Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

French... and a touch of German

Strasbourg renowned for food, wine... and cultural influences

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STRASBOURG, France -- Annie Dumoulin tucked into her lunch at Maison Kammerzell, a classic Alsatian restaurant in the heart of her hometown.

"Strasbourg is a French city," declared the deputy manager of the Strasbourg Tourist Board, while I sampled the choucroute and Riesling. "In fact, we think of it as the most French city of all."

While it's hard to deny the German influence that flows into everything Alsatian from across the Rhine River a few short kilometres away, we see her point.

Having visited villages with Germanic names such as Itterswiller, Gertwiller and Marlenheim, and having dined on fabulous smoked meats, sauerkraut (choucroute), Munster cheese and kougelhopf (brioche cake), we might have thought we'd crossed the border into Germany. But everywhere we went, we were reassured -- in elegant French -- that we were still in France.

Strasbourg is perhaps the most French of French cities because Strasbourgers have to think about their Frenchness all the time. Over the centuries, they have had to fight for it, too. Alsace has changed hands between France and Germany many times throughout history.

These days, the setting is peaceful and collegial. A Metro train takes 20 minutes to cross the Rhine without a border stop to Offenburg, Germany. Thanks to being home to the European Parliament, visitors from Germany and beyond are finding a revitalized Strasbourg -- a very French Strasbourg that is a fascinating cultural and culinary destination.

-- Postmedia News

Where To Stay

Much of downtown Strasbourg is under renovation or has recently been redone. The train station -- the second largest in France -- has been encased in a glass bubble that creates a large, sheltered lobby and waiting area. We stayed a block-and-a-half from the station at the Best Western Hotel Metropole Monopole, a beautifully restored hotel on the quiet rue Kuhn (011-33-3-8814-3914). With rates starting at about $150 Cdn, including breakfast, it is a sleekly modern place to stay.

We also ventured into the Alsatian wine country for a night at the delightful -- and golden-hued -- Hotel Arnold in Itterswiller, 98 Route des Vins (001-33-3-8885-5058), 40 kilometres outside Strasbourg. The quaint country inn is surrounded by vineyards and offers meals in its winstub across the street. It's a restful spot and a fine launching point for wine touring. Rates here start at $120, which includes a substantial breakfast.

Where To Eat

Alsace is the home of choucroute, sausages, foie gras, cheeses, pain d'epices (gingerbread), smoked meat and fine pastries and breads, from plum tarts to pretzels. It's the best of French and German foods. Add great wines and beer, and you have excellent food everywhere.

Winstubs are casual restaurants where families gather for hearty meals of smoked pork and choucroute, fresh fish and huge sausages. We had an excellent meal of game terrine, white asparagus, and slabs of local ham in the Hotel Arnold's winstub, and enjoyed the smoked meats and choucroute at Winstub Le Saint-Sepulcre at 15 rue des Orfeves in downtown Strasbourg (011-33-3-8875-1845).

For more elegant Alsatian dining on duck breast with cherries, or frog's legs with gnocchi, the 1427-built Maison Kammerzell at 16 Place de la Cathedrale (011-33-3-8832-4214) in the heart of the city fits the bill.

One other memorable Alsatian dish is the flammenkueche, or flambe tart. These are thin, pizza-like crusts covered with creamy sauce and toppings such as onions and bacon. They're perfect for lunch with a tall glass of beer.

Sightseeing

Strasbourg is laced with canals and is a beautiful city to stroll or view from a canal tour. The downtown area stretches out from the huge Strasbourg Cathedral, the city's landmark, started in 1015 and completed in 1439. Near the downtown is La Petite France, a historic walking area built around Strasbourg's waterways. The home of millers and tanners in the 16th and 17th centuries, it now houses artists and artisans.

Offsetting the medieval stonework of the cathedral is contemporary architecture. Worth looking at, both for its design and its content, is the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. Opened in 1998, it spans art from the mid-19th century to today, and includes works by Picasso and Monet.

We also had a fascinating walking tour of Obernai, tasted our way through the Arthur Metz winery in Marlenheim, and enjoyed strolling the streets of Alsatian villages.

Getting There

Strasbourg is a quick two-hour ride from the Frankfurt airport on Germany's high-speed ICE train (transfer to the Metro in Offenburg), making it a great first or last stop on your way into Europe. It's also just over two scenic hours from Paris on France's TGV. There's no need for a car while in Strasbourg, but for wine-country touring, it's best to have one.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 4, 2011 D4

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