3 August 2022

Our latest excursion was to visit the city of Strasbourg. Strasbourg is located in the north east part of France. The city sits right on the border with Germany. The city has about 250,000 residents making it the eighth largest area in France. Strasbourg is one of the capitals of the European Union. The city is full of German as well as French culture.

Strasbourg was originally settled by the Celts. (Bonus points for someone that can tell me the country the Celtic tribes originally came from.) The current city was settled permanently about 12 BC. For about 1000 years Strasbourg was ruled by the Catholic Church. Around 1260 the citizens threw out the Bishop and became a free city/state. It remained free until 1681 when Louis XIV took control. Louis only maintained control for about 10 years when the Germans took over 1871. It remained a German city until the end of World War I. The city again changed hands after it was annexed by the German Government before WWII. The French took over again in 1944.

Another quirk that I found interesting, is that Strasbourg has a very good mix of protestant as well as catholic churches. This is fairly uncommon for larger cities. Usually there is a dominance by either catholic or protestant churches. I think part of the reason is that once the city threw out the catholic bishops in order to maintain commerce the city learned to welcome all different religions. One thing that Louis XIV did to try and keep order after his takeover was to build a church that housed both catholic and protestant congregations. The church stayed that way for many years until the congregations grew to large to share the building. However, they did something very interesting. The catholic and protestant groups went in together and built a new wing to the church. Once that was completed there was a protestant wing and a catholic wing. I find that story refreshing because that peace did not exist often.

If you look closely you can see the different building techniques in this picture. The original catholic church is the light brick in the center. The protestant section is the pink on the right. The red sandstone is a different story. During one of the German occupations they wanted to modernize the city; so they tore down the front 1/3 of the church and rebuilt it in the local red sandstone. If you look in the lower left hand corner of the picture, you will see a different style paving stone. When the French took control again, they wanted to give the finger to the Germans (because the modernization did not take place); so they used a different paving stone to commemorate the part of the church the Germans tore down. 🙂 It seems this one church is able to demonstrate centuries of conflict!

The city is also home to a magnificent cathedral. The Cathedral Notre-Dame de Strasbourg was started in 1015. Building stopped sometime around 1100, but began again in 1190. Building was not completed until 1439! Think about that over 400 years to build ONE BUILDING! It is a masterpiece, however. It stands 466 feet tall. It held the record as the Tallest Building in the WORLD for 227 years!!! It is still the 6th tallest church in the world, and is the highest standing structure that was built in the middle ages. Another tidbit I learned is that there are many Notre-Dame Cathedrals in France. Notre Dame translates roughly as “Our Lady.” So the english name of the the cathedral would be The Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasbourg. Like many structures in France and Germany, the church was severely damaged in WW II and the restoration of the tower was not completed until 2006. The spire on the church is very unique. It is in the shape of an octagon, and it is open so that you can actually see the bells. I think my favorite view of the church is the picture below.

This picture really does a good job of showing how much open space there is in the tower.

I learned one other tidbit about construction that I will share here. The style below is very common in this part of Europe. I learned that this style of home (especially the smaller ones) were actually mobile homes. Each of the wood beams was numbered and they would be transported when the owner moved to a new city. The open parts between the beams would be filled in with whatever was available locally. It might have been stone, grass, dung, clay, or even simply mud.

In the original homes the area underneath the house was left open. It was not until much later that the ground floor actually had walls.

So that was our visit to Strasbourg. We had a wonderful time walking around the city. The only downfall was that Julie wanted to stay until Monday so that she could take advantage of cheaper prices in France and do some shopping. Monday was a holiday in Switzerland so Julie did not have to work. Since almost every store is closed on Sunday it made perfect sense to stay a little longer Monday. Julie’s plans were thwarted however. I estimate that somewhere around 40% of the stores were also closed on Monday. Not so much the chain or big stores, but a lot of the small shops were closed. Unfortunately, these were also the stores we did our window shopping on Sunday. Oh well, I guess that means we have to go back sometime soon. I am fine with that, there is a lot more to discover.

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15 September 2021

We had a lovely visit to Colmar, France last weekend.

Colmar, France

Colmar is about 150 KM from Zürich. It is part of the Alsace region of France. The city has about 70,000 residents. Like most larger cities, we have seen, there is an “old” part and a “new” part. We spent almost the entire weekend in the old part of town. We toured some churches, a couple of museums, and simply strolled the city. It was a very relaxing weekend. Colmar has been part of France, Germany, and (somehow) Sweden during it’s existence. The Sweden part I found fascinating. It was captured in 1632 during the Thirty Years War and was held as part of Sweden for two years. After the war it was back in German hands, until King Louis XIV in 1673. For almost the next 200 years it was part of France, but then right before WWI Germany annexed the Alsace region and returned to France in 1919. It was conquered again by Germany in WWII and then returned after the war. Because it is so close to the german border, there is a large germanic influence there. One thing that surprised me was that the symbol for the Alsace region is a bretzel. Something I have only associated with Germany.

In the center of the old town is St Martin’s Church. While technically it is not nor has it ever been a cathedral. Everyone refers to it as The Cathedral, because it is so large.

Side view of St Martin’s

St Martin was born in Hungary in 316. He was an officer in the roman army before converting to Christianity. The story that helped make him a saint, was that he met a beggar that was hungry and cold. He cut his cloak in half with his sword and gave the cut piece to the beggar so he would not freeze to death. He continued to serve for a few years after his conversion, but as he neared retirement a new ceasar took over (Julian) and Martin decided he could no longer serve ceasar as a christian. He was charged with cowardice, but before he was punished he was released from military service. He then became a monk and lived the rest of his life serving God.

Anyway, the church is massive, and the inside while plain by cathedral standards is still very beautiful. Julie and I were really struck how different the church looks at night vs the day. Look at the picture above, and then compare it to this one.

St Martin’s at night.

One final note about Colmar’s history. The man who created the Statue of Liberty, Auguste Bartholdi, was born in Colmar. This leads me to the most annoying thing we found in the city.

Brass Plate in Colmar

These brass plates are everywhere. We followed them for almost two hours on Sunday looking for the replica statue. It turns out the replica was about two miles from where we were and it sits right in the middle of a round a bout. Anyway we followed them for a really long way before we realized we just randomly moving about the city. It turns out these plates are simply pointing the way to some of the historical parts of the town. I really wanted to go out about 3:00 AM with some tools from the car, and pry one of the plates up, but Julie would not let me. 🙁

Final Art History lessons of this post. There are two very famous works of art in the town. The first one we saw was “Madonna in the Rose Garden”. This work of art was created about 1473, by Martin Schongauer. The work was created specifically for the domincan monastary that was located in Colmar. I found this bit of history particularly interesting in regards to the engraving.

” The enclosed garden of Mary was a strong symbolic theme in Western Europe, and especially in Flanders. Pious women who remained unmarried but who did not feel inclined to enter the Catholic orders as nuns, lived together in rows of small houses built around a central garden. In Dutch these are called ‘begijnhoven’ or beguinages and the best preserved of these is in Bruges. In many towns of Flanders and Brabant these beguinages can still be admired. They are havens of peace, where spirituality still hangs in the air. The pious ladies worked on embroideries and on lace in their small houses around the enclosed garden of their beguinage. They rarely painted, but one type of their artisans’ work were the boxes called ‘Enclosed Gardens’ of which many have been preserved. These were wooden boxes, sometimes as large as one meter wide and high, about fifteen centimetres deep. The boxes were placed upright. Inside the boxes were placed small puppets of Mary and of saints, splendidly dressed in white lace and surrounded by dried flowers, miniature candle bearers, and so on. White was generally the overall colour. Usually at the lower end of the box one can see a small fence, thus hinting at the enclosed garden of the Song of Songs.

Martin Schongauer’s picture is a ‘Throning Madonna’ since two angels hold an enormous crown symbolically over Mary’s head. The painting is unconventional in various ways. The hair of the Madonna is flowing freely over her shoulders. This feature was reserved since old for Mary Magdalene; it was a sign of sensuality that was rarely associated with Mary. Jesus and Mary are looking in different directions, whereas Mary usually only has eyes for her son. Mary is painted as a melancholic young lady. She holds her head inclined; she smiles affably, secretly and contentedly. But Jesus already tries to escape from her. We mentioned that the colours of Mary’s robe are not conventional. Martin Schongauer must have been one of the first painters to emphasise the strong pyramidal composition, which is obtained by the red cloaks of Mary. Schongauer certainly was a highly skilled colourist and he knew very well how to paint with realism the smallest detail, as in the various tones of the folds of the red cloak of Mary.” https://www.theartofpainting.be/AOM-Rose_Garden.htm

Madonna in the Rose Garden

The second piece of art is an altar piece is the Isenheim Alterpiece. It was created by two germans Nikolaus of Haguenau and Matthias Grünewald in 1512–1516. This altar piece is massive, and it has different wings that could be unfolded to display different scenes based on the liturgical year. Unfortunately, the piece was damaged during the French Revolution and pieces were destroyed or stolen. There are paintings and the plans of the artists that capture what the entire thing looked like. Below is a quick movie of a mock up the musuem had to show you how the entire altar piece looked and worked.

Isenheim Alterpiece

That is the highlight of our weekend in Colmar. The food was outstanding. I had foi gras for the very first time. It was fantastic!!! Looking at the very last picture in the gallery below. We were never able to figure out if Colmar is the first city we have seen in Europe that celebrates Halloween, or if they just like vampire bats.

This week is going to be pretty slow. There is not much going on other than hair cuts, and Julie needs to go shopping for a business trip next week. It is going to be strange. Three days next week, we will be apart. We have not been separated at all for a year! I think Julie is happy to be done with me for a few days. I know I would be happy if I had to live with me!

I hope you enjoy the pictures. Talk to you again soon.