Around this time last year in France, I visited Strasbourg, a charming city located in the Alsace region with borders right next to Germany. With its rich, Alsatian culture and famous marchés de Noël (Christmas markets), it had been on my top list of places to visit while abroad.
Considering that I had a four-day weekend from work at my school (Friday through Monday), I decided that the last week of November would be the perfect time to head over to Strasbourg for les marchés de Noël, which had just started around then.
In the weeks leading up to the journey, I scoured the Internet for cheap transportation and accommodation, but struggled to find anything at a reasonable price. Considering that the city’s Christmas markets are super well-known, it was expected that many tourists would be going around the same time, and so train tickets and hotels (let alone hostels) were sure to be pricey. It did not come as a surprise, then, that a one-way train ticket cost close to 70 euros, while hotel rooms averaged 200 euros a night!
I even tried Couchsurfing, sending requests to a dozen hosts, but getting turned down because they either already had guests staying those nights or because I hadn’t had any experiences doing so on my profile, therefore no reviews and no way of knowing if I would be a good guest or not. I see how that is… *sniff
Because nothing was looking very affordable, I was almost ready to give up and forgo the visit, however sad I would’ve been. However, about a week before I had plans to go, an assistante living in Strasbourg reached out to me on the TAPIF Facebook page and said that she would be happy to host me that weekend (I’d previously posted that I would be going there, as well as seeing if anyone was interested in sharing accommodation). Really, it was an incredible stroke of good luck, and I *elatedly* accepted her offer. Eventually, I found reasonably-priced bus tickets from Ouibus (58 euros round-trip), and before I knew it, I was set to go!
As soon as my last class ended on Thursday afternoon, I caught the bus from my small town over to Rouen, making a transfer between in the process. In Rouen, I caught a Ouibus over to Paris, where I would be taking the bus all the way to Strasbourg. In total, I took three buses that day, spending almost five hours in transit. While it would’ve been quicker just to take the train over, it was much cheaper to bus over, and although I was pretty tired afterwards, I didn’t mind the long journey!
I arrived in Paris around 21h30 and since my bus to Strasbourg wouldn’t be leaving until the next morning, I’d arranged plans to stay the night in Paris with a friend, who was also an assistant that year. He lived in the city center, so I took the metro over to his flat, where he received me and invited me into his home. Funny enough, he was hosting a post-Thanksgiving dinner with some of his friends, and so I, starving, helped myself to the Indian take-out on the table (“Indian” as in India, not Native American…oh, the politics!).
And of course, like with any French house party, there was wine- lots and lots of wine. Seriously, I must’ve had around eight or nine flutes of them, red and white, drinking them while listening to the guests wax poetics about philosophy, the Libyan crisis, and Game of Thrones (I’m not kidding). Eventually, the party ended around midnight, and my friend showed me to the guest room, where I, exhausted and drunk, collapsed on the bed and had a nice, long sleep.
I woke up the next morning around 8h00; before I left, I thanked my friend for letting me crash the night chez lui, and proceeded to head over to the Bercy station to catch the bus to Strasbourg around 11h00. Entire journey took about six hours, with a brief stop at Nancy, but eventually, I arrived there around 17h00. The assistante whom I was staying with picked me up from there, and we headed over to her apartment located right in the city center. Along the way, we chatted a bit, getting to know each other: she was from Australia and was actually teaching in a small town not too far away, although she chose to live in the city center. Also was an avid traveler and baker, like myself!
We arrived at her apartment where I met her two French housemates and another assistante, a Canadian who lived in Colmar and had spent the previous night over at her flat. After dropping my belongings off, I headed out with the two assistantes to explore the Christmas markets, as well as getting dinner.
It was early evening when we went out and things were just about getting set up for the night. The streets lit up with Christmas decorations, and I was blown away: it was a serious case of winter wonderland for me:
Since I was in the Alsace region of France, I wanted to try the regional cuisine; from what I’d researched beforehand, much of it is closely related to that of German food: meat, sauerkraut, beer, etc. I, along with the two assistantes, wandered the historic center looking for a restaurant that served Alsatian food (and wasn’t too packed, since that night, it appeared that everyone was out and about!). Eventually, we popped into one near la Petite France and there I order la choucroute alsacienne, which was essentially tons of different cuts of meat (ham, sausage, pork knuckle) with tons of sauerkraut, and a Picon beer. The meal was surprisingly filling, and for 20 euros, it was not a bad deal!
After dinner, we wandered the Christmas markets, which were about to close (which surprised me, since it was only around 21h00 then). The stalls sold everything, from ornaments to gingerbread to mulled wine- definitely gets you in the holiday spirit!
We had to send the Canadian assistante off at la gare, since she was heading back to Colmar and afterwards, my host assistante and I headed over to Place Kléber, where the large Christmas tree stood in the center, majestic and lovely. There was also a small memorial near it, paying tribute to the lives lost in Paris from les attentats that had just happened a couple of weeks beforehand. It was really touching.
We headed back to her flat afterwards, where I showered, brushed my teeth, and went to sleep. First day in Strasbourg, and I was spent- granted, I’d been traveling for most of the day, anyway!
Woke up around 8h00 the next morning and decided to explore a bit of Strasbourg during the day, since I’d arrived during the evening the day before. I headed over to Place Kléber again to see the Christmas tree before wandering over to la Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg, considered one of the biggest cathedrals in France; I believe that year was its 1000th birthday, so double the celebration! Unfortunately, I couldn’t go inside that day, since it was Sunday, but I did so the day after.
I headed over to the Palais Rohan, which housed three museums (the Archaeological museum, the Fine-Arts museum, and the Decorative Arts museum). Didn’t go inside, though, and went over to the canal and admire the scenery. Definitely reminded me of those in Belgium, where I had spent les vacances just the month before.
After, I wrapped around the quay, heading towards la Petite France on the other side of town. Also saw plenty of marchés de Noël along the way. You know, the usual…
Finally arrived at la Petite France and explored the narrow, winding cobblestone streets with cute, timbered houses that made me feel as if I was in a fairy tale. Very charming, to say the least.
Around noon, I returned to my host assistante’s flat, where we had lunch together. She actually made some tartes flambées, which are like a thin-crusted pizza with cream, bacon, and onions. It’s an Alsatian thing, and they were delicious: we must’ve consumed about three of them, and I’m not complaining!
We decided to spend the afternoon in Colmar, taking the train over after lunch (more on that in the next post). We returned to Strasbourg around 18h00, where we rested for a bit and she introduced me to some Australian food that she had brought from overseas. Just like with all of the dishes that I’d tried so far since arriving in Alsace, it was my first time trying Australian food: basically, she offered me Tim-Tams, a kind of chocolate cookie (pardon, a biscuit) that I found quite delicious. She also taught me how to do the “Tim Tam Slam,” which was absolutely fascinating, not to forget fun (if you don’t know what it is, Google it and be amazed!). Another thing I tried was Vegemite, and while I was aware of its notoriety (just like the British Marmite, which I haven’t had before), it actually wasn’t that bad. Yes, it was strong, but taken with butter and toast, it was pretty good in moderation.
Any case, she along with her French housemates were hosting a raclette dinner that night, with some neighbors who lived above them. Originally a Swiss thing, a raclette is essentially fondue with a bunch of other food going along with it: potatoes, meats, onions, etc. There was a machine to melt the cheese and cook the meats and onions, which I found very fancy! Along with some wine and salad, it turned out to be a very hearty meal!
Dinner had started around 20h00, but then the French housemates continued to talk. And talk. And talk. At a certain point, I started to get kind of tired, and was hoping that they would finish up soon. Even my host assistante started getting a bit tired of it, too. Finally, we called it a night a quarter to midnight, and soon after, I went to sleep.
The next morning was my last day in Strasbourg. It was a Monday, so I had to leave my host assistante’s flat in the morning with her, since she had work that day. I wasn’t catching my bus until close to noon, so until then, I decided to wander the city one last time.
Headed over to the cathédrale de Strasbourg again, this time entering inside to check out its astronomical clock. Next, I went over to the musée alsacien, a museum dedicated to the history of the Alsace region. Didn’t spend too much time inside the place, since I was a bit tight on schedule, but nevertheless, I learned a bit about Alsatian culture which, although similar to that of the German, is still distinctive in itself.
I left the museum, and before catching my bus went over to the Christmas markets again. Treated myself to a mannala (a chocolate-chip bread shaped like a gingerbread man) and a vin chaud (mulled wine). Shortly thereafter, I booked myself over to the bus station (halfway across town) where I caught the bus at noon to get back to Paris. Arrived there in the evening, then took the train back to Normandy. Since there wasn’t a train station in the small town that I was teaching, I ended up staying with an assistante friend in Le Havre for the night before catching the bus the next morning back to my town to teach.
…and that was my weekend well-spent last year in Strasbourg! I really enjoyed my time there, exploring a part of France that I hadn’t explored before. Got to see and try different things, from food to architecture to culture, and I am forever grateful for my host assistante to have allowed me to stay with her that weekend. Strasbourg is definitely worth a visit, especially during les marchés de Noël. Although it’s considered the capital of the region, it’s small and compact enough to explore on-foot, and its charm will leave you nothing but good memories…as it did with me!
As I’d mentioned, I also made a short day trip over to Colmar whilst in Strasbourg, so expect that post to come soon. Until then!