Of course, that was ironic. The words were delivered to me with a helpless shrug of the shoulders, a dismissive wave of the hand, and a malicious twinkle of a wink. Then again, if the noise and stink of Manhattan do nothing for you, you’ll appreciate that the Grande Île is practically its exact opposite.
Strasbourg is a living and breathing fairy-tale town. Dotted with miniature timber-framed houses, dappled in friendly sunshine, barely touched by the winds and wrinkles of autumn in late October, it makes you expect to bump into Hanzel and Gretel, holding hands and munching on gingerbread, around any corner, or to be startled by a swoosh of golden locks that Rapunzel would have let down from the window above your head. You find yourself craning your neck looking for giant beanstalks, and scanning the ground for a sight of bearded dwarfs. In the middle of this lovely mess lies an enormous, awesome cathedral, looking very much like a lost giant who, having accidentally stepped right into the middle of Munchkin Country, turned to stone after being unable to escape the scurrying mess at its feet without causing substantial damage.
At the same time as being irresistibly quaint, (if I could, I’d eat Strasbourg right up alongside a generous helping of Alsatian choucroute), Strasbourg is surprisingly stylish. Elegant and tasteful shop windows line its uneven cobbled streets, many of them flanking the world’s most coveted luxury brands. Even the beggars look cultured in Strasbourg. The one I happened to pass several times was clean and groomed, bespectacled, and sat contentedly cross-legged on the street, smoking a cigarette and observing passers-by with what looked like great amusement.
It’s true that there’s not much to do in Strasbourg. But if you like walking, enjoy old architecture and churches, and like to buy edible and practical souvenirs in cute shops, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t enjoy yourself in Strasbourg.
A Bit of History
Perhaps my favourite aspect of Strasbourg is the alluring cultural mélange grown from its Franco-German heritage. Originally German-speaking, it was conquered by the army of Louis XIV in 1681, then annexed to the German Empire almost two hundred years later, in 1871, only to be reattributed to France by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Apart from being a bridge between French and German cultures, Strasbourg is has also been the historical centre of coexistence between Catholics and Protestants, and the Strasbourg Grand Mosque is France’s largest place of Islamic worship today.
The modest size of Strasbourg belies its political and economic importance. While it was set up as a merchant town, it gained political value owing to its strategic position as a border town. Strasbourg has also seen many firsts in its day. The Strasbourg cathedral, at the time of its completion in 1439, was the tallest building in the world. In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in Strasbourg. In keeping with the tradition, the first modern newspaper was published in Strasbourg in 1605.
Today, Strasbourg is an important landmark of European unity. Since 1952, it has housed the headquarters of the Council of Europe (including the European Court of Human Rights), as well as one of the seats of the European Parliament (the others being in Brussels and in Luxembourg).