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Strasbourg Travel Guide

Ponts Couverts, Strasbourg (© Katarzyna Mazurowska | Dreamstime.com)
Ponts Couverts, Strasbourg

Introduction

Strasbourg (Straßburg in German, Strossburi in Alsatian, Stratoeburgus in Medieval Latin, Argentoratum in Latin, Argentorate in Old Celtic ; pop. 273,000, with suburbs 650,000) is capital of the Alsace region and of the Bas-Rhin departement. It is the 7th most populous city in France.

Strasbourg is the seat of one of the two European Parliaments (the other being in Brussels), the European Ombudsman, the Eurocorps, as well as the Council of Europe with its European Court of Human Rights, its European Directorate for the Quality of Medicines and its European Audiovisual Observatory.

The city's historic center (Grande Île) has been listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO since 1988 - a distinction only shared by two other French cities, Le Havre and Bordeaux. Apart from its sumptuous Gothic cathedral, Strasbourg is well-known for its historical timber-framed houses.

Strasbourg's bicultural heritage has owed the city to be the seat of the Franco-German TV channel Arte (along with Baden-Baden).


History

Strasbourg started as a Celtic settlement named Argentorate. In 71 BCE, the local Sequani (Celts), invite the Suebi and the Triboci, respectively a Germanic and a Celtic tribe from the eastern side of the Rhine, to move to Alsace to help them fight their enemy, the Haedui.

In 12 BCE, Roma general Drusus (brother of Emperor Tiberius) established a military outpost there and latinised the name to Argentoratum. A canabae (civilian settlement) developed west of the Roman fort, laying the grounds for the future city.

First part of Roman province of Gallia Belgica, the region quickly became a separate entity known as Germania Superior (with its capital in present-day Mainz).

The Alamanni, a Germanic tribe related to the Suebi, destroy the city in 352. In 357, the forces of (future Roman Emperor) Julian defeats them at the Battle of Argentoratum, and and the Alamanni king, Chonodomar, is taken prisoner. A few years later, around 1st January 366, the Alamanni cross the frozen Rhine in large numbers, and settled in Alsace, then in the next decades expand their presence in most of Switzerland.

In 406, the Huns, Burgunds, Vandals and Suebi invade Gaul. Attila destroys Argentoratum in 451. The Franks, who had settled in the Roman Empire for about two centuries and fought alongside the Romans against the eastern invadors, finally managed to restore peace in the region, after Clovis reunified what was left of Roman Gaul (see History of the Franks).

In 496, the Franks rebuild the city under the name of Strateburgum, and Clovis install one of the first bishop ever to have secular power. Strasbourg experienced a period of great prosperity during the 8th and 9th centuries.

In 842, Louis the Germanic and Charles the Bald, sign the Oath of Strasbourg, in which they pledge to help each other, in their opposition to the Emperor, their elder brother Lothair. The oath was written in three languages, Latin, in Old High German, and in Old Gallo-Romance, the ancestor of Old French. The Treay of Verdun, one year later, effectively split the Carolingian Empire between the three brothers. Strasbourg stayed part of Lothair's territory, known as Lotharingia (which evolved into "Lorraine" a few centuries later).

In 923, Strasbourg came under control of the Holy Roman Empire, when the Duke of Lorraine swore allegiance to German King Henry I. A long series of conflict arose between the bishop and the populace. The burghers obtained the right to form a council in 1212, then in 1262, King Philip of Swabia granted the city the status of Free Imperial City, thereby removing the secular authority of the Bishop of Strasbourg to the profit of the burghers. The struggle for power would nevertheless continue, between burghers this time, with the civil war opposing two families, the Zorn and the Mullenheim, culminating in 1332. The city government was enlarged to include the guilds.

In 1210, Gottfried von Strassburg wrote his famous courtly romance "Tristan", widely regarded as one of the greatest narrative masterpieces of the German Middle Ages.

Strasbourg was a major commercial city on the Rhine, and grew rich on the trade (and taxes on) of textiles, cereals, glass, furs, silk, spices, but also Alsatian wine, reknowned in all the Empire and as far as England and Scandinavia.

The last medieval expansion of the city took place between 1387 and 1441, to encompass the neighbourhood of Krutenau. The cathedral, started in 1015, was eventually completed in 1439, and became the world's tallest building (143m high) in 1625 after the destruction of the spires of Lincoln Cathedral (in 1549) and St. Olav's Church in Tallinn (in 1625). It was only surpassed in 1874, by the St. Nikolai Church in Hamburg.

The 15th and 16th centuries saw the flourishing of humanism in Strasbourg, with such people as Jakob Wimpheling (1450-1528), Geiler von Kaysersberg (1445-1510) or Sébastien Brant (1458-1521). Johannes Gutenberg himself spent at least 10 years of his life in Strasbourg (1434 to 1444), where he probably worked on some early trials with printing from movable type.


Cathedral of Our Lady, Strasbourg (© Jay Beiler | Dreamstime.com)

In the 1520s, the city embraced Protestantism thanks to its position as a center of humanist scholarship and early book-printing. However, Protestant iconoclasm caused much destruction to churches and cloisters. The University of Strasbourg was founded in 1567. The world's first modern newspaper was published in Strasbourg in 1605 (along with another one in Antwerp the same year).

The Free City of Strasbourg remained neutral during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), while the Lorraine and southern Alsace was officially annexed by France by the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). Wishing to complete its control over the western bank of the Rhine, King Louis XIV of France annexed Strasbourg in September 1681, and forced its recognition at the issue of the War of the Palatinian Succession (1688-1697) opposing France to most of Europe. Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, thus creating a policy of religious intolerance towards Protestants. As a clever diplomat, he did not however enforced this in Alsace, where the predominantly Protestant population would have revolted. The only concession was the handing over of the cathedral to the Catholics. The German Lutheran university persisted until the French Revolution.

It is after a dinner in Strasbourg that Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle composed "La Marseillaise" on 25 April 1792. Composed as a patriotic "Marching Song of the Rhine Army", it would be adopted as France's National Anthem in 1795.

With the new prosperity brought by the growth of industry and commerce, the city's population tripled in the 19th century, passing from 50,000 at the time of the French Revolution to approximately 150,000 in 1900.

French or German ?

During the Franco-Prussian War and the Siege of Strasbourg, the city was heavily bombarded by the Prussian army. On August 24, 1870, the Museum of Fine Arts was destroyed by fire, as was the Municipal Library housed in the Gothic former Dominican Church, with its unique collection of medieval manuscripts (most famously the Hortus deliciarum), rare Renaissance books and Roman artifacts.

In 1871, after the war's end, the city was annexed through the Treaty of Frankfurt to the newly-established German Empire as part of the Reichsland Elsaß-Lothringen (Imperial State of Alsace-Lorraine). The University of Strasbourg, suppressed during the French Revolution as a stronghold of German sentiment, was reopened in 1872. A belt of massive fortifications was established around the city, most of which still stand today.

Following the defeat of Germany in World War I, the city was restored to France. Like in 1871, Alsatians were not offered a plebiscite. During the period of the Second Reich (1871-1918), Strasbourg had become a showcase of the German superiority to the world, and especially to France. After that, France tried to gallicise the German-speaking Alsatians, forgetting about the diversity of the local culture, and prompting culturally and politically motivated protests against the centralised French government.

In 1940, Nazi Germany occupied Northern France, and Alsace was re-annexed to the Reich. A campaign of forced re-germanisation was launched by Berlin, changing French street names to German ones, prohibiting the use of French language, and even changing French-sounding family names to more German ones.

This succession of events left the Alsatians with mixed feelings about their Frenchness or Germanness, although nowadays many would agree they are not either French or German, but a bit of both.

In 1920, Strasbourg became the seat of the Central Commission for Navigation on the Rhine, previously located in Mannheim, one of the very first European institutions.

In 1949, the city was chosen as the seat of the Council of Europe and several of its institutions. Since 1979, Strasbourg has been the seat of the European Parliament, although only plenary sessions are held in Strasbourg (once a month), while the majority of the business is being conducted at the main European Parliament in Brussels.

In 1987, the International Space University opened in Illkirch-Graffenstaden near Strasbourg.

Attractions

Strasbourg is one of the best preserved historical city in France (and in Germany, if it was still German). The best way to visit it is to wander around the medieval streets of the Grande île ("greater island", on the Ill River), particularily the black and white timber-framed buildings in the Petite-France district.

The most famous traditional house is the Maison Kammerzell, built by a rich cheese merchant in 1427. It now houses a hotel and a restaurant.

The most impressive building is undeniably the huge Cathedral of Our Lady (Cathédrale Notre-Dame), which was the tallest construction in the world (142m) for over 200 years, and remains the fourth tallest church in the world (after Ulm, Yamoussoukro and Cologne).

Another local masterpiece of architecture is the Palais des Rohan, built between 1728 and 1741 by Cardinal Armand de Rohan-Soubise (1717-1756), Prince-Bishop of Strasbourg and illegitimate child of Louis XIV. The palace now houses three museums (see below).

Other notable buildings in town include the Palais du Rhin (former Kaiserpalast), the Opera House, the Chambre de Commerce et d'Industrie (former town hall), the Théâtre national de Strasbourg (former regional parliament or Landtag), the Hôtel de Ville (city hall), the Hôtel du Préfet, the Hôtel des Deux-Ponts, the Temple Saint-Paul (former Garnisonskirche), as well as the Art Nouveau Palais des Fêtes.

Parks

Strasbourg features a number of prominent parks, of which several are of cultural and historical interest. The Parc de l'Orangerie was laid out as a French garden by André le Nôtre (1613-1700) and remodeled as an English garden on behalf of Joséphine de Beauharnais (Napoleon's first wife). The neo-classical Pavillon Joséphine is now surrounded by French gardens and a small zoo.

The impressive remains of the 17th-century fortress erected close to the Rhine by Marshal Vauban (Louis XIV's military architect) can be seen in the Parc de la Citadelle.

The English-style Parc de Pourtalès boasts a baroque castle (heavily restored in the 19th century), now housing the Schiller International University.


Petite France, Strasbourg (© Xdrew | Dreamstime.com)
Petite France, Strasbourg

Cathedral of Strasbourg (© Sebastian Czapnik | Dreamstime.com)
Cathedral of Strasbourg

Palais Rohan, Strasbourg (© Xdrew | Dreamstime.com)
Palais Rohan, Strasbourg

Museums

European Parliament, Strasbourg (© Ingrid Balabanova | Dreamstime.com)

Strasbourg has a formidable number of high quality museums compared to its relatively small size. The most noteworthy ones are :

How to get there

Strasbourg is on the E25 motorway between Metz and Colmar. The E35 (Cologne-Frankfurt-Heidelberg-Karlsruhe-Freiburg-Basel) runs along the German side of the Rhine, passing 5km east of the city.

The TGV Est (the world's fastest passengers train) connects Strasbourg to Paris in 2h20min, with trains leaving every hour. There are a few daily TGV to Karlsruhe (40min) and Stuttgart (1h15min), as well as frequent regular trains to Colmar (30min), Nancy (1h30min), Metz (1h15min to 1h45min), and Luxembourg (2 hours).

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