ARTICLE:YELDA BALER PHOTO:MURAT TANER
Capital of Europe
Strasbourg’s official face is more familiar, but what would you say to a stroll through its vineyards and its streets where German and French culture intermingle?
Strasbourg is a name that is familiar to us because of the European Union. Having played host to EU negotiations since 1949, it’s not for nothing that it is called ‘the capital of Europe’. Situated on the French-German border, Strasbourg is a vibrant city with traces of both cultures scattered on all sides and throughout its history as well.
ON THE ‘WORLD HERITAGE’ LIST
Cities through which a river quietly flows have a different air. Their culture and history, their settlement and its people, all enjoy the blessings that water brings. Take Strasbourg, for example. This city, said to date back more than 2000 years, has an extensive spa culture, for which it is indebted to the Romans. One of the Roman Empire’s major military garrisons in Europe in the 12th century B.C., Strasbourg is also home to one of the continent’s most famous spas, Baden-Baden, only 50 km away on the German border.
Once a thriving city of the Roman Empire, Strasbourg later became a center of reform movements. It was here that Gutenberg invented his printing press. Here, in this refuge of humanistic thought, that Erasmus of Rotterdam, who laid the foundation for today’s immensely popular Erasmus Student Exchange Program, found asylum. Here that the German writer Goethe spent his student years. But in 1681, when the city passed from the Germans to the French, the transformation worked its way down not only into Strasbourg’s appearance but into its way of thinking as well. King Louis XV’s majestic arrival in the city is reflected in the engravings on the Notre Dame Cathedral. Strasbourg finally became thoroughly Frenchified with the French Revolution of 1789, and the French national anthem,
‘La Marseillaise’, was even composed here by Rouget de Lisle in 1792. The Germans, who retook Strasbourg in the second half of the 19th century, began to give the city a German flavor once again. And today it’s impossible to tell who or what has the upper hand in this city, which is a fine blend of both cultures. For making UNESCO’s ‘World Heritage’ list is an achievement that does not fall to the lot of every city. Strasbourg, which earned the title since 1988, has today one of the highest levels of prosperity of all cities in France, indeed in Europe.
The center of historic Strasbourg, which is surrounded by vineyards, is on an island in the middle of the River Ill. In this landscape, which is like an open air museum, it is possible to find vestiges of medieval and Renaissance architecture. As you wander through the streets with their large wood frame houses several stories tall, you will see homes decked with brilliant flowers that evoke an air of spring no matter what the season. While most of them are used as residences, a few also serve as hotels and restaurants. Perhaps the most beautiful of these wooden structures is the Kammerzell House, located right next door to the Notre Dame Cathedral. Built in the Gothic style, the Notre Dame Cathedral is situated on a square at the center of the island. Construction of the cathedral, over a former basilica built in 1015, was begun in 1176 but only completed in 1439. If you climb up the 329 steps of this 142-meter-high church with a single tower, you will reach the terrace. And from here you can toss your weariness to the wind as you survey the city from its height. The astrological clock inside the cathedral was made by Swiss watchmakers in 1547. Next to this historic cathedral stands the Rohan Palace, built in honor of Cardinal Rohan and exhibiting all the influences of French architecture. The square meanwhile is a vital and colorful venue, crowded and humming practically every hour of the day. Street artists, carrousels, flower vendors, and sidewalk cafes keep it ever lively. While perhaps not as rich in gastronomie diversity as France’s other cities, Strasbourg nevertheless offers flavors to please every palate. Be sure to taste the combination of pizza, lahmacun and pitta at the ‘Tarte Flambé’.
I mentioned earlier that Strasbourg is surrounded by vineyards. If you are going there in June or October, don’t miss the famous vineyards which extend for 200 kilometers south of the city. You can return with unforgettable bouquets, either before or after the vendange.
Along with New York and Geneva, Strasbourg is one of the three cities in the world that play host to international institutions without being capitals themselves. Located outside the city center, these institutions include the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, the European Court of Human Rights, the International Institute of Human Rights, the European Science Foundation, the European Youth Center, the International School of Applied Law, and the Rhine River Traffic Commission.
Another of Strasbourg’s attractions is its parks and gardens. The Orangerie especially, located immediately adjacent to the Council of Europe building, is definitely worth a visit. This park, which was designed by Le Notre, architect of the gardens of the Versailles Chateau, contains a small lake and a zoo. Inside the park there is also a small chateau built in 1805 for Napoleon’s wife, the Empress Josephine. Time permitting, you can see the Citadelle Park, the Contades Gardens and the Botanical Gardens as well.
As in many cities of Europe, riding a bicycle is essential in Strasbourg. With one difference: this city boasts a 400-km-long biking path built exclusively for cyclists. If you go to Strasbourg in the summer months in particular, you can tour the city completely, and very enjoyably, by bicycle.
But if you go in winter, and especially if it’s Christmas, then you can partake of the festive atmosphere that permeates the entire city. The giant Christmas tree erected on the Place Kleber in the heart of the city is a focus of interest for tourists as well as natives. And if you go to Strasbourg in the fall, you can be part of the orgy of falling leaves. From summer’s green, the parks and gardens have turned now to yellow, red and brown. October and November are the perfect time for a stroll through the streets, carpeted with golden leaves, a time to feel the slight chill of autumn shiver your heart along the river bank. Yes! Now’s the time..