On the first day that postal deliveries resumed here following the New Years’ holiday, I received a thick registered envelope from France. Inside were sixteen unused postcards — two advertising seafood from Iceland and the remainder were a variety of cards from the ancient city of Strasbourg (it celebrated its 2,000th anniversary in 1988).
This was quite a surprise as I knew I hadn’t arranged a trade; I generally prefer my postcards stamped with written messages. I don’t know anybody in Strasbourg and I checked the name against the members in the (many) Facebook groups that I’ve joined. The envelope didn’t include a note to give me a clue (although there was a loose 5-centime Swiss coin inside). So, it is quite a mystery. The sender did provide his return address, however, so I plan to reciprocate by sending him a selection of local cards in the near future. Gifts deserve gifts in return!
Strasbourg (Strossburi in Alsatian and Straßburg in German) is the capital and largest city of the Grand Est region of France and is the official seat of the European Parliament. Located close to the border with Germany in the historic region of Alsace, it is the capital of the Bas-Rhin département. In 2014, the city proper had 276,170 inhabitants and both the Eurométropole de Strasbourg (Greater Strasbourg) and the Arrondissement of Strasbourg had 484,157 inhabitants. Strasbourg’s metropolitan area had a population of 773,347 in 2013 (not counting the section across the border in Germany), making it the ninth largest metro area in France and home to 13% of the Grand Est region’s inhabitants. The transnational Eurodistrict Strasbourg-Ortenau had a population of 915,000 inhabitants in 2014.
Strasbourg is one of the de facto capitals of the European Union (alongside Brussels and Luxembourg), as it is the seat of several European institutions, such as the Council of Europe (with its European Court of Human Rights, its European Directorate for the Quality of Medicines and its European Audiovisual Observatory) and the Eurocorps, as well as the European Parliament and the European Ombudsman of the European Union. The city is also the seat of the Central Commission for Navigation on the Rhine and the International Institute of Human Rights.
Strasbourg’s historic city center, the Grande Île (Grand Island), was classified a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1988, the first time such an honor was placed on an entire city center. Strasbourg is immersed in the Franco-German culture and although violently disputed throughout history, has been a cultural bridge between France and Germany for centuries, especially through the University of Strasbourg, currently the second largest in France, and the coexistence of Catholic and Protestant culture. The largest Islamic place of worship in France, the Strasbourg Grand Mosque, was inaugurated by French Interior Minister Manuel Valls on September 27, 2012.
Economically, Strasbourg is an important center of manufacturing and engineering, as well as a hub of road, rail, and river transportation. The port of Strasbourg is the second largest on the Rhine after Duisburg, Germany.
Before the 5th century, the city was known as Argantorati (in the nominative, Argantorate in the locative), a Celtic Gaulish name Latinized first as Argentorate (with Gaulish locative ending, as appearing on the first Roman milestones in the 1st century CE), and then as Argentoratum (with regular Latin nominative ending, in later Latin texts). That Gaulish name is a compound of –rati, the Gaulish word for fortified enclosures, cognate to the Old Irish ráth (ringfort), and arganto(n)- (cognate to Latin argentum, which gave modern French argent), the Gaulish word for silver, but also any precious metal, particularly gold, suggesting either a fortified enclosure located by a river gold mining site, or hoarding gold mined in the nearby rivers.
After the 5th century, the city became known by a completely different name Gallicized as Strasbourg. That name is of Germanic origin and means “Town (at the crossing) of roads”. The modern Stras– is cognate to the German Straße and English street, all of which are derived from Latin strata (“paved road”), while -bourg is cognate to the German Burg and English borough, all of which are derived from Proto-Germanic *burgz (“hill fort, fortress”).
The Roman camp of Argentoratum was first mentioned in 12 BC; the city of Strasbourg which grew from it celebrated its 2,000th anniversary in 1988. The fertile area between the rivers Ill and Rhine (Grand Ried and Petit Ried) had already been populated since the middle Paleolithic.
Between 362 and 1262, Strasbourg was governed by the bishops of Strasbourg; their rule was reinforced in 873 and then more in 982. In 1262, the citizens violently rebelled against the bishop’s rule (Battle of Hausbergen) and Strasbourg became a free imperial city. It became a French city in 1681, after the conquest of Alsace by the armies of Louis XIV. In 1871, after the Franco-Prussian War, the city became German again, until 1918 (end of World War I), when it reverted to France. After the defeat of France in 1940 (World War II), Strasbourg came under German control again; since the end of 1944, it is again a French town. In 2016, Strasbourg was promoted from capital of Alsace to capital of Grand Est.
Strasbourg played an important part in Protestant Reformation, with personalities such as John Calvin, Martin Bucer, Wolfgang Capito, Katharina Zell, but also in other aspects of Christianity such as German mysticism, with Johannes Tauler, Pietism, with Philipp Spener, and Reverence for Life, with Albert Schweitzer. Delegates from the city took part in the Protestation at Speyer. It was also one of the first centers of the printing industry with pioneers such as Johannes Gutenberg, Johannes Mentelin, and Heinrich Eggestein. Among the darkest periods in the city’s long history were the years 1349 (Strasbourg massacre), 1793 (Reign of Terror), 1870 (Siege of Strasbourg) and the years 1940–1944 with the Nazi occupation (atrocities such as the Jewish skeleton collection) and the British and American bombing raids. Some other notable dates were the years 357 (Battle of Argentoratum), 842 (Oaths of Strasbourg), 1538 (establishment of the university), 1605 (world’s first newspaper printed by Johann Carolus), 1792 (La Marseillaise), and 1889 (pancreatic origin of diabetes discovered by Minkowski and Von Mering).
The city is chiefly known for its sandstone Gothic Cathedral with its famous astronomical clock, and for its medieval cityscape of Rhineland black and white timber-framed buildings, particularly in the Petite France district or Gerberviertel (“tanners’ district”) alongside the Ill and in the streets and squares surrounding the cathedral, where the renowned Maison Kammerzell stands out.
Notable medieval streets include Rue Mercière, Rue des Dentelles, Rue du Bain aux Plantes, Rue des Juifs, Rue des Frères, Rue des Tonneliers, Rue du Maroquin, Rue des Charpentiers, Rue des Serruriers, Grand’ Rue, Quai des Bateliers, Quai Saint-Nicolas and Quai Saint-Thomas. Notable medieval squares include Place de la Cathédrale, Place du Marché Gayot, Place Saint-Étienne, Place du Marché aux Cochons de Lait and Place Benjamin Zix.
In addition to the cathedral, Strasbourg houses several other medieval churches that have survived the many wars and destructions that have plagued the city: the Romanesque Église Saint-Étienne, partly destroyed in 1944 by Allied bombing raids, the part Romanesque, part Gothic, very large Église Saint-Thomas with its Silbermann organ on which Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Albert Schweitzer played, the Gothic Église protestante Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune with its crypt dating back to the seventh century and its cloister partly from the eleventh century, the Gothic Église Saint-Guillaume with its fine early-Renaissance stained glass and furniture, the Gothic Église Saint-Jean, the part Gothic, part Art Nouveau Église Sainte-Madeleine, etc. The Neo-Gothic church Saint-Pierre-le-Vieux Catholique (there is also an adjacent church Saint-Pierre-le-Vieux Protestant) serves as a shrine for several 15th-century wood worked and painted altars coming from other, now destroyed churches and installed there for public display. Among the numerous secular medieval buildings, the monumental Ancienne Douane (old custom-house) stands out.
The German Renaissance has bequeathed the city some noteworthy buildings (especially the current Chambre de commerce et d’industrie, former town hall, on Place Gutenberg), as did the French Baroque and Classicism with several hôtels particuliers (i.e. palaces), among which the Palais Rohan (1742, now housing three museums) is the most spectacular. Other buildings of its kind are the “Hôtel de Hanau” (1736, now the city hall), the Hôtel de Klinglin (1736, now residence of the préfet), the Hôtel des Deux-Ponts (1755, now residence of the military governor), the Hôtel d’Andlau-Klinglin (1725, now seat of the administration of the Port autonome de Strasbourg) etc. The largest baroque building of Strasbourg though is the 150-metre-long (490 ft) 1720s main building of the Hôpital civil. As for French Neo-classicism, it is the Opera House on Place Broglie that most prestigiously represents this style.
Strasbourg also offers high-class eclecticist buildings in its very extended German district, the Neustadt, being the main memory of Wilhelmian architecture since most of the major cities in Germany proper suffered intensive damage during World War II. Streets, boulevards and avenues are homogeneous, surprisingly high (up to seven stories) and broad examples of German urban lay-out and of this architectural style that summons and mixes up five centuries of European architecture as well as Neo-Egyptian, Neo-Greek and Neo-Babylonian styles. The former imperial palace Palais du Rhin, the most political and thus heavily criticized of all German Strasbourg buildings epitomizes the grand scale and stylistic sturdiness of this period. But the two most handsome and ornate buildings of these times are the École internationale des Pontonniers (the former Höhere Mädchenschule, girls college) with its towers, turrets and multiple round and square angles and the Haute école des arts du Rhin with its lavishly ornate façade of painted bricks, woodwork and majolica.
Notable streets of the German district include: Avenue de la Forêt Noire, Avenue des Vosges, Avenue d’Alsace, Avenue de la Marseillaise, Avenue de la Liberté, Boulevard de la Victoire, Rue Sellénick, Rue du Général de Castelnau, Rue du Maréchal Foch, and Rue du Maréchal Joffre. Notable squares of the German district include: Place de la République, Place de l’Université, Place Brant, and Place Arnold.
Impressive examples of Prussian military architecture of the 1880s can be found along the newly reopened Rue du Rempart, displaying large-scale fortifications among which the aptly named Kriegstor (war gate).
As for modern and contemporary architecture, Strasbourg possesses some fine Art Nouveau buildings (such as the huge Palais des Fêtes and houses and villas like Villa Schutzenberger and Hôtel Brion), good examples of post-World War II functional architecture (the Cité Rotterdam, for which Le Corbusier did not succeed in the architectural contest) and, in the very extended Quartier Européen, some spectacular administrative buildings of sometimes utterly large size, among which the European Court of Human Rights building by Richard Rogers is arguably the finest. Other noticeable contemporary buildings are the new Music school Cité de la Musique et de la Danse, the Musée d’Art moderne et contemporain and the Hôtel du Département facing it, as well as, in the outskirts, the tramway-station Hoenheim-Nord designed by Zaha Hadid.
The city has many bridges, including the medieval and four-towered Ponts Couverts that, despite their name, are no longer covered. Next to the Ponts Couverts is the Barrage Vauban, a part of Vauban’s 17th-century fortifications, that does include a covered bridge. Other bridges are the ornate 19th-century Pont de la Fonderie (1893, stone) and Pont d’Auvergne (1892, iron), as well as architect Marc Mimram’s futuristic Passerelle over the Rhine, opened in 2004.
The largest square at the center of the city of Strasbourg is the Place Kléber. Located in the heart of the city’s commercial area, it was named after general Jean-Baptiste Kléber, born in Strasbourg in 1753 and assassinated in 1800 in Cairo. In the square is a statue of Kléber, under which is a vault containing his remains. On the north side of the square is the Aubette (Orderly Room), built by Jacques François Blondel, architect of the king, in 1765–1772.
Strasbourg features a number of prominent parks, of which several are of cultural and historical interest: the Parc de l’Orangerie, laid out as a French garden by André le Nôtre and remodeled as an English garden on behalf of Joséphine de Beauharnais, now displaying noteworthy French gardens, a neo-classical castle and a small zoo; the Parc de la Citadelle, built around impressive remains of the 17th-century fortress erected close to the Rhine by Vauban; the Parc de Pourtalès, laid out in English style around a baroque castle (heavily restored in the 19th century) that now houses a small three-star hotel, and featuring an open-air museum of international contemporary sculpture.
The Jardin botanique de l’Université de Strasbourg (botanical garden) was created under the German administration next to the Observatory of Strasbourg, built in 1881, and still owns some greenhouses of those times. The Parc des Contades, although the oldest park of the city, was completely remodeled after World War II. The futuristic Parc des Poteries is an example of European park-conception in the late 1990s. The Jardin des deux Rives, spread over Strasbourg and Kehl on both sides of the Rhine opened in 2004 and is the most extended (60-hectare) park of the agglomeration. The most recent park is Parc du Heyritz (8,7 ha), opened in 2014 along a canal facing the hôpital civil.
Unlike most other cities, Strasbourg’s collections of European art are divided into several museums according not only to type and area, but also to epoch. Old master paintings from the Germanic Rhenish territories and until 1681 are displayed in the Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame, old master paintings from all the rest of Europe (including the Dutch Rhenish territories) and until 1871 as well as old master paintings from the Germanic Rhenish territories between 1681 and 1871 are displayed in the Musée des Beaux-Arts. Old master graphic arts until 1871 is displayed in the Cabinet des estampes et dessins. Decorative arts until 1681 (“German period”) are displayed in the Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame, decorative arts from 1681 to 1871 (“French period”) are displayed in the Musée des Arts décoratifs. International art (painting, sculpture, graphic arts) and decorative art since 1871 is displayed in the Musée d’art moderne et contemporain. The latter museum also displays the city’s photographic library.
Strasbourg, well known as a center of humanism, has a long history of excellence in higher-education, at the crossroads of French and German intellectual traditions. Although Strasbourg had been annexed by the Kingdom of France in 1683, it still remained connected to the German-speaking intellectual world throughout the 18th century and the university attracted numerous students from the Holy Roman Empire, including Goethe, Metternich and Montgelas, who studied law in Strasbourg, among the most prominent. Nowadays, Strasbourg is known to offer among the best university courses in France, after Paris.
The Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire (BNU) is, with its collection of more than 3,000,000 titles, the second largest library in France after the Bibliothèque nationale de France. It was founded by the German administration after the complete destruction of the previous municipal library in 1871 and holds the unique status of being simultaneously a students’ and a national library. The Strasbourg municipal library had been marked erroneously as “City Hall” in a French commercial map, which had been captured and used by the German artillery to lay their guns. A librarian from Munich later pointed out “…that the destruction of the precious collection was not the fault of a German artillery officer, who used the French map, but of the slovenly and inaccurate scholarship of a Frenchman.”
The municipal library Bibliothèque municipale de Strasbourg (BMS) administrates a network of ten medium-sized librairies in different areas of the town. A six stories high “Grande bibliothèque”, the Médiathèque André Malraux, was inaugurated on September 19, 2008, and is considered the largest in Eastern France.
As one of the earliest centers of book-printing in Europe, Strasbourg for a long time held a large number of incunabula — documents printed before 1500 — in her library as one of her most precious heritages. After the total destruction of this institution in 1870, however, a new collection had to be reassembled from scratch. Today, Strasbourg’s different public and institutional libraries again display a sizable total number of incunabula, distributed as follows: Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire 2,098; Médiathèque de la ville et de la communauté urbaine de Strasbourg, 394; Bibliothèque du Grand Séminaire, 238; Médiathèque protestante, 94; and Bibliothèque alsatique du Crédit Mutuel, 5.
Train services operate from the Gare de Strasbourg, the city’s main station in the city center, eastward to Offenburg and Karlsruhe in Germany, westward to Metz and Paris, and southward to Basel. Strasbourg’s links with the rest of France have improved due to its recent connection to the TGV network, with the first phase of the TGV Est (Paris–Strasbourg) in 2007, the TGV Rhin-Rhône (Strasbourg-Lyon) in 2012, and the second phase of the TGV Est in July 2016.
Strasbourg also has its own airport, serving major domestic destinations as well as international destinations in Europe and northern Africa. The airport is linked to the Gare de Strasbourg by a frequent train service.
City transportation in Strasbourg includes the futurist-looking Strasbourg tramway that opened in 1994 and is operated by the regional transit company Compagnie des Transports Strasbourgeois (CTS), consisting of 6 lines with a total length of 55.8 km (34.7 mi). The CTS also operates a comprehensive bus network throughout the city that is integrated with the trams. With more than 500 km (311 mi) of bicycle paths, biking in the city is convenient and the CTS operates a cheap bike-sharing scheme named Vélhop’. The CTS, and its predecessors, also operated a previous generation of tram system between 1878 and 1960, complemented by trolleybus routes between 1939 and 1962.
Being a city on the Ill and close to the Rhine, Strasbourg has always been an important center of fluvial navigation, as is attested by archeological findings. In 1682, the Canal de la Bruche was added to the river navigations, initially to provide transport for sandstone from quarries in the Vosges for use in the fortification of the city. That canal has since closed, but the subsequent Canal du Rhone au Rhine, Canal de la Marne au Rhin and Grand Canal d’Alsace are still in use, as is the important activity of the Port autonome de Strasbourg. Water tourism inside the city proper attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists yearly.
The tram system that now criss-crosses the historic city center complements walking and biking in it. The downtown area has been transformed into a pedestrian priority zone that enables and invites walking and biking by making these active modes of transport comfortable, safe and enjoyable. These attributes are accomplished by applying the principle of “filtered permeability” to the existing irregular network of streets. It means that the network adaptations favor active transportation and, selectively, “filter out” the car by reducing the number of streets that run through the center. While certain streets are discontinuous for cars, they connect to a network of pedestrian and bike paths which permeate the entire center. In addition, these paths go through public squares and open spaces increasing the enjoyment of the trip. This logic of filtering a mode of transport is fully expressed in a comprehensive model for laying out neighborhoods and districts – the Fused Grid.
At present the A35 autoroute, which parallels the Rhine between Karlsruhe and Basel, and the A4 autoroute, which links Paris with Strasbourg, penetrate close to the center of the city. The Grand contournement ouest (GCO) project, programmed since 1999, plans to construct a 24-kilometre-long (15 mi) highway connection between the junctions of the A4 and the A35 autoroutes in the north and of the A35 and A352 autoroutes in the south. This routes well to the west of the city and is meant to divest a significant portion of motorized traffic from the unité urbaine.
Fourteen postcards from Strasbourg (and two from Iceland) is a nice start to what I hope to be a New Year filled with postcards arriving in my mailbox.