As I make my way through France in exploring my French roots in Cere and Southwest France, I had an opportunity to visit another family member in a completely different part of France – the Northeast capital of Alsace. Traveling with a local native is by far the best way to see and experience a city. I didn’t need to plan a single thing, just enjoyed the scene and excellent company with my cousin/tour guide.
Strasbourg is most notable as the “Christmas Capital”: it holds the spot as the oldest and largest Christmas market in Europe. Unfortunately, I missed the markets as I visited Strasbourg in January, but I was still able to feel the city’s wintery warmth and witness the festive lighting that dons the beautiful 15th century houses, medieval churches and city buildings. Aside from the food and wine, I was completely blown away by city’s architecture.
Strasbourg is definitely an overlooked tourist destination in France (at least for Americans), as everyone flocks to Paris, southeastern Provence region and Mediterranean French Riveria including the celeb-sighting, champagne-popping St. Tropez.
Well, I’m in love with Strasbourg, and here’s why…
What to do:
Cave Historique de Hospices: This was the coolest, just because it combines history, culture, and my favorite – wine. My cousin’s fiancé works as a surgeon at the hospital and after we went to visit her during her break, we just hopped underground where you also happen to have the world’s oldest wine cellar. Created in 1395, it served as a place to store wine for the church’s holy communion, as well as for patients, since it was believed that wine lessened both pain and other side-effects of illness. I agree with that statement to this day.
You can walk around to view the entire cellar, where at the end you’ll find an iron gate with a handful of relatively smaller barrels, but with a more ancient shape and architecture. One of these barrels contains wine from 1472. What does this 543-year-old vintage taste like today? Winemakers at the cellar boast that it has retained it’s original vanilla and woody notes, and an alcohol content of 9.4%. It has been served only three times over the course of its history, last tapped in 1944 for the general who led the army division in liberating Strasbourg from German occupation. Most regional winemakers are granted to age their wine in their esteemed kegs. Also available are private tastings and tours, and bottle browsing and purchases were available in the adjacent store. I picked up a bottle of 2010 pinot gris but I have not tried it yet so tasting notes forthcoming.
Stroll through Petite France: The 15th century ginger-bread style houses and quaint cobble stone streets made me feel like I was frolicking through these magical alleyways straight out of a storybook. I later found out that Petite France, located on the Grand Île main island, was classified a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, the first time such an honor was placed on an entire city centre.
Climb to the top of the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral de Strasbourg: You’ll be amazed by the overlooking view from the top, but beware of all the hype around the astronomical clock. Yes, the intricate design, architecture and multi-layered visual construction is something to see, but all said and done, incredibly underwhelming and wouldn’t recommend standing around for the 12:30pm queue.
Where to eat:
Chez Popol: The second you walk in the door of this tiny, 12-seated restaurant you are immediately embraced by a jovial, portly, wise-cracking man with a a mustache Brooklyn hipsters would die for – Monseuir Popol himself. The warm, inviting atmosphere is what really makes this place great, as if you are being entertained at a friend’s house. We dined for lunch where the salads were simply well dressed with fresh shaved cabbage and vegetables, a healthy portion of fresh swiss cheese and ham. Complemented with a bottle of wine, of course.
Restaurant L’Aigle (located right outside of Strasbourg): Tarte flambée is the specialty food d’Alsace and easily enjoyable for any American: imagine a wood-oven baked thin crust pizza with little bits of bacon or ham, swiss cheese, onion and heavy cream. Mmmm. Drink the Picon bier. For those not familiar, Picon is a bitter made from fresh oranges and is traditionally added to the beer in Alsace, which gave the beer a little spicy, earthy orange tint of flavor.
Les Haras Brasserie: This former 18th century horse stable was renovated by Alain Duacsse’s design team and the menu hails from three-star Michelin chef Marc Haeberlin. Whatever you do, don’t ever pass on the foie gras (served with a warm baguette and fruit chutney).
Grab a tasty treat:
Maison Alsacienne de Biscuiterie: Apparently the lines wrap round the block during Christmas here as the bakery prepares the finest Alsatian gingerbread, macarons, raisin-stuffed kougelhopf and butter cookies flavored with nuts and spices.
Pains Westermann: Christine Ferber, an internationally known master patissière nicknamed the “Jam Fairy” who has worked with culinary luminaries including Alain Ducasse, has more jam flavors than you can possible imagine. She has concocted it all from the basic home-made strawberry to the crazy unique creations such as Black Cherry with Pinot Noir, Apricot and Spiced Apple, Rosehip and Vanilla, Rhubarb with Acacia Honey and Rosemary, and Banana, Orange, and Chocolate <<(WHAAAAT!) She even has a Christmas jam (confiture de Noël) which is a mingled mix of dried fruits, almonds, and walnuts with spices such as cardamom and star anise.
I picked up a jar of the specialty Mûroise, which is a loganberry (combination of bramble/blackberry & raspberry). I wish I had grabbed a few more, until I did some digging and found you can order them online here (YOU’RE WELCOME): http://www.borneconfections.com/christineferberjams.aspx.
That’s it, now go out and plan your next French vacation in Strasbourg!