Capturing the Essence of a Place (Or, A Long Weekend in Strasbourg)

La Petite France Canal and Architecture - Strasbourg, France
Peering down the canal. La Petite France, Strasbourg.

A few thoughts on how to find the essence of a place, and I suppose ultimately the essence of life — told through a long weekend in Strasbourg, France. It’s about how a fully cooked itinerary might actually get in the way of getting what I really came for in the first place.

A few weekends ago, Audrey and I traveled to Strasbourg, France — a town ostensibly in France, but Germanic under the skin. An Alsatian town. We’d been there twice before for the same reason we’d come for this third time: a wine exhibition featuring 600 independent vintners from across France. (More on that soon.)

There were no specific items on our itinerary other than the wine tasting event. Perhaps previously we would have carried a short checklist of must-sees. I’m not sure if it’s the nature of the place Strasbourg, but this time our visit inexplicably seemed to defy the need for such a thing.

Or maybe we’re at the point in our lives where we can extract meaning and pleasure, joy and satisfaction by admiring the little things, those tiny details of life that whoosh, drift and tick by in inimitably local ways.

Such as it was in Strasbourg.

Soft light and fading chill, skies free and crisp, cotton and blue. Strasbourg.

Strasbourg Wakes Up

When we first arrived in town, it was by way of an early morning train from Basel, Switzerland where we’d flown in on inhumanely early flight from Berlin. Upon landing, we’d hopped a bus to the local train station and caught the regional train. At the Strasbourg main train station, we were welcomed by the bouncy little signature tune of SNCF (the French railway) over the PA system. Kids hummed the earworm, so did we.

The whole thing was terribly French. I don’t think any other country could pull off this tune with a straight face.

From the train station we stumbled out onto cobblestones and light rail lines carving themselves through the city. Early morning gray, people cycled. And yes, bad things sometimes happen: an older woman on a bicycle got caught in one of the rails and fell over as she tried to escape the clutches of an aggressive street sweeper. Passers-by yelled, children cried. Early morning drama!

Meanwhile, women exited cafes boulangeries with several baguettes clutched tightly under their arms, men too.

Stores began to open, as did shutters. Ah Mediterranean shutters. So French. Old, wooden, splintered, often beautiful if not sometimes muted colors. Vegetable and fruit shops and vendors slowly leaked out onto the sidewalks, filling their bare shelves with wintery European root vegetables complemented with crates of tropical fruit, much of which came from former French colonies in Africa.

Traditional French Pharmacy - Strasbourg, France
Fading shutters and a classic drug store in Strasbourg

The sense of style in these shops overwhelmed. Everyone appeared stylish. It was important to them, even in the smallest of ways. Maybe not to own a lot of clothing, but to have a few — even if a little expensive — items that were to them worthy of wear.

And then there is the French institution of the sidewalk cafe, the place where all chairs and tables are turned in the direction of the street, of passers-by, of life — so that customers sit on one side of the table while they unabashedly spy, ogle and visually deconstruct the flow in unimaginable ways as they quaff their morning warmth. This is the daily beat, an easing into the day, one where your place, your connection to the environment around you is confirmed.

Yes, this is so totally French.

Marche Rue de la Douance - La Petite France, Strasbourg
Saturday is market day in Strasbourg, streets steeped in French history and culture.

A little bit of Germany in France

Meanwhile the buildings in the center, in old town and a little neighborhood where we’d find ourselves called La Petite France, would look something German. The wood plank siding and whitewash with a splash of color here and there. (I would later learn that this architectural style is referred to as half-timbered.) Terra cotta and painted tile rooftops that survived for centuries (they avoided the war, clearly) buckled and sagged slightly, perceptibly.

Buildings were just impossible to photograph with a mind to straight lines, for there were no straight lines. I imagined, wondered: were the buildings built off-center? Or had they slowly settled to the their positions today from hundreds of years of sinking into the ground? A little bit of both perhaps?

This — this appreciation — was not really on the itinerary.

Strasbourg Canals and Architecture - France
A view from my croissant and café au lait. La Petite France, Strasbourg.

We made our way further into the center, along walkways, bridges and locks. The views, even under cloud cover and muted sky were abundantly beautiful, charming, romantic.

Strasbourg was built along waterways for function, for safety and protection, but much like Amsterdam actually, it could be said that it must have been built to capture our sense of romance.

Strasbourg, this place, struck me as an almost perfect spot to dose oneself with a little French culture, a little German culture. A little taste of each, cleaved along once firm borders.

Cafes, Blood Sausage and Pornographic Plates

Just down the street a little cafe decked in chartreuse and metal folding chairs with wood slat seats and back panels seemed to say, “Please admire me, the way I look.”

This is France. It wasn’t on the itinerary.

Guidebooks don’t tell you to look for this, because frankly it’s beyond the grasp of lists. The feeling, the moment transcends the bullet point. In fact, the more you focus on the list, the more likely you are to miss it. Resonance does not belong on a checklist, but if you don’t make note of it, you miss it. And you’ve missed something you should have come for all along. You’ve missed your opportunity to catch and to articulate the essence of the place in details, in tiny waves that spin the head and leave a sense nothing short of small wonder.

Like any good patisserie or cafe, this one had run out of croissants early that morning. Once you get your first taste, you’ll know why. It’s bad for me, it’s addictive, it’s drug-like. I don’t care. For joy, I’m going to bathe in it for a short while. I missed my butter and flaky layers for the moment, but I knew it would yet be delivered.

Notre Dame de Strasbourg Cathedral, France
Strasbourg Cathedral, a building clearly constructed to make those in its shadow feel small.

For lunch, we ducked into a bistrot decorated in local bits and bobs, ochre walls, bright red chairs. It featured a hand-written (more like scribbled) sign in the window showcasing that day’s lunch menu, one that was reasonably priced.

In La Choucrouterie (connected to Théâtre de la Chouc’routerie), we ordered the daily specials — German blood sausages (don’t judge until you’ve tried it), shallot gravy, scalloped potatoes (the latter two I now associate with France more than ever) and delightfully fresh apple sauce. German at the heart, finished by France. Strasbourg.

Our fish pasta, while abundant with fish, wasn’t amazing, but when finished with a dose of the Alsatian Pinto Gris recommended by the waitress, I couldn’t find a lot of fault. I felt it. I couldn’t bring myself to do dessert, even for the mere 1€ extra. I felt a bit guilty.

But the real star of the meal was what we found on our plates when we finished our food. A French sense of bawdy humor polished with a bit of German-inspired light obscenity. We could not make this up if we tried.

La Choucrouterie Restaurant, Strasbourg
A surprise at the end of our meal at La Choucrouterie.

Finding Place in a Local Bakery

The following morning we went looking for breakfast, but the bakery on our street was closed. Where would we get our morning croissants?

In France a quest and question of utmost importance that borders on panic.

We poked around a corner through an alleyway, past some colorful Strasbourgian homes whose windows were thrown open, duvets and pillows folded over the sills, spilling out to air.

Air the bedding, this is Europe. This was not on the itinerary.

Only one of the two bakeries on the street was open. Inside it was simple, delightful. Mille Feuille. A million leaves. Croissants, pains au chocolat, pear and chocolate stuffed. Claw-like baked goods pumped with cream, another with nutella. The smell of butter and nuts, apples and fruit simmered in the upper airwaves.

The bread, beautifully crusted and dusted stood at attention. Customers, one after another, came and went. Hands empty in, hands full on the way out. Maybe to buy a coffee, but always for a baguette. Maybe one of the special baguettes shaped like a bird of paradise.

Now this was a simple neighborhood bakery, one that isn’t in any travel or foodie guidebooks. It’s not a place like Paul with it’s dazzlingly fancy spotless windows and design that you see in malls and contrived on shopping boulevards the world over. I have no problem with it. No, this one was just a local, family-run boulangerie.

As I looked around, the woman who ran the bakery was probably in her 50s. Although she maintained a bright disposition and was very friendly, she moved quickly and was dusted from work, giving you the sense that she’d hardly had a break. The kitchen and ovens were going full bore, for every time the pains au chocolat ran out, she’d pull a few more from a space behind the door, as if mysteriously. Baked goods emerging from a place of never-ending joy.

I wonder when this woman retires, to whom she’ll pass the baking torch. And I wonder as we lose our sense of the art of creating baked things and food and all that we take for granted, who will make the croissants the next time we visit.

We emerged with six pastries (I’m so glad we took the final pear and chocolate croissant, for all its many calories it made my day) and a coffee for €7.50.**

I hope, artisanal or not, we continue to know how to work hard to create things of simple beauty like this.

—–

We departed Strasbourg with a sense that even without an itinerary, we didn’t miss a beat. We found the essence of the place, this French town on the German border, in the details.

What are the moments and details that help you grasp the essence of a place?

**Author’s note on gluttony: Those six pastries above were not only for the two of us, but to be shared between us and two other friends in our apartment.

————

Strasbourg Travel Tips

Strasbourg Food and Restaurants

Boulangerie Artisanale JF, 14 rue Finkwiller, Strasbourg: Our favorite local bakery mentioned above. In a quiet neighborhood near La Petite France.

La Choucrouterie Restaurant, 20 rue St-Louis, Strasbourg: Fun restaurant serving Alsatian food that is packed at lunch and dinner with locals. Lots of fun — and funky — quasi-pornographic art hanging on the walls. Lunch menu changes daily – good value, reasonably priced (around €8).

Le Bistrot du Boulanger, 42 rue de Zurich, Strasbourg: For high quality classical French food in a relaxed setting, it would be hard to beat this place (kudos to our friend, Kathleen, for finding it). We had a wonderful meal here in the evening of magret de canard flambé set ablaze at the table with Alsatian whiskey (watch your eyebrows and hair!) that we paired with a Vacqueyras, and fish served with creamy polenta and a semi-dried tomato coulis that we paired with a Viognier. The coulant tout chocolat is deadly. Not cheap, but very high value, the menu changes regularly. Note: This restaurant also offers a reasonably priced lunch menu, from €9-€15 Euros.

Magret de Canard Flambé - Strasbourg, France
Duck on fire!! Magret de canard flambé at Le Bistrot du Boulanger.

La Corde à Linge Restaurant, 2, place Benjamin Zix, La Petite France, Strasbourg: A popular restaurant in La Petite France with a solid menu of Alsatian, French and Continental fare. For dinner, be sure to make a reservation. Portions are large, so consider sharing one main dish between two people or ordering starters. Audrey and I enjoyed a nicely prepared steak tartare (yes, that’s raw meat) and we heard rumors that the spätzle was also quite good.

Maison Kamerzell, 16 Place de la Cathédrale, Strasbourg: We strolled by Maison Kammerzell early in our visit and dismissed it as a touristy restaurant given its location and decor. But then we met François, a Strasbourg local we struck up a conversation with at the wine salon insisted we go for the two-for-one special choucroute featuring three types of fish draped over a bed of sauerkraut. Note: this special is offered from January to April every year. How could we resist? For other Alsatian, we might recommend someplace lower profile and more personal.

Strasbourg Markets

Markets take place across Strasbourg throughout the week (take a look here for a listing). We enjoyed the Saturday market that was one part flea market on Rue du Vieux Marché aux Poissons and another part fresh market on Rue de la Douane near the L’Ill river. Lots of fresh produce, friendly vendors, some tasty nibbles. What’s not to like?

Saturday Market in Strasbourg, France
Saturday Market along Rue de la Doune, Strasbourg.

Where to Stay in Strasbourg
We don’t claim extensive knowledge of Strasbourg and its neighborhoods. However, we enjoyed the location of our apartment rental on Rue des Glacières, just across the river from La Petite France and the center of town. It was a quiet, local, and not far from the action. When you’re seeking Strasbourg accommodation, consider this area.

Getting to/from Strasbourg
Direct flights to Strasbourg airport were pricy when we searched, so we flew instead into nearby Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg Airport as it was quite a bit cheaper (e.g., €75 round trip on EasyJet from Berlin). From the airport, hop a local bus (€2.50) to St. Louis railway station. From there, it’s about an hour by train to Strasbourg (€22.50). Trains leave around every 30 minutes in the morning and evening.

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Comments

  1. says

    Dan and Audrey, your descriptions of Strasburg have added yet another destination to my “I can’t wait to go there” list. Just beautiful photos and I am so hungry now. :) thank you for sharing your journey with exquisite words and photos! HUG!

  2. says

    Such a beautiful place. Thanks for sharing your tips and experience. I had a tour guide in Europe a few years ago who is from Strasbourg. He spoke about it so vividly and passionately that I have wanted to visit urgently ever since. Someday soon!

  3. says

    Thanks for sharing these very beautiful pictures! I so love France, my cousin is living in Germany and she told me that sometimes they do visit France. And by the way, that plate was so funny!

  4. says

    I used to work for the European Parliament and had the opportunity to visit Strasbourg in December when the city was full of traditional Christmas markets and the streets lined with crisp white snow – beautiful!

    • says

      Lisa, you beat me to it! I went to stay with friends in Strasbourg a few years ago, it was December. It’s a really beautiful place, especially over the festive period. Nice to stroll round the markets and warm up with a glass of mulled wine!

  5. says

    I loved tagging along your trip through your Instagram photos, and this post wraps everything up perfectly. Strasbourg is one of the few places I would actually consider living in if I ever made the decision to move to France again.

  6. says

    Thanks for your great tips & info! We’ve been to Colmar before and were contemplating taking my parents to Strasbourg, looks like that may be the perfect choice.

    For the trains from Basel to Strasbourg – did you book those well in advance? Or was there a special deal? I just looked and they were pricier than I hoped.

  7. says

    @Kristin, Jen, A Cook: Strasbourg has always been a pleasant visit and surprise. Glad you enjoyed the piece!

    @Marie: That plate always makes us laugh. Glad you enjoyed it!

    @Lisa: Funny you mention the European Parliament, I think its Strasbourg installment is right next to the Wacken Hall expo space where the wine exhibition was held.

    @EuroTrip: That’s quite an endorsement, though I understand. Definitely a manageable and I imagine livable city, Strasbourg.

    @Ebe: Do it. It’s manageable, not overwhelming.

    Regarding transportation from Basel to Strasbourg. This is what we did:
    1) Bus to St. Louis, France from the French side of the Basel/Mulhouse airport (cost: €2.50)
    2) Regional train from St. Louis, France to Strasbourg. Because that train is a regional/ordinary train you don’t need to buy tickets in advance – it’s €22.50 no matter when you buy. I suppose there are busier times of day, but after the early flight from Berlin, the early morning trains to Strasbourg were fairly empty. Let us know if you have any more questions.

  8. Harold says

    Thank you for sharing your experience of beautiful and historic Strasbourg. We spent three years there and miss many things especially the pâtisseries. We really enjoyed the photos of familiar and interesting sites, but I have to add that the “droguerie” which was pictured and where I have shopped is not a drug store, but much more like a household utensils store. I have no idea why the French use this term for such a store. but there it is.Thank you.

  9. says

    Love the way this place looks …. so quintessentially European to me! The two days I spent in France all I did was eat bread… yum.

  10. says

    Loved all your pictures and beautiful places you covered. Your tips and experiences inspires me a lot. One of my close friend recently had a family trip to Strasbourg. Pls. let me know how you planned and how much money it would need to cover all places….

  11. says

    @Cam: Great minds. I also think that storefronts like those are unfortunately a disappearing relic of the past.

    @Harold: You are welcome. Yes, the “droguerie” is much like old drug stores of the past in the U.S. that were more variety stores (that also sold health and beauty stuff) than drug or pharmaceutical stores.

    Thanks so much for your comment.

    @Anna: France. Bread. Inseparable.

    @Shiv: It depends on how many people you are. And your budget and style of travel. Our accommodation for 4 people was listed at 85€ (though we got it in an exchange). A French style breakfast runs about 1-2€ for croissants, €2 for coffee. Plan 8-11€ for a multi-course lunch special. Dinner is arguably the most expensive, depending on how lavish a meal you want and whether it includes wine. An exceptional meal with a couple 1/4 carafes each ran us 70€ for the two of us. However, the following night, the 2 for one special was 35€. Neither of those is bare bones budget, but excellent value. It’s possible to travel much less expensively in Strasbourg, but that raises the question of what you are seeking to experience while you are there.

  12. says

    I think the most exciting part of traveling is when something happened or you go somewhere which is not in the itinerary. For me to hunt for a bakery or souvenir shops is some of an adventure.. and then discovering something whilst exploring.
    …and the plate; I think that’s the price of finishing your meal hehe.

  13. says

    Back in 2005 when I was learning French in the Indonesian city of Bandung, I met a French guy from Strasbourg. He described its proximity to the border by saying it took him a few minutes to cycle to Germany. A friend of mine visited the city a few years later and wrote it in his blog. Beautiful city, I thought. And this post of yours further confirms Strasbourg as one of those unique places everyone needs to go to in Europe. Love your description of your daily activities in Strasbourg, by the way.

  14. says

    @Sarah: You are welcome, indeed.

    @Bama: Thank you. The daily activities of Strasbourg are what defined it for us more than anything else. Let us know when you have the chance to visit!

  15. says

    Another option for flying into Strasbourg is taking RyanAir to Baden-Baden, which is right across the border in Germany. From their, you can take a 30min. regional train to Strasbourg for less than 7 euros.

    The only inconvenience is figuring out the bus from the Baden-Baden airport to the train station downtown but they have an information desk at the airport that will help you.

  16. says

    Your beautiful account of Strasbourg’s fantastic fare and streetscapes replete with colombage-adorned buildings brought back the warmest memories of past weekend jaunts there. For ten years I lived in Heidelberg, Germany, just an hour away from Strasbourg. Deep-down I was a francophile at heart, and whenever a free Saturday presented itself on my calendar, I drove to Strasbourg or another Alsatian village for the day to fill up my basket with French cheese and wine, to polish my rusty French, to ascend the cathedral, or drink vin chaud with friends at the Christmas Market. Thanks for waking up those memories!

  17. says

    @Martin: Thanks for the tip! Very good to know. Definitely seems like the most economical paths to Strasbourg lead through the regional airports just over the border. A little air, a little land to get there.

    @Tricia: Clearly we can appreciate your taking the opportunity to jump over the border when you had the weekend’s chance. Makes perfect sense to take advantage when you live as close as you did.

    Thank *you* for sharing your memories of visits to Strasbourg and Alsace!

  18. says

    Really nice read…I always try to understand the core of any place I go to, what really makes it tick and identifies it. Sometimes it’s hard, as occasionally I will only have a long weekend or even 2 days to see a specific place, but for me, the slow parts of travel, like aimlessly walking around the streets and people-watching on street cafes/restaurants/bars usually give me the best feel for a place and its people.

  19. says

    @Joanna: Thank you for your comment. It makes me think that even when we are faced with what feels like limited time (e.g., a long weekend), we have the choice of slow travel. In fact, maybe those times are the best because they test our will and ability in the face of the greatest constraints.

  20. says

    I will be visiting Strasbourg for business and I came across this article. According to me, this is a nicely written post and the pictures are very beautiful. I will surely cehout some of the place mentioned in your blog.Thanks for sharing, Daniel and Audrey.

    • says

      Anup, glad this post came at a good time for your upcoming business trip! Hope you have a good time at some of the restaurant and other recommendations. Safe travels!

  21. says

    I’ve never been to Strasbourg but we’re planning a trip across France with firends this summer and were’nt sure wether to do the west coast or go up the east from Spain. Having learned a bit more about htis city it cerntaily is a plus if we want to go for the east side

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