Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Letter No. 6
From Nancy the capital of Lorraine we drove to Strasbourg, in Alsace, which bills itself as the capitol of Europe. And a nicer capitol can’t be imagined.
Getting to the city was easy, although a little odd. We looked at the map and decided on Route N4. This was shown on the map as going directly to Strasbourg. Not a big highway but a decent road. The big highway was a “peage” – that is a toll road. The tolls on French roads were very high in 2001, and very aggravating because they not only charged a toll but a 19% Value Added Tax on the toll! Now that the euro is worth $1.54 and the French government (we think) has sold the “peage” system to a profit making organization, we don’t want to think about using those roads.
We’ve used “N” roads before. They are slower because they go through the towns on their way—a plus --, but you have to slow down in town and frequently have to go through a round-about on either side of town. Most of the time, though, they are fine for us. The map turned out to be slightly in error. Instead of N4, a great deal of the way was on third rate roads with large numbers, like D502. That’s a narrow two-lane road and might be okay in some circumstances, but these tend to go all the way through town, often making five or six turns and changes in the road. To complicate the matter, we had to go through mountainous areas. There were a lot of Frenchmen swearing at us along the way since we certainly slow everyone down!
We got through the maze and drove into town only to find that there were no signs for the campground on the road we took into town. This was a problem because the directions to the campground were to take N4 and follow the signs indicating the campground. We persevered, and drove into the city. After a couple of blocks, the signs for another road that was reported in our book to have signs for the campground appeared and we turned onto a highway. Almost immediately we saw an exit for Montagne Verte which is where the campground is located. We got off the highway and immediate found a sign for the campground. We followed it to the next, but when we got to the main drag, there were no other signs. We drove too far in one direction, turned and drove too far in another. Finally we decided to follow a sign for a different campground and made the turn its sign indicated. We drove about 400 meters down that road, and the campground we had originally been looking for appeared without warning. A very odd case of “The Last Sign is Missing”.
After checking in and eating lunch, we left for center city via bus and tram. The whole journey took 20 minutes and we got off and walked toward the Cathedral. It was after 2 p.m. and all the stores still seemed to be closed, which is a bit much even for a French city. We saw the very nice Place Kleber (named for the hero of a war) to the equally lovely Place Gutenburg (named for the inventor of moveable type who lived here while developing it). Then we reached Place Cathedral – which was stunning. Even to people like us, who always visit the big churches and cathedrals, this was an amazing building which we would characterize as aggressively gothic. Not like the other cathedrals in France. It had the feel of a Germanic building. No surprise since this city went from being under the rule of a bishop to being a free city licensed to make its own coinage, have markets and fairs and run its own affairs, within the organization of the Holy Roman Empire before it joined France. The cathedral had several treasures inside, one of which is a huge astronomical clock. If you are there at noon, you pay 2 Euros to see it work. We missed that.
We went to ask the Tourist Office about something, and mentioned that the shops seemed to be closed longer than usual (12 to 2 is “normal”), and were told that this was a holiday. On May 8, 1945 American troops liberated the city. That explained the closed stores. We did not get any information about the Nazi occupation in Alsace, or how the people reacted to it, but we will look that up when we get home.
On our map was the indication of another ancient church, this one named as a Protestant church. We found this a bit odd because France is a Catholic country and an old church would have been treated badly by the king. It turned out to be a medieval church that began life as a Catholic church, and was turned into a Protestant one during the Reformation. Not a scenario common in France, but as the docent told us, Alsace was a special case. Even the Sun King (Louis XIV) allowed the Protestants to worship as they pleased once he took over the city. So both forms of Christianity flourished in the city. The Jews who lived here at the time, however, were allowed only certain forms of work and had to leave the city by nightfall. We will be interested in anything we learn about the treatment of Jews during the Nazi occupation.
Next stop was yet another McDonalds. Apparently all in this area have WI FI – so we had our obligatory cup of coffee and used the internet service to get our blog posting straight once and for all. We hope we accomplished that, but we will hear from some of you this afternoon when we post this blog from Colmar. On our way home, we found the only genuine bargain in Strasbourg. A one-scoop ice cream cone for 70 cents. Delicious.
On Thursday we decided we would only walk around the area known as Petite France, which was reported to be beautiful. So we used the Lavage (washing machine) and hung out the clothes before we left. Got downtown to find a busy shopping day. It was quite a long walk to Petite France, an area that can only be classified as gorgeous, full of old half-timbered buildings. We walked around until it was time for lunch. Then we made an unusual decision. Adelle wanted to have a real French lunch instead of our usual sandwich in a fast food shop. We had almost decided on one upstairs café, when an American-sized (extra large) man came out and indicated that the food was good. So in we went.
The walls and the stairs were covered with wall paper with old fashioned writing on it. The same paper was on the railings and the bannister…and when we got up the antique stairs, the entire room was covered in it – as were the six or seven tables and chairs. The ceiling had the same paper with pictures printed over some of the writing. No other customers were there. Just two women, piles of philosophy magazines and books and us. Lunch was delicious and the entire experience was oddly French.
There were still hours left – so we decided to go to the Museum of History. It was a very long walk – and we had to ask directions of the women in the café and then a woman on the street, but we were able to follow them without trouble. The best guide was to look for La Femme Alsatian. Once we saw this huge statue, we understood why it can be used as a landmark.
Were we glad we decided to go the History Museum. This was one of the most modern museums we’ve ever been to. Their audio guide was wonderful, the signs were in French, German and English, and there was a tremendous amount of information about Alsace. There were interactive games, an amazing, huge 18th century diorama of the city. We learned a lot.
Now was time to begin the long walk to the bus station. First, we had a “cup of coffee” in a café, sitting and looking out at the world in a peculiarly French way. The coffee consisted of two tiny cups containing only about a half inch of very black coffee, which cost 3.40 Euros—about $5.00. But it was as close as we have ever come to injesting a very potent drug, and it fixed us up fine. Then there was a walk around two separate food markets, neither of which was as good as the big chains. An ice cream along on the way and another day was over.
Today we are in Colmar. We’ve been here before, but it was pouring rain and we would like to see it again. We’ll enjoy the Hansel & Gretel architecture and we’ll get to see the Bartholdi museum. This is where he came from. You remember him. The Statue of Liberty guy!
Adelle & Ron