Published: October 29th 2007September 30th 2007
Les Ponts Couvert
Beautiful shot of the formerly covered stone bridge taken from atop the Barrage Vauban.
My journey from Tampere to London was an arduous one.
The flight was around 2 hours and 40 minutes long. After half an hour going through immigration (things would be so much easier with an EU passport) and baggage pick up, the bus from London Stansted Airport to Victoria Station was 70 minutes and then after waiting 20 minutes for the night bus, it took a further 25 minutes to get to Nicola's flat in Ladbroke Grove. I finally arrived at the flat at 3am - which would've been 5am Finnish time. So as you can imagine, I was absolutely exhausted.
The next two days were spent sleeping and on my laptop - reloading my iPod (yay!) and catching up on blog entries and emails.
Then on September 28th, it was back on the road (or should I say the tracks) to Strasbourg, France and the start of my extra leg of travelling.
The only way I could get across the channel cheaply was to take the Eurostar to Lille - and that still cost £60 - but once there my rail pass was valid once again and having arrived at 5pm, I had a couple of hours to kill
Anais, myself and Kwak
My French friend, myself, and French beer - with the glass uniquely held in a special wooden handle.
in Lille before catching my 7pm train to Strasbourg.
Located close to the Belgian border, the historical capital of the Flanders region has an industrial background but has recently become a commercial and cultural hub, thanks in part to the fact that the Eurostar now stops there.
I managed to stop by the cathedral, the very nice main square and Quick Burger (French fast-food burger chain) in my two hours there before switching from the ultra-modern Lille-Europe station to the old Lille-Flandres station to catch my train to Strasbourg.
I somehow managed to get a private cabin on board the train which was a nice way to spend the almost 4-hour train journey.
When I was back home in my Ponsonby flat in Auckland, I befriended two lovely French girls next door, Juliane and Anais from Strasbourg. Since Strasbourg is halfway to Munich, I thought that it would be a good idea to stop by to see them before continuing my journey to Oktoberfest - besides, they had both told me so many nice things about Strasbourg when we were back in New Zealand :-)
So at 10.45pm I finally arrived in Strasbourg where the girls were there to
Palais du Rhin
Former imperial palace to the emperor of Prussia.
pick me up.
It was a Friday night, so after dropping my luggage off in Juliane's car, it was straight out to a local bar to meet up with some their old high school friends.
The first thing Juliane asked me was whether I could speak any French. Well, I can say a few words and my pronounciation isn't too bad but otherwise not really. Not that either of Juliane's or Anais' English is that bad, but at times they struggled to describe things and would often not know the English word for something. Throughout my stay you could see that they were trying so hard, and I really must thank them for that, as it must not have been easy for them. I felt a bit guilty that I didn't know more French - I really wish I did. I think would like to learn it when I get back to London, as well as keeping up the Spanish I already know.
Anyway, their friends were all really cool - one in particular, Thibault, spoke good English as he had worked in England for a few months, so we had a good old chat.
Of course I tried some
The gigantically tall Strasbourg Catherdral.
French beer, which needless to say involved Kronenbourg (which in fact originated from and is still brewed just up the road from here). It's quite funny, Kronenbourg is the cheap beer here, the Export or Tui of France. Yet back home, it's regarded as a good beer - although it can be justified, as it's not a bad drop. I also tried a beer called Kwak, which is served in a tall glass, that is held inside a wooden frame that you use to hold the beer, which is quite a novel way to keep the beer cold, although I'm not sure if that is the exact purpose of the wooden frame.
Unfortunately for Juliane, she had to work the next day, so the high-school reunion came to an end, and we all exchanged pleasantries before going on our way.
One thing I really like about the French culture is how all their customs and pleasantries are geared towards politeness - like how you always kiss both cheeks of a girl when you greet her, and how you always shake a guy's hand when you greet him. Juliane says that the French do it because it's "more human" to make
Un Tres Romantique Canal
Strasbourg's version of the Seine.
physical contact when greeting someone, more friendly. I personally think that this is a great philosophy as these little things make things a lot friendlier, and I have noticed that in France the people are lot friendlier than in other places in Europe. The service people here at supermarkets, bakeries and internet cafes etc are also very friendly and will always greet you with a bonjour, a bonsoir followed by a bon appetit. In English, there isn't really a direct translation for bon appetit, which I think really says something about the difference between the two cultures.
After the drinks and dropping off Anais, we went to Juliane's folk's place 20 minutes outside of Strasbourg in the cute little village of Holzheim, where Juliane's parents were so kind as to let me stay.
Coming from New Zealand, it's a bit strange having so many little villages so close together outside the city, yet they are not considered part of the city and retain their own identity. One thing I noticed about Europe in general, especially in the bigger countries like Germany and France, is how many thousands of little villages there are spread across the entire country, and how spread
The rather picturesque church of St. Paul.
out the population is. Wherever you are in these countries, you're never far from civilisation. For example, Germany's population is 82 million, yet there are only three cities with more than 1 million people - Berlin, Hamburg and Munich.
Perched on the border of France and Germany, the region of Alsace, of which Strasbourg is it's capital, is where the worlds of Gallic and Germanic culture collide. Despite being a German-speaking region for periods throughout it's history, Alsatians these days all speak French. 25% of the population are fluent in Alsatian, the local dialect here. Despite the clash of two cultures, Alsatians most definitely have their own identity and know who they are, and despite the strong German overtones here, Alsace is very much part of France.
The German influence is tangible though, especially when looking at many of the houses in the area and in Strasbourg. The most common type of old housing style you see over here is what the Alsatians call "colombages" or half-timbered. It usually has an A-frame roof and white walls with the dark wooden frame visible on the outside of the walls. This type of house-style is typically associated with Germany.
Colombages By The River
Near the Petite France, this Venice-like setting includes a restaurant right on the canal.
this clash of cultures to be very fascinating indeed.
This also explains why German Shepherds are also known as Alsatians ;-)
The next morning I got to meet Juliane's father, Daniel. A tall and friendly man, he made me feel very welcome in his home and we shared some good conversation about New Zealand, food and the French economy over breakfast. It was nice to have a semi-intellectual conversation for change rather than the usual "Hi, where are you from" staple from the hostels.
As mentioned earlier, Juliane was working today, so Daniel kindly drove me into Strasbourg to meet Anais who was to be my guide for the day.
Strasbourg is generally known as one of Europe's seats of power as the European Parliament, the Council Of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights are all based here. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is also from here, as one of Juliane's friends was keen to remind me of last night, which explains his German sounding surname.
The River Ill runs through Strasbourg, and wraps around the historical centre of the city which is on an "island" known as the Grande Ile. The river forms a moat-like canal around
La Petite France
The rapids in the water is where boats from the lower part of the canal are lifted to the higher part of the water (there's probably a name for this but I don't know what is).
the Grande Ile.
The first stop on our tour was the gargantuan cathedral. The tallest church in the world until 1880, the Strasbourg Cathedral is definitely among the biggest I've seen on this trip - this church was massive. The detail carved onto it was amazingly intricate as well, for such a huge building.
Unfortunately, we couldn't go inside where Anais says it's really pretty because they had a concert of some sort going on in there.
We then went for a walk around the delightful canal - that I imagine would be a "tres romantique" walk for a couple - passing the Palais du Rhin, the university and the picturesque Eglise St. Paul.
We then went to the most beautiful part of the city, the Petite France.
With the rapids of the canal set against the unique colombages, this was as pretty a picture I've seen on this trip. The restaurant set upon a deck over the canal would be a fantastic spot. The medieval cobblestoned streets of the Petite France aren't too shabby either.
We then came to the Ponts Couvert, four formerly-covered stone bridges on the River Ill that still has four medieval defence towers intact. We
View From Gaby's Apartment
Fantastic location of Gaby's Venetian-like apartment. Don't drop anything out the window though, as it'll get seriously wet.
then went on top of the Barrage Vauban, a stone passageway also on the water opposite the Ponts Couvert that used to be a women's prison. The views from the top overlooking the Ponts Couvert and Petite France are quite simply beautiful.
We then hung out at one of Anais' friend's apartment which is right on the water by the Petit France - a pretty awesome place to live. Anais' friend Gaby, couldn't really speak English, and I couldn't really speak French, but we both could speak a little bit of Spanish, so we just managed to have a simple conversation. We then went to the lovely park just over the canal from Gaby's apartment where we met up with her flatmates Simon and Ryan. Ryan is originally from the United States, so I think the girls were a bit relieved that an English-speaker could keep me occupied for awhile, giving them a bit of a break. Ryan went on to say how when he first arrived in France, he had to work really hard to think and talk in French, so kind of understood how hard it must be for the girls to have to suddenly think in English
Streets Of Petite France
The totally medieval streets of Petite France.
during my visit. He was a cool guy, and we had an interesting conversation about the differences between American and French culture.
Anais was going to a electronica rave of sorts that night, so I was going to hang out with Juliane and her friends for the night.
After meeting Juliane after she finished work, we went back to Holzheim where Daniel had cooked up a "pot au feu", basically a hot pot, where the beef in particular was delicious. I like the way the Europeans eat their vegetables, particularly beans and tomatoes, with olive oil.
Whether it be restaurant or haute cuisine, French food is scrumptious. It's the only food that really stands out on my trip so far.
After dinner, we went to the apartment in downtown Strasbourg of one of Juliane's friends, Anne, with two more of Juliane's friends, Nadège and Celine. Being a Kiwi male, I was quite an interesting subject for the four French girls, so some interesting questions were fired my way, including my thoughts on which girls I thought were the most beautiful in Europe. There was only ever going to be one answer to that! ;-) After finishing a bottle of
Me & Four Beautiful French Girls (and Cyril)
From our night out in Strasbourg. From left; Nadège, Juliane, me, Anne, Cyril and Celine.
passionfruit liquer plus some vodka between us, we were ready to hit a club - and with four rather hot French girls by my side, there wouldn't be a club I wasn't getting into tonight!
I don't remember the name of the club - it may have been called Blue B - but in any case it was pretty swanky inside, with the DJ playing a mix of R&B, dance and Latin music. Before we got inside, we also met up with Cyril, Celine's boyfriend.
My first drink was a "picon biere" - a bitter orange-rind syrup mixed with Pechuer beer - which was very nice. Bit girly, but nice.
Some of the people in there were really off their face - and it wasn't long before there was dancing on the table tops. A couple of dudes started removing their shirts. So as you can imagine, it was a slightly raucous, but fun atmosphere inside. There were a lot of girls present too.
Hanging out with four girls meant that I wasn't going to escape from having a dance or two and I ended up having a good time. Unfortunately for Juliane, she was feeling the effects of the
Place De La Republique
Circle-shaped square near the district hall.
flu and a long work day, so for tonight she wasn't the party girl she was back in Auckland. The others weren't quite feeling it either so we all took off around 3am, with Cyril kindly giving us a lift back to Holzheim.
My last day in Strasbourg was pretty relaxing. After a long sleep, Daniel had kindly cooked up some delicious Alsatian sausages and rosemary potatoes that we all enjoyed in the lovely 20 degree sunshine. It was definitely a nice warm day weather-wise.
In the evening, Juliane and Anais took me out to a traditional Alsatian restaurant.
Set in a traditional, wood-interiored colombage, this meal was a truly authentic experience.
Alsatian food is famous for being extremely rich and heavy. This was illustrated in the entree we shared, a tarte flambee (flammekueche in Alsatian) - basically a pizza with cream, onions and bacon. Oh so delicious.
I then had the choice of horse meat or a pork hock with "choucroutte". My curiosity got the better of me and I went for the choucroutte which turned out to be sauerkraut. The pork hock was nice though and it came with a white mustard that was almost exactly like
Detail Of Strasbourg Cathedral
Incredibly detailed carvings for such a huge building.
wasabe. I'm usually one to leave my plate spotless, but the richness of the food and the amount of food made that an impossible task. Alsatian cuisine was I thought, a bit German - I would liken the pork I had to scwheinhock. The tarte flambee was definitely the highlight.
Then it was time to say goodbye the girls - so a big thanks to Juliane and Anais for looking after me in Strasbourg. Hopefully I will see them both again soon.
The next day I was to catch my train to Munich - but not before Juliane's mum cooked up a final feast of spaghetti bolognese and homemade apple pie - foodwise, I have been well and truly spoilt here.
After Daniel dropped me at the train station, I thanked him very much for his hospitality.
Strasbourg is a beautiful city, and well worth a visit - but attention now turns to what should be one of the highlights of the trip, Oktoberfest. Along with La Tomatina, this was one of the events that we planned our trip around - and now it has finally come around. Soon my stomach will be full of German beer rather
More Petite France...
Idyllic imagery from the most beautiful area in Strasbourg.
than sumptuous Alsatian food - and I am looking forward to it!
There are more photos below