First times to a new country are usually at the most predictable entry points, so a little departure from that was definitely something to look forward to!
I recently took my very first trip to France for a quick couple of days to a beautiful city called Strasbourg. Now this was not as a way to diss the usual French travel itineraries, but only because I was accompanying my dad while he attended to some business there. Strasbourg is a city that lies on the border between France and Germany, wherein the border is literally the river Rhine that separates the 2 countries.
Strasbourg lies in the Alsace region of France and is better known as the Christmas Capital of Europe, and probably the world. It boasts the oldest, largest and arguably the most beautiful Christmas markets in all of Europe. Needless to say, the peak tourist season here is from November all through December, when they city is at its absolute best and for all those winter travellers out there looking to hop between Christmas markets, this place should definitely be at the top of your list!
This is a pretty large city with a few renowned universities and is also the official seat of the European Parliament. This city has been like a ping pong ball that has been tossed about between France and Germany multiple times over the years and through the wars. Now officially a part of France, there is a definite and noticeable Germanic influence in the food, culture and architecture of this city.
The biggest attraction of Strasbourg is definitely the old part of the city or the Altstadt that is known as “Petite France”. It is the old town centre and according to me, the most beautiful part of the city. It is like a page out of a fairytale with timbered 16th and 17th century houses, with seemingly gingerbread roofs and French windows! It bears a striking similarity to the quaint little towns in the Bavarian region of Germany and is the perfect meeting point of the 2 cultures. It is definitely where I spent about 90% of my time.
This part of town is made up of small, narrow lanes and winding cobblestoned streets, lined all the way with the beautiful houses. There is no scarcity of cafés where are you can sample some traditional Alsatian cuisine along with the local wines of the Alsace region. There are loads of patisseries, wine shops, Boulangeries and Fromageries (cheese shops) to ensure you always have your staple French ingredients at a stone’s throw. I would definitely suggest a quick look into a local deli to get a peek into some really good quality wine, cheese and bakes of this region, as supermarkets sell the ordinary everyday stuff.
Some local specialities of this region include Kugelhopf, a traditional bread in the shape of a crown that is infused with rum, raisins and cinnamon, Flammekuechen, which is a flatbread that is baked lightly with some cheese and bacon or even some vegetables, sort of like a thin crust pizza. Another notable specialty is Pain Episces, which is a dark bread heavily infused with rum and spices like cinnamon, cardamomand nutmeg and it is insanely delicious (definitely gets you into the Christmas spirit at any time :D). The local cheese is Munster, but it does have quite a strong odour and may not be everyone’s cup of tea as it’s quite strong in flavour as well.
Alsatian cuisine is not the typical French food you would expect, and has distinctive German influences, like the heavy use of potatoes, mustard and sometimes even sausages. It is quite hearty food and you will usually get some cheese as a side dish with your entrees.
This being France, it goes without saying that there is NO scarcity of amazing patisseries and boulangeries at every few steps you take. The smell of freshly baked bread is intoxicating as you walk through the lanes and every second or third shop is a patisserie with beautiful window displays to lure you in and an even larger selection of the most delectable sugary treats inside. Food is a religion in France and it definitely shows in the way they treat their food and the sheer amount of respect and dedication they have towards it! Please leave your diets and ideas of eating healthy behind because if it’s healthy you are looking for, you’re definitely in the wrong country!
A quick tip here is that if you don’t want to shell out 4-6 bucks on a glass of wine at a cafe, a great way to sample the local wine is to just keep a couple of bottles handy with you to enjoy at your leisure along the river or anywhere else since a small bottle of the local wines will set you back anywhere between 3-7 Euros only! A fresh loaf of bread, and you have your snack with your wine ready to go!
Another not-to-miss attraction in Strasbourg is the Cathedrale Notre Dame, which is also in the old town in the Place de la Cathedrale. It is the second largest gothic cathedral in France, after the Notre Dame in Paris. You can climb up all the way to the top which is something over 300 steps and get some fantastic views of the city, although I didn’t have enough time to do that. The cathedral is a notable work of art, with some impressive stained glass work on display inside. The cathedral is open from Tuesday to Sunday, although it is closed during service for tourists.
Some more sights to definitely see here are the Museum of Modern Art, the Palais Rohan next to the cathedral, the Park á l’Orangerie and for some fantastic views of Strasbourg, the Barrage Vauban. Batorama conducts boat rides on the river Ile daily and it is another great way to experience the beautiful architecture, both old and modern of Strasbourg. The Place St.Thomas has a daily market featuring some homemade Pain Episces, local cheese, cured meats and wines. There are also many weekly markets that you can visit to get a taste of local specialties and I highly recommend visiting at least one.
For anybody headed to France with a flexible itinerary, I would definitely urge you to add this beautiful city to your list of must-see’s. Although Christmas is THE time to visit Strasbourg, it still remains beautiful all year round and will surely make you feel like you are living in a fairytale!