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Published: September 20th 2018
Most places, notwithstanding your first impression, have some interest. There is always a story, perhaps a lot of stories, that a place has to tell that are interesting. Sometimes you have to look hard for it. Not in Strasbourg though. It has led an interesting existence since its initial establishment as a Roman camp
Our first impression walking out of the Gare de Strasbourg in the early evening was of a place that seemed just a little dingy. That probably had as much to do with the luggage distributed about my person and the walk from the Centraal Station down a road that is heavily under repair. My first impression of the Apart-hotel that we are to stay in wasn't positive. Dark colours and not so much light. But the reception was friendly, professional and efficient. And they changed the colours the very next day to whites and yellow and then pulled the curtains. Major change. Light, airy and attractive.
The address of our hotel is Petite France but it is possible that this is stretching it a little. There are apparently no actual borders but the area is bounded on a couple of sides by a canal and
a river/creek and we are a few hundred metres away from the water.
On our first night we needed food but not a large dinner. We had eaten well at lunch and were sitting down all day in a train. It is sometimes hard to find small feeds. Sharing works at times but our command of French is not good enough to deliver the right questions about meal sizes or understand the answers. Just up the road we happened on a place that seemed to be a student hangout, serving beer and wine and small plates. Just what we needed and it had a spare table. I think that some of the other customers may have been initially a little startled that their grandparents had wandered in but we were appropriately fed and watered. Good place.
It quickly became clear that being close to Petite France was a good idea, although we were still unclear why it was called that. Early in the day, in particular, it is a very pleasant place to wander around. There are restaurants, coffee shops and bars scattered throughout and most of it restricts vehicular traffic for a lot of the time. The
area is not large but there is plenty to occupy visitors, even if they aren't into eating and drinking.
The Notre Dame Cathedral is a spectacular building - and a more than useful landmark, just outside Petite France. A time line provided on a brass plaque shows that the Cathedral was almost 800 years in the construction phase. On a tour though we were told that it was officially under construction as a Cathedral for 400 years.
I think it is clear that it took a long time to build, a massive amount of work was done, the cost was immense and the result is spectacular. The tower was the tallest in France and the world for a long time. It is possible to see it from just over the border in Germany (we checked that out personally) and I have to say it is a beautiful building. Given that it was built over such a period, there are a variety of styles - perhaps fashions might be an appropriate word - on display. We can't comment on the interior but, the exterior fits together well.
It was apparently intended that there be two towers/spires. There is
no official version to explain the missing tower other than that there were insufficient funds available to build one. It seems likely that the reason for the insufficient funds, indeed the reason there is no second tower, is that this particular style of church architecture went out of fashion before enough funds could be raised.
As you would expect, the area around the Cathedral can get busy, particularly if there are large tours around. This is the area with the concentration of souvenir shops and the like. If you don't like crowds be there in the morning early or later in the afternoon.
Even a short way from the Cathedral crowds thin out as people are sucked in to the nooks and crannies of Petite France. Squares and 'places' are worth checking out. Some just have residences but a lot have little bars and shops that are probably there primarily to serve locals but that are very happy to take the tourist euro when it is about
There are places that are primarily bars. They serve drinks, including coffee but not so much food. Petit dejeuner possibly but a 'proper' feed is provided by the brasseries or
restaurants. In some places the distinction is clear but in most it seems to blur. In one square we found bars on one side and restaurants on the other. It is normally a little less stark.
We did a couple of walking tours in Strasbourg with Happy Tours and the one that focused on Petite France was guided by Leo. Its easy enough to find your way around the Centre of the city and get amongst the shopping malls, streets and markets but to bring the place to life a good walking tours cannot be beaten.
The area that is now Petite France is, in fact, the area immediately adjacent to the first real settlement - a Roman camp. It developed along the east/west road built by the Romans and that, i you follow it to the west will bring you to Paris. The main road through Petite France, Grand Rue (or Langstrasse in Alsacien, I think) housed the establishments that were most sought by visitors to the city - prostitutes and bars - and these serviced troops and others for many hundreds of years.
We spent a bit under 2 hours on the tour and were
given an enjoyable introduction that provided a lot more colour and context to the area. Street names can be useful in sussing out what has been going on in a place and Petite France, with its streets named after tanneries, bridges and mills was obviously very different in years gone by. The channels through the streets that housed tanneries are now tastefully covered by cobblestones, the mills are gone but the bridges are still there - although, interestingly, one that used to be covered is not and one that used to be uncovered, is.
Over the ages there has been a disease that has often received a nickname by the members of the armies that have been found to have it on their return home. Variously, it has been called the Scottish, Italian, English or French disease and possibly others. In the case of German soldiers coming home - at a time when Strasbourg was German - they arrived home with the French disease. A hospital was constructed to deal with them and there were more than a few for it is a large place. The whole area began to be called by the name - La Petite France.
In an interesting ending to that story, the building that is in place in a prime position where the Ill River breaks into a number of channels, now houses the National School of Administration (the ENA) created in 1945 by President de Gaulle with alumni that include most if not all of the French Presidents since that time with the exception of President Sarkosy. I will take that story no further but am sure that it could be developed.
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