We arrived in Strasbourg in the evening and after dropping off our bags in our rooms we (Neli, Stacey, Dani and I) decided to go for a walk and explore the old city at night. As we four strolled through a cross hatching of small cobbled streets with 14th-16th century buildings leaning over us at precarious angles, we chattered both in conversation and cold as Dani frequently wondered out loud where the next crepe was going to come from. In the middle of our meanderings we turned a corner and were confronted with an architectural marvel that quite literally made me produce an audible sharp intake of breath. The colossal Gothic masterpiece that is the Cathedral Notre Dame in Strasbourg sliced into the sky with vertiginous inducing grandeur. It’s impossibly intricate lacy façade lit eerily at night gave it a fragile ghostly feel as it loomed above us mere mortals, awing us into submission. It was quite honestly, one of the most beautiful sights I have ever witnessed. We stood transfixed, as Stacy occasionally shook her craning head and said in wonder, ‘Inconceivable’ – a word she would repeat frequently throughout our stay in Strasbourg every time we past this monument to the impossible in pink limestone.
Strasbourg is a sprawling metropolis, home to the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights and is undoubtedly the cultural and intellectual capital of the Alsace region. Germany is but a stones throw away and it’s ties to the country are reflected through the architecture, street names and a history of push and pull conquests from the late 19th century Franco-Prussian wars to the Second World War. Despite its size however, the centre of Strasbourg retains a charm and beauty that makes you feel like you are wondering around lost in a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. This is due, in no small part, to the fact that the centre is literally an island surrounded by canals and much of its architecture managed to survive the carnage of WW2. Dani and I took advantage of the buffet breakfasts at our cosy hotel and filled our flask with tea and stuffed our pockets full with baguettes crammed with cheese and salami and took to the canals with glee. We soaked in the atmosphere sipping on our tea, chomping on our baguettes as we lazily looked about at the tanners houses which lean over the canal and into each other at odd angles. We fed the swans and watched the tour boat navigate the sluices. I found it all very calming and fell deeply in love with this town very quickly.
We explored the interior of the cathedral and Steve will be glad to note that I began to differentiate between the characteristics of Gothic and Romanesque architecture. The façade of the exterior is a dead give-away. The gothic style of this cathedral favors the intricate, detailed smorgasbord of sculptural detail that adorns the façade. What is particularly interesting about the building is that construction began in 1015, continued for four centuries and as a result displays examples of both Romanesque and Gothic styles. The eastern sections are essentially Romanesque but what is most striking about the building is its evolution into a gothic masterpiece with its flying buttresses, pointed arches, ribbed vaults and the incredibly impressive façade. Inside, one feels as if you are aboard a great ship sailing toward the infinite and you can almost feel the pull on your soul urging you toward exaltation and the glory of spiritual endeavor. The stain glass windows, the beautifully sculpted pulpit, the sculptural narrative of Jesus’ betrayal at the mount of Olives in the north crossing and the pillar of angels in the south crossing all combine to further the viewers submission to awe. As a healthy skeptic of all organized religion it has been a fascinating journey through all these cathedrals throughout France and an intriguing insight into the power of art and architecture to win over souls for the benefit of the church. It is also interesting to witness, through these impressive structures, the kind of wealth and power they wielded for centuries.
Dani and I managed to circumnavigate the entire island on one of our walks. It gave me a great sense of the size and geography of the city and Strasbourg has been the only place so far where I have taken the lead in terms of navigation. Everywhere else I have dutifully and appreciatively followed Dani’s instinct as she has asserted her control over most of France whilst brandishing all manner of maps in her fists. Without her I would have been lost and desperately alone for most of this tour. We experienced a boon on our Sunday stroll as we discovered that all museums were free on the first Sunday of the month. This was just one of those Sundays and we set off on a museum marathon in haste. We took in the Museum de Beaux Arts, the archeological museum (which was awesome – massive – full to brimming with Roman sculpture and artifacts as well as a fascinating exhibition on the evolution of burial practices from earliest history till today in the Alsace region) as well as the Contemporary Art Museum. The Contemporary art stuff was a real let down. Just so much of the lazy smugness of modern artists – placing a brick in the corner or hanging a jacket on the wall and calling it art just doesn’t cut it for me. Give me virtuosity over cleverness any day. Although, there was some cool stuff to be found here – particularly these really dark biblical works by some Strasbourgian artist whose name I forget. His subject matter was all the really heavy stories from the bible- the crucifixion, Lucifer and his hordes fall from grace, the Christians eaten by ravenous lions in the Roman Dens – and his paintings allowed only thin shafts of light to illuminate the horrific narratives unfolding on his canvases.
Another highlight from Strasbourg has got to be the night we broke into the opera. I discovered the massive national Strasbourg theatre one evening when Danni and I were frantically trying to track down a laundry. We allowed the distraction to pull us away from this tiresome task and we discovered that a show was on that night that I had spotted in pamphlets throughout our tour of France so far and which had peaked our interest. The price of admission wasn’t too heavy and we decided to do it. The show was showing at another theatre further away, it was apparently sold out but the guy assured me that if we arrived early we would be able to get tickets due to inevitable cancellations. We got directions and headed back to our restaurant to get a bite to eat at our favorite little restaurant for some cheap good food in a quaint comfortable atmosphere for the budget conscience foot-sore and walking weary tourist. Stacey decided to join us and after a quick bite and a beer we set off for the theatre. Upon arrival we set up camp in the Pina Bausch-esque foyer and waited for the cancellations to happen. And we waited. Nothing. Packed to the rafters, the show went on without us and we sat dejected sipping on our beers as we wondered what to do next. After another beer we were rewarded with the selfish victory of the slighted theatre patron as audience member after audience member came filing out of the apparently very kak show. Buoyed by the fact that we had not missed much we traipsed off on our merry route home. By chance, we walked past the Strasbourg opera house during the last interval of the show. On a whim we determined to steal our way into the performance. And so with a brazen veneer of pompousness we strode in as if we owned the place, sneakily avoiding ushers and like a stream trying to find the point of weakness we flowed tier by tier to the cheap seats high above the hoi-polloi way down below. We took our seats in an inconspicuous corner with practically no view of the stage and stole furtive glances toward any over-zealous ushers who may try to thwart our cunning plan at the eleventh hour. We spotted three empty seats directly opposite the stage right up against the balcony and as the lights began to dim we scampered over and plopped ourselves in the red velvet as we giggled excitedly at our daring derring-do. And so it was that we sat down for the final act of Wagner’s Siegfried. Now the problem with sneaking into an Opera is that you then actually have to watch it. Siegfried turned out to be a bit of a whiner really, with Brunhilde having to coax him out of sulky tears with plentiful appeals to his abounding heroic manly hood before he promised to get off his arse and do something. Much gesturing and splendidly comic over-acting. The experience really was quite special though (despite my sarcasm), the building was phenomenal in its ornate gaudiness and the view we had of the stage was awesome. From our perch we could see everything – the orchestra in its entirety (which alone was fascinating to watch), the impressive scale of the stage design and lighting as well as the whole audience – and just the mere act of sneaking in gave me enough thrills to make it a memorable adventure.
During our one performance here, a friend of Neli’s from Berlin came to see the show. She loved it and is now trying really hard to get it to Berlin sometime – which would be cool.
We are back in Toulouse now, it’s been a week (or more) since Strasbourg and we have even completed the Bordeaux leg of the tour in the interim. It was a short stopover in the wine capital of France and a smelly hotel room and stomach cramps dampened my experience of the city.
We head to Lille high up in the north tomorrow and after that Dani and I take our leave of the company to go and explore Amsterdam and visit an old crazy Dutch friend.