Rest Day 2:
Thursday 29th July 2010: Strasbourg
Breakfast was an ad-hoc affair eaten en route back to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame on the other side of town. The weather was OK. Well, it wasn’t raining which was the main thing. Having seen the cathedral from the outside, I wanted to explore the inside and also the viewing platform which was at the point where they had decided not to build the second spire so it should, I thought, give me a good view of the rest of the city and perhaps, weather permitting, beyond.
As I entered the Place de la Cathédrale, I could see lots of activity taking place just in front of the main entrance to the cathedral itself. A podium was being set up, crash barriers erected along the side of the square and an inflatable arch had been blown up and positioned at the end of the main street out of the square. I took a seat outside the same café that I had visited on the previous evening, ordered a coffee and watched the developing activity all around me. Some moustachioed men had now set up trestle tables just to one side of the podium upon which they were spreading out their documents and a public address system was being tested. My little grey cells were working overtime trying to figure the whole thing out. I reckoned it was some sort of sporting event, a marathon perhaps? But surely I would have noticed lots of activity elsewhere in the city if that was the case. A cycle race? Too late for the Tour de France; that had finished in Paris the previous Sunday and if it had been la Grande Boucle, I wouldn’t have been able to move, let alone find a table on the terrace of a café, even at that early hour. Just as I was finishing the last few sips of my coffee, a van pulled up and out jumped a small band of enthusiastic (and brightly-dressed) young people. They immediately started to dress the podium, crash barriers & even the inflatable arch (don’t use drawing pins!) with publicity material for the Tour Alsace 2010. I had been correct; it was a cycle race albeit a relatively local one. In fact it was the second stage of a five étape event which had started in Colmar (my destination incidentally for the following day) on the previous day and would end the following Sunday in a curiously-named place called Ballon d’Alsace. Today’s destination, after an invigorating cycle of 153 kilometres mainly around the Vosges Mountains would be Bischoffsheim, a small town south-east of Strasbourg. How exciting! Unfortunately for me, the time of departure was set for midday, the same time that I had arranged to meet Claus in La Petite France so I would miss seeing any racing but it was still interesting watching the build-up and gave what would normally have been a quiet Thursday morning in the square a bit of a buzz. The French love their local sporting events. The old guys with moustaches had probably watched the Tour Alsace (or something similar) as kids, gone on to perhaps race in the event themselves and then taken on the mantle of organisation later in life. Not that it was just a parochial affair involving the local Alsatians; teams from Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, Norway, The Netherlands & even one from the USA were listed as taking part. And never let it be said that the French have bowed before the altar of political correctness for not only does the Tour Alsace have a (male) cycling champion, it also has a (female) Miss Tour Alsace and in 2010 that had been a certain Claire Siffert, 20 who was a languages student described by the Tour Alsace publicity machine as une jolie brune. Eric Morley, eat your heart out!
Coffee now well & truly sipped, I made my way into the relative calm of the cathedral. As you might have guessed from the knowledge that it had spent two centuries at the top of the list of tallest buildings in the world, it was impressively lofty inside. It has to be said that many cathedrals are much of a muchness. Ouch! That’s a terrible thing to say isn’t it? Well, they all have their particular points of interest – this one having its astrological clock that chimes midday at the wrong time and its Vitrail de l’Europe or stained glass window dedicated to European unity and designed by Max Ingrand replacing one blown out by an Allied bomb in 1944 – but they all have the same blueprint. You’d think God might have been a bit more impressed if the architects & stone masons of the Middle Ages had gone for something a little more, dare I say, unorthodox. With this sacrilegious thought in mind, I made my way to the entrance of the staircase leading to the viewing platform and a penitential climb of 332 steps. The spiral stairs to the top were encased within the same thin columns that I had been admiring from the square the previous evening; they really were that delicate and would have found a more suitable home on a wedding cake rather than in the structural support job they were doing here. Beautiful nevertheless. Only two-thirds of the wall space sweeping around the stairs was taken up with the elegantly supported windows. The remaining third was stone wall where the stairs were attached to the cathedral and these walls were covered in graffiti. It was the prosaic ‘Claudi + Alex 26.05.2006’ or ‘Je t’aime Shi Yeng!’ kind of stuff written in black marker pen and what I could only guess was bright white correcting fluid that you tend to find on many a large expanse of wall but come on, this was a place of prayer and devotion to God! The last time you visited a cathedral, did you take either a black marker pen or correcting fluid with you? Me neither. At least you can’t fault Claudi, Alex & Shi Yeng on their planning. The graffiti problem got worse towards the top and then when the stairs opened out onto the large panoramic viewing platform, the wall of the tower that had been built was also completely covered. But there was a twist. Whatever attempts the cathedral authorities had been making to clamp down on the graffiti, they had not been effective for quite some time; there was one piece that had been indelibly scrawled on the wall and it read ‘Hervey 12 Oct 1773’. It had been ‘written’, quite ornately, with a chisel. Now when was the last time you took one of those with you when you visited a cathedral?
But I’d come for the view and so I turned my attention away from the vandals of the 18th century and peered over the edge. It was quite hazy (it was no doubt approaching rain clouds) so I couldn’t look back upon the Vosges Mountains that I had successfully conquered the day before. I concentrated my gaze upon the town of Strasbourg which I could see much more clearly and looked down upon the small maze of streets and buildings in the older part of town between the cathedral and La Petite France. It was an unmistakably Germanic view consisting of three- and four-story houses with large shuttered windows topped off with steeply-sided red roofs containing rows of small dormer windows. Immediately below me of course were the ongoing preparations for the Tour Alsace and I watched as they moved around with the organisational efficiency of worker ants. At which point it started raining again so I darted back down the spiral stairs and within a few minutes was back with the ants in the square.
The time was approaching to meet my old friend Claus so I walked briskly through Place Gutenberg, pausing briefly to examine the statue erected to the man who gave his name to the square. Gutenberg was at the top holding a piece of paper (what else?) but on each side of the plinth was a detailed fresco depicting what seemed to be every luminary that had ever lived up until 1840, the date when the statue was erected. I made it to La Petite France with only moments to spare and looked for the bridge where we had agreed to meet. The only problem was that there were about three of them. I called Claus who told me he was also on ‘the bridge’ so I looked down the canal and could see a bearded bloke with a phone in his hand; we were only one bridge out.
Claus is also a languages teacher and we trained together back at university in the UK where we first met. A few years after qualifying he decided that his future lay back in the fatherland so returned to Stuttgart and a very comfortable life teaching English & music to German teenagers rather than their British equivalents. He has many talents; he is above all an excellent linguist speaking English like a native and also has an enviable ability to play the piano without sheet music. If you hum it, he can play it. It is very impressive I assure you. To every yin however, there is a yang and if Claus’ yins are languages and music, his yang is most certainly his love life. He had only just finalised what sounded like an acrimonious divorce from his wife and on the evening we met in Strasbourg was planning to go on a date with a ‘borderline schizophrenic’ (his words, not mine) who he had been chasing. For his sake I was delighted to hear later that it hadn’t worked out.
We spent a good three hours on a café crawl around the pretty La Petite France district chatting, reminiscing & trying to fathom Claus’ love life. The half-timbered houses dated from the 16th & 17th century and used to be the homes and workplaces of fishermen, millers & tanners. Now of course, these kinds of places are the homes & workplaces of waiters, chefs & pickpockets. I don’t think this latter description will read quite so well in a guide book in three hundred years time.
Being a fellow linguist, I asked Claus to explain the language situation in Alsace. I had been speaking French of course to everyone; we were in France after all and anyway, I spoke no German. People replied to me in French so clearly the language was the main language of Strasbourg & Alsace. In addition, everything that I saw – signs, posters, shop names, books, notices in laundrettes(!) – were all written in French and just French. But that didn’t tally with what I was frequently overhearing in bars & cafés. Why were lots of people – young & old – speaking what sounded to me like German? He explained that actually, what I was hearing wasn’t quite German, it was a dialect called Elsässisch. It’s spoken by about 40% of the Alsatian population although its usage is skewed to the older age groups and only around a quarter of children are able to speak it. That said, it is the second most spoken regional language in France. Occitan, the language of the south is at number one and to my surprise at least, Elsässisch is spoken by more people than Breton, the language of Jean-Jacques back at the gate of the Camping Municipal de Metz. Regional languages have been a big issue for the French state over recent years as the constitution of the Fifth Republic (they like them so much they have had five of them!) states, in article two (so it’s up there with the big boys) that ‘La langue de la République est le français’. President Chirac (who is such a good European that he made us waste all that money on another European Parliament building), refused to change the constitution which would have enabled him to sign the Council of Europe’s charter supporting minority languages. According to a 1999 article in the Times Educational Supplement, ratification of the charter ‘…would have reinforced pupil’s rights to a bilingual education in their own regional language’. However, things have now moved on, as has Mr Chirac and in 2008 the French constitution was changed and now includes the simple line ‘Les langues régionales appartiennent au patrimoine de la France’, or ‘Regional languages belong to the patrimoine of France’. We mentioned ‘le patrimoine’ earlier if you remember; it’s all the stuff that makes the French the French and it’s good to know that even if you only speak Elsässisch, you are still part of the French happy family courtesy of article 75-1 of the French Constitution. Just don’t expect a Christmas card from former President Chirac.
I escorted Claus back to his car, wished him luck on his date with the borderline schizophrenic (but had my fingers crossed behind my back), shook his hand and bid him farewell. It had been great to see a familiar face and to a certain extent forget about the cycling for a few hours which, however much I was enjoying it, was not the only thing I was capable of talking about or indeed wanted to talk about.
Heading back to the hotel, I made a detour via the Place de la Cathédrale where by now, all that was left of the Tour Alsace were a few advertising flyers strewn on the cobbles. That little carnival had moved on elsewhere. But I hadn’t come back to see the bright Lycra; I had returned because in one corner of the square was the Strasbourg Office de Tourisme and I needed some information about the Rhine Cycle Route. The cycle route is one of those upon which the Eurovelo 5 piggy backs as it makes its way south although it starts, as it logically would, in Rotterdam. I would be following it all the way to Basel in Switzerland at which point I would pick up the Swiss National Cycle Route 3. Now you would think that a tourist office that is situated in a square which had just hosted a significant, if minor cycling event, might be eager to help a touring cyclist who happened to be passing through their town. Not one bit of it. They were polite but knew nothing of the Rhine Cycle Route. Even a translation into French – La Véloroute du Rhin – didn’t jog any distant memories so I left empty handed hoping that it would simply be very well sign-posted. I contented myself with the supposition that it wouldn’t be difficult to follow a cycle path that itself follows a river.
Back at the hotel with an impromptu buffet of food spread around me on the bed, I studied my map carefully and noticed a very thin red line heading south. A thin green line on the Michelin 1:200,000 series of maps indicates a cycle path, but this one wasn’t following the river, it was following Le Canal du Rhône au Rhin, a linking channel that starts in Strasbourg and heads (initially at least) due south. It ran in a series of dead straight lines all the way to Colmar, my planned destination for the following day. I reckoned that I must have found the Rhine Cycle Route.
I put the maps to one side, lay back on the bed (trying to avoid the remnants of my meal) and switched on the TV. It happened to be the weather forecast which told me that although it would probably rain the following day, Friday, I could look forward to some sun at the weekend. Perhaps, at last, I was about to cross that imaginary line of latitude after which blue skies, sunshine and baking temperatures would be guaranteed. Or had I already fallen asleep and was I dreaming?
(c) Andrew Sykes 2011