A tornado in Strasbourg and snow in Munich

Strasbourg may be the capital of the lower Rhine district of Alsace and have spent more time being German than it has French over the last four hundred years but its hostels are definitely of the French variety. No cooking areas and no “brought in” food, the rooms may be clean and cheap but these places obviously make their money on the supply of overpriced sustenance to weary travellers who are too disorientated to fend for themselves. I had to make a lot of fuss to get a cup of hot water for tea but otherwise I found myself well situated on the edge of the old town and comfortably set up for a day’s sightseeing. After all, I don’t know this city and it is more than two thousand years old.

I had already determined that the European Parliament would be closed on a Sunday and, since there were no public visits until 5pm on the following day it probably wouldn’t be worth waiting around to see the assembly chambers from which my country was so soon to be expelled. I wandered down for a quick photo anyway and the 28 colourful flags (soon to be 27) whipped around above me against a clear blue sky. The whole area was completely deserted but it was interesting to see how the handsome town houses lining the broad boulevards of this district had all been turned into legations, their individual country flags crossed with the blue EU star-field above rows of wrought iron balconies. I’m not quite sure what the Russians have been doing, setting themselves up amongst them but it may be better not to ask.

Making my way back to the old city via the Port d’Auvergne, I came upon a bustling soup kitchen set up on the river bank and doing a busy trade with various blanket-clad street people and some middle-Eastern looking families who were just about holding it together. Cooked meals, hot drinks, fruit, water bottles and toiletries were being cheerfully distributed by a group of young women bearing the badge “Les Compagnons de L’espoir” and, it should be observed, mostly wearing the hijab. I stopped to ask for information (politely declining the offer of a meal) and was told that this non-denominational volunteer organisation had been running for a number of years and set up their trestle tables here every Sunday.

The wind was picking up and they had to pack away their dishes and their rubbish in a hurry but their clients were not inclined to linger as it was pretty chilly anywhere out of the sun. By the time I had negotiated the picturesque, gingerbread architecture of the old town to the great Gothic cathedral, sharp gusts of wind were rushing around the corners, tearing at the cafe and restaurant awnings and cartwheeling some of the free-standing signboards down the road. I could scarcely look up at the 142 meters of the tallest medieval building in the world as smaller branches and bits of litter were spinning around the Place de la Cathedrale and I was bent over to almost 45 degrees in order to negotiate my way to a more sheltered corner. I wound my scarf tightly around my head in an attempt to hold my sunglasses in place and protect my eyes but I realised my sightseeing opportunities were probably done for the day.

Local people, tourists and waiters all crowded inside the shops and restaurants and barred the doors but, because my voyage of exploration specifically eschewed fancy eating (too expensive) and recreational shopping (too much weight) I could not really join them. The interior of the cathedral turned out to be closed for the time being so I might be better off catching up with some rest. It would be a shame to miss the treasures of Strasbourg once again; I can’t remember when I last passed through here but do know that I’ve yet to visit this magnificent monument, the foundations of which date back fourteen hundred years. It may be an extremely important tick on any dedicated traveller’s itinerary but there were actually some fragments of masonry flying around by this stage and no architectural marvel is important enough to justify letting bits of it land on my head.

I decided to make my way back to the hostel (stopping for supplies at a little Lebanese grocery – apparently the only place where one can find plain fare on a Sunday afternoon in this part of France). The winds seemed to be dying down but for how long it was impossible to tell. In Place Kelber I saw some people standing around in bedraggled motley and noticed, for the first time, posters proudly proclaiming the annual carnival which should have been taking place at that very moment. I’m sure it would have been fun and I expect the decision to cancel was quite a disappointment to those tourists who’d bagged themselves the best seats in the pavement cafes along the route but I was quite relieved to get a bit of extra down time.

So, having scored zero out of three for Strasbourg, I set off nice and early on the 0820h the next day to Munich via Offenburg and Manheim, and my promised visit to the Grand Residenz of the Electors of Bavaria. But I had to get there first and, when a particularly forthright Frenchman stopped to help me find the right platform at one of the interchanges, he took the opportunity to give me his uncensored views on the subject of Brexit. He was of the opinion that it had been a long time coming and “Encore, c’est fait”. At last it’s done. The British have never really belonged and always disagreed with the EU on a host of subjects, always looking more towards America to define their place in the world. Of course, he was quick to point out that many of us were perfectly nice as individuals but, even standing on a chilly platform listening out for the train announcements, I was grateful for an honest opinion.

At this time of year the great palace of the Wittelsbach monarchs of Bavaria is only open for a few hours in the afternoon and, although I hurried nearly a mile from the station through lightly swirling snow to arrive with two hours to spare before closing time, I received quite a dressing down at the ticket office. “You can’t come back tomorrow? You haven’t got nearly enough time today. I suppose if you miss out the theatre and go straight to the treasury you will have time to see some of the rooms. It really takes four hours, you know. Go down that way and hurry up, hurry up.” And there I was thinking that Munich was just a big, brash city famous for its beer cellars, pastries and pretzels. During a visit to Dresden on one of my previous Interrail trips, I’d picked up some idea of the great historical importance of these “Electors” who, it seems, fancied themselves even more important than kings and were certainly a great deal richer.. Here in Munich at last, I was about to get a lesson in just how big some of the gaps in my understanding of the history of Europe actually are.

The treasury was a breeze: lots of preposterously over-the-top Augsberg gold-work encrusted in New World jewels and often of dubious purpose. An unbelievably ornate, gilded dressing case covered a whole table and seemed to contain no less than a hundred little drawers and a dozen pairs of tweezers. Obviously an army of maids would be required for the toilette otherwise Milady would never make it downstairs in time for tea. Actually, she’d need a guide as well, for this palace has 130 rooms. Experience also allowed me to stride past the ivory collection, the amber, the militaria and all the assorted religious paraphernalia. If the finest diamond encrusted swords and solid gold reliquaries don’t do it for me any more then what was there to get excited about? Well, this collection contains some superb medieval jewels: Emperor Charles the Bald’s prayer book form the year 860, the reliquary crown of Emperor Henry II from 1270 and the ravishingly beautiful “English Queen’s crown” brought over here as part of the dowry of Blanche, daughter of Henry IV. A lightweight bandeau style, designed to be worn over a simple veil and wimple, it is set off by a lovely series of pale pink and blue cabochon sapphires. This is a treasure of incomparable historical worth and also provided an unforgettable oasis of good taste for my poor, bedazzled eyes.

And how did I make out in those 130 rooms? Well, perhaps mercifully, I had neglected to put the battery back in my camera and was saving the limited charge left on my mobile phone for the trip back to the station so I could only take a couple of snaps. I used up a few precious photos on a monstrous indoor shell grotto fearing that my friend Chris (archivist of the Margate Shell Grotto) wouldn’t believe me otherwise and bravely headed out through an endless series of silk lined walls, ornately gilded ceilings, painted mythological scenes and more thrones than any one bottom could possibly sit upon. The term Rococo could have been coined for this lot and it seems that every time there was a fire (and there were quite a few) they could afford to get the decorators back in again. I think that, of the many and various restorations I was looking at here, I was mainly seeing post-WW2 repairs to the ostentatious splendours of the 18th Century. But please don’t quote me on that.

During a long, cold walk back to the station I passed some splendid neoclassical architecture but was by that time more interested in whether I would be able to find myself a hot chocolate and a suitable electrical charging point. No problem – it’s a German railway station after all.

Categories: Europe

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