OK – it’s been some time for me and I’m having major start up issues, for whatever reason. Thanks to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strasbourg for panoramic photo, above, and facts.
We spent a lovely night in Schnersheim. This gite was perfect, plenty of room for us and included a yard that the kids had a great time playing around in. They had some riding toys (a tractor and a car) that the kids spent hours pushing up and down the slight hill of the yard. The town was very small, perhaps less than 100 houses, but had an absolutely beautiful little town square and church we drove by. We had our breakfast and then headed over to Olivier’s house.
The non-Dhondt kids were to stay with Grandma (Mami) for the day (Z,C&G were totally heartbroken) but Olivier and Nadine accompanied us to Strasbourg. They both grew up in the area and attended university in the city. Strasbourg is a large city – and the capital of the Alsace region (much as Besancon is the capital of the Franche Comte). It is very well known for its excellent universities and for being the seat of several European institutions. The first one listed was the Council of Europe – it sounds important, but really, what impressed me, is that it is also one of the capitals for the European Union – now that, I’ve even heard of!
It took us a while to get out the door and then finding parking was an issue. Then we had fun taking the tram into the center of town. We wandered around a bit past beautiful red stone and timbered buildings. I know Olivier told us a story about the one photographed at left – but I can’t remember it! This area has had lots of disputes, being right near the German-French border and we saw one sculpture with a mother holding 2 dying sons. One had fought for Germany and one for France – and they ended up killing each other. It reminded me of stories about our own Civil War – when brother was sometimes against brother. We also wandered by some fountains and the opera house, all the time heading towards the main event – the cathedral!
There are just so many things that are awesome about the Strasbourg Cathedral. For a complete run down, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strasbourg_Cathedral. First off, it’s simply huge. Turns out it was the tallest building in the world for 227 years (1647-1874) and, even now, it is the 6th tallest church in the world. It was designed to have 2 parallel towers but Olivier informed us that the original ground was quite mucky and swampy. They sunk posts (like in Venice) to build the foundation on but, by the time they finished the first tower, the ground was shifting. They decided not to press on – to avoid collapse. I did not find this story on Wikipedia and, when I looked further, searching google, I came up empty. I suspect it might just be because they ran out of money – but hey, the sinking church theory is much, much cooler. I did find this legend about the cathedral on Wikipedia, which implies there was some sort of watery base to the church… “the building rests on immense piles of oak sinking into the waters of an underground lake. A boat would roam around the lake, without anyone inside, though the noise of the oars could be heard nevertheless. According to the legend, the entry to the underground lake could be found in the cellar of a house just opposite the cathedral. It would have been walled up a few centuries ago.” So very Phantom of the Opera!
This place is actually rife with legends and rumors. It is located smack dab in the middle of the city center, with only a fairly small place separating it from the souvenir shops naturally located just across the way. This was a bit frustrating, photographically speaking, since we couldn’t even come close to fitting the whole thing into our photo. The facade is considered a masterpiece of Gothic art – and the same architects and artisans who worked on Chartes came down to work on this cathedral as well. The wind was not noticeably strong outside, or inside the day we arrived, but, apparently, this must not always be the case, since there is also a legend about wind. “In olden days, the Devil flew over the ground, riding the wind. Thus he caught a glimpse of his portrait carved onto the cathedral: the Tempter, courting the foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13), in the guise of a seductive young man. It is true that his back opens up and toads and snakes come out of it, but none of the naïve girls notices that — nor do many tourists for that matter. Very flattered and curious, the Devil had the idea to enter to see whether there were other sculptures representing him on the inside of the cathedral. Taken captive inside the holy place, he could not come back out. The wind always waits in the square and still howls today from impatience on the places outside the cathedral. The Devil, furious, makes air currents from the bottom of the church to the height of the pillar of angels.” So, I guess you could say, this is the house of the Devil – how ironic! The sculptures and stained glass in this location – much of it original back from the 12th century, are breathtaking. I read that, during WWII, the town removed 74 of the windows to be stored for safekeeping. They are now back and absolutely glorious (thanks to Wikipedia for rose window photo!). This was quite a treat for us, since most of the old glass seems to have been broken out in other places we have visited.
Two final mentions for the interior. One is the Astronomical clock – it is the largest I have ever seen, and indeed, at 13 meters, is one of the largest in the world. There was a clock here from the earliest days of the cathedral. The first one was built in the 1300’s and this one was completed in 1842, and has been working ever since. Olivier told us that the creator, after he was done, was jailed so he would never be able to make another clock so magnificent. The wiki site claims the legend is that his eyes were gouged out. Either way, the dude was totally screwed. It was a cool clock, but almost too big – we all agreed we prefer our own astronomical clock of Besancon. The care of the clock has been in the hands of one company’s employees since its completion. No one knows how to reproduce the mechanism that makes it function, so keeping it working is essential. Also in this area of the transept was yet another giant grate. Of course, the kids headed right over but I was intrigued. This time it appeared adults were also gazing in wonder at the grate. Well, it turns out that people have tossed money down the holes of this particular grate for maybe 50 years or so. Looking down, it seemed as if someone had dumped a gold-laden treasure chest down there. Of course, the kids were fascinated and had me try to take many photos (none of which turned out!)
When writing about grates last week, I got an email from my sister M – M is paranoid about electronic privacy – so we will not reveal her true identity. (Plus she likes James Bond – isn’t M the name of his boss?) M is one of my most faithful followers and always comments on my blogs. She is 9 years older than I am and has different memories than I do about our childhood. When I mentioned grates to her, she immediately thought of the fabulous grate located at our grandmother’s house. I really do need to dedicate a whole blog to my grandma one of these days, but, for now, I’ll just tell you about the grate.
My grandmother’s house was small, tiny really, and had a railroad style set up. The front door opened up to the kitchen and, walking back, we went through the dining room and then the living room. In-between the dining and living room was a giant heating grate. It was probably about 16 square feet and it provided the heat for the house. I have not a clue how this worked – and I’ve never, ever, ever seen this in any other location but, somehow, the heat got pumped up from the basement through this giant thing. It would blow this wonderfully warm air out and I absolutely loved to just sit on the grate and feel the warm air rush by me, pushing my hair off my face and leaving me feeling pleasantly toasty. I particularly remember when I was wearing a skirt, how great it would feel for the warm air to rush up my legs. André, who only knew my grandma for about 3 years and probably only went to her house a handful of times, remembers the fabulous grate as well – especially when it was blowing up my skirt (wink). One of the other things that was awesome about it is that you never knew when it would blow or not. Grandma always hung little wind chimes over the top of it so, when the air started pumping, we could hear them – this was our cue to walk over there. After she died, I kept the last set of wind chimes she had hung up there. I wish she was still alive, and I could bring my kids over her tiny house, so full of love, to play on the heating grate and get a squishy warm hug. I miss her.
Then it was time to hike to the top of the tower. We always enjoy these hikes and this one was no exception. I love this shot of the flying buttresses with the carved flowery things – incredible. It was also cool to be able to see how the gutters run right into the sculptures – so beautiful and functional. When we reached the top, we were rewarded with lovely views over Strasbourg and the surrounding countryside. The kids were having a great time – except Griffin who was just about starving to death. The entire cathedral, as well as many of the buildings in Strasbourg, were build out of the red sandstone of the Vosges mountains. I read on a placard in the church that they employ 5 artisans, full time, to keep up with maintaining the Gothic sculptures. Up at the top, we saw we could purchase red sandstone rosettes, hand made by these artisans, that matched the very ones on the cathedral. What’s more, they were only 10 Euros! André and I usually avoid souvenirs for many reasons. 1. They cost money 2. They take up space in suitcases when one is moving home and 3. We can never agree on what we like. 4. The kids always want some piece of junk 5. Everything is made in china – probably by some poor oppressed sweat shop worker! This time, though, we were both sold – it was as close as we could get to owning a piece of a cathedral. We looked in the tourist trap shops at the base of the cathedral and found out they were only sold at the museum. Upon further investigation (and walking) we finally found we could only get them by going to another location – which is only open on weekdays. Hmmm…. but the tourists come on weekends! Total sadness! Any stone masons out there?
Then we headed for lunch. I got choucroute which is another local specialty consisting of a boiled potato and a giant pile of fresh sauerkraut with about 6 different pork products on top of it (bacon, two kinds of sausage, brisket, etc…) and served with hot mustard. It was good – but I would have guessed Polish, not French! André got spaetzle – one of our favorite German treats, and it was awesome.
After lunch we headed towards the older section of town, called the Grand Ile, to see a famous bridge built by our main man – Vauban! We spent a good half an hour wandering along the beautiful Ill (pronounced EEL) River. As usual I enjoyed the willow (my favorite tree) and just appreciating the beauty of the houses lining the banks. The biggest highlight of all, however, was getting a chance to see a tour boat go through an actual lock. We’ve seen lots of locks on our travels, and explained them in words to the kids, but never actually got a chance to see one in action before. I really appreciated all of Olivier and Nadine’s patience as they showed us around their town – I’m sure watching a lock work was not the top priority on their list but they were gracious to the end. We would never have gotten such a great tour without their company. It was about 4pm and they headed back towards Marlenheim to pick up the kids and head to Besancon. Meanwhile, we wandered further along the island to ultimately reach the Vauban bridge and see a real calliope player. We also took a minute to walk through the park near our car and discovered it to be a vibrant place, full of children, families, lovers and circus performers! What a fun place to play. Finally we headed back to Schnersheim for a homemade dinner of pasta and sauce accompanied by the final traditional Alsatian food of our trip, a Kougelhopf cake we had picked up from a street vendor. In all, though I like the shape, it is a pretty boring and dry little dessert – although, of course, it may have just been not delivered well. As a bit of a baker myself, I know it all depends on the recipe and how the baker executes it!
A final mystery… As we were driving around between Marlenheim and Schnershiem we passed many farmers’ fields and even piles of sugar beets. We also saw several fields with these telephone wire spider-webbie things floating over top of them. There are a lot of farms in France, and we’ve driven tons and I’ve never seen anything like it before. There were no crops growing underneath them. What are these things? Anyone?
Tomorrow we hit Germany and Baden Baden for the first time….