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Elegant Strasbourg not just for Eurocrats

Costa Rica

Why should the Eurocrats have all the fun? Strasbourg, the elegant home of the European Parliament, is now close enough for a weekend away by train. Gareth visited one of the most cultured cities on the continent, where France merges into Germany on the Rhine, and found a fabulous mix of architectural styles, a simply astonishing cathedral, a mediaeval quarter jammed with handsome UNESCO-rated buildings, a brave new bridge, and enough bike-ways to fill a small country. Photo by Jacques Hampe, Strasbourg Tourist Office.

Zip it

One of the most exciting projects in the high-speed rail revolution currently sweeping Europe is TGV-Est, a lightning-swift link between Paris and Strasbourg – 303 miles in two hours 20 minutes. France’s attitude to building railways is – just do it. This is the line where they set the world speed record, 357 mph, in 2007. Trains already zip along at 200 miles an hour, and will go faster still. At a stroke Strasbourg came within short-break distance of London – even with a change in Paris, where it takes around 10 minute to walk to Gare de l’est from Gare du Nord – it’s only five hours 40 minutes from London. And you get the thrilling sprint through the hilly East French champagne-growing countryside thrown in.

Heart of gold

Strasbourg’s historic core is one of the world’s urban glories. In 1988 UNESCO gave World Heritage status to the Grande-Ile, enclosed by the Ill River and a big loop of the shimmering Marne-Rhine Canal, the first time an entire old town was honoured.
The C15th cathedral, with its 468 ft spire in rose-colored sandstone, is simply tremendous. (The daily performance of its astronomical clock, 12.30 pm, is a miracle of mediaeval technology.) But the combination of so many details makes this such a deeply satisfying place - the ancient streets, churches and cobbled squares, the 16th-century waterside houses, the splendid private mansions, including the sumptuous Rohan Palace, built to plans by one of the Versailles architects. The 18th century Aubette Palace contains the newly restored 'Sistine Chapel of abstract art'. One of Europe’s oldest Christmas markets is held in the cathedral square, November 24 – December 24.

Free wheels

Strasbourg sets a high eco-example to all those MEPs flooding in to sit in the European Parliament four days a month, and the many other international bodies based in the “capital of Europe”. It claims to be France’s “most cyclable city”, with 248 miles of bike-friendly routes. The Strasbourg Pass (€11.90 for three days,) includes free half-day bike hire. Spin out, for example, to Parc de l'Orangerie, a beautiful park opposite the Council of Europe. The card also gives a free boat trip, entry to the observation level on the cathedral and your pick of one of the many museums. Most European cities have a good tram service, but Strasbourg’s is one of the best-looking, an excellent way to take in the architectural highpoints . €3.60 (€5.20 for 2) for 24h.

Bridge of peace

One of Strasbourg’s many marvels is its bridges. There are 20 linking the Grande-Ile with the rest of the city. Stand on the 17th-century Barrage Vauban for the best view of the medieval, covered bridges - Ponts Couverts – flanked by immense 13th century towers. The newest bridge, two glorious aerial curves in steel opened in 2004 a mile east of the centre, is a shining symbol of hope and reconciliation. Marc Mimram's Passerelle, ('Bridge of the two watersides”) for pedestrians and cyclists only, spans the Rhine, links France and Kehl in Germany. There is a huge two-country park on both banks, 'Rendezvous at the Rhine”, for exhibitions and events. This year (2009) heads of state shook hands in the middle to mark NATO’s 60th anniversary.

Liberty lady

Sitting in the middle of everywhere, Strasbourg offers many day trip options. My favourite destination is south down the wine-producing valley, where pretty villages and vineyards slope down from the Vosges Mountains. The little town of Colmar (31 mins by train) has a charming canal district, half-timbered buildings in gold brick in tight, pretty streets, and a museum where you gaze into the formidable features of the world’s most famous lady. Frederic Bartholdi, designer of the Statue of Liberty was born in this house.. Five of his many models of the statue are on show, with and without the famous headdress of rays, showing his subtle alterations to Liberty’s stance. The star exhibit is that final perfect replica. She was cast in Paris and shipped to New York in pieces.

Border line tastes

Today Strasbourg is France’s seventh largest city. But, frequently snatched and swapped during centuries of war, it also has a big Germanic theme – films directors find locations in the German quarter destroyed in many towns and cities over the border. There’s a third culture – Strasbourg is the capital of Alsace. This makes for a tasty fusion in the kitchen. Look for the traditional restaurant, the winstub, and try their choucroute garnie, sauerkraut served with sausages. Most recipes include cloves, garlic, juniper berries, onions, potatoes, and wine. Other local dishes are Coq au Riesling, served with spaetzle (German noodle), and Baeckoffe, stew of meat potatoes and onions and spices in white wine.
Then try the famous Kugelhopf, a yeast cake with raisins and almonds.

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