Timeless Strasbourg



Nineteenth in a series

September 1 — In the morning, I ran an errand with Laura to pick up her tickets to Pfifferdaj in Ribeauvillé. Which necessitated a stop at Schalls’ patisserie. Remy and Isabelle worked for almost 20 years in the U.S., where he was in charge of product development for a chain of high-end pastry shops. Returning to Alsace, he brought his remarkable recipe for croissants with him. The best I have ever tasted. The shop is definitely a locals place — with people coming in for their “usual,” espresso and a croissant, which they ate standing or seated at the communal table.

Leaving town, I noticed a nest the size of a tire on top of a church spire. “Storks,” Laura explained. Recently, it made the local news when a stork returned to make his nest in his usual spot with a new mate. A few days later, his old mate returned and a huge fight ensued. How French!

That afternoon, Todd and I were set to explore Strasbourg on our own, just an hour away. We easily found the Baggersee P+R parking and rail stop and took the red line into the city. Eight stops later, we got off at L’angstross Grand Rue and stepped into the Gutenberg Plaza. Until at least 1444, Gutenberg lived in Strasbourg and is believed to have developed the secret of printing here, but there is a gap of four years in the historical record during which time he returned to Mainz. It was there that he developed the moveable type press and printed his first piece, a poem.

From Gutenberg Plaza, the street narrowed and bent. And suddenly the Cathedrale de Notre Dame de Strasbourg loomed above us — a Gothic spire, framed by the Kammerzell House, a four-story early 15th century building with ornate wood carvings and “Coke” bottle windows. Apparently this is a popular viewpoint. When we snugged up against the Kammerzell, protected from the sun and heat by umbrellas and the building’s mass, we watched one tourist after another pose for selfies.

The spire peeks past the Kammerzell

The spire peeks past the Kammerzell

While waiting for the heat to subside, we had a light lunch: quiche and salad for Todd, “tarte l’oignon” and salad for me. With wine, of course.

Visiting the cathedral was free. Inside, our eyes adjusted to the gloom. The lower two-thirds of the walls were stone; above, light filtered through elaborate stained glass windows. (And this was the big breakthrough of Gothic cathedrals: more light.) In a window to my right, dozens of figures awaited judgment while a few unlucky souls were banished to hell, where a gruesome black-and-white creature awaited them.

Construction of the Romanesque cathedral began in 1015. It shares the story of many cathedrals: building, fire, building, fire, building, earthquake, fire, and so on. The final stage of construction began in 1439. Political upheavals and impoverishment from the Thirty Years War (1618-1649) further interrupted progress. Catholic worship came and went.  Marie Antoinette was welcomed in 1770. (We all know how well things ended for her.) During the foment following the French Revolution, some argued for pulling down the great spire, but were mollified by the suggestion to put a giant red worker’s cap on it, in solidarity with the people. And so the spire survives. As the brochure suggests, “it’s [sic] history is a splendid and enthusiastic epic…”

On the way in, I immediately noticed that the Madonna looked decidedly Alsatian. Though she is carved of stone and not painted, one imagines her as blonde.


Some unique features: in the south transept is a Gothic chorister’s gallery to which someone in the 15th century (with a sense of humor) added a statue of a leaning man. His elbows lean on the rail of the balcony; his expression, ambiguous. Is he enjoying the music? Thinking about his bills? Hoping that the priest will shorten his homily?

The Doomsday Pillar near the Astronomical clock

The Doomsday Pillar near the Astronomical clock

In the same transept is the Doomsday Pillar. Three tiers of statues climb the octagonal post. The lowest contains the four evangelists, above which are four winged deacons who look downward during the hour of the Last Judgment. On the top tier, Christ is the only seated figure. He raises a hand in blessing.

Thanks in large part to the creation of the Cathedrale, from 1220 on, Strasbourg became the artistic center of the upper Rhine area.

The astronomical clock, adjacent to the Doomsday Pillar, is one of the great attractions of the cathedral. The clock was built in the 16th century by what was then a team of geniuses: a mathematician, two clock makers, a painter and a mason. Besides a clock face with golden hands that mark Strasbourg mean time and silver ones that mark local time (strangely, with a half-hour’s difference), I found myself staring at the astrological chart. A small orb lined up with Virgo. Todd’s sign.


A building is just a structure. What brings it to life, ultimately, are the people who come to worship, or find some kind of solace. As I walked past the pulpit, I watched a woman touch the palm-sized carving of a puppy tucked into the stone tracery.


I lit a candle for two friends: for happiness and peace as their lives move forward. Before I left the cathedral, I noticed that American war dead are remembered here, too.


We paid the small fee to climb the 330 steps to the spire. Through the openings in the stair, we viewed the flying buttresses, windows and statuary from different elevations. At the roof, just below the bell tower, many of the stones had been chiseled with names and dates from the 17th to 19th centuries. Heading back down, graffiti of a more recent type: scrawled signatures made with markers and paint.

As we exited the tower, we found ourselves on the narrow alley behind the cathedral, just in time to catch the next “Batorama,” a one hour, ten minute tour of the river Amstel and the canals of Strasbourg. According to the canned commentary, the Nazis were especially hard on Alsatians. If locals wore a beret, or spoke French or Alsatian (only German was allowed), or whistled the Marseilles, they were arrested and sent to a labor camp. Hard to imagine now, in the bright sunshine, as we passed a man in a kayak, a couple in a canoe, a couple of guys out to do a little sculling on the calm water.

Then again, man’s inhumanity to man isn’t relegated to the past, as we were reminded when we passed the European Council of Human Rights — a huge office building. As I looked up at the grid of offices, I imagined the hundreds of interviews that might be going on at that exact moment, the thousands of crimes for which someone must bear witness.

Back in the little alley by the cathedral, we stopped for a tarte flambée at a traditional winstub, Au Vieux Strasbourg. When Jacques prepared one for us on our first night, I fell in love with this Alsatian snack: a flatbread with cream and toppings such as mushrooms, bacon, leeks, etc.. The dish evolved from olden times when farmers pressed out the leftover bread dough, added toppings, baked it on an oven stone and then served it on a slab of wood. According to tradition, you eat it with your fingers.


Dusk fell. We walked around the corner to await “La lumière intemporelle” (the timeless light), a special 15-minute spectacle that projects animated scenes and images against the side of the cathedral, set to music. Magic.


Next: Of Castles and Minstrels


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