For the record, Strasbourg is in France, not Germany. True, it sounds German. You do pass through towns like Se'lestat, Benfeld and Erstein to get there. The main railroad station rivals a Prussian imperial complex. And if you turn on a radio the first station you come across may be German.
But Strasbourg is French. At least, it has been for the past 67 years -- with time out for five difficult years of Nazi occupation -- and periods before that. After claiming it in the 17th century, France lost Strasbourg -- and Alsace -- to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The end of World War I marked its return to France. The end of World War II marked liberation from Nazi Germany.
So officially Strasbourg is quite French. But, in truth, this capital city of Alsace is a blend of cultural ingredients that is unique. Its architecture is more German. Its canals and quais are reminiscent of Amsterdam or even Vienna. Switzerland is barely a proverbial stone's throw. And these ingredients have combined to form a thriving city of more than 250,000 -- France's principal Rhine River port and home of the European Parliament and a major university.
For the traveler, Strasbourg combines the best of ingredients, particularly French and German, with a strong Alsatian imprint. It is tidy, but relaxed. It has excellent wine -- and excellent beer -- delicious tortes and delicious pastries. Its cuisine has German heartiness, cooked with French culinary care (German quantity, it is said, with French quality). Strasbourg's architecture, basically a mix of German medieval and French provincial, is attractive, often handsome; the half-timbered (colombage -- not unlike Tudor) motif, with a heavy dose of Gothic, makes Strasbourg a rare visual adventure. From the Place Kle'ber, with its bustling crowds, to the 17th-century pedestrians-only streets of La Petite France, Strasbourg provides endless entertainment for the eye.
But the eye is not the main beneficiary of Strasbourg's polyglot culture -- the stomach fares best here. If you don't eat and drink well in this city, you must have tried hard not to. It is also a good place for walking. Its old center is a beautifully preserved and restored medieval city, complete with moats and fortifications. Modern Strasbourg is built around the center, following the contours of the old city. The visual effect is something like the ripples of a jagged stone tossed in a pool. The first ripple -- the old center's moat -- is the twisting perimeter of the center formed by diversions of the River Ill. Succeeding ripples -- the newer streets of Strasbourg -- get smoother and eventually there are no streets as the countryside is approached.
But for visitors, "the Center" -- as Strasbourgeois call it -- is the principal area of interest.
Centuries ago the Ill was diverted into a series of canals, which today are flanked by walkways, or "quais." A stroll along the quais of the Center is a pleasant introduction to old Strasbourg. The Center is less than a square mile of these canals and quais, and you can start a walk at virtually any point on the periphery. The closest quai to the central railroad station, Quai St. Jean, is only about a quarter-mile away. Or start at the Place de l'Universite', a bit over a mile east of the station, for a little prettier debut.
Facing the old city, and with the twin-spired and latticed St. Paul's Church on the right, cross the River Ill on the Avenue de la Liberte' bridge to the attractive Quai Koch and saunter along the weeping willow-draped embankment to the jet that spurts from the intersection of the III and the Fosse' du Faux Rempart, one of the canals forming the liquid border of the Center. Go up over the Rue des Freres bridge, past the Romanesque St. Etienne Church and you are officially in the Center. Continue on the quais or work your way "inland" to the Marche' aux Poissons, half a kilometer further along the water. Either way the object is to walk slowly and absorb the richness of the Center -- its grand facades, narrow winding streets and miniature squares.
The Marche' aux Poissons is the point of operations for the Strasbourg visitor. From here you can take a glass-topped boat tour around the Center, which includes passing through a lock (25 francs -- less than $2.50 -- for a 1 1/4-hour ride, reduced rates for children). The quaintly simple Muse'e Historique is at the Marche'. For less than 50 cents you can view military memorabilia from Strasbourg's history, including an impressive collection of uniforms, as well as a mechanical toy museum.
Two exhibits are particularly noteworthy. The first is a one-of-a-kind scale model of Strasbourg and its environs. Executed around 1725, this 20-by-50-foot masterpiece gives a clear picture of the design of Strasbourg and its strategically positioned fortifications. Remarkably, if you journey today -- 2 1/2 centuries later -- to the foothills of the Vosges Mountains to the west, the view, with the concentric features of the old city dominated by the cathedral, is much like that of the old scale model.
In the small room next to this model is a more recent part of Strasbourg's history. In photos and various papers from World War II, the Nazi occupation, the damage from Allied bombing and the liberation are depicted. The ghostly Strasbourg, evacuated during the winter of 1939-40, is captured in prewar photographs. And Hitler -- who in 1941 intoned to Alsatians, "Alsace is German. Wake up!" -- is shown smiling widely after his troops took over Strasbourg.
Just a few steps from the museum is l'Ancienne Douane (the old customs house), heavily damaged during the war but rebuilt and home of one of the city's most popular late-night cafe's -- A l'Ancienne Douane. A jolly spot, A l'Ancienne Douane is essentially one big room filled with spirited diners and wine and beer drinkers. The atmosphere is almost that of a beer hall and you almost expect to hear an oom-pah band start up -- but, no, this is France, not Germany.
Literally around the corner from the Muse'e Historique sits one of the most visually perfect city squares anywhere -- Place de la Grande Boucherie, site of the city's old pig market. This diminutive square is intersected by streets so narrow that only pedestrians are allowed on them during daylight hours. Flanked by classic half-timbered four-story structures, it is a quiet oasis in the middle of the city's bustling center and an excellent place to relax with a cup of cafe' au lait. (If you sit outside to do this, you may well find that a sunny day will turn into rain. But wait a few minutes and the sun will return. Such is Strasbourg's weather.)
It is no coincidence that Strasbourg's major landmarks are named after pleasures of the palate -- e.g., the fish market, the butchery, Place des Halles -- food markets -- and Vieux Marche' aux Vins -- wine market. Food and drink have always been at the center of the city's culture. And Strasbourg today offers one gastronomic feast after another.
Start first with dessert. It is claimed that, to accommodate the demand for German and French sweets, Strasbourg has more bakeries (pa tisseries) per capita than anywhere else. Whether or not this is true, the fact remains that Strasbourg is replete with calorific and cholesterolic goodies. A local specialty is the ku gelhopf, a kind of all-purpose poundcake-like pastry, in the shape of an American sponge cake. Ku gelhopfs come in a variety of sizes from the economy-sized 25-franc model to the bite-sized 4-franc offering.
Strasbourg's Alsatian wine and beer are good and plentiful. Featured at all cafe's and restaurants, as well as winstubs and bierstubs -- which are usually small, intimate eating and drinking establishments featuring crowded tables and light conversation -- Edelzwicker is a big favorite. This is a hardy, white wine drunk before, after and during meals. Kronenburg, not unknown in the United States, and Ancre are very drinkable Strasbourg beers.
As for the main course, Strasbourg abounds in restaurants serving good meals. Late-night beer-hall-style dining is one way Strasbourgeois satisfy their palates with the city's specialty of choucroute. Choucroute is French for, simply, sauerkraut, but in Strasbourg choucroute means a me'lange of sausage, onions, potatoes, ham and -- yes -- sauerkraut, with each kitchen having its own variations. (Chez Yvonne, a winstub at 10 Rue du Sanglier, has superb ham choucroute and onion tarts -- another Strasbourg specialty.)
After a respite and cafe' au lait at the Place de la Grande Boucherie, a short walk away is Place Gutenberg, on the busy (and noisily over-trafficked) Rue des Grandes Arcades. Complete with a working gilded merry-go-round, this attractive square contains good examples of the very Strasbourgesque building style of dozens of dormer windows popping at seemingly random points through steeply sloping roofs; the effect is reminiscent of the houses on Christmas Advent calendars, when each day you open another window.
And just a few hundred yards from Place Gutenberg or Grande Boucherie is old Strasbourg's magnificent centerpiece -- the cathedral of Notre-Dame. The cathedral -- built between the 11th and the 15th centuries -- has some unusual features that add to its beauty: It has but one tower -- a slender, latticed structure -- and is built of rich, reddish-brown stone. Its stained-glass windows strike the eye. And at twilight, the cathedral is a jewel, with its windows and gilt interior stunning the historical-weary visitor. (The cathedral's exterior is currently undergoing a major face lift and may well be enshrouded by its scaffolding for some time to come.)
Like the Place de la Grande Boucherie, the cathedral area is limited to pedestrians only, but it can be congested and noisy nevertheless. At times seemingly every high school tour on the continent converges in the Place de la Cathe'drale and adjoining streets. A most welcome refuge in this part of town is the Pa tisserie Beyler. Just off the Place de la Cathe'drale, this little cafe' backing onto a garden features local lunch fare and pastries, as well as a rarity in France -- homemade ice cream. The coupe maison, a fresh fruit sundae, is well worth a stop.
The center of the Center, and of Strasbourg itself, is Place Kle'ber. While very attractive by the standards of most cities, in Strasbourg Place Kle'ber is crowded and somewhat polluted. But it is the heart of Strasbourg, where the city's best shopping is found.
With the cathedral tower casting a watchful eye over it, Place Kle'ber is remarkable for its juxtaposition of old and new architecture. At the west end of the square sits La Maison Rouge, an absurdly modernistic version of the architecture of the rest of the square, which somehow blends in. La Maison Rouge is Strasbourg's chic indoor shopping "mall," with its clothing shops and boutiques.
Salle d'Aubette, one of the city's better-known entertainment halls, sits on the north side of Place Kle'ber. This grand but crumbling old room with its Gothic-arched interior often hosts nontraditional live entertainment; a recent example was a first-rate production of Scott Joplin's black American ragtime opera, "Treemonisha," with all-white cast (save one), directed by an Iranian.
A 10-minute walk can replace the noise and crowds of Place Kle'ber with the serenity of La Petite France, a special part of town. Bordering on the touristy, but loaded with charm, its narrow pedestrian streets cut through the best of half-timbered architecture, passing some of Strasbourg's smartest restaurants and boutiques.
The waterway encircling the Center splits into four strands in Petite France, making this neighborhood a series of little peninsulas connected by foot bridges. La Petite France is almost a small town; walk into the Salon de The' Luzel and you will feel it. The Salon has all of eight tables and the ambiance of a provincial village cafe'. Its elegant tarts, however, attest to big-city tastes.
La Petite France was a main entrance -- by river -- to the old city. The very formidable Abattoirs, a castle-like fortress spanning the Ill, marks the entrance. A rather fun and slightly surreal experience is to walk through the Abattoirs to cross the river. The passage is a tunnel through the building, several hundred meters in length. But as you walk there are sets of windows on each side, with the river below. In front of each set of window, and cordoned off with iron fencing, are ancient bric-a-brac collected by the public works department -- parts of statues, broken gargoyles and other pieces of monuments in need of repair or rehabilitation.
You can spend days exploring the Center and its surrounding streets. The graceful Place du Temple Neuf and Rue Dominicains, Rue du Viel Ho pital and countless other squares and streets all have their own beauty. Strasbourg's old city is a place to pause and contemplate and stop at a cafe' to have a good meal -- a place to feel the continuity between medieval and modern.