Strasbourg at Christmastime is truly a city from a fable, or a song. Just so long as that fable is not ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas and the song is not White Christmas, as it was neither quiet nor snowing. In fact, according to the Strasbourgeois (the hilarious name for the local people) this Christmas was blessed with near-perfect weather – we even had a few days of blue skies. On our second full day in Strasbourg, we started the day at a slight disadvantage – we were still sore and exhausted from our marathon effort the day before. However, knowing that our time there was limited, we pulled together all our reserves of strength, slathered on a not inconsiderable amount of muscle-relieving cream and set off into the town for some Christmas Eve exploration.
We spent much of the day walking through the various Christmas Markets which run every year in Strasbourg. As I described in the previous entry, they sell just about everything you can imagine and we were tempted by a lot of things that we saw. However, Australian customs also takes great pleasure in turning down everything your heart could possibly desire, and a number of the things we wanted most are – according to their website – expressly forbidden and would be confiscated, possibly at gunpoint, possibly following a public cavity search by a burly, one-eyed ex-naval serviceman called Arnold. Most particularly, there are various quite interesting and unusual types of tea for sale in France, but tea (especially that containing fruit) is not allowed. Mindful of the safe passage of our packages home, we restrained ourselves a little and bought mostly things that will likely make it unscathed. A few slightly iffy things as well – we simply declared them very clearly.
Our main attraction goal for the day was to climb the 330 steps of the Notre Dame de Strasbourg cathedral – a gorgeous, enormous edifice which looms over the city in such a way that, whenever we became even a little lost, we sought it out to gain our bearings. This distinction also makes it extremely difficult to photograph from the ground, particularly when there are so many people around. I wasn’t able to get a good shot, but as usual, Google images to the rescue. It’s a slightly wearying climb in a narrow, winding staircase which would be absolutely treacherous if it had been even a tiny bit rainy that day, but luckily it was a day of rare sun in the Strasbourgeois winter. The view from the platform at the top is well worth the price of admission, a striking, unhindered visibility of the city and its surrounds until they fade into obscurity in the distance. As is usual with such sights, the photos don’t do it justice, but it was lovely and deserves to be seen – unless you have a heart condition, mobility difficulties or a mortal fear of stairs and the loathsome degenerates who use them; sadly, but understandably, there isn’t a lift.
After our climb to the top of the cathedral, we took the time to have a look inside. I’m almost getting tired of saying this, but as always, it was incredible and almost physically striking. My lack of religious conviction remains steadfast, but I concede that the builders of these structures – whether motivated into it by religious fervour, lust for gold or some other means – reveal in their work an aesthetic genius that leaves me absolutely baffled. The cathedral interior, with its stained glass windows, vast, trailing organ-pipes and astrological clock stand among the most lovely things I have ever seen crafted by human hands. We left the building with a tip of the metaphorical hat to the birthday boy – as usual, he hangs crucified on the wall of the cathedral – and set off to the hotel where we spent pretty much the remainder of the evening, only leaving later to do some more shopping in the markets and get some dinner.
Christmas Day we decided to take it easy a little bit. We had accomplished pretty much all our ‘must-see’ goals for Strasbourg and besides which, we were sore, tired and I was starting to feel a little sick. After a frustratingly short and difficult-to-set-up Skype conversation with my family back home (NB: Skype flat-out refused to work at all, as per usual and Google+ came to the rescue), Alex and I spread out a blanket on our bed in the hotel room and ate our Christmas brunch – a feast it was not, mainly salad ingredients, some purloined meats from the breakfast bar and some cheese, but it was accompanied by truly delicious bread from Au Pain de mon Grand-Père and it represented an excuse not to leave the room for a while. Around lunchtime, we went out to take a walk in La Petite France, the historical district in Strasbourg which is held to be the prettiest part of the city. It is lovely as indicated, but it is also petite as the name suggests, and soon we were on our way back into town – we made a brief stop to eat some Tunisian food from a restaurant which was open. The sandwich I bought was actually delicious – so much so that Alex went back to the same place and bought another one. It was a piece of thick, flat bread with fried chicken, salad and a spicy, rich sauce. Tasty.
After our walk, we headed to the cinema in the city centre to see Le Hobbit. As much as I enjoy French films, I think it’d be silly (and pretentious) to watch something like that in French, so we opted for the VO (version originale) screening, which is English with French subtitles. As anyone who has seen the film can attest (surely everyone by now?) it was excellent. One final Christmas-night walk ended our celebration of Jesus’ birthday. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to get him a present, but I’m sure that his Dad, Father Christmas, took care of it.
The next two days, I enjoyed one of the little-discussed but apparently well-known benefits of travelling abroad – a stomach bug. As such, there’s very little to report about them. The pharmacist informs me that there’s an epidemic of gastroenteritis going around, and that my being a traveller – and consequently stressed, tired and poorly nourished made me a prime candidate. Super! Fortunately, the sickness didn’t cling too long. It was, however, my first time feeling really homesick – nothing makes you miss your own bed like being sick.
On Thursday we took a farewell walk through our favourite areas in Strasbourg and agreed – despite my illness – that we were sad to be leaving. It really is a beautiful city, and I defy even the most cynical, grinchiest person to go there during the festive season and not enjoy the spirit at least a little. It really is the capital of Christmas.