Posted on Nov 9, 2014 by


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France failed to work its charm on this visit. Maybe it was because Alsace-Lorraine did not feel like France. It could be excused if it suffers something of an identity crisis because France and Germany fought over it many times.Strasbourg is French but to get the feel of France you have to go to an area known as La Petite France which sounds like a French ghetto in a German city. Like its cathedral and its famous clock, Strasbourg is a hybrid. German until 1918, French in 1919, German in 1940, French since 1944. German Gothic script can be seen everywhere. There is a famine of French food and a proliferation of prostitutes. Although it has a good, inexpensive, tram system the city is walkable.Strasbourg was not one of our Places To See Before We Die. We went for its airport. We could have got to one of our Places To See (Nancy) some other way but with Stansted within spitting distance of home, it seemed silly not to capitalise on our assets. There’s no merit in suffering.

Strasbourg is not all it seems. It’s French but feels German. Its Cathedral was thought to be German, but turns out to be French. The famous astronomical clock inside is a Victorian reproduction. The EU parliament is supposed to be a democracy but speeches are limited to how important you are. It was ever thus. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more things stay the same) or as they say in France, c’est la vie.

A statue which needs a bit of TLC in one of the squares is of Gutenberg holding his famous Gutenberg bible. It was in Strasbourg in 1440 that he perfected his method of printing. His invention of mechanical movable type started a printing revolution. His name is honoured by Michael Hart’s amazing Gutenberg Project. Gutenberg introduced printing to Europe, Michael Hart introduced eBooks to the world.

The Cathedral is wonderful, but, for us, not as awesome as Chartres. The nationalistic poet Goethe, Germany’s answer to Shakespeare, raved over the cathedral in a pamphlet praising German architecture. He was wrong. The Gothic style of architecture he thought so very German started with the Cathedral of St Denis near Paris in 1144, the first Gothic church. In 1225, a team of consultant architects brought in from Chartres suggested Strasbourg Cathedral be built in the new, French, Gothic style. The west front, covered with thousands of figures, is a Gothic masterpiece.

The famous astronomical clock inside is a copy made in 1843 of the 1574 clock made, not by Germans, but by Swiss clockmakers, brothers Isaac and Josiah Habrecht. To see what the original looked like, go to London. The original clock has long gone but luckily, the brothers made a copy which is in The British Museum.

What will we remember of Strasbourg? Watching Mr Farage in action in a Plenary Session of the EU Parliament? Yes. The open air restaurant in Cathedral Square which served pig’s trotters, sauerkraut and boiled spuds attacked by bluebottles? Yes. The fine art museum in the square? Yes. The Museum of Modern Art? Definitely. It’s the jewel in Strasbourg’s crown. The art is modern as per from 1870, The Impressionists, rather than of the Tracey Emin unmade bed style.

In the exhibition space, Daniel Buren, a French installation artist, has arranged larger than life coloured wooden building blocks inspired by those we played with as children. Memorable. Better still, he fixed panels of film in bright primary colours over the huge glass façade. The effect is stunning. Museum staff say they will be taken down in March 2015. Travesty. No. Not strong enough. Tragedy is nearer. The museum without Mr Buren will be just another glass building which will look from a distance like yet another block of flats. Let the people take to the streets singing La Marseillaise, let them man the barricades with banners SAVE OUR BURENS or words to that effect. Come on France. If striking cab drivers can bring Paris to a halt, the artists of Strasbourg can save their gallery from a future of forgettable mediocrity.

Goodbye Strasbourg. I doubt we will be back unless it’s to use your airport. We are taking the train to Nancy to follow its famous art nouveau trail.

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