A four-star destination in France across the Rhine from Germany with a range of accommodations and restaurants.
By Claudia Fischer & Roger Holliday
Yes, it's in France but it has a Germanic history, a unique cuisine and viticulture, charm by the barrel and is just across the Rhine from Germany.
For many American tourists, the majority perhaps, Strasbourg is just one more afternoon stop on a Rhine River cruise. Cologne. Koblenz. Rüdesheim, Strasbourg. Basel. And home.
A sort of seen it. Done it. Wham. Bang. And danke schön.
Bus around a few sights. Stare at another cathedral. Feed the swans. Nose around the old town. Buy some postcards. And some pretty pretzels. Then back to the cruise ship for the nightly knees-up (party). And a few steins of beer...or a Viertele or two of weiss Wein.
Well, that may be perfectly in Ordnung for some cruisers and coach potatoes who prefer their touring passive, their entertainment fierce, and who notch their camera straps with places visited and dollars expended.
But for the more discerning and adventuresome (like Gemütlichkeit readers) who also take their pleasure in the hunt for, and discovery of, new and intriguing destinations, the border city of Strasbourg is more than just an afternoon Haltestelle on the way to some place else. It's a three-night sleep-over at the very least. And four stars in practically every category. Architecture. Music. History. Culture. Gastronomy. You name it.
At this point, some may be wondering why a publication patently dedicated to the Teutonic rather than the Francophonic, should be focusing on a city that was, when last you looked, still firmly rooted on the French side of the Rhine. It's Strasbourg, not Strasburg, sunshine!
True. But it would also be correct to observe that over the last several hundred years, Strasbourg has bounced bodily back and forth between two courts. French in 1697. German in 1871. French again following WWI. German in 1940. And finallement, French in 1944.
With such a political pedigree, it's hardly surprising that it has ended up with a bit of a split personality. A bilingual flavor. A duet of sauerkraut and pate de foie gras, perhaps.
Generally we tend to eschew these neither-here-nor-there border towns, preferring our destinations black and white, not culturally, politically or linguistically blurred. But Strasbourg is one glorious exception that works. And its duality, bicultural atmosphere or whatever, ends up as one of its most endearing features.
Another plus is that Strasbourg, along with the region of Alsace-Lorraine of which it is the principal city, is still very much out of the tourism mainstream, and is promoted, even by the French travel authorities themselves, as their country's "best kept secret".
A quick look at the map (mit magnifying glass, please) might explain why.
For Alsace-Lorraine, as you will see, is tiny; a narrow, all but forgotten, Ribchen of land squashed between the mighty Vosges Mountains and the Rhine just 125 miles north to south and 30 miles across and bordering not only France and Germany, but Switzerland and Luxembourg as well.
This centrality, however, along with a traditional role as international trading post, (Strasbourg's original Roman name Strateburgum, means "the town where roads and trading routes meet"), may go a long way in explaining why this city, along with Brussels and Luxembourg, was chosen in the late 40s to host both the Council of Europe and the European Parliament.
It turned out to be a most fortuitous choice for the Strasbourgeois. Because now, during the one week in four when Parliament is in session, thousands of deep-pocketed, expense account Eurocrats (plus armies of retainers), descend on Strasbourg, swelling the city's coffers, financing Euro-palaces and positively impacting every aspect of Strasbourg's infrastructure, from its cultural amenities and transportation system, to its hotels and restaurants.
Cynics, and we would be among them, might also dare to surmise that Strasbourg was chosen for this plumb Euro-host position not just for its strategic location or easy access; but also because there are few places in Europe, let alone the world, where one can eat so well and in such splendid surroundings.
It's often been said that in France you eat well. In Germany you eat a lot. And in Strasbourg you eat both well and a lot.
All totally true and frequently reported on by gourmet and gourmand alike. We too will report on this, but a bit later. Because in our view, Strasbourg is more than simply the sum of its exquisite food and drink, comfy hotels or smooth transportation matrix.
It's a feast of another kind. A perfect blend of sophisticated Euro-city and small provincial town: simple to understand and to get around; an easy-on-the-eye-and-ear combination of the old and the new. Narrow cobbled lanes and half-timbered houses with river views and awesome monuments are interspersed with spacious squares and shopping boulevards. Medieval alongside Marks and Spencer. The grand and the gemütlich. All circumscribed by a leisurely swan-filled Rhine tributary, the river Ill. And dominated by one of France's most majestic masterpieces - the 13th century Cathedral of Notre Dame.
With one of the tallest spires in all of Christendom - 460 feet from toe to tip - and built by the very craftsmen who worked on Notre Dame in Paris and Chartres, this "pinky red angel hovers over the city" (poet, Paul Claudel), and is visible from practically anywhere.
There's a simply spectacular rose window, masterminded by cathedral builder, Erwin of Steinbach, and an astronomical clock that's been ticking on since 1465 with angels that tip over an hour glass, a cock that crows thrice and 12 Apostles who parade before Christ. See it all happen at 12:30pm daily.
Also not to be missed is a pulpit carved in 1485 by aptly named Hans Hammer who manages to transform stone into a teasingly intricate pattern of lace and light.
For those physically active, deep-lunged types, there's a grand climb up the 330 steps to the top of the tower - something Goethe did every day of his student life to overcome his acrophobia.
The view from up there, according to Victor Hugo who obviously had enough breath left to write about it, is simply stunning.
"Strasbourg lays at your feet, the old city of dentiled triangular roof tops and gable windows, interrupted by towers and churches... I would go from one turret to another, admiring one by one, the view of France, Switzerland and Germany via one ray of sunshine."
Back on the ground, the view's not bad either and the livin' is easy.
From the central cathedral square, looking just as it did in the 14th century - give or take the odd souvenir shop - it's just a short walk down narrow pedestrian streets to all the major sights: to a confusion of canals, locks, covered bridges, artisan's stores and outdoor cafés that make up the delightful La Petite France - the original leather tanning district; to the River Ill itself, for a meandering boat ride around the city; or to any number of pretty squares and shopping boulevards graced by colored-awninged restaurants and cafés and named after the city's favorite sons, such as Gutenberg who perfected the printing press here, or that homegrown Napoleonic hero, General Kleber.
With a student population of over 33,000, and the regular arrival of all those parliamentarians, Strasbourg has, of necessity, quite a cultural and social agenda, including its own Philharmonic Orchestra that performs October through June. There's an International music festival in June, jazz in July, as well as regular theater and opera productions.
City nightlife, we are told, picks up from September to May when the university is in session with lots of the Kronenbourg swilling going on in pubs and cafés around the cathedral.
For the more cerebral, the Museum of Beaux Arts has a grand collection of the masters from Botticelli and Rubens to El Greco and Goya. Modernism is nicely represented in the Museum d'Art Moderne where Gauguin, Picasso, Chagall, Klee and Rodin all live happily together.
But man cannot live by paint alone. A full 19 markets come to various corners of Strasbourg each week to service the gastronomic needs of the locals as well as the hundreds of restaurants and Winstubs (wine taverns) that power this city.
Much of the food and drink that appears at these markets - they run generally between 7 am and 1pm - comes from surrounding fields and vineyards.
To the north are vast fields of asparagus and onions. To the south it's strictly pays de chou, cabbage country. While due west is the start of the famous Wine Road that meanders gently for 75 miles down the length of Alsace producing such world renowned wines as Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Tokay.
But whether you're stopping in Strasbourg - and you should - or are planning to visit the rest of Alsace, be sure to equip yourself with the most comprehensive book on the subject. Alsace, The Complete Guide by Vivienne Menkes-Ivry (Simon & Schuster), available at bookstores, is by far the best way to discover for yourself France's "best-kept secret."
The range of accommodations in Strasbourg is as vast and varied as befits a city that prides itself on hospitality. But after visiting several popular hotels in the central city, we discovered an interesting anomaly. It appeared that many of them, though located in ancient edifices, were decorated and furnished in an aggressively modern manner. Hoteliers fortunate enough to be located in historic properties usually take full advantage of the situation and follow the theme right down to the tea towels. Not the Strasbourgeois.
Perhaps in this very forward looking Euro-city, it's more challenging to find creative ways to blend old and new rather than remaining obsessed-and-repressed by the past. It's also possible that sleek, modern pieces fit more easily into the odd nooks and crannies that plague old buildings.
A perfect example of this approach is the Hotel Baumann located in Maison Kammerzell. One of the most photographed buildings in France, the half-timbered Kammerzell not only sits sublimely in the shadow of Cathdrale Notre-Dame but has a wood exterior positively dripping with rich and detailed carvings. The original building appeared in 1467 but it wasn't until 1589 that the prosperous cheesemaker, Martin Braun, came on the scene and added the three overhanging stories that now distinguish the building.
The ground floor houses the hotel lobby and one of Strasbourg's best known restaurants. Not surprisingly, the atmosphere is very much in keeping with the exterior, complete with vaulted ceilings, bottle glass window panes, elegant drawings and big bouquets of fresh flowers. Upstairs, however, is another matter. The nine guest rooms have all the modern amenities, including mini-bars and double sinks, but the decidedly high-tech beds and dressers and chairs are artfully arranged amongst the ancient beams and struts. An interesting effect to say the least.
The Baumann is a fine hotel with a professional staff, great food, and a location that simply cannot be surpassed. The one downside, perhaps, is that with only nine rooms it may be difficult to make a reservation.
Daily Rates: Singles 420-630FF ($72-101), doubles 580-630 ($93-101). Petit déjeuner (breakfast) 55FF ($8.87)
Contact: Hotel Baumann at Maison Kammerzell 16 place de la Cathdrale, Strasbourg, tel. +33/03/8832 4214, fax 88 23 03 92. 9 rooms. Lift. Proprietor: Guy-Pierre Baumann
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 18/20
Romantik Hotel Beaucour
Part of the same hospitality group as Baumann/Kammerzell and awarded the special red "pleasant hotel" designation from Michelin, the Beaucour occupies a prime location across the river from the Cathedral. It is fashioned from five 18th-century houses and half-timber construction, red-tiled roofs and geranium-filled window boxes provide a cheerful Alsatian ambiance. A stone archway leads to a plant-filled courtyard and the lobby entrance at the far end.
Each of the 49 rooms is individually decorated in one of two distinct styles: design-rooms with modern furniture, bright color combinations and subtle country touches; Alsatian-rooms are more traditional with wood beams, regional tiles and fabrics but still with a 90s edge. All are very attractive with high quality reproduction artwork and prints. Every room is air-conditioned and equipped with a Jacuzzi in addition to the usual TV, minibar, etc. A beautiful hotel with a friendly staff perhaps a bit too pretentious.
Daily Rates: Singles with shower 380-550FF ($61-88), singles w/bath 680FF ($109), doubles w/bath 780 ($125), suite 950FF ($153). Petit déjeuner (continental breakfast) 65FF ($10.48).
Contact: Hotel Beaucour 5 rue des Bouchers, Strasbourg, tel. +33/03/8876 7200, fax 8876 7260. 49 rooms. Lift. Two rooms are handicapped accessible. Proprietor: Guy-Pierre Baumann
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 14/20
Our place of refuge for three nights in Strasbourg is well located just south of the River Ill and equidistant between the Petit France and the cathedral. The Dragon goes the previously mentioned hotels one better, taking modernism to a new extreme. Originally a number of private apartments annexed to the 17th-century home of the Dragon family, the hotel today consists of two parts separated by the lobby. Our room was on the smaller side and reached by a slightly tricky winding staircase. Rooms on the other side do have elevator service, though.
Number 16 is a good-sized corner room looking over a quiet street -if you stretch the cathedral spires can be seen in the distance. The color scheme, if that's an appropriate term, is white accented by various shades of gray and creates an atmosphere that's serene and restful, if not exactly cheerful. The decor, including the artwork, is actively modern but extremely functional. The full bathroom - gray and white, of course - is up-to-date and, best of all, is supplied with very large, very thick white bath towels. Further examination showed our room to be similar in style and decor to the other 30.
The continental breakfast, which is not included in the room cost, features orange juice, a basket of top quality bread, butter, jam and little packets of cheese or meat spread. It's fairly typical in France for breakfast to be an extra charge but in reality one does pay for breakfast even when it's included in the room cost. This way at least you have a choice as to whether you want it or not.
If guest rooms at the Dragon are fairly unremarkable, the rest of the place more than makes up for it. While studying the prints and various pieces of sculpture as well as the unusual lighting fixtures and lamps in the public rooms and lobby, we slowly began to perceive a theme. Chairs! Paintings of chairs, photographs of chairs, sculpted chairs, big chairs, little chairs, real chairs and toy chairs, all clever and innovative and endlessly fascinating. And all brought together by Pierre Iannarelli, the Dragon's engaging proprietor.
Never have we been so well attended by a hotel owner. Not a hint of gush or schmooze but a genuine interest in our well-being led to a series of unbeatable restaurant recommendations. Every evening he sent us in a different direction and each morning at breakfast we were grilled about what we'd had to eat the night before. We learned to come prepared. On our last night, Pierre opened a lovely bottle of Pinot Noir and we sat together in the tiny garden in front of the hotel, sipping and talking. Pierre, perhaps best described as a sprite in pointed hat and rumpled (gray) sweater, is a former public works engineer from Paris who opened the Dragon in 1987. But don't wait too long to visit him. His retirement dream is to run a small hotel in the south of France.
Daily Rates: Singles 430-615 FF ($69-99), doubles 485-655FF ($78-105), apartment for 3 people 795-895 ($128-144). Petit déjeuner (continental breakfast) 58FF ($9.35).
Contact: Hotel du Dragon 2 rue de L'Ecarlate at 12 rue du Dragon, Strasbourg, tel. +33/03/8835 7980, fax 8825 7895. 32 rooms. Lift on one side. Proprietor: Pierre Iannarelli
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 15/20
Hotel de l'Europe
Those not intrigued by contemporary decor would do well to stay at Hotel de l'Europe located in the heart of the picturesque Petit France section of the city. First impressions are always important and the dramatic 1/50 scale model of the Cathedral certainly sets the tone here as does the restaurant bar beyond. A massive 15th-century carved wood staircase leads to the first floor guest rooms which have just been remodeled. Number 124 is a chambre deluxe with a Jacuzzi and exposed beams separating the sitting and sleeping areas. Number 116 is a large, two-room suite with a double Jacuzzi and heated towel bars.
The second floor rooms, although not as recently refurbished, are equally charming. Number 241 is a corner room utilizing original beams and bricks. Two big windows overlook the street and pretty fabrics complete the pleasing mood.
An elaborate breakfast buffet is included in the price of the rooms. This is a hotel that exemplifies the best of Strasbourg hospitality.
Daily Rates: Singles with shower 416-441FF ($67-71), singles with bath 556 ($90), doubles with shower 462-522FF ($75-84), doubles with bath 582-652FF ($94-105), suites 982FF ($158). Breakfast included.
Contact: Hotel de L'Europe 34-80 rue du Fosse des Tanneurs, Strasbourg, tel. +33/03/8832 1788, fax 8875 6545. 60 rooms. Lift. Some A/C. Proprietor: P. Diebold
Rating: Quality 17/20, Value 17/20
Eating in Strasbourg
As previously noted, we ate well in Strasbourg. Right from the beginning. On the first day while on a walking tour of the city, we headed for the cathedral and behind it came upon Place du March Gayot, a tiny square lined with so many little outdoor cafés that it was hard to tell where one stopped and another began.
Under the giant umbrella of one we enjoyed a salade nicoise and grilled chevre (goat cheese) with walnuts, each for 52FF ($8.38).
Entertainment was even provided. As we finished eating, rain began to come down in buckets drenching anyone not directly under cover. Hardly putting down a fork or wine glass, the assembled adroitly raised their own umbrellas and amidst a good deal of laughter and high spirits continued their meals. These are either extremely good-natured people or it rains so often they're used to it.
From this point on, however, we were in the good hands of Pierre, proprietor of the Hotel Dragon. And, while bad meals are rare everywhere in France, and especially in Strasbourg, we were glad to avail ourselves of his obvious expertise and passion for all things edible.
La Petite Ecurie
The first night it was La Petite Ecurie, charming with an unstudied bistro atmosphere, clearly a neighborhood favorite. Red and white checked curtains, simple white tablecloths and flowers on each table, with seating for perhaps 50, set the tone for a relaxing evening. Though by 9pm the place was full, it would be a mistake to come too early. Part of the fun is watching the action and listening into conversations. We sat beside two German secretaries over the border for the freer Gallic atmosphere and the creative cuisine.
The meal started with crudite (grated carrots and turnips, sliced cucumber and tomatoes on lettuce and a boiled egg) served on a large dinner plate and accompanied by bread for 45FF ($7.25) easily enough to be a complete vegetarian meal. Salade miste (mixed salad) with cervelat (spicy sausage) and Gruyere cheese was also ample at 50FF ($8.06).
Main courses included gigot d'agneau (leg of lamb) with green beans and five-star fried potatoes for 78FF ($12.58) and magret de canard (breast of duck) at 85FF ($13.70).
A list of six wine specials, ranging in price from 72-95FF ($11.61-$15.32), were available by the glass or bottle. We chose a liter of Tourraine at 95FF ($16).
La Petite Ecurie, 8 rue de l'Ecurie, Strasbourg, tel. +33/03/8823 0622
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 16/20
Au Pont Corbeau
Another night we tried Au Pont Corbeau, a cozy restaurant/Winstub with a distinctly German flavor. Lots of warm wood on both walls and ceilings, wooden chairs with heart cutouts and the like. The menu and wine card list a number of specials which change daily.
First courses include salade de haricots verts aux lardons (pencil thin green beans with light vinaigrette and thick, smoky bacon) for 42FF ($6.77) and tarte a l'oignon, a local speciality reminiscent of quiche for 35FF ($5.65).
Among the entrées on the menu that day were confit de porc choucroute (sliced pork and sauerkraut delicately simmered with juniper berries), a mini-version of another local favorite at 78FF ($12.58), and for 85FF ($14) filet mignon with mustard sauce, served rare as ordered with excellent pommes frites. Alsatian wines featured were Riesling and Pinot Blanc at 95-150FF ($15.32-$24.20).
Au Pont Corbeau 21 Quai Saint Nicolas, Strasbourg, tel. +33/03/8835 6068
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 15/20
Restaurant Zum Sternstebele
The final evening took us to the Rue de Tonneliers, a wonderful pedestrian street lined with restaurants featuring everything from crêpes to Indian cuisine.
Our destination, Zum Sternstebele, is a restaurant in the Alsatian/German style. We sat outside enjoying the lovely weather and listening to an enthusiastic oom-pah band that set up shop in a pocket park across the way.
The meal began with jambon de parme crudites (country ham and mixed fresh vegetables) 49FF ($7.90) and pate en crote crudites (pate in pastry with fresh vegetables on the side, a revered local delicacy) 65FF ($10.48). We continued with an outstanding l'escalope de saumon au citron et poivre vert (salmon filet with lemon and green peppercorns) for 68FF ($10.96) and le filet de cabillaud meunire (sautéed cod topped with lemon and parsley) for 69FF ($11.12).
All delicious and a fitting way to end our stay in Strasbourg.
Restaurant Zum Sternstebele, 17 Rue Tonneliers, Strasbourg, tel. +33/03/882101 01
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 13/20
Distance from major cities:
- Basel 137 km (86 miles)
- Frankfurt 218 km (136 miles)
- Stuttgart 148 km (93 miles)
- Paris 490 km (306 miles)
Direct rail connections: Trains regularly travel between Strasbourg and Basel/Stuttgart/Paris.
Currency: At press time $1 = about 6 French Francs (FF)
Strasbourg Tourist Office 17 de la place de Cathredale, tel. +33/03/88 52 28 28, fax 88 52 28 29
Available in English for a nominal charge:
Strolling in Strasbourg-From The Middle Ages to 1900, The Architecture of The City in Five Itineraries - guided walking tours.
- Saturday Place du Vieux March aux Poissons
- Wed./Fri. Place Broglie and Quai Turckheim