAN STOUTAMIRE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 7, 2015
Just west of the Rhine River at the crossroads of historic rivals France and Germany, the ancient city of Strasbourg, first founded as a Roman military outpost in the first century B.C., has been passed back and forth between the two major powers throughout the centuries.
In fact, between 1870 and 1944, it changed hands four times. The upshot of all this upheaval for the 21st-century traveler is a wealth of sights and sounds, especially in the historic city center, known as the Grand Ile, or Grand Island, including the Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasbourg, the north tower of which, at 466 feet, was the world’s tallest building for 226 years.
Today, visitors can enter the church and take in the immense scope of the nave, or they can climb narrow staircases to the top for an awe-inspiring view of the French city.
Close to the cathedral is the picturesque Kleber Place, named after one of Napoleon’s generals whose statue dominates the square. It was here that the French national anthem “La Marseillaise” was composed.
Nearby is another square named after Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press. There, visitors can ride a two-story carousel (2.50 euros for children and 3.50 for adults) all with a gorgeous view of the cathedral.
Just around the corner, also in the Grand Island of the city’s old town, are a series of monumental buildings constructed by the German Empire in the late 19th century. These include the national library and university, which houses more than 3 million volumes.
While the past of Strasbourg was the center of power struggles between France and Germany, today it is the seat of the European Parliament, the legislative capital of the European Union.
There are many ways to get around, both free and paid. One is a free tour in English offered by Happy Strasbourg (www.happy-strasbourg.eu), whose guides dramatically weave history and local legend as they move around the old city. Tours run daily and take roughly two hours. Tips are encouraged.
For a faster tour, a mini-train takes visitors through the city center in about 40 minutes. Visitors can wear headphones to listen to recordings in English explaining the surroundings. Tickets cost 7 euros for adults and 6 euros for children. Finally, the Velhop bike rental service offers bicycles for rent at a daily rate of 5 euros, along with a 150 euro deposit.
And boat tours on the Ill River, which surrounds the town, run from 5 euros for adults.
The district of Petit-France, just next to the Grand Island, contains some of the city’s best bars and restaurants, which serve up Alsatian favorites: flammkuchen, or very thin pizza-type dishes, and baeckoffe, a mix of potatoes, onions and meat cooked in a casserole dish after marinating overnight in Alsatian wine and berries.
• From Wiesbaden: Take the A643 south to Mainz, then jump on the A60 until it hits the A63. Take that toward Kaiserslautern. At Alzey, get on the A61 toward Ludwigshafen. At Mutterstadt, get on the A65 toward Neustadt/Weinstrasse/Landau. At Kandel, get on the B9. You’ll cross over the border into France. The B9 turns into the A35 to Strasbourg. For parking near the city center, follow signs to Kleber Place. The trip takes about 2 hours, 20 minutes.
• From Kaiserslautern: Follow the L503 to the B10/48 south. At Rinnthal, take the B10 east to Landau, then jump on the A65 to Kandel, where you will get on the B9. At the border, the B9 turns into the A35. Follow this to Strasbourg.
Parking garages around the city center are open 24 hours/7 days a week. The cathedral is open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. with a break between 11:20 a.m. and 12:40 p.m. for lunch.
Cathedral entry is free. Climbing the tower costs 5 euros per person. Parking is .60 euros per 15 minutes for the first two hours, and .80 euros per 15 minutes after that.
Strasbourg has a huge variety of cuisines and restaurants around the city center, many of which specialize in local Alsatian favorites like baeckoffe, foie gras and tarte flambee.
The official tourism site for Strasbourg is www.otstrasbourg.fr/en. It has an English-language option.