|At 3:00 a.m. we pushed off from Speyer and were on our way to Strasbourg, France. It was a beautiful morning – I don’t mean 3:00 a.m. Believe me, how would I know. I don’t have a goal on river cruises of getting up at 3:00 in the morning. No, no, I mean at a reasonable time after breakfast; like 8:30 a.m. So I plopped down on the top deck with the intent of working on this journal. Of course, I wasn’t working on yesterday’s adventures in Heidelberg and Speyer. No way man. I wasn’t nearly that far along in recording our travels.
Oh, and a confession or a reality check. Don’t think Joye and I have some kind of photographic memories and can recall our travels any ol’ time. Heck no. When we finish tour of, say, Cologne, we make brief notes so that later we can do what I am doing now – sitting on the top deck, pulling out our notes, and expanding on them as I write in the journal. Brief notes are great. Just need a brief reference to something in order to bring it all back and we can write about it. (At least that’s how it’s supposed to work)
But this morning, I didn’t get very far. I had good intentions, but folks kept stopping by to chat. It’s fun to write the journal, but more fun to talk with people.
At mid morning we headed down to the lounge where the #2 in command chef gave a demonstration of how to make what is called a Flamm Cake. About all I can say about it is that it looks a little like a pizza and has brandy in it. Okay, so it’s obvious I wasn’t paying attention. I was just there to eat it, which I did. Pretty good too – another slice please.
After that, we went back up on the top deck. Before long we came to a lock. No big deal, right. Well not really, but a little. As we entered, we saw that the top of the lock was leaking, something like a waterfall actually. We could have made a sprint to the stairs and got back inside the ship. But what the heck – were tough right. Bring it on. And on it came. And tough we were – well okay not really. We weren’t tough, just wet.
Okay, dried out from that and a little after noon we arrived in Strasbourg. Well, we actually docked in Kehl, Germany. On one side of the Rhine is Kehl. You turn and look on the other side and there is Strasbourg, France. Germany there; France over there. Germany. France. Okay, got it.
W e had docked by a nice park and it just so happened to be the park where President Obama gave a short speech the week before. And about a half mile away was the pedestrian - only suspension bridge that spans the Rhine and connects Kehl and Strasbourg. It is also the bridge where Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel walked from Kehl while French President Nicholas Sarkozy walked from Strasbourg. They met in the middle and shook hands. A good symbolic gesture and a good photo-op for all three. The official name of the bridge is the Mimram Bridge. No matter, Joye and I decided to name it the Obama Bridge.
We hopped (boy, we do a lot of “hopping”) on our coach to cross the bridge from Kehl to Strasbourg. The first part of the tour would be on the coach and that will be followed by a walking tour. Oh, don’t worry – our coach didn’t take the pedestrian bridge to get to Strasbourg. Running over pedestrians makes for a bumpy ride and puts us behind schedule.
Well, our guide started off with a little background on Strasbourg and we now pass it along to you. The greater Strasbourg area has 750,000 residents and is the capital of the Alsace-Lorraine region. It is also a university town with around 50,000 students during the school year. Oh and by the way – the annual cost to attend the University of Strasbourg? Let’s see… hmm… tuition, books, fees, labs, and such. Okay, give me a sec to recheck my figures. Okay, got it. The total cost is…free. Yep, free. Now, in some parts of Germany the cost can be as “high” as $500 a semester and there was major pushback when some cities put that in place. In many parts of Europe, college is either very low cost or free. Compare that to a year at UT - $8,500 - $9,000. Ha, but I bet UT could wipe ‘em all out in football by golly!
And a little history. The area that became Strasbourg was originally settled by the Romans about 2000 years ago. The original settlement was on the Rhine, but that proved to be too dangerous as the Rhine was rather unpredictable, resulting in frequent flooding of the settlement. The Romans were far from stupid, so they said “Aha, let’s move the center of the settlement just a tad more inland.” Then they built a series of canals to bring water to the settlement; canals that still exist today – along with all the stone bridges that traverse the canals.
Back to the present day on our coach. As we headed from the Rhine to the outskirts of Strasbourg we saw some burned out buildings. What’s the deal here? Well, Obama, Merkel, Sarkozy and other Western leaders were in Strasbourg a week ago to commemorate the 60th anniversary of NATO. And that event drew in many protesters, bringing their displeasure with the crash of the world economy. In the States we had heard reports of the protests, but we were not aware there had been destruction at this level.
We went right by a burned out hotel and a Customs building. Our guide said that the hotel did not have any guests at the time and was scheduled for demolition. She said the speculation of folks is that maybe the protest leaders and Strasbourg officials got together and make a deal. What kind of deal? “Well, a deal, deal.” (For all of you class B movie fans, that’s a tip o’ the hat to the movie Kelly’s Heroes as said from Don Rickles to Telly Savalas). The protest leaders said “We’re gonna burn somethin’.” The Strasbourg official ssaid “Okay, how ‘bout this vacant hotel.” Protesters said “Deal.” So, to quote that old cliché’, it was a Win/Win. Whatever, that’s what our guide said she picked up from her sources.
The coach portion of our tour covered “modern Strasbourg” i.e. from 1880 to the present. (We never cease to be amazed by that. In the States, we see a building constructed in 1880 and say “Wow, that’s 130 years old. Golllleee!”) As we moved on into Strasbourg, one of the first things we saw was the building that houses the Parliament of the European Union. The Parliament is made up of representatives from 45 member countries. Becoming a member is not automatic. Countries must meet a set of criteria. For instance, a country must have a two-chamber legislature and sign the European Convention on Human Rights. One of the things that catches your interest about the building itself is that its top appears to be unfinished (though it really is). The architect purposely designed the building this way to symbolize the ever evolving nature of the European Union.
Soon after passing the EU Parliament building, we came upon the building for the European Court for Human Rights. The Court has quite a bit of power. Court rulings actually supercede the laws of any member country. If the Court rules against a country, then that country must change its laws to comply. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that member countries try very hard to settle cases before they reach the Court. Still, the court rules on 30 – 40 cases every year. In front of the Court building is an enduring symbol of the relentless pursuit for human rights – four slabs from the Berlin Wall.
So a question you may have, we did, is why was Strasbourg chosen as the seat of the European Union and the Council for Human Rights? Well, being on the border of France and Germany, Strasbourg has long suffered the tragedies of many wars. Strasbourg is symbolic of both the tragedy of war and the closeness of all peoples. To further emphasize that, there is a statue in Strasbourg from WWI of a mother holding two dead sons – one in the uniform of Germany, the other in the uniform of France. In essence, it symbolizes the folly of war.
As we motored around Strasbourg, we saw a layout common in Europe – many pedestrian walkways, bike paths, gardens, and green space. Very, very appealing. We were going by a large park and turning onto a boulevard when our guide pointed to numerous tall trees and said look at the tree tops. What we saw were nests – nests of storks. Yes, you read it right, storks. I kid you not.
The deal is that the citizens of Strasbourg have taken the storks under their wing – so to speak (Ha – Ha). The storks in Strasbourg, as with other birds, migrate. But the advent of the modern world has had a negative effect on the storks’ migratory path. Over the years, about 60% have been lost because of contact with transmission lines, primarily in Spain. Another 20% have fallen victim to pesticides along their route. In the late ‘70’s, Strasbourg began feeding their storks in the winter in hopes that the storks would not migrate. It seems to have worked. Our guide said that when she moved to Strasbourg thirty years ago, there were only seven stork couples remaining. Now, there are over three hundred.
And of course with any success, capitalism comes knocking. So what do they have in the souvenir shops? Why stork dolls, of course, in all shapes and sizes. Must admit they are pretty cute. So we got a very small one to hang in our little RV – Bertha.
Well, we were done with the coach part of our tour, so we hopped off and were ready to begin the walking tour of old Strasbourg. We began at one of the major stone bridges which has tall watch towers at both ends. There are several similar bridges positioned around old Strasbourg. Over the centuries, the city has changed hands many times between France and Germany – depending on which side won the latest war.
The stone bridge where we were had been built by the Germans in the 15th century. Near the top of the towers were open windows that in the day were manned by archers facing France. Late in the 17th century, Louis XIV (he’s everywhere, he’s everywhere!) pushed the Germans out. Now in the towers you had French archers facing Germany. Louis XIV enhanced the fortifications including adding a couple of dams. Whenever the French garrison got word that the Germans were on the move toward Strasbourg, the French commander would have the gates of the dams opened and the areas around the city were flooded. I don’t think the German army bought the French explanation that this was just a Wet n’ Wild.
Being in the old part of Strasbourg meant that the streets had quite a bit of cobblestones and were uneven. So you have to be careful. That was brought home when one of the group slipped off a curb and fell in the street. She went down hard. Joye and I didn’t see it, but we sure heard it. Everyone’s concern was heightened because she is in her early 80’s and falls can be a really bad thing. But in this instance she turned out to be okay, just some scrapes and bruises. Our Program Director was right on it and went with her in a cab back to the shop. (The lady had recovered enough in the evening to make into dinner. Everyone was relieved.
We were in a section of old Strasbourg known as La Petite France. It is where the Rhine river is split into several canals. In medieval times, it was home to tanners, millers, fishermen, and the like. Many of the medieval buildings from the 15th-17th centuries remain along with the narrow cobblestone lanes. The way in which a building was constructed indicated what kind of work was done in there. For example, there was a five to six story building with a large open area below the roof. This had been a tannery and you didn’t want that smell anywhere near street level. Today, some of the buildings have been converted to restaurants and shops lining the canals. Now, this is a smell you do want at street level.
There are quite a few medieval dwellings, known as half-timber houses. That’s pretty descriptive since the framing of the building and all supports were made of timber, usually oak. The outside enclosing walls were of plaster or brick. Some of these date back to the 12th century. We saw some from a few centuries later that were really something. By the 15th and 16th centuries, emphasis was being placed on decoratively carved timbers in Gothic and Renaissance styles.
Back to our ol’ buddy, Louis XIV for a moment. When he took control, Louie, Louie decreed that all Strasbourg residents must keep a food supply that would last a year. He wasn’t going to let the Germans lay siege and starve them out. We saw some three story buildings that had openings toward the top. These were not windows but, rather, openings with grates. The food was stored up here packed with straw. Temperature – wise, Strasbourg is pretty cool most of the year. The openings let in the cool air and, hopefully, the grates kept thieves and varmints out. I guess; if you say so.
As we wandered around the old city, we kept seeing these decorative flags on display. We asked what these represented. Well, they date back to the 13th-15th centuries when Strasbourg was a free state. The power rested with twenty Guilds. (Think unions, that would be the closest approximation to today.) The Guild Council elected the mayor of Strasbourg. The Council reported directly to the Holy Roman Emperor, so it was indeed a power. So, the flags we saw were those of the Guilds.
As we hit the last bit of the tour, heading to Notre Dame Cathedral, Joye and I spied a neat looking little outdoor café and it was just too tempting. So we peeled off and took a seat at an outside table. So we indulged in one of our favorite pastimes – sitting at an outside café, drinking beer, and watching the world go by. (We say that a lot, don’t we. But it’s what we do. I know, you’re really surprised. :))
Like Amsterdam and Cologne, Strasbourg is mindful of preserving its past, but not closed in by it. Another good mixture of the old and the new. It is a wonderful city with outgoing, friendly people. Definitely, a place to come back to and spend more time.
Well, our ‘watching the world go by” resulted in us missing our coach back to the shop. No biggie, just hailed a cab. The driver was Moroccan. There was a little language barrier, but his English was pretty good – enough so we jumped the barrier. He has lived in Strasbourg for ten years and loves it. He has a brother who is an architect and has loved in Houston for fifteen years.
Without any prompting from us, he took off on a riff about how much he liked President Obama and Michelle. He said this was a major improvement over the past eight years and he had become more optimistic. In all honesty, this pretty much sums up what we heard from most Europeans during the trip. Anyway, so much for politics. He delivered us back to the ship with just enough time before dinner to hit the lounge for the Drink of the Day.
Tonight was “International Night” for dinner, so there were more coursed than usual. Finished dinner around 9:15 and were we ever full. Since starting the cruise, I had been doing more eating and drinking than usual, plus the only exercise I have gotten is from the walking tours (okay, I’ll include walking to the bar, too. That really helps :) ). So when Wai and Erik asked if I wanted to go on a walk with them, I said “You bet.” Though, honestly, I felt more like just lying down and digesting.
Erik is a personal trainer in his work life so this wasn’t going to be a leisurely stroll. But it wasn’t a power walk either (Thank you Jesus!) None of us were up for anything like that. So, it was kind on an “in between” walk.
We took off about 9:30 p.m. and headed toward the pedestrian bridge (i.e. the “Obama” bridge). We decided to take the bridge across to the other side. In other words, we were going from Germany to France – makes it sound like a long way, doesn’t it. The bridge is a good looking structure and has a nice are to it. As we started up the bridge, we noticed that there were actually two bridges. The second bridge, maybe fifteen yards from the pedestrian bridge is for bicyclists. At the apex of the two bridges is a large flat area that is accessible from both bridges. It has tables and chairs and gives a good view of both sides plus the river. I guess you could have a picnic there if you wanted. Neat.
When we got across the bridge and onto the Strasbourg side, we found ourselves in a large park. We wandered through and around the park and then found ourselves at a regular bridge (i.e. both car and foot traffic). There was a pedestrian lane with concrete barricades separating it from the car lanes. So we hopped on that and crossed back to the Kehl side and headed back to the ship.
It had been a great night for a walk. Temperature in the mid 50’s and little wind. Our 45 minute walk helped work off some of that hearty dinner.
Drink of the Day: Tahiti – light rum, dark rum, orange juice, and lime juice. 3 stars