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From the Rhône to the Rhine: Strasbourg

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Every time we enter some epic region of Western Europe for the first time I ask myself "How have we never made it here until now?" It seems like we've spent a good portion of our lives traveling in Europe. Then I remember how packed Europe is with diverse and unmissable places and how many of them we've already seen. In France we've done Paris, Provence, the Dordogne, Bordeaux, the Loire Valley, Bourgogne, and now we were entering Alsace. Even once this section was complete we still would have most of western and northern France to explore. Those last would have to wait for a later day. We had quite a substantial amount of ground to cover in Alsace over four days and our first stop was Strasbourg, the most significant French city we had never visited. Our Airbnb was another compromise, an apartment away from the center with air conditioning but no reserved parking, and of course it was cool enough not to need the air. Parking was obviously going to be an issue as well since cars had already packed into every available space including some that appeared to be illegal. Eventually I left Mei Ling and the kids in the car and schlepped all the bags into the apartment before immediately setting back out for dinner.

The old town of Strasbourg is located on Grande Île, a large oval island formed by the River Ill and the Canal du Faux-Rempart, a former arm of the river that was enlarged and provided with a single lock. I picked out a restaurant in the old town and we found a questionable parking space at the edge of an outdoor lot at the western end of the island. I ignored the loiterer who wanted to be paid to watch my car and we set off into the old town. We were immediately captivated by the warren of small cobblestone streets where it seemed like every building was a half-timbered beauty. Their facades were illuminated by the glowing signs of countless restaurants where diners packed the tables that spilled out into the streets. When we arrived at L'Oignon I expected to be turned away but they showed us to a long wooden table in the back that was miraculously available. The traditional Alsatian cuisine was excellent, a testimony to the utility of the review sites which had anointed the restaurant one of the best in Grande Île. After dinner we explored the small area of Petite France where three short canals are crisscrossed by bridges. The lights from the windows of the houses and the restaurant lamps were reflected beautifully in the still waters of the canals. Strasbourg was every bit as picturesque as we had hoped.

Monday is not usually a great day for markets but I was hopeful that in a large city like Strasbourg we might find one large enough that we could self-cater a breakfast. My best lead was the Place de la Gare in front of the main train station, but when we arrived we found nothing. I had a back-up at Pont du Marché just north of Grande Île but the closest thing we found to a market there was a mall. No one inside knew of any market in the area. This was quite frustrating since we had been off to such a good start in Strasbourg the previous night but there was nothing to do but strike back out into the old town in search of breakfast. We crossed the short axis of the island and soon arrived at the city's premier sight, the Strasbourg Cathedral. This massive church was the world's tallest building from 1674 to 1874 and remains the tallest remnant of medieval architecture. The red sandstone structure looms dramatically over the cobblestone square that surrounds it, defying attempts to photograph it via its height and the lack of space around it.

Another of Strasbourg's iconic buildings, the Maison Kammerzell, occupies a corner of the square. This ornately dedicated medieval house currently hosts a restaurant on its ground floor that has a reputation as a mediocre tourist trap as well as a small hotel.

We escaped the crowds around the cathedral and walked a couple more blocks south to another beautiful square called Place du Marché-aux-Cochons-de-Lait. This square derived its lengthy name from the suckling pig market that used to operate here. It was surrounded by beautiful and historic buildings and almost completely devoid of pedestrians when we passed through.

While searching for a place for breakfast I thought I found an indoor farmer's market, but it turned out to be a gourmet food store called La Nouvelle Douane that was a collaboration of local producers. It was still an interesting place to browse and we purchased a few goodies for snacking on later in the day. Across the street we found some small cafes one of which was suitable for breakfast. Afterward we spent some more time wandering through the streets of Grande Île until we found ourselves back at Petite France, just as beautiful by the light of day as it had been the previous evening.

There were a couple of places I wanted to see in Strasbourg outside of the old town. The Parc de l'Orangerie was established at the beginning of the nineteenth century to replant orange trees that has been confiscated from aristocrats during the French Revolution. The park was subsequently enlarged and is currently more famous as a refuge for white storks, a symbol of Alsace that almost disappeared in the late twentieth century due to overdevelopment. The storks were apparent as soon as we arrived. They were standing guard atop enormous nests that they had built in the crests of trees that surrounded the park. Once inside we let the kids burn off some energy in a playground and then took a walk through the beautifully landscaped gardens.

Strasbourg is situated at the border of France and Germany, which is defined by the Rhine throughout Alsace. On the opposite side of the river is the small German town of Kehl which is connected to Strasbourg via the Pont de l’Europe. Adjacent to the rather plain bridge that carries automobiles is the beautiful double bow-string arch Beatus-Rhenanus bridge which accommodates a tram and pedestrians. I played my favorite joke of the trip again by crossing the bridge and telling everyone that we were no longer in France, forcing them to guess what country we were now in. Since we had just left Germany they got it quicker than when I had played the same trick in Trier and Maastricht.

One of the main attractions of Alsace is the plethora of colorful medieval villages that dot the countryside. Having our own vehicle meant that we could see as many as we wanted but there were far too many to consider visiting all of them. I had carefully chosen the ones that seemed to be most essential and mapped their locations in order to drive between them as efficiently as possible. I had two on my list within a short distance of Strasbourg which fit nicely into our window of available time that afternoon.

Obernai was slightly further away so we drove there first. It was a good place to begin our tour of Alsatian towns because it had a full complement of exquisite and colorful half-timbered houses that were mostly arranged along one long street. If we ventured down one of the side streets the atmosphere was still charming but the colorful pastel facades and brimming planters quickly disappeared. We had some difficulty locating a restaurant that was still open at two thirty in the afternoon but eventually located a place that provided us with a satisfying array of Alsatian specialties.

Molsheim was a bit of a disappointment after Obernai. It was quite hot in the mid-afternoon and the streets were almost empty. While I'm not partial to crowds of tourists it's nice to see some signs of natural life in a town and here there was very little activity. The highlight was the central square, called Place de l'Hôtel de Ville, with a central fountain and carousel. There was also a medieval tower called Tour de Forgerons which was once a gate within the town fortifications that have long since been dismantled. It only took about half an hour to breeze through the small town center and then we returned to Strasbourg.

This time we parked at a subterranean garage we had spotted right in the middle of Grande Île, close to the cathedral. Place Gutenberg had a carousel and a bungee trampoline so we let the kids have a few minutes of fun before searching for a restaurant. This time we explored an area behind the cathedral we had missed that morning. It was quieter and seemed residential but still had those amazing half-timbered houses that were somehow dilapidated and freshly-painted at the same time. We discovered a hidden square called La Place du Marché Gayot which was lined with outdoor restaurants. We chose the one that was named for the square and watched the kids play on an enormous cast iron boulder that had been installed on the cobblestones. Our meal was as good as the one at L'Oignon the previous night, which meant we had had much greater culinary success in Strasbourg than in the gastronomic meccas of Lyon and Dijon.

After dinner we crossed the Ill for a stroll through Quartier Krutenau, a lively area filled with informal restaurants and bars that is popular with students from the nearby University of Strasbourg. Finally we crossed back onto Grande Île one last time to retrieve the car, passing an idyllic little park called Place des Tripiers. Strasbourg proved to be everything we had hoped when we had planned the trip. When we eventually need to choose a location for our one month French immersion a few years in the future, Strasbourg will get strong consideration.

Parking was of course difficult to find once we returned to the Airbnb. I drove around a few blocks and eventually came across a spot that was just large enough to accommodate our car. With the cameras and sensors I figured we should be able to manage and eventually I wedged the car in with just a couple of inches to spare on either end. Mei Ling couldn't open the passenger door because it was blocked by a lamppost on the sidewalk. Once we had all managed to get out I saw the door was actually pressed against the post. How does that happen when the car is parked on the street? I thought perhaps that we had escaped without damage but on closer inspection I could see the post was slightly indenting the metal of the door. We were now seeing the downside of booking an Airbnb without its own parking.

In the morning we were looking to recover from the pain of our fruitless search for a market on Monday. Although Strasbourg surprisingly has no daily covered market there is one in the Neudorf neighborhood that is open on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Once I gingerly eased the car out of its tight spot I saw the clear dent the lamppost had left. It was nothing terrible but it was definitely noticeable and I knew it would be an annoying issue once we returned the car. It was frustrating to have driven so far over a month without a scratch just to get a dent in the last week of the trip, but I refused to dwell on it. It wasn't until I put our destination into the GPS that I realized the market was just over a block away. Our Airbnb was in Neudorf as well. The market hall wasn't as large or atmospheric as some we had seen on the first French leg of this trip but there were plenty of real farmers inside as well as artisan butchers and other merchants of gourmet products. Best of all there was a rotisserie guy at the front who provided us with the foundation for a solid early meal. Since it wasn't a tourist market at all there was no bistro or tables but we found a park bench on which to enjoy our breakfast.

We were leaving Strasbourg on a high note but there was no time to waste. Our next stop would be Alsace's most celebrated Tuesday market and from there we had a full agenda of amazing sights before we were to arrive at our next overnight destination.

Posted by zzlangerhans 13:40 Archived in France Tagged road_trip family orangerie alsace family_travel travel_blog obernai tony_friedman family_travel_blog molsheim krutenau

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