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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.