The origin of the name la Petite France, has a less-than-lovely origin – it comes from the Hospice des Vérolés (House for the syphilitic) which during the German occupation was called Franzosenkrankheit (French disease). While the name’s origins may not be charming, the alleyways, canals and houses most certainly are charming! Alsace, the region of France where Strasbourg is located, has a complicated history, flashing back and forth between France and Germany for much of it’s past. In the Middle Ages, la Petite France was the economic centre of the city, and Strasbourg as the region’s most important city. La Petite France once comprised of many merchants, millers, tanners, fishermen and other tradesmen and artisans. Today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, la Petite France (‘little France’) seduces history, culture and architecture buffs with its quintessential streets, half-timbered architecture, colourful houses, quiet riverbank, and charming shops. At Christmastime, the Strasbourg Christmas Market is one of the most famous in Europe and is generally agreed upon to be the best Christmas market in France. Hot wine, sausages, and sauerkraut are local favourites – especially when the weather turns cold! The impressive Strasbourg Cathedral was the world’s tallest building from 1647 to 1874 (so, for 227 years!), and today, it remains the 6th-tallest church in the world. It is the sandstone from nearby Vosges that gives the cathedral its unique pinkish hue.
Featuring the best Christmas markets in France, some of the prettiest wattle-and-daub architecture in the country, and long-time home to the famous Gutenberg, Strasbourg is not a city to be ignored. In the centre of town, there is the famous Strasbourg Cathedral. And next to its famous cathedral, there is a little wooden house. And this little wooden house is pretty special. See, it’s the one of the oldest–and most ornately decorated–medieval buildings featuring Gothic architecture still alive and well today. As it was built in 1427, this little wooden house is pretty old–and still functioning today! Because of Strasbourg’s proximity to Germany and Rhineland (in fact, throughout the city’s history, it frequently changed back and forth between France and Germany). Now French (though historically, German Renaissance), this little wooden draws queues of visitors every year!
France is, of course, a beautiful place – but one of the prettiest places in the country wasn’t officially France for a large part of the last two centuries. Alsace – as well as its sister, Lorraine – played monkey-in-the-middle since the fall of the Roman Empire, bouncing between what constitutes as present-day France and Germany, depending on who had more power at that moment. Because of this, Alsace has both a distinctly German AND French feel to it, making it a unique place. Long before there was a “France” or a “Germany,” these two European giants have shared thousands of years of history, culture, and people. Even today, one finds many Frenchmen with German heritage and vice versa. The famed Gutenberg spent over 15 years of his life in Strasbourg, developing a new idea of his – what we call movable type, otherwise known as the printing press. Aside from shared history, Strasbourg’s beautiful wattle-and-daub architecture along the river is to die for. Known for its exceptional Christmas markets, it’s also a great place to sample vin chaud (hot wine), crepes, as well as regional Germanic specialties such as choucroute garnie (sauerkraut), pork sausages or foie gras. Visit Place Guttenberg and Petite France to become a part of this region’s colourful history.
If you’re not fascinated by castles and cathedrals, stop reading right now. Because to me, there are few things more amazing than the sheer force it took to quarry the stone, carry it away, carve it into all manner of shapes, execute a building plan that won’t fall down, lift the stones up to actually construct the building, create a building using little more than manpower and pulley systems, then adorn it with intricately carved statues and carvings. All before the age of machinery, calculators, computers, factories, electricity, or even indoor plumbing and heating. And the fact that so many of these structures still exist–and you can even go inside them!–is, well, mindblowing. Today, we rarely build things to last, and we also rarely think about the aesthetics of what we are building. In fact, buildings are often put up knowing that they will be pulled down in 10 years’ time. When I was travelling through Alsace via TGV–a lovely way to travel–castle after castle after church after church rose up from the French hillsides to scratch the sky. I don’t know their names and I doubt I ever will, but it’s reassuring that at one point, people cared so much about the things that they were building that they built them to last 800 years. Not only are they still usable today, but their designs are still inspirational and sensational and admired. It’s sad that some of them just sit by the roadside, but it does make for a pleasurable “I spy” game while chugging through the French countryside.