Thursday, July 14, 2016

La fête nationale!

The weather in Strasbourg in July is like an October day in Richmond. It's sunny, but a chill forces a sweater when you are in shade or the sun has disappeared behind the clouds. I almost expect there to be crunching leaves below my feet. Sleeping with the windows open is fine, as long as there is a big heavy comforter to keep you warm. This is not the summer heat I left behind. I don't think I could do this all the time. I need my heat and sweat.

Today is la fête nationale in France, or what the English speaking world likes to call "Bastille Day," which commemorates the Storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 as well as the Fête de la Fédération which celebrated the unity of the French people on July 14, 1790.

There isn't much going on during the day to celebrate, as far as we can tell. Most stores are closed today, including grocery stores and some restaurants - specifically the ones not near tourist attractions. Tourist attractions are open and even have free entry for the day.

We headed to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg, which was the tallest building for 227 years, from 1647 to 1874. The steeple could be seen towering high above, even from across the river.

We walked around the outside, but decided today was not the day to ascend the 300+ stairs to the top.

Instead, we headed inside for a look around at the amazing interior architecture, mostly in a high Gothic architecture. It is also the highest existing structure built entirely in the Middle Ages. It is so high, it can be seen from the Black Forest in Germany.

There are several beautiful and noteworthy features inside the church, including the organ, statues and stained glass, but the most interesting is the 18 meter astronomical clock. Although there was a prior clock, the current one was constructed between 1838-1843.

The astronomical part is unusually accurate; it indicates leap years, equinoxes, and more astronomical data and was able to determine the date of Easter in the Christian calendar at a time when computers did not yet exist.

We watched the clock strike 11:30. Apparently, as I overheard a guide tell a group behind me, the clock strikes every quarter hour to represent each quarter of our life (infancy, young adulthood, adulthood and old age). At each quarter hour, near the top, a new statue representing each state of life rotates around a skeleton as it strikes the bell he is holding. Then, the skeleton strikes the bell coinciding with the hour.

From here, we headed for some lunch at a nearby restaurant. We wanted to rent bikes to ride around the city, but when we arrived, they did not have a bike small enough for Hollis. So, we decided to go to the boat tour, even though we had originally planned to do this around sunset. These catfish like boats (except they don't swim on the bottom of the river) take you around the city while explaining each district, major buildings and important sites in Strasbourg history. I learned a lot of neat things, too many to try and write out in this blog post.

 Some bullet points of interest (and I'm sure there were more, but I wasn't taking notes.)

  • Petite France was named for a syphilis outbreak
  • The city of Strasbourg switched between being part of Germany and France many times throughout its history. 
  • The European Union Parliament is here
  • After Germany took over in 1870, the city population nearly doubled. It had not previously seen an increase.
Knowing we had a late night ahead of us, we headed home for an hour to recharge our phones and just relax before walking around more and heading to the fireworks.

On our way to the Parc de l'Etoile (which was actually the other direction), we walked over to the Barrage Vauban, which is a bridge, weir and defensive work erected from pink sandstone in the 17th century on the River Ill.

From the terrace, the view of Petite France, the Ponts Couverts (a set of three bridges and four towers that make up a defensive work erected in the 13th century), and the Strasbourg Cathedral is stunning. Nearing sunset, the reflection of the buildings on the glassy water took our breaths away. Look at that. Just look at it and try to tell me it isn't amazing.

We couldn't keep the kids interested much longer, so we headed for a walk (the long way) to the park to watch the fireworks. There was a band surrounded by people dancing, tables set up for eating and drinking, and children running around taking it all in. It wasn't different from a fourth of July celebration at all, except everyone was speaking French. The fireworks were twenty minutes straight of blue, white and red.

These were some of the most insane fireworks I've seen. Maybe it was because of how close we were, but I don't think so. They were intricate and choreographed. This wasn't just a display of colors, but a well rehearsed dance of light. And just as soon as I get the video uploaded, I'll share it so you can see what I mean. We have missed the 4th of July this year (which may actually be the first one in my entire life that I have not been in the States for) but this celebration more than made up for it.

Viva la France!

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