People travel usually only to popular cities, which is fine for tourists who don’t have the luxury of time.
In my case, after visiting Paris a couple of times, I thought of exploring other parts of France; the diversity of these places offered wonderful surprises.
Strasbourg, the capital of the Alsace region in eastern France, is close to the border with Germany. That explains why the architecture of houses and establishments, as well as the names of districts and towns, including the name of Strasbourg itself, look and sound very German.
Strasbourg has been the object of violent dispute between the French and the Germans throughout its history.
If there were no patisseries, bistros and boulangeries to be found at every street corner, it would seem that Strasbourg is not in France.
Just like medieval times
One can take a two-day trip to see its main sights. Petite-France, located on the Grande Île (Main Island), looks like a neighborhood in medieval times—blocks and blocks of half-timber houses and sandstone buildings; it used to have tanneries and slaughterhouses during the Middle Ages.
The original architecture of these buildings—now comprised of residential and commercial units, boutiques, restaurants and shops—has been preserved.
It felt great to walk around and take photos; since it was winter and numbing cold, ducking into a café for some chocolat chaud (hot chocolate) and a pastry was almost mandatory.
Not a pizza
For foodies, the Alsace region has a few things you might not find elsewhere. For instance, try the tarte flambée or flammekueche at least once. It looks like a pizza, but I’ve been gently admonished by friends who grew up there, that “it is NOT pizza.”
Nevertheless, this rolled bread dough with crème fraiche (soured cream), sliced onions and lardons (strips or cubes of pork fat) is heaven in each bite. There are varieties—some with chevre or goat cheese, others with munster cheese or mushrooms.
Whichever you get, it’s good to wash it down with a glass or two of Gewürztraminer, an Alsatian wine.
It’s good to know that foie gras was invented in Strasbourg, which means they make it real good here. One night, I cooked foie gras in a spiced bread. I happily slipped into a food coma.
There was also a raw milk cheese that is oven-baked until liquid and eaten with bread. I was taken aback by how delicious it was. It is available mostly during winter and gets harder to find as the weather gets warmer.
An hour away from Strasbourg is Mont Sainte-Odile, 760-meter peak of the Vosges Mountains named after Saint Odile, patroness of good eyesight and of Alsace.
It has a monastery/convent at the top called the Hohenburg Abbey, which existed during the time of Charlemagne in the 7th century, before being destroyed and rebuilt. In the winter it looks lonely, serene, and mysterious.
Another hour away is Riquewihr, known for my favorite Riesling wine. It has also kept much of its architecture and charm from the 16th century.
If Petite-France in Strasbourg resembled a scene from “Beauty and the Beast,” Riquewihr was mind-blowing. Despite the below-zero temperature, it felt great walking around the village and taking pictures of what looked like a movie set.
There is an association called Les plus beaux villages de France (The most beautiful villages in France) and Riquewihr is on its list.
A few kilometers away is Colmar, another typical Alsatian village. There are restaurants and hotels in an area by the River Lauch called La Petite Venise or Little Venice.
Aside from its breathtaking architecture and views, Strasbourg is also the seat of the European Parliament. It is a five-hour drive from Paris but only two hours by train.
While the Eiffel Tower stands majestic with its blinking lights at night, and the Champs-Elysees has its massive shopping street, Strasbourg has its quiet charm and unique character—definitely something new to experience in France.