Sunday, 18 October 2015

I'll meet you in Strasbourg!

As a pre-wedding treat I took the chance to spend some time with my bestie. We looked for some cheap and cheerfully accessible city breaks. The usual Amsterdam and Dublin options were proving evasive as the times were all wrong and a few very obscure places later, Soph and I settled on Strasbourg (not to be confused with 'The Hills are Alive', Satlzberg). We knew very little about the city other than that fact it houses the EU Parliamentary buildings.

On arrival we realised we could be in trouble as we struggled to speak French to a group of youths and the lack of planning sunk in. We had no idea where our hotel was other than the fact it was near a rather large cathedral. We wandered through the old town’s twisting alleys lined with crooked half-timbered houses and the breath taking cathedral which sat opposite out hotel emerged. The whole place was like something from Grimm's fairy tales and the little timbre houses reminded us of Hansel and Gretel. It was later that we noticed all the references in the gift shops to gingerbread and the Black Forest! Doh!

Hansel and Gretel-esque Liz
 An education followed. Strasbourg is located in the Alsace region of France, very close to the German border and the influences of both are found all over in the architecture, food and culture. The region has it's own defined dialect and we certainly felt the passion the inhabitants had for their unique region. Strasbourg's historic city centre, the Grand Island, was classified a Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988. 

 Our hotel, L'hotel Rohan was the quirkiest we could find. The dining room was a bizarre mix of highly designed furniture and mounted animal heads. For example what hotel has a stuffed fox holding a drinks tray in the reception. The room was small but well dressed, clean and tidy. The location was amazing. A one minute walk to Cathédrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg. A gorgeously tall (sixth tallest church in the world) Roman Catholic cathedral, with architecture inspired by Romanesque and Gothic influences.

We tentatively entered a tavern down near the canal side and we were greeted with fluent french to which we again both panicked as we had completely forgotten anything Monsieur Pepper had taught us at school! The menu however was pretty easy to fathom as even English restaurants use a great deal of French and I had looked up the local cuisine if nothing else (standard)!  Choucroute is a local variety of Sauerkraut which is left to ferment in wooden barrels. Traditionally it is served with pork sausages or smoked knuckles. Served alongside are often roasted or steamed potatoes or dumplings. I can only describe our meals as 'hearty' and the German influence was more than apparent in the volume of meat on the plate! 

The following morning we had a wander down by the canal side into Petite France which was delightful! You felt as though you were in a movie set. We walked around for a few hours and then realised that without any guide book or knowledge we had very little insight into anything and we wanted to know more!

So... we signed up for a Segway tour. Now one thing I can say about spending time with Soph is that you literally can't envisage what will happen but something fabulous always does. The girl attracts glamour and attention wherever she goes! This occasion was no disappointment. 

One City Tours were happy to oblige us on our Segway adventure, only one problem, our one hour tour may be a little longer as the French version of 'The One Show' would be filming us on our way round. Would we mind?? Hell no, this would be fun!

Segway Tour

 About 5 hours later, Soph had made her debut appearance on French TV, my legs would no longer function, Soph had also gone head first into an antique shop window and thank goodness nothing dramatic had happened to neither the window or my friend

Once we had got the hang of the slow moving road use and the fast paced pavement moves we were away. I have to say though, during all the commotion of filming and retakes we learnt very little about the city other than the location of our tour guides favourite cookie shop and a great many visits down a great many courtyards and windy streets! The cookies were bredele. The tourguide told us in three languages, that if you have the pleasure of being in Alsace at Christmas time, many home cooks make numerous batches of small cookies in an incredible variety of shapes and flavors. These are mixed together to make a collection. Our guide, the situation and the randomness of the tour proved hilarious and we laughed the rest of the weekend! 

Strasbourg Tour

The cookie knowledge provided outside various bakeries were in fact very impressive. A massive amount of gingerbread filtered its scent into the narrow streets and the sweet and spicy breads looked amazing. It was a window into German Christmas and there was even a shop selling purely Christmas themed gifts. 

Alsatian Breads

Gateaux l'opera in Alsace

The breads included Kougelhopf, a yeast risen cake similar to brioche bread. Every family has their secret recipe and you will find all sorts of variations. The French spice breads, were on every street corner in boulangeries which each seemed to have a different display. You can buy a loaf, or just a square from a huge block! Either way, it is authentic and delicious. We also had lots of fun exploring the Patisseries and tasting all the amazing Gateaux and l'operas.

Wine caves
  On the second morning we set off on foot, I feared my leg muscles had wasted away. We searched for the historical wine cellars of Strasbourg hospital which were not easy to find. Dating back to 1395, this brick-vaulted wine cellar hides beneath the hospital. It was originally built in a time when wine was considered a cure for all illnesses and now hosts a wine merchants selling Alsatian wines from Rieslings to sweet Muscats. One of its historic barrels is filled with a 1472 vintage and is locked up behind bars.

Enjoying a street cafe

No trip to France would be complete without wasting a few hours in a street cafe eating some measure of cheese. The croque monsieur was the perfect candidate. A baked or fried ham and cheese dish. A soft crust, topped with grated continental cheese. The bread is optionally toasted before and then dipped in whipped eggs, then the whole sandwich is finally baked in the oven so that the top cheese can melt and brown. It originated in French cafes and bars as a quick snack so we figured it would be rude not to try one! We enjoyed one of these while chatting about the hen party and other wedding gossip. But it was then that we determined we needed to seek out La Clouche a Fromage.

World's largest cheese cloche
La Cloche a Fromage or 'cheese bell', is a family-owned restaurant nearby the Cathedral Notre-Dame-de-Strasbourg. The restaurant loves all things cheese and so they have installed the worlds biggest cheese-board according to the Gunniess Book of Records which houses between seventy five and one hundred and ten cheeses (depending on the seasonality). We nervously approached it at the front of the restaurant which honourably works with artisan cheese makers. The display is amazing!

Strasbourg Crepes with Nutella and Banana
Our final foray with food in Strasbourg was a hearty crepe reminiscent of ski trips to the Alps. This and an ameretto coffee to wash it down filled our boots and prepared us for the journey home. Trying to buy a ticket for a French train also proved rather difficult and inspired me to brush up on my basic french. It was mortifying to fail so badly!

We had the best time in Strasbourg and I cannot recommend it enough for a weekend break or if you want to live in a fairytale town!


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