Saturday, July 19, 2008

France: A First Impression

First impressions are the most important, and I’d have to sum up our opinion of France in one word: Fabulous.

We put a full day-off to good use, doing our sightseeing in Strasbourg on a Wednesday. Matt and Katie joined us. It’s nice to have weekdays off, because things are actually open when you visit a new city. Strasbourg is just under two hours away from our home town, almost directly south. The trouble is, driving directly south would take us through the very narrow, hilly roads that mark the boarder between Germany and France (in this area, at least); we opted to take the longer, flatter, faster drive via autobahns. Josh certainly got to test the car’s abilities on the no-speed-limit sections.

When we crossed the boarder, there was no one there to check anything! I was a little bit bummed out; I’d hoped to get a stamp on my passport. It seems that they only check in eastern European countries by road, or if you are on a train. Oh well.

Frank Krahmer/Getty Images

The French countryside did look a little bit different from our area of Germany. It had more gently rolling hills, and there were many fields growing corn. In the distance, we saw the Jura mountain range, which is just north of the Alps. When we reached the city limits, we noticed more differences. The French use transformer towers, much like you’d see in the United States. There were entire fenced-in areas of power plants. In Germany, we usually see windmills. Also, we drove past about one mile of car sales lots. We felt we had been transported to the states!

We found a parking garage with minimal issue (although we did get to drive the wrong way on a one-way street for a little while…) and set out to explore the oldest parts of Strasbourg, which is in the French state of Alsace. This area of France has a varied cultural history, since it was frequently traded between countries. Strasbourg maintains a French identity with lots of Germanic influence. We noticed this most in the foods native to the region- but more on food later! The old town is situated between the branches of the River Ill- a tributary of the Rhine- and a mini-island is formed. So many buildings are crammed into this relatively small area! We began at the south-western part of the old city, known as Petit France. The name is misleading; it was given in reference to the clinics there, which used to treat the “French disease”- syphilis! ** Luckily, it’s all shops and homes today.

We made our way through many chic clothing shops. In my estimation, even French in the countryside have better fashion taste than the Germans from my area! We stumbled upon several of the churches that dot the old city, each seeming older and grander than the last. Winding through the city streets is a modern tram system. It looked very nice, but we chose to keep to the sidewalks instead. Don’t let that statement fool you- everyone in Strasbourg jay walks constantly. There were more people in the streets, than cars! We found a bakery that sold Ben and Jerry’s by the scoop… and were drawn in. I had my first experience trying to order food in French. It was silly. First of all, I really only knew how to say numbers… as in “un” paired with vigorous pointing. I couldn’t remember how to say “thank you,” and instead said “please” several times. But after all was finished, we ended up with our baguettes and ice cream, and we enjoyed them in Place Kleber.

We continued through the pedestrian zone, finding a Sephora along the way. I have to make a note- Sephora in France just isn’t as good as Sephora in the states. I expected some fancy stuff, more high-end than you could find in the US due to the huge fashion scene in France. I was let down. They actually carried L’Oreal Paris in the Sephora! Surprised- an understatement!

Eventually, all of our minimal-direction walking landed us at the front of the amazing cathedral of Strasbourg. Until Cologne and Ulm took the spotlight, Strasbourg had the tallest cathedral in the entirety of Catholicism. I’ve seen the cathedral at Cologne, and while it is massively impressive, I think that the Strasbourg cathedral is more beautiful. See for yourself!

We walked through to observe the massive organ, stunning rose window, and incredible stained glass. There was a stone-carved depiction of the Garden of Gethsemane, as well as a really detailed astronomical clock. Sadly, the clock only “goes off” (cuckoo-style apocalyptic judgment scenes) at noon, so we missed it for the day. Katie noticed a carved placard near the clock, which was a monument of thanks to the American soldiers who had fought for the region’s independence from German rule during the Second World War. It was touching.

Next stop (after a very busy but FREE public bathroom) was the Palais Rohan. This palace sits between the cathedral and one of the canals of the Ill River.

It is a beautiful building, which was built for the Rohan family. They played important roles in both religious and secular life in Strasbourg, and therefore had enough money and influence to create a grand palace in an excellent location. The Palais Rohan now houses three museums- an archaeology museum, a decorative arts museum, and the Musée des Beaux-Arts. We four visited the fine art museum and viewed works by el Greco, Goya, Monet, van Dyck, Rubens, and others. It was mostly medieval art, which doesn’t exactly float my boat, but there were some nice pieces.

By the time we finished viewing fine art, we had large appetites to fill. We wandered (again) into a little alley near the Ill and found several small restaurants and cafes all pushed together into a plaza-like outdoor seating area. After purchasing some jewelry from Asia (I got a great enameled bangle), we decided to eat at the Café Rohan. The boys chose the classic European standby- oven-fired pizzas. Katie had this fantastic-looking pasta dish with penne, roasted veggies, and cheese. I wanted to try something specific to Alsace-Lorraine, but foie gras (which originated there) and sauerkraut (which is très populaire) didn’t sound overly appetizing. I chose a local specialty, les pommes de terre avec le fromage de chèvre. Yes, I’ll explain. It was potatoes cooked in an onion-cream sauce with goat cheese and bits of bacon. I chose a glass of champagne to accompany. Having some true champagne at an outdoor restaurant in France was a fun experience. My meal was absolutely fabulous!

To finish our evening, we went on a search for specific souvenirs, and some crêpes. We failed in the crêpe department, mostly because we walked past too many shops, expecting more options… and there were no more. Next trip! I did find an embroidered “France” patch- I collect those from every country I visit. We chose not to purchase any of the renowned Alsacean pottery on this trip, but if you ever visit you should check it out- it’s quite beautiful.

Overall, Strasbourg was a charming city, and had a very different feeling from many German towns, which made us feel as though we’d really experienced a different culture. We cannot wait to see more of France! Don’t forget that more photos are available on our piacasa page. Sadly, Josh’s camera battery died, so we have limited photos of this trip. Thanks for tuning in! Visit France, you’ll have fun!

**Note: In Germany and Italy, syphilis was called the French disease. In France, they called it the Italian disease. Go figure!

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