The sombre beauty of Strasbourg

July 28, 2019

The city of war, this tourist destination in France, carries an air of uneasiness and charm like hardly any other place

The sombre beauty of Strasbourg

During my first year at college, my journalism professor had invited an Asian woman to speak to the class. She was old and frail, and looked tired. I still remember sensing something sombre about her -- even before we found out what the talk was about.

After brief introductions, she started narrating her life story. A life-altering event that involved the murder of her daughter and her grandchild by her daughter’s husband had taken place almost two decades ago. Yet, to her, it felt just like last night.

In the three years since I have left college, not once did I think about her - till I reached Strasbourg, France.

I was oblivious about Strasbourg till a month ago. I had for some strange reason confused it with Salzburg. So, when the family trip was planned, with one of the destinations being Strasbourg via train from Paris, I thought, "Man! That’ll be a long train ride all the way to Austria". But it turned out to be a city in France, two hours away from Paris, right next to the German border.

We arrived in Strasbourg early July. As this was our third destination, we were tired of planning and researching. We had no idea what to expect of this little French city.

By the time we checked into our hotel (which had been converted from an old stud farm in 2006), I could sense sharp pangs of hunger. The hotel quietly sat on the corner of a street, in the midst of what seemed like residential buildings but we didn’t see many residents during our two-night stay there. Famished, we headed to the city centre for lunch. We walked past silent streets. It felt like we were in some ghost town. We began to doubt our decision to come here -- till we walked past the beautiful, multicoloured half-timber buildings that overlooked River Ill and over the medieval bridge that connected this area to the Grande Île, the island at the centre of the historic city of Strasbourg. By now we were convinced that we were in an eerie but beautiful city.

We sat at one of the first restaurants we came across. It was a casual Greek eatery where I ordered an open lamb shawarma. While waiting for the order to be served, I started to read up on Strasbourg. I came across something called the Dancing Plague. In 1518, a woman began to passionately dance in a street of Strasbourg. She went on for about four to six days, afterwards 34 other people joined her, and within a month about 400 people, mostly women, were dancing in the streets. Many died of exhaustion, stroke or heart attack. While the exact number of deaths is not known, it is said almost 15 people died every day.

The walk back to the hotel, over the bridge and through the narrow, cobbled streets to the residential area was like slowly turning down the volume of a stereo - which went completely quiet as we arrived at the hotel.

As I sat in this pretty, little roadside café, eating shawarma, I looked around and wondered if these people died from dancing right where I sat.

We paid the bill and went out to see the city. The touristy areas were busier than rest of the island. The narrow, cobbled streets lined with shops, cafes, creperies and bars led us to a beautiful square called Place Gutenberg. The square had a large merry-go-round in the centre, street musicians playing pleasing tunes, and all around us were half-timbered buildings. As we walked on, we reached the majestic Cathedral Notre Dame -- a structure overwhelmingly huge and gothic and gorgeous. I’m still not sure how the sight of the cathedral made me feel. I entered the building, I experienced a silence like I hadn’t ever before.

Tired, we decided to call it a day. The walk back to the hotel, over the bridge and through the narrow, cobbled streets to the residential area was like slowly turning down the volume of a stereo - which went completely quiet as we arrived at the hotel. I thought about the Dancing Plague, the people who saw others dying yet kept dancing, and danced till their own death. Strange place.

But it was the next day’s boat ride that really sent chills down our spines.

Everyone was supposed to do their own thing before meeting at the dock at 3pm. The 90 minute ride was meant to acquaint us with the history of the city. As the boat began to move, we put on the headsets and tuned in to the English channel. "And these bridges that you see above us were used to put criminals in cages and then plunged to their deaths from there. They would be kept in the cages for passersby to look at for a few days before being thrown into the water. And this particular bridge was known as the bridge of torture." These were the pretty, flower lined, must-take-a-photograph-with bridges that connected the rest of the city to the island.

The boat then entered a beautiful area we had not seen by foot as yet. On both sides of the river were half-timbered, multicoloured houses with sloping roofs. On both sides of the river were railings with flower pots. We could see bicycles parked outside busy cafes and restaurants. "This area is called Petite France, and takes its name from a terrible disease, syphilis, or as the Germans used to call it: the French Disease. The soldiers suffering from it were treated at a hospital nearby. And the colourful houses on both sides were either slaughterhouses or occupied by the tanners," played the audio recording.

The city of Strasbourg saw the first and worst pogroms in the pre-modern history. In 1349 over a thousand Jews were publicly burnt to death and others expelled from the city. Till the 18th century, a trumpet was blown at 10pm every night that signalled to the Jews to leave the city. They were forbidden to stay in the city overnight. The city has been a victim of wars, including the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 when the city was heavily bombarded by the Prussian army. It was annexed by Germany and France multiple times before finally becoming a part of France. The German influence is very much visible throughout the city.

The rest of the boat ride was spent looking at cathedrals, museums, execution towers, and weirs built during wars. It was like taking a ride through a postcard picture, almost unreal. I wondered about the paradoxical nature of one of the most beautiful cities with one of the most horrific history I have ever visited.

By the time we go off the boat, it was chilly. So I decided to walk back to the hotel to grab a jacket. I walked past slaughter houses, over torture bridge to cross over to the other side of the city. I decided to take a detour, and walked through parts of the residential areas I had not seen. I sensed silence and sombreness. The thought of that woman we met in college crossed my mind - that how even after two decades her wounds were fresh. I wondered… like people, even places don’t forget what they have endured.

The sombre beauty of Strasbourg