Once Upon a Time in Strasbourg

by Greta Craig

We opened a door to the terrace and stepped out into what I can only describe as a fairy tale world.

Time is a strange thing, especially when you’re travelling.

One moment, my boyfriend, Matt, and I were lazily making our way through the seventeen pool, steam, and spa stations at the Roman Baths in Baden-Baden, Germany. The next, we were charging out of a restaurant, schnitzels in hand, to catch a bus back to the station to board our next train.

Luckily, Baden-Baden is a relaxed little town, and the bus we ran to catch was delayed enough for us to jump on it just before it rattled away. We looked at each other in relief, and attempted to take bites of our untouched schnitzels.

A shout from the transit officer, at the back of the bus, made us lower our hands. He did not appreciate the fact that we had entered the bus with enormous, greasy schnitzels in our hands.

Matt gave me a forlorn look. I nodded resignedly, and handed him my food. At the next stop, he got out, stuffed as much schnitzel into his mouth as he could, and then dumped our dinner into the trash before sprinting back to catch the bus.

It was a waste of food, but we had to do it if we were going to catch our train, which was due to leave the station in twenty minutes.

We arrived on time and found the platform with five minutes to spare. Matt produced a wet wipe that he’d been carrying in his bag for a week and a half, with an “I told you we were going to need this at some point” expression, and we used it to wipe our hands.

The train arrived, and we boarded as the sun began to set, excited to watch it set over the rolling hills on our short trip to our next destination, Strasbourg, France.

One hour later, we were still on that same train, but it hadn’t left the station.

The last thing that either of us wanted to do on our trip was complain, but as our stomachs rumbled, it was hard not to think about the uneaten schnitzels that, it turns out, we would have had more than enough time to eat.

Matt, who spoke enough German to have gotten us through four towns at this point, couldn’t decipher anything more than “the train is delayed” from the voice coming out of the intercom. And so we sat and waited. More announcements were made, and Matt thought he might have heard something about some kind of police investigation, but couldn’t be sure.

Another hour later, an announcement chopped across the intercom, and people began to cheer. Two hours after we were supposed to have left, we were finally moving.

At our transfer station, we were told that a bus would be replacing our train to Strasbourg. Once on the bus, a nice German man, who spoke a bit of English, informed us that this bus was only going as far as a small town on the German border, and if we wanted to get to Strasbourg tonight, he suggested that we walk.

The walk to Strasbourg, according to our dying phones, was 5.5 kilometers, and would take us approximately an hour and 10 minutes, assuming that we didn’t get lost. Given that it was midnight, neither of us was too keen on the idea.

We still hadn’t decided what to do when the bus dropped us off at the small German border town of Kehl. That was when our luck began to change. Taxis lined the train station, as if waiting to take us to our Airbnb.

At around one in the morning, we arrived in Strasbourg and stumbled our way into our Airbnb. It had been an exciting adventure, but now we were hungry, tired, and wanted to go to sleep.

The next morning, we were awoken by the sound of church bells, and bright orange sunlight.

We opened a door to the terrace and stepped out into what I can only describe as a fairy tale world. Our Airbnb was on the top floor of a three-story walk up in an area called Petite France. From our rooftop terrace, we could see hundreds of half-timbered houses, painted in cheerful yellow, green, pink, and blue. The cobble stone street below us was lined with little restaurants and bakeries, the facades of which were adorned with potted plants and ivy. A glittering moat ran adjacent to the lanes on either side of it. As if to add an extra sprinkle of magic to the scene, a pair of white swans were drifting along the shimmering water.

Eager to explore more of the city, we showered and made our way outside. It was a Sunday, and everything was still closed, or just setting up to open.

A series of church bells chimed in succession, signaling the end of the morning service. We decided to follow the sound of the bells. They led us past more cobblestone streets and pastel houses. Then we turned a corner, and our jaws dropped.

An elderly British man, who had rounded the corner behind us gasped, “Wow! Look at that!”

We were standing in front of a gargantuan gothic church. Its walls were made of blackish brown sandstone, and were red in several places, as though stained with blood. It had high, harsh turrets, and as we got closer, we saw several mischievous looking gargoyles, and other creepy looking creatures, carved into its walls, and crouched in the corners of its towers.

Matt immediately pulled out his phone and informed me that we were looking at the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg, which was over 1,000 years old.

“Listen to this,” Matt said, eagerly reading from Wikipedia, “Do you see how windy it is up there? Apparently, ‘in olden days, the Devil flew over the ground, riding the wind. Thus he caught a glimpse of his portrait carved onto the cathedral… Very flattered and curious, the Devil had the idea to enter to see whether there were other sculptures representing him on the inside of the cathedral. Taken captive inside the holy place, he could not come back out. The wind always waits in the square and still howls today from impatience on the places outside the cathedral. The Devil, furious, makes air currents from the bottom of the church to the height of the pillar of angels.’”

“Creepy,” I said.

“According to legend, there’s a lake underneath it, too,” Matt continued. “Apparently, there’s this empty boat that sails across it, and you can hear the oars from inside the church. It’s believed that the entrance to the lake is in one of the cellars of a neighbouring house.”

“I need to move here and write a fantasy novel,” I said, my mind exploding with inspiration.

He laughed, and we migrated towards a bakery. It had just opened, and already a line of hungry churchgoers and tourists was forming in front of it. Its glossy storefront was creatively arranged with pretzels, pastries, and sandwiches, and the warm smell of bread and cheese wafted from its open door.

We ordered a meat sandwich that had so much cheese- it was incredible. There was cheese in the middle, there was cheese between the meat, and there was cheese on the outside on the bread. It was almost too much (almost).

We took our food to a mystical secret garden, somewhere in the centre of town, and ate it on a silver bench in the shade of a wise looking old tree. The rest of our day was spent meandering through the cobblestone streets, touring old churches and buildings along the sparkling moat, sipping coffee, sampling éclairs, cheeses, and sandwiches from the shops, and trying to improve on our abysmal French skills.

The following day, we walked the fifteen minutes from our Airbnb to the train station, took a thirty minute train to a neighbouring town called Colmar, rented bikes, and explored the Alsace wine region. We biked to a small village, called Eguisheim, which I am convinced was the inspiration for the town that Belle of “Beauty and the Beast” lives in in. There were narrow, cobblestone lanes, overgrown with ivy, and a beautiful old church and fountain in the centre of the village. The narrow lanes were impossible for cars to drive through, so it really did feel like being transported to another era.

There were hundreds of little family wineries around here, many of which had been around for hundreds of years. We popped in and out of their brightly coloured semi-panelled houses, touring their historic cellars and sampling their wines.

While having lunch, Matt commented on an interesting looking village farther up the hill. Feeling adventurous, we walked up through the vineyards towards it. There were three old castles perched high above it, but we couldn’t make it up that far. When we got to the town, a coat of arms with three castles, a sword, a heart, and a grape vine, informed us that we were in Husseren-les-Châteaux.

The building we had seen from far off was a small, very old church. There was no one around, and the door was open, so we went inside, admiring the stained glass. Then we wandered through the town, which had no tourists and very few locals in sight. We came across a few wineries, where the owners were so impressed that we had walked there, they offered us samples of wine.

We, of course, ended up purchasing quite a few bottles, surprised at inexpensive they were. It was possible to get a delicious bottle for 8-15 Euros. In fact, the whole Strasbourg area turned out to be surprisingly affordable. Our Airbnb was $80 Canadian a night, the train to and from Colmar was 6 Euros, and the food was all pretty much the same price, if not a bit cheaper, than food in Canada.

As we rode the train back to Strasbourg later that afternoon, we pointed out all the adorable little villages, and castles on the hills, that we wished we could have visited. There was so much to explore, and we felt like we barely scratched the surface of it in our two days of being there.

In addition to looking like the setting of a Grimm fairy tale, the artistry of the individuals in this area was infectious. Every storeowner, whether they were selling éclairs or chocolate or wine or handbags, took such pride in their craft. I could feel their love for what they were doing as I walked through their intricately decorated shop fronts; taste it when I sampled their food. Their love for their art, and for the moment, had fully transported us, by the end of our trip, to a place that was timeless.

Back in Strasbourg, we went for a delicious dinner in Petite France, and then wandered along the moat again. As the sun began to adopt that coppery tone it gets before sunset, we found that we had made our way back to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg. All of the tourists were gone now, as were the churchgoers. No one was in the square in front of the church, except for a flock of pigeons drifting lazily with the wind, and an eccentric looking French man, carrying a cello case.

He sat down in front of the church’s reverent front doors, took out his cello, and began to play.

As though in a trance, we made our way towards the man, and sat on the cobblestones in front of him. We gazed up at the little man in front of the monstrous building as his silvery music ricochet off the walls of the blood red church, and the last rays of golden sunlight fell, like glitter, from the sky.

I wondered about this man. Did he come to play here every night? Was he a traveller who was here just for today? I did not know, and somehow, I didn’t need to.

Time is a strange thing, when you’re travelling. In that moment, or perhaps it was hours, I really couldn’t say, as we listened to the cellist of Strasbourg play, time stopped for us.

Greta is a writer and teacher based in Toronto, Ontario. She grew up in Singapore, and has always been an avid traveler. She has explored Southeast Asia, Australia, and Canada. On her recent trip to the UK, Netherlands, Germany, France, and Spain, she fell in love with Europe.

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