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  Issue Date: 11 / 2017  


Norman Sklarewitz

Photo courtesy of author. Click image to enlarge.

       There's no question that among the traveling public France is among the favorite European destinations. Given that popularity, it's hard to find an “undiscovered” part of the country. But one city does come close.
        It's Strasbourg. Tucked off in a corner of southeast France, the city in many ways is the epitome of what visitors seek in terms of being picturesque and historic yet is quite literally off the proverbial beaten path. Not that many land tours even include it in their programs. However, it's visited by a succession of Rhine River cruise boats.
        But while quite close to it, Strasbourg is not on the Rhine. Instead, the river boats dock at the little German town of Kehl. From there it's just a 15 minute tour bus ride into the heart of Strasbourg.
        There laced by a network of canals is a community of classical charm, magnificent churches, excellent museums and an ambiance of fun and good living.
        Those canals and rows of colorful, half-timbered houses immediately call up a comparison with Amsterdam. There is, however, an importance difference. As visitors travel through Amsterdam's canals aboard its tour boats, guides will point out that the little 18th century houses are almost all occupied by financial institutions, law firms and other tenants able to pay the astronomical rents.
        That's not the way it is in Strasbourg's inner city, the district known as Petit France. This is quite literally, a “living city.” Ordinary residents occupy those centuries-old half-timbered houses, now modernized inside, of course, to make them livable. Ground level spaces are often as not given over to shops and other businesses. But by law the exteriors must retain their traditional look. The only exception is that now owners can paint their places, preferably pastel and other soft colors. The result of this attention to preserving the past is that the area has been afforded UNESCO status as a World Heritage Site.

Photo courtesy of author. Click image to enlarge.

        Curiously, this urban renewal is relatively new. As recently as the 1970s, those little houses, so highly prized today, were generally run-down. Described by Annie Dumoulin, deputy director of Strasbourg’s Office of Tourism, as being “unpleasant, poor, damp and neglected”. Fortunately, any thought of razing the houses and replacing them with modern apartments and commercial buildings was dismissed in favor of a major renewal effort. The result is that today this district of Strasbourg is one of the top European highlights.
        While visually the entire Petite France area is quite breathtaking, there's another element to visiting there. Strolling around the area can be an active as well as passive experience. Countless tiny shops offer locally made traditional products, as well as more conventional souvenirs. But don't be surprised is a shop keeper pops out and offers you samples. One of these is Mireille Oster who delights passing tour groups by offering them samples of her distinctive ginger bread.
        Another surprise comes if you happen to be crossing one of the district's many little canals via the Pont du Faisan at the Rue des Moulins. Should a tour boat approach, a young man appears and calls out the French equivalent of “clear the bridge.” Pedestrians wisely scatter as he throws some levers and the iron bridge swings about to permit the barge to pass. Then you realize that the bridge is appropriately named pont tournant – “swing bridge”
        Just a short walk away from this inner city is a structure well worth a visit on its own. This is the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral, tallest medieval building in Europe. Consider this: Strasbourg could have been little more than a village when the first stones of the Cathedral were set early in the 13th century.
        Each of a succession of political entities had their influence on Strasbourg. It was a bishopric in the 11th century and Free Imperial City two centuries later. The city's merchants, artisans and tradesmen brought it prosperity and in the 16h century, with the end of the Middle Ages, the city became what has been called “one of the great centers of Humanism and Reform.”
        Dating from this period are such beautiful Renaissance buildings as the Old Butchers' House, the Chamber of Commerce, the Maison Kammerzell and the Hostellerie de Corbeau as well as the Petite France district.
        Before long, though, Strasbourg entered a period in which it became something of a pawn between France and Germany. In 1681 King Louis XIV who generally got what he wanted took the city for France. The move fortunately enhanced Strasbourg's stature and contributed to its prosperity. Unfortunately, that may have attracted the attention of the Prussians who in 1871 annexed Strasbourg and held it until in 1919 when, with the end of World War I, it was returned to France. That control ended in 1940 when Nazi Germany occupied France and held it until the end of World War II when Strasbourg again reverted back to France.
        The years under Germany led to the development of a distinctive section of the city known as the European District. Here the architecture of various public and private buildings indeed reflects a strong Germany influence.
        While tourism has become a main stay of Strasbourg economy, it enjoys the prestige that came when it became home for the European Parliament or the Palais de L'Europe. Located here as well is the European Court of Human Rights that houses both the European Court of Justice and the European Commission of Human Rights.
        Comments one proud resident, “Strasbourg isn't big, but it's important”

Norman Sklarewitz brings to travel a solid background in hard-news reporting. This includes staff positions as a Far East Correspondent for The Wall Street Journal based in Tokyo and L.A. Bureau Chief with U.S. News & World Report. As a foreign correspondent, he reported on major international events throughout Asia, including the Vietnam War.
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