Strasbourg: French-German fusion along the Rhine

By Felicity Long
Strasbourg CathedralI was a teenager the first time I visited Strasbourg in France's Alsace-Lorraine, and I remember being intrigued by the local teens I met who spoke a bewildering mix of French and German, often blending the languages in the same sentence.

A lot has changed about this 2,000-year-old city on the Rhine River since then, but the intriguing blend of cultures isn't one of them.

Improved access

Getting there used to be time-consuming, especially for visitors from the U.S. landing in Paris. The launch of the TGV high-speed train in 2007 changed all that, dramatically slashing rail travel time from more than four hours to two hours and 20 minutes. The city's train station, the country's second largest, also links travelers with destinations in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

December 2011 saw the launch of TGV Rhine-Rhone, a transversal line linking the city with Lyon and Marseille. The service is the first TGV line in France that does not serve Paris, instead bringing an influx of new visitors to Strasbourg from Southern France and Southern European countries, according to Geraldine Amar, spokeswoman for the city's Office of Tourism.

Visitor numbers have increased every year since the debut of the TGV, Amar said, and despite the shaky economy, 2011 was a record year for French and international visitors. Although exact numbers aren't available, local tourism officials are noting an influx of visitors with time constraints who, in the past, would likely have spent what little time they had in France solely in Paris.

To ease air travel, Air France inaugurated an express baggage service this summer at a dozen French airports, including Strasbourg, that enables passengers to print their own baggage labels at a self-service kiosk and bypass the baggage-drop line for a drop-off area.

River cruises, which have experienced a spike in popularity over the last few years, are increasingly offering Strasbourg as a featured destination. Strasbourg is the second-largest river harbor in France, Amar said, noting that the Rhine cruises are especially popular with Americans.

"Even with only a one-day stop, they boost our international arrivals," Amar said.

Strasbourg, La Petite FranceEuropean Waterways plies the Alsace-Lorraine region on the 12-passenger barge, Panache, and offers Mercedes minibuses for airport transfers and sightseeing excursions.

The company also debuted new itineraries in Alsace-Lorraine this summer, focusing on the Canal de la Marne, with cruises and whole-boat charters available to October.

"These regions have been fought over for centuries and have changed control between France and Germany many times, so they are bursting with history, culture and traditions drawn from both countries," said Derek Banks, managing director of European Waterways.

In addition to straightforward sightseeing, the cruises feature wine tasting, artisanal lunches and walking tours.

Scenic Cruises, owned by Scenic Tours, is also among the river cruise companies with a strong presence in the region. The company operates two-week Jewels of Europe itineraries along the Rhine that include stops in Strasbourg and a choice of a city tour, wine tasting in the countryside or self-exploration.

Sightseeing and stay-overs

Visitors can see the sights in Strasbourg a number of ways, but for anyone with average mobility, this is a city easily explored on foot.

Strasbourg cafeSelf-guided audio tours are available at the tourist office adjacent to the Gothic Strasbourg Cathedral, while the foot-sore can hop aboard one of the minitrams that circulate through the historical district. The 40-minute ride is accompanied by English narration and begins and ends near the cathedral.

Those looking for a little more independence can navigate the 300 or so miles of cycling trails in the area, the biggest biking network in France. Bike rental firms are widely available, as are in-line skates for those looking for high-adrenaline transport.

Visitors who like the idea of bike touring but lack the muscle to translate that wish into reality can make the most of e-bikes or even Eco'Pouss, an electric tricycle good for up to three passengers.

Any excursion in Strasbourg, which was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1988, will revolve around the iconic cathedral, which, more than most cities, simply dominates the city center. Tour groups jostle for position inside, but a little crowding is worth the attractions of the dramatic interior. The cathedral square is ringed with cafes and shops, where half the fun is to settle in and watch the performance artists and other sightseers who form a steady parade in front of the cathedral doors.

The other hot spot is the riverfront pedestrian area of La Petite France, with its timbered houses, shops and cafes, located within easy walking distance of the cathedral square.

Because of the city's size, even daytrippers can take in the main sights in a day, but those with more time can explore the 10 museums, historic wine cellar -- said to contain the world's oldest barrel, dating from 1472 -- and the art nouveau buildings in the German Imperial district.

Travelers who like to plan ahead can time their visit to coincide with the Christmas market, which runs from late November through Dec. 31. More than 400 years old, the market features concerts, a children's village and stalls selling local, seasonal crafts throughout the city center.

The best way to go sightseeing is with the three-day Strasbourg Pass, priced at about $17, which offers free and discounted admission to attractions throughout the city.

Hotels range from five-star properties like the Sofitel Strasbourg Grande Ile and the Chateau de L'ile & Spa to the quaint hotels in historical buildings, such as the half-timbered Hotel Cour du Corbeau Strasbourg and the new Hotel le Bouclier d'Or in the Petite France district, which opened in a 16th century building in June.

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