Welcome to Part Trois of of my I-don’t-know-how-many part series about my recent trip to France!! Now that I’ve had you all gape at Strasbourg’s grandest attraction, I thought I’d take you on a little stroll through the streets of the city, show off a few other attractions, and sneak in a little history along the way.
Oh, and if you missed that grandest attraction, you can catch up HERE.
Since I left you lingering at the steps of Strasbourg’s cathedral, let’s continue the tour from there. Stepping off the cathedral’s square, you can slip down one of Strasbourg’s narrow lanes to reach the canal that creates the little island that makes up the heart of Strasbourg’s historic center.
The canal is lined with – if the weather had been cooperating – postcard perfect half-timbered buildings (or as the French say, “les colombages”). But the weather wasn’t cooperating that day, so my photos have a slightly dismal feel.
Anyway, since I had to pop up the umbrella and tuck away the camera, this is a perfect time to share a little history as we make our way to La Petite France.
The first thing you might notice about Strasbourg is that it has a very Germanic name (although the French do Frenchify its pronunciation…Strahs-booorrrr). That’s because, like a political tennis ball, Strasbourg has been bounced between being German or being French for ages.
How many ages? Well, at least back to the days of Charlemagne. By the time he died, Charlemagne was ruling over a nice chunk of Western Europe. Long story short, specific portions of the kingdom were eventually inherited by his grandsons. As boys will do, they started fighting over who should get what and the rivalry was eventually settled with the Treaty of Verdun which gave the French part of the kingdom to one grandson and the German part of the kingdom to another grandson. To seal the deal, in 842, they both met in Strasbourg to sign the Oaths of Strasbourg.
But here’s the cool part…the treaty was written and recited in two languages: a form of French and a form of German. The French grandson recited his in German and the German grandson recited his in French. The significance? First, rather than being intended for the bigwigs (who would have preferred to get their news in Latin), this decree was intended for their armies (who were hanging out nearby eating strudel) to hear and understand. Second, the written version was one of the first documents to show a language similar to what would become modern French.
Okay, that’s a super short simplification of the whole affair, but if you want an in-depth study of the history of Strasbourg, you can get that from smarter people than me.
Oh look, we’ve reached La Petite France. Back in the day this was the working class district of town for tanners, millers, and fishermen, but today it’s just a big ol’ tourist hot spot with more of those half-timbered houses surrounded by canals.
One of the most iconic views can be seen from the Barrage Vauban, a covered stone bridge from the 1600s. From the top, you get a nice peek of Les Ponts Couverts, a series of arched bridges and stone towers built in the 1300s.
If you’re wondering why this area is called La Petite France, you might initially think it’s the tourist office trying to be cute. The truth is not cute.
The area once housed a hospital for people with syphilis. The French had a nice name for their hospital, but the Germans (and others) referred to syphilis as “The French Disease.” All those syphilitic patients in the area earned it the name La Petite France.
Now, there’s a wonderful place to visit right near this area (that has nothing to do with syphilis), but I’m saving it for next week because it was my favorite place in Strasbourg and deserves its own post.
For now, let’s head back into the heart of town and take a peek at Place Kleber. Supposedly this is the hot spot to hang out, but each time we passed, it seemed pretty quiet. Although one day there was an open air market featuring table after table of used books! Sorry, was I drooling?
How about some more history? In the 1300s, Strasbourg’s guilds and leaders decided “to hell with all these rulers” and declared itself a Free City. This not only meant the city could control its own trade, but it also remained neutral in many conflicts. In the 1600s the city was annexed into France because Louis XIV was scared they might revolt against him. However, the city wouldn’t truly lose its “free” status until the French Revolution.
Wait, what’s that up ahead? A carousel!! Oh, and there goes Finn, hopping on for a ride.
We’re now in Place Gutenberg. No, it’s not named for Steve Gutenberg. It’s in honor of Johannes Gutenberg, Mr Printing Press himself. Why? Because Strasbourg, in 1460, was where he set up the first printing press outside of his hometown.
Another cool Strasbourg fact: Strasbourg was the home of the first newspaper (in the 1600s). It came out on a weekly basis and featured articles by reporters gathering stories from around the area. I’m sure the conservatives complained it was all fake news not long after.
Heading back to the cathedral, if you cross the square, you’ll come to Palais Rohan, which houses three museums. One is an art gallery, the other (closed when we were there) is an archaeology museum, and the third gives you a glimpse inside the palace.
And it’s not too shabby a place…
Since our admission to the palace also gave us entry to several other museums in the area, we went a bit museum crazy that day. Right next to the palace is the Museum Oeuvre Notre Dame. I wasn’t expecting much from this place, but it actually houses some surprisingly cool sculptures and stained glass that used to be part of the cathedral.
We also popped into the Alsatian Museum. This place was great and was another pleasant surprise. They’ve taken a classic Alsatian building and filled it with scenes and objects from everyday Alsatian life. And it’s way bigger than it looks, so we were here for much longer than expected.
Okay, one more Strasbourg tidbit. You know the national anthem of France, “La Marseillaise”? It was written by a guy from Strasbourg.
So why is it named for Marseille? Well, being so close to Germany, people often questioned the loyalty of fighters from Strasbourg. To serve somewhere they wouldn’t be questioned, many fighters would go south…and this song-writing guy happened to go to Marseille. When he and his other Strasbourgian fighters started singing a rather bloody anthem everyone assumed they were from Marseille and the name stuck.
Next time we stop into Strasbourg, we’ll be quickly visiting a couple sights a bit off the tourist trail, but, as I mentioned, the main focus will be my favorite place in the city.
I promise a much shorter post with a lot less history (there is going to be a tiny bit, but it will be fun and wine related).
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Cheers and type at you soon!!!