Famous around the world for the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg, which celebrates its 1,000th birthday this year, the capital of Alsace is polishing up its image, with a hunger for modernity and creativity that makes it ever more seductive. If you want to understand the city, there’s no better place to start than the renovated train station. Stretched over a steel roof frame and adjacent to a Wilhelminian sandstone facade, this vast glass dome by the architect Jean-Marie Duthilleul is a perfect illustration of this city, which boasts an exceptional heritage but has its eyes fixed on the future.
From Paris, you can reach the city by TGV high-speed train in just two hours and 20 minutes, and in addition to its charming historic centre, with its winding network of narrow streets and Renaissance houses, Strasbourg holds many surprises. These include urban development projects, the major extension of tramway lines, a bold museum policy, inventive gastronomy and designer hotels – it’s a hive of activity.
Strasbourg’s ambitious urban development project is called Viaropa and this initiative follows a route currently scattered with construction sites which opens out onto the Rhine and the small German town of Kehl.
To the west of Viaropa, in Eckbolsheim, stands the Zénith, a concert venue designed by Massimiliano Fuksas, whose orange membrane structure holds 10,000 seats. To the east, meanwhile, lies the Jardin des Deux Rives, a 60-hectare cross-border park designed by Rüdiger Brosk. Since 2004, this symbol of reconciliation has united France and Germany by means of a delicately shaped, Rhine-spanning footbridge designed by Marc Mimram. The new Strasbourg-Kehl metropolitan area is starting to take shape here, via new housing, cultural centres and bilingual schools.
Back along the Viaropa development trail, not far from the train station, Place Kléber is being given a facelift. The Aubette, a former 18th-century guardhouse that’s now home to elegant shops and a leisure centre, was decorated in 1928 by the Dadaist couple Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber, in association with the Dutch architect, Theo van Doesburg, the founder of the De Stijl movement along with Piet Mondrian. Contemporary art exhibitions are held on the renovated first floor. The community hall, cinema-dance hall and bar foyer are complete works of art in their own right and offer visitors a plethora of shimmering colours.
Still on the Viaropa route, a neighbourhood called the Archipel Culturel is starting to take shape on the wasteland which once served as a port, where the Cité de la Musique et de la Danse and the André Malraux Media Library are sited. In the Prussian neighbourhood, on the Place de la République, a visit to the Bibliothèque Nationale Universitaire (BNU) is a must. It houses over 3.5 million books and has just undergone a spectacular renovation. There’s a striking contrast between the austere, monumental exterior – featuring listed facades and a roof completed in 1895 during Alsace’s annexation to the German Empire – and the impressive, vertical-effect interior, which has been restructured by the Nicolas Michelin agency. Crowds flock to admire the new, light-flooded atrium with its 27-metre high spiral staircase, which appears to be suspended from a cone of delicate stainless steel guy lines.
However, Strasbourg’s deliberate wish to develop prominent contemporary architecture isn’t new. Near the Parc de l’Orangerie, in 1999, the European Parliament building, the work of Architecture-Studio, was inaugurated. And not far from there sits the European Court of Human Rights, with its distinctive cylindrical wings, designed by Sir Richard Rogers.
Strasbourg was chosen as one of the capitals of Europe in 1949, following a proposal by Ernest Bevin, the British Foreign Minister, and this decision wasn’t a matter of chance – as a result of its violent past, the Alsatian city had by then become a symbol of peace and unity. This status will be reinforced by the Wacken Europe business district, an ambitious project of offices, shops and houses which are to be built close to the city’s pan-European institutions.
Past & Future in Harmony
The astonishing thing about Strasbourg is that the past and the future live in harmony. There’s nothing more normal than visiting the 1,000-year-old cathedral and then setting sail aboard a tourist boat along the River Ill, to admire the headquarters of ARTE television and the European Parliament.
You can never tire of contemplating the Gothic, lace-like, pink sandstone facade of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg, nor its remarkable spire and 14th-century stained glass windows, which bring glorious comic strips to mind.
Tourists also enjoy La Petite France, which is obviously the most popular neighbourhood for visitors, with its half-timbered houses, cascades of geraniums and the refreshingly shady canals. This area, formerly occupied by tanners and millers, took its name from a hospice where soldiers suffering from venereal diseases (the “mal Français”) were treated in the 16th century. A bucolic atmosphere reigns over this magnificent river delta, where it’s a pleasure to explore the maze of narrow streets – Rue des Dentelles, Rue du Bain-aux-Plantes and Rue des Moulins – on the way to the three covered bridges which span a branch of the River Ill.
Three centuries after the construction of the Barrage Vauban, which enabled the southern part of the city to be flooded in order to drive back the threat of an invasion, the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain de Strasbourg opened. This superb building by Adrien Fainsilber can be accessed through a tunnel built below the dam.
The famous ENA (École Nationale d’Administration) left Paris behind for the former Commandery of the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem, which is situated nearby. A giant horse by Mimmo Palladino welcomes visitors and it’s a pleasure to stroll beneath the building’s immense glass roof. The highlight of the ground floor is the monumental Christ Quittant le Prétoire by Strasbourgborn Gustave Doré. The donations illustrating the work of Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber are also well worth a visit.
In addition, do not miss the Musée Tomi Ungerer, dedicated to the Strasbourg-born illustrator and writer who’s famous for his imagination and dry humour.
And There’s More…
Not a year goes by without the appearance of notable new addresses, such as Les Haras, the former 18th century royal stud farm, which has been turned into a four-star hotel by designers Patrick Jouin and Sanjit Manku, a venture that earned several awards. The lobby boasts a glass fresco with silhouettes of horsemen and their steeds, while the rooms are equipped with thick leather headboards and saddle-shaped oak stools. The overall effect is that of a refined and very contemporary interior which successfully preserves the spirit of the place. Perhaps the most astonishing feature of all is the six-metre-high monumental staircase, in thin strips of beech, which leads to the upper floor of the Brasserie.
There it’s possible to savour delicious local specialities, conceived by Marc Haeberlin, the three-star Michelin Chef of the Auberge de l’Ill. It’s just one of the many ways in which Strasbourg celebrates the Gallic way of life while offering indisputably German-style hospitality.
Strasbourg Essentials: How to Get There, Accommodation, Places to Eat & Where to Shop…
Travel & Getting Around
TGV: From Paris in two hours and 20 minutes.
The Strasbourg Pass: Vouchers giving free and reduced admission to many sites – €16.90 for three days.
Velhop: Green ‘hire and drop’ bike rental.
Where to Stay
Hôtel Les Haras: A new, 55-room, four-star designer hotel and brasserie in the former 18th-century royal stables. The brasserie’s directed by Marc Haeberlin, the Michelin three-starred chef of the Auberge de l’Ill, and offers a new take on such traditional Alsacien dishes as tête de veau croustillante (crispy calf’s head) and smoked trout tarte flambée.
23 rue des Glacières, Hôtel Tel: +33 3 90 20 50 00, Brasserie: +33 3 88 24 00 00
Where to Eat
1741: This gourmet, Michelin one-starred restaurant is named for the date of the founding of the Rohan Palace, which is situated on the opposite side of the River Ill. Owner Olivier Nasti and celebrated restaurateur Cédric Moulot offer a sophisticated menu, prepared with great skill by chef Guillaume Scheer.
We appreciated the boudoir themed interior, elegant tableware from Hermès and Bernardaud porcelain, the attention paid to the preparation of such dishes as ‘oeuf à 64° à la truffe noire’, and the charming young wine waiter, Michael Wagner, who serves an incredible selection of 14 vintage wines by the glass.
22 quai des Bateliers, Tel: +33 3 88 35 50 50
Flamme & Co: The Nasti brothers, Olivier and Emmanuel, are the inventors of a highly successful concept – new look tarte flambée. A huge number of combinations – from a traditional version with Munster cheese to the vegetarian option – can be ordered atop the thin, crispy, pizza-like base. Dessert-wise, go for the ‘bananas-cookies-Nutella’ version.
53-55 Grand Rue, Tel: +33 3 90 40 19 45
Where to Shop
The Carré d’Or: This area near the cathedral (Rue des Orfèvres, Rue du Temple Neuf, Rue du Chaudron, Rue du Sanglier) is where you will find many of the city’s main stores. Don’t miss Georges Bruck (28 rue des Orfèvres, Tel: +33 3 88 32 00 04), a foie gras specialist since 1852. Each year, the Queen receives some of their truffled goose foie gras in a round pastry crust.
Arts et Collections d’Alsace: A magnificent shop which stocks traditional Alsacien wares, including ceramics, linen and decorative items.
4 place du Marché aux Poissons, Tel: +33 3 88 14 03 77
From France Today magazine