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Published: September 22nd 2018
There is a lot more to Strasbourg than the Notre Dame Cathedral and Petite France, and clearly a lot more than we discovered. We found it to be an interesting city that deserved a post. Overall, Strasbourg is a modern, easy city with an excellent bike-way system and a tram system that seems highly efficient. We found it pleasant and safe to walk around, although you should try to avoid walking on the bike paths.
The first thing we did in Strasbourg was find a walking tour. There are a number in the usual places on the internet. Happy Tours seemed to receive good reviews and had a few different tours in English so we decided to give them a try. Unfortunatey, it was a damp day and turned into a full blown rainy day as the tour progressed. This possibly reduced the numbers but there were still more than 20 people on the tour. Gabriel was our guide and this was the 'original tour' (we also took a "Petite France" tour with Leo, mentioned in an ealier post).
The tour took us through the changes in Strasbourg since the original Celtic village was taken over by the Romans
who established an army camp called Argentoratum. Since then it has been taken over by the Allemagnes, the Franks, the French and the Germans, the latter two on numerous occasions. For a considerable period it was a 'free' city of the Holy Roman Empire,owing allegiance to no other power and was governed during that period by its own elected council. Perhaps not quite as democratically elected as may happen in some countries today but a definite step up from being run by a noble. To become free the people of Strasbourg had to remove the corrupt bishop who was in charge at that time.
Every change of control brought changes in architecture. There is a mix of French, German and home grown Alsacienne. Many streets include houses from a number of different periods and, at first, it seemed a little chaotic. Each change of controlling country brought with it a new building style, along with the requirement to speak the language of the conqueror - on some occasions, the following day. In the lifetime of most people in the city, except for the current generation, there have been changes.
There appears to be a very strong feeling that,
with the European Union, France and Germany are now close friends and allies and that this is a very good thing.
Like every town, city or country, Strasbourg claims whatever it can. For instance, the bloke who wrote the Marseilles - the French National Anthem - did it overnight in a barracks in the main square - the Kleber Square - of Strasbourg. He worked in a barracks that took up most of one side of the square (now an up-market shopping arcade/mall where you can't take photos.) Gutenberg has a statue in a square near the Cathedral because he possibly developed the printing press here rather than his home town over in Germany.
Museums are often a great way to find some good background on a city or a place and we tend to visit them when we can. We selected 4 from the long-ish list.
The Museum of Contemporary and Modern Art (MACMA) was just up the way from our accommodation and, given that we walked past it normally a couple of times a day we figured it had to be top of the list. It was a nice surprise when we walked in. We
knew that one Sunday every month admission to museums is free and it turned out that it was the first Sunday so our museum day was free.
The MACMA is having its 20th Anniversary so there is some remodelling underway but it is still an interesting place to visit. Not the best exhibition we have ever seen but not the worst. It took 3 or 4 hours to see the exhibits.
We went for a cup of coffee at the MACMA cafe and stumbled on what appears to be a 'thing' - perhaps only on free days but maybe more often. The cafe was offering a buffet breakfast for 24 Euros a head. It looked like it was all you can eat judging by the amounts some had loaded on to their plates. We made do with cup of coffee each and a piece of cake.
MACMA's building itself is worth a look.
The Museum of Alsace or the Alsace Museum is a good walk along the canal or river on the border of Petite France. The museum was first established in 1906. It now operates through 3 adjoining houses with 30 rooms of exhibitions of
life in Alsace during the last couple of centuries. It provides an excellent view of the cultural and historical life and is very well worth a visit.
The Museum of Strasbourg is across the water from the Museum of Alsace. It traces the history of the city from its beginnings through its key events, normally relating to one of the many changes of country, governance and ownership of the city over the last 1000-odd years.
It is a good exhibition. Unfortunately, the combined effect of dark red walls, a lack of light and small print on some of the explanatory material made it a little tiresome at times. There was, however, a lot of information and there was no flinching in its description of some of the recent issues in the development of Strasbourg.
The Cave Historique Hospices Strasbourg has been operating since 1395. It was established as a place to hold the 'payments' made by people for their health care. Then (as is much the case now) only about 10% of people had the wherewithal to pay for the care they needed from hospitals. Those that couldn't pay money traded with goods and, in the Alsace
region, wine was produced and, therefore, traded for health care.
Many other hospitals operated the same system. Strasbourg is the only one left operating. Some of the others send their wine to Strasbourg where it is cellared and bottled. If you are even a little interested in wine and history, perhaps even in health economics, you will enjoy this museum. It holds a barrel with the oldest wine in a barrel in the world. The wine was put down in 1472. There is a bottle that can be viewed of this wine. It is reputed to still be wine and still drinkable. It has been tasted 3 times. Once 100 years after it was put down, once at the end of WW2 and I can't remember the other.
Wine traded for health care was originally used in the hospital and for mass. Water back in the day wasn't always fit for human consumption whereas wine had more of a chance of being so. We were told that a more wealthy person could be provided with 2 litres of wine per day as part of their treatment. In those days wine did not always have the same concentration of
alcohol as today.
As the practice of paying by trading wine gradually dropped away, the cellar revived the tradition by asking wine growers to place some of their vintages with the cellar. The Cave Historique Hospices then cellars it, cares for it and bottles it. A proportion of the wine is given over to be sold with the Hospital's label, the remainder with the owner's label.
The cellar is an 80m long cave under the original hospital. An area is sealed off at the end where some special wines are being cellared. This used to be the area where the cadavers were stored and was utilised for teaching and research purposes. A semi-circular trap door which provided access for the corpses to the cellar area is still in existence at the front door of the old hospital. This was all highly secretive because the dismembering of bodies was illegal and very much frowned upon by the church.
Signage to the cellar isn't great. You go into the hospital grounds and find your way to the area. There are some signs. The cellar is down a flight of stairs and, once there, you can hire an audio guide
for 3 Euros. The guide is informative and useful. Prices for wine at the Cellar are a little less than you pay retail.
Much activity and a little excitement at the end of the day. We stopped at a little bar outside the main tourist area for a drink on our way home. Just as we were sitting down, a man sprinted down the road next to the bar. We noticed. You don't see that many people moving that quickly on foot. This man was pursued by 2 police officers also on foot. In an impressive exhibition of reaction time, less than 30 seconds later, 2 police on motor bikes roared down the same road followed a little later by a van. We had noticed these vans earlier in the day. They carried 6-8 officers and were quietly parked around the centre. We had no idea what was going on and still don't, but to add interest, there were a number of sirens during the night. Sirens aren't uncommon but there seemed to be more than normal. People at the bar paid attention, that is, they looked up and over, but no-one moved as far as we could tell.
But then, it was 5.00 o'clock and most tables were taken. If you jumped up to look around you might have lost your spot. Music shops, Shopping Malls, Flash Buildings
It is not all old city and old buildings. Cities have a lot of functions other than looking after tourists.
We were keen to find some music shops, those that sold musical instruments in particular. Even more precisely, those that sold mandolins. There are cave paintings in France dating back thousands of years depicting an instrument that might have been a lute which is the first cousin of the mandola which, in turn, was shortened up a bit and became the mandolin. How quickly they forget. Just a few thousand years and it is very hard to find a decent mandolin here for love nor money. Mandolins, these days, are most popular in the USA, Ireland and Australia - where some very good ones are made. Our search may have to continue in other places.
We were also on the lookout for clothing. Not Decathlon this time. A bit more flash and suitable for attendance at an important wedding to occur shortly after - the next
day - we make it back to Australia. In the city centre there are a couple of shopping malls and streets with women's clothing, some of it very nice but nothing, so far, that has made the cut.
Getting away from the centre and the old city has its advantages. You get to see a modern, progressive city that is the official seat of the European Parliament and has the HQ of the European Court of Human Rights. The city seems to provide a good quality of life for its citizens. It is hard to tell for sure but you get the impression of a place that would be easy to live in and that would provide for many of the needs that people might have.
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