Visit Switzerland, Germany, and France (In One Week)

Strasbourg, France
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Strasbourg's Notre Dame Cathedral, France
Strasbourg's Notre Dame Cathedral (Win Initiative/Photodisc/Getty)

Strasbourg, France
Soon after my arrival in Strasbourg, one stereotype about the French was busted and another confirmed. They weren't rude—nothing but "bon jour!" and offers to assist—but they were slaves to fashion. How else to explain shoes, on the women and men alike, pointed so sharply they wouldn't get past the TSA?

Despite this, they walk a lot, and it is the best way to get around Strasbourg's historic quarter on Grand Ile. The island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site encircled by the L'ill River, is only a half-mile in diameter—quite walkable, although I did ride the glass-covered boat that passes beneath 27 bridges on the L'ill to get oriented first.

The "wow factor" is seen in two signature buildings, representing the past and current seat of power in Europe. The European Union's parliament building is a fusion of glass and grace tracing the bend of the island on one bank of the L'ill. Not far away is the Notre Dame Cathedral. Cathedrals look the same after awhile, but Notre Dame took my breath away twice, first when I swiveled my head inside to see the resplendent rose window, and then again when I climbed the steps to the top. At 465 feet, it was the world's tallest building before 1874 and still affords the best view in Strasbourg.

Separating those wow moments were leisurely "aaah" hours spent roaming the island. Half-timber houses and sausage shops are reminders that Germany ruled Strasbourg for much of its history. But the strongest identity is not national but regional, as residents consider themselves to be Alsatians. My server at Au Fantassin, the riverside restaurant I chose for dinner, was quick to point out that my tarte flambee (flamed pie) is also called an Alsatian pizza. The matzo-thin crust with drizzles of cream, salmon, and capers was delicious but so light that I later stopped at a café for dessert.

At Café Litteraire, I asked about the name while ordering strawberry ice cream. Writers read their work here every Saturday night, the owner told me. Given Strasbourg's long literary tradition (Goethe studied here), she was, in her small way, keeping that tradition alive. It was one last discovery in the corner, where travel is enriching without being exhausting.

Hotel Gutenberg on Strasbourg's Grand Ile is an 18th-century converted mansion with charm and modern amenities.

Au Fantassin serves tarte flambees and French entrees on a cobblestone promenade on the L'ill River.

Published: 10 Jan 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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