Tuesday 21st June 2011, Molsheim, France
Today we caught the train into Strasbourg. It was really convenient taking just twenty minutes and depositing us in the heart of the city. We were also eligible for a 25% discount on the fare as seniors and the station was just five minutes walk from the campsite.
Unfortunately the weather has been hot and humid and we have been useless wimps, staggering wearily wherever there is shade rather than where we want to go. In any case, Strasbourg is far too large to see in one day so we will return again tomorrow, hoping it will be cooler.
The good thing for you is that we never expected to be here so have no guide books of any sort. So you will be spared detailed, boring accounts of the history and architecture of the city. It is though, a world class city, like Venice, Munich, Barcelona, St. Petersburg and Krakow. It is smart and clean with many beautiful, impressive buildings including a stunning gothic cathedral in red sandstone in the heart of the old town.
It was this area we explored today, for once not stopping at every corner to look at maps, but simply wandering, taking in the wealth of curving streets of half-timbered houses with their steep roofs covering in weathered old red tiles, pierced by rows of tiny gabled windows. Of course everything was well restored and clean. The ground floors are occupied by individual shops, restaurants and bars. Patisseries abound and the breads, sandwiches and gateaux are all works of art!
The old town occupies an island in the river Ille with the relatively more recent city spread out from the banks on either side. Wherever you walk in the old town, sooner or later a pretty vista will open as you reach the river, crossed by numerous bridges. From the far bank there are lovely views back across the river to the spire of the cathedral and the crowded streets of houses. A particularly popular tourist attraction is a boat trip around the island with a commentary on the buildings.
At lunch time we chanced upon the student quarter with several small restaurants serving mainly filled baguettes, pizzas and croques monsieur. Nearby though we discovered the student canteen which was apparently open to anybody. So we joined the students for a self-service meal that included an entrée, main meal and a desert for under six euros! The food was excellent and ample, the rooms cool and the atmosphere reminiscent of our youth. French cooking was a delight after weeks of central European sausages in all their variant forms. Lucky students to enjoy every day such meals as ham with creamed lentils and celery remoulade followed by creamed beef with olives accompanied by carrots and broccoli with either a gooey cake (Ian) or a fruit yogurt (Jill) to follow.
So it's not surprising we wilted with the heat after a meal like that! I think we might return there tomorrow.
Crossing one of the bridges we found ourselves in the huge Place de la République. It's a massive round-about really with cars and modern, air conditioned trams gliding around the perimeter of a formal park with flowerbeds of roses. In the centre is the town's war memorial. It is particularly touching showing a mother mourning the death of her two sons. Both fought for Alsace, but one died for France, the other for Germany! That is the troubled history of this region of France. It has been tossed and tugged back and forth between Germany and France so many times its identity is confused. Alsace-Lorraine passed to Germany in 1871 following the Franco-Prussian War and remained part of Germany until the end of World War 1 when it was returned to France. Then during the Second World War the region was again ceded to Germany from 1940-1945. During this period its French citizens were conscripted into the German army where they were forced to fight against their own people. Since 1946 Alsace and Lorraine have again formed part of France.
The buildings around the Place de la République are large and impressive. They include the Strasbourg National Theatre and the Palais du Rhin. This latter was built by Kaiser Wilhelm following the annexation of the region in 1871. It is very Germanic, a clear declaration that the area was indisputably German at that time. Seeking the shade we crossed to the main entrance. Inside we were told there was a free exhibition upstairs covering the problems of the city and its region during its several transfers between France and Germany. As much as anything we were interested to see the building. The part that has been restored is powerfully impressive but much remains still to do. It was too hot to absorb the wealth of information in French displayed in photos and documents and neither of us felt particularly like using our brains, so soon we were back on the baking streets.
Our next shelter was inside the massive Cathedral. Ornate and "lacy" from the outside, where money seemed to have run out before the second spire could be built, the interior was cool and dark, packed with tourists. There were several interesting monuments and some colourful stained glass windows. The main attraction though was a huge mediaeval astronomical clock.
There are of course huge numbers of tourists enjoying the city, buying souvenirs or sitting enjoying glasses of the local Alsace wine or beer with pizzas under huge sunshades around the old centre. During the afternoon we were so exhausted we joined them, first buying a stuffed toy stork – the area is famous for the real ones and they nest on rooftops, poles and churches – for our granddaughters before dropping exhausted into cafe chairs beneath shady plane trees to relax with glasses of chilled white Alsace wine. It was bliss but meant we slept all the way back on the train to Molsheim!
Wednesday 22nd June 2011, Molsheim, France
It was a hot, airless night with rumbles of thunder and a few lightening flashes but no more than a splattering of rain. By 6am this morning the sun was peering rudely in at the window we'd left open as we tried to sleep. It looked like another unbearable day.
Setting off earlier than yesterday we left jumpers, umbrellas and rainwear behind, taking only sunglasses and Ian's sunhat. In Strasbourg we vainly attempted to buy a freedom card for the buses and trains from one of the machines at the station. It took our credit card details and then refused to give us a ticket. We find all this automation really complicated. It rarely works for us, yet I'm sure we are no more stupid than most foreigners visiting international cities. Eventually we managed to buy a card from the tourist information centre and soon we were enjoying the air conditioning in the smart trams that wind around the city, as we travelled out to the seat of European government. It is set out in open parkland within sight of the single spire of the Cathedral. The buildings are imposing, isolated from each other by huge acres of greensward and very few trees. The river Ille passes near the buildings, indeed the European Parliament building stands majestically beside the water where swans glide and ducks fuss over their tiny ducklings.
We left the tram at the stop called Droits de l'Homme (Rights of Man) immediately outside the European Court of Human Rights. Outside the entrance there were several people on hunger strike, living in their tent and displaying banners demanding human rights for Romanians. We are not quite sure what they wanted but assume it was over President Sarkozi's heavy handed policy of giving gypsies money and forcefully sending them back to Romania. I do have to say that, from what I have seen, my sympathy with Romania's gypsies has long been exhausted. The world has given so much support and aid to Romania, which undoubtedly needed it. Indeed so many ordinary Romanian village people there are still in great need of help, but it has been over twenty years now that the country has been receiving support and attention from the rest of the world and there is very little to show for it. Other countries have received far less attention from their European partners and they are coping quietly, as best they can. (I'm thinking of Bulgaria and Poland). Romania has so much wealth but it is in the hands of just a few people. My feeling is that this wealth should be redistributed internally rather than the country being dependent on outside aid while doing little to help itself. The gypsy population in their tin-roofed palaces will survive no matter what and it is difficult to see what the rest of Europe can do that will help them or encourage them to change their way of life. So basically therefore, I didn't feel overmuch sympathy with the protestors at the gates.
We walked up to the Droits de l'Homme building. The red carpet was out! They must have been expecting us. At the entrance we pressed the buzzer and the doors opened. That was as far as we got however. We were told in no uncertain terms that we could only enter to see the exhibition inside if we were in a group and had pre-booked in writing well in advance. My suggestion that perhaps we could tag onto the next booked group was rejected. They were about to shut for lunch! Huh! We pay taxes that go to support all these Eurocrats and their smart buildings so why don't we have a right to look inside the building? And anyway, I wanted to protest about the right of a European citizen to enter another member country and not be sprayed with harmful levels of chlorine disinfectant without warning or consent.
We crossed to the European Parliament, a massive glass structure linked across the river to the Council of Europe. We wandered around the outside of both buildings but it was obvious we were not going to get inside without an appointment. I suppose they cannot have the riff-raff of Europe turning up and disrupting all the hard work our MEPs are doing for us. Had it not been lunch time it might have been possible to book ourselves in for a one hour session listening to one of the debates in the European Parliament where I'm sure it would have been quite fascinating to hear our elected members in serious debate over acceptable minimum levels of red pigmentation in European rhubarb!
We did penetrate the central courtyard of the European Parliament and it was certainly impressive. Completely circular and open to the sky the paved centre was dominated by a glass globe, a present from Poland in 2005 when it was accepted into the European Union.
As we left the building there was a rumble of thunder and it began to rain. We had nothing but Ian's sunhat for protection as we ran across acres of open grass to the tram stop back into town. At least we've now seen all three of the European administrative centres – Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg. They all look very similar - impressive and deserted.
We returned to the student restaurant of yesterday for lunch. Today our meal was even cheaper, just 4.80 euros each for a substantial three course meal!
The sun had disappeared and the rain of earlier turned out to be no more than a shower. It was hot and humid as we set off to discover La Petite France. It's a very pretty area of half-timbered buildings crowded together beside the river, their facades hung with baskets of geraniums. Boats and pleasure craft use the river here, passing through locks and swing bridges as people sit watching from the terraces of the many pretty little restaurants. There were a couple of ancient stone towers forming part of the city's defences and apparently a barrage designed by the ubiquitous M. Vauban in the 17th century. This however was inaccessible due to works on one of the little bridges into the area.
We made our way to the Museum of Alsace, crowded with everything related to the region and the forgotten way of life of its inhabitants. There was much concerning household furnishings with reconstructed panelled rooms, huge decorated wooden armoires, beds built into alcoves and covered with huge gingham quilts, babies' cribs, ceramic stoves, children's toys and more. There were galleries concerning all aspects of the wine industry including bottling and barrel making. There were displays too of weaving and textiles as well as wood carving and carpentry. Perhaps though, one of the best features of the museum was the building itself. We entered a large, timber-framed building to discover it was truly huge, constructed around a central cobbled courtyard, several stories high with wooden galleries right the way around at each level with rooms and corridors leading off from them.
Walking around the museum was exhausting! The air was heavy and hot while thunder grumbled around the darkening skies outside. Eventually, within a couple of seconds, the rain arrived in waves of water that swept across the steep rooftops. Drains gurgled and a sheet of water cascaded into the courtyard as we stood on the wooden galleries watching and breathing the suddenly freshened air.
It was still teeming as we left the museum later to catch our train back to Molsheim. We didn't care that we were soaked through. It was good to feel alive once more. We've really enjoyed our visit to Strasbourg despite having no guide books and knowing so little about the city. Tomorrow we move on. We've just heard from Geneviève and we are expected back in Caen before long. We are greatly looking forward to seeing all our friends there once more.