Strasbourg is a hybrid city: part medieval village, characterized by lovely half-timbered houses, a soaring Gothic cathedral and narrow winding streets, and part modern European powerhouse, with sleek, glassy buildings inhabited by important European Union bodies. Boasting the largest university in France, the city is a lively, metropolitan place that deserves at least three or four days’ visit.
Strasbourg owes both its Germanic name – “the City of the Roads” – and its wealth to its strategic position on the west bank of the Rhine. The city’s medieval commercial pre-eminence was damaged by its involvement in the religious struggles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but recovered with its absorption into France in 1681. Along with the rest of Alsace, the city was annexed by Germany from 1871 to the end of World War I and again from 1940 to 1944. Today, old animosities have been subsumed in the European Union, with Strasbourg the seat of the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights and the European Parliament.
It isn’t difficult to find your way around Strasbourg on foot, as the flat city centre is concentrated on a small island encircled by the River Ill and an old canal, while the magnificent filigree spire of the pink sandstone cathedral is visible throughout the city. Immediately south of the cathedral are the best of the museums, while to the northwest, place Kléber is the heart of the commercial district, linked by a pedestrian thoroughfare to the more attractive place Gutenberg to the south. About a ten-minute walk west, on the tip of the island, is picturesque La Petite France, where timber-framed houses and canals hark back to the city’s medieval trades of tanning and dyeing. Across the canal to the east of the centre is the late nineteenth-century German quarter, the University and, further north, the city’s European institutions.
The Cathédrale de Notre-Dame soars out of the close huddle of medieval houses at its feet with a single spire of such delicacy that it seems the work of confectioners rather than masons. It’s worth slogging up the 332 steps to the spire’s viewing platform for the superb view of the old town, and, in the distance, the Vosges to the west and the Black Forest to the east.
The interior, too, is magnificent, the high nave a model of proportion enhanced by a glorious sequence of stained-glass windows. The finest are in the south aisle next to the door, depicting the life of Christ and the Creation, but the modern glass in the apse designed in 1956 by Max Ingrand to commemorate the city’s first European institutions is also beautiful. On the left of the nave, the cathedral’s organ perches precariously above one of the arches, while further down on the same side is the late fifteenth-century pulpit, a masterpiece of intricacy in stone by the aptly named Hans Hammer.
In the south transept are the cathedral’s two most popular sights. The Pilier des Anges is a slender triple-tiered central column, decorated with some of the most graceful and expressive statuary of the thirteenth century. The huge and enormously complicated astronomicalclock was built by Schwilgué of Strasbourg in 1842. It is a favourite with the tour-group operators, whose customers roll up in droves at midday to witness the clock’s crowning daily performance, striking the hour of noon, which it does with unerring accuracy at 12.30pm – that being pre-GMT midday Strasbourg time.