We had been on the road for almost six weeks – a quartet of senior citizens in an old camper, travelling cheaply through Europe, yet not missing out any of the interesting spots.
At night we camped on caravan sites which not only ensured safety but offered clean bathrooms and hot running water, kitchens, electricity and the opportunity to make friends with fellow tourists from USA to Timbuctoo. Language was no barrier. Gesticulating often did the trick.
France was the last country on our list before we headed back to London. We spent the night in Baden-Baden, the 19th century Spa town on the edge of the Black Forest. It is still the favourite haunt of the European Aristocracy, where Back packers are not really welcome. They luxuriate in the mineral spas by day, steamed, soaked, scrubbed, doused and pummeled by professional masseurs.
After dusk, they haunt the casinos, squandering thousands of Euros. The Kur casino is the oldest and most beautiful. It is here that Dostoevsky squandered all his money and became a pauper. Here Marlene Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor and the ‘who’s who’ of Hollywood came on holiday.
We saw the Sprauer’s apartment where Dostoevsky lived in 1867, and wrote ‘Crime and Punishment’, ‘Idiot’ and ‘Gambler,’ with the hope of settling his debts.
Though we could not afford a spa bath, the hot Kur water could be drunk free of charge, as it had curative potential.
Early next morning, we drove to Strasbourg and the Alsace, through Black Forest country with its picture book villages and flower laden windowsills. Strasbourg is on the French-German border, the first city of this region which was integrated completely into the French nation after the French Revolution. It was here that the French national anthem ‘Le Marseilles’ was born.
We headed straight for the Cathedral de Notre Dame (Munster), an impressive Gothic structure with the façade a lacy matrix in stone, and a single spire 142 metres high. The foundation was laid in 1109, and the building completed three centuries later, in 1439. The three portals are adorned with sculptures of scenes from the Bible. The stained glass windows inside the church change colours with the time of day.
But the greatest attraction is the Astronomical clock on the south side, designed by a mathematician and built by Swedish clockmakers in 1547. At 12.30 p.m. everyday, tourists flock around the clock to see it worked electronically. Twelve disciples march past Christ and he blesses them, to the crowing of the cock three times. This clock is supposed to be one of the seven wonders of the Roman Empire.
The organ in the chancel is suspended from the roof.
We were treated to beautiful choral music by a visiting group from England.
The Maison Kammerzell – a sculptured half-timbered house to the right of the Munster, has on its external walls, sculptures from the Bible, ten ages of life, five senses, and on the corner, the spirits of Faith, Hope and Charity. It is a truly grand display of Art.
Walking down the Rue Merceire was like travelling back in time, to the 16th 0r 17th century. The narrow streets are cobbled, and the houses that lined the streets are box-like structures, with flowers tumbling out of window ledges.
In the centre of the Square is the statue of Gutenberg created by David d’ Angers in 1840. Though a German, Gutenberg lived in Strasbourg for ten years, and perfected the art of Printing.
Strasbourg and the Alsace is predominantly Catholic country, but the St. Thomas Church is Lutheran, and was built between 12-14th century. Here Albert Schweitzer was organist and musicologist. He gave organ concerts to collect money for his hospital in Africa. There is a small organ with a plaque claiming that Mozart had played it. The plaque also says that because the people of this area did not attend his concerts, he had specially come to Strasbourg to play for them.
The Ille River winds itself around the centre of town and the Old Quarter called ‘Le Petit France.’ Here the river splits into a number of canals. This area is exclusively pedestrian, and has retained its old world charm, with its quaint half-timbered houses, restaurants and souvenir shops.
At the end of ‘La Petite France’ are the Pouts Couverts comprising three 13th century towers and roofed wooden bridges. This was once the district of fishermen, millers, tanners. Houses are of red sandstone and the same style has been retained through the years. Here there was once a hospital for Syphilis “The French Disease” which was brought from Italy by the troops of Francois I.
The old Butchers and Pig Market had paintings of their trade on the outer walls. It is now the Historical Museum of Strasbourg and was undergoing renovation.
The Palais Rohan is a treasure house of exquisite paintings. The building is patterned on the Versailles Palace. Louis XV was the first to stay here. A suite where Napolean lived for three months during the Revolution has been preserved as it was with its pale green décor. Today this palace is the Museum of Decorative Art. The top floor houses paintings of El Greco and Goya.
People here speak French, German and a dialect called Elsasserditsch. Most of the tourists are German.
In one area, there were many ‘al fresco’ restaurants .We could wander from one to the other, examining the menu and the prices. We settled down to a meal of “Flammer Kutchen” which resembled a pizza, but tasted more like a stiff chapathi base covered over with egg, ham, cheese and bacon. It was served on plywood platters. The restaurants did a roaring business, and the waiting period exceeded half an hour.
We took a long stroll towards the buildings that housed the Council of Europe, and the European Court of Human Rights which are concerned with defending human rights, searching for solutions to social issues, and developing European cultural identity.
Now we walked back towards the Munster for the final view of the magnificent spire looming into the skies, as we ate delicious caramel cake and drank cappuccino.
The Alsace region lies between the Vosges Mountains and the Rhine. This is Wine Country, and we drove through miles and miles of vineyards to a small village called Rosheim. From there we drove to the Sacred Mountain of Alsace. Here on a high promontory at a height of 763 metres, is the monastery of St. Odile, the patron saint of Alsace. It is surrounded by a 12 km long wall made of red sandstone blocks, joined together by wooden tendons. Odilia was the daughter of Etichon, the Duke of Alsace. She was born blind and rejected by her father. She became a nun. Her father built this monastery in the 7th century and she became its first Abbess. This saintly lady was known to have performed many miracles. She died in 720 A.D. Her bones are interred in an 8th century sarcophagus, which lies in the St. Odile chapel. The chapel walls are painted with the legend of St. Odile, and a large statue of her on the terrace, overlooks the Alsace, Black Forest and the Vosges.
Access to the monastery is through a small gate which says “Here in the days of yore, the Holy prioress Odile was living, and forever and ever she reigns over Alsace like a mother.”
There are several other chapels surrounding the monastery, with exquisite paintings and sculptures. But the Chapel of Tears was where St. Odile prayed everyday for her dead father, so that he would escape purgatory. Her tears made a depression in the stone, which is visible even today.
A steeple in the convent dates to 1170 and depicts Odile receiving the Hohenburg Charter from her father. Her feast is celebrated on the 13th of December.
The Benedictine monks now run a hotel with 65 rooms, on the property. They provide five-star service. There is a good library and recreation hall. The Sacred Mountain is a quiet retreat centre for those who are so inclined.
No trip to Alsace would be complete without experiencing the hospitality of this wine country. We were assured that farmers always offered ‘bed and breakfast’ facilities to travellers, at reasonable rates. So we decided to find accommodation, as there were no campsites in the area. But by the time we reached the foot of the hill, it had turned dark and cold. Little did we realise that this was the time of the vine harvest, and people from Germany would flock here for a weekend of fun. After a few hours of search, we got a single room in a motel, and had to crowd into it. The hunt for a decent restaurant took another hour, until we arrived at a restaurant called Gilbs. Here we had a three course meal of dishes we had never sampled before, the names I cannot remember except for foie de gras (goose liver pie) which is a specialty of this place. The men enjoyed the Pinot noir wines for which this region is famous.
The vineyard route is almost 120 kms long extending from Marlenheim to Thann along the Piedmont of Vosges. We didn’t attempt to drive the whole way. The men had stocked the camper with Reisling (King of the Alsace) and a special spiced brand called Gewürztraminer. We also learnt that the entrance to a wine grower’s house is always through the cellar.
Each village had a couple of small churches, but the one at Rosenheim was special. It had the gargoyle of a Jew sitting on the roof, with one hand in his pocket, indicating the stinginess of his tribe.
We had one important stop to make before we left this region. It was a steep climb of 900 meters to the Le Struthof Nazi concentration camp – the only one built on the left side of the Rhine. The original structure had been well preserved, with its double barbed wire fences and intimidating watch towers. As we entered, to the right and just outside the wall of the camp was the National Cemetery, a white marble memorial looming into the skies. It is surrounded by rows and rows of crosses, and points to the road along which 8000 prisoners were evacuated to Dachau. We walked down into the ‘Ravine of Death’ along which prisoners carried stones to the bottom of the camp, where they were tripped by soldiers. When they fell over, they were accused of attempting to escape, and shot in cold blood. Today, that pit is covered with colourful flowering plants, at the centre of which is a red cross also of flowers. Many Jewish families from Poland and other places come here to pay tribute to their lost relatives.
Beyond the ravine were two long buildings which housed long term prisoners. There was no lighting or heat even in the thick of winter. The solitary cages were so small that one had to stay crouched all the time, sometimes for three days, sometimes for 42 days, and sometimes till they died.
Another building showed the incinerator where bodies were burnt by wood or gas flames. The rest of the building was used by doctors for experimentation on Jews and Gypsies, who were injected with Typhus or exposed to mustard gas or any other research. A white tiled theatre and instruments used were on display, and below the floor was the morgue.
Near the gate was the barracks which has been converted into a museum which displayed horror pictures of inhuman torture, and scenes from other concentration camps.
It was good that we visited the camp at the end of our tour of Alsace, because it left us all visibly shaken. There is so much potential for evil when Man dissociates himself from the goodness and love of God. We just could not leave this region with such turbulent emotions in our heart. So we drove down to a small church called St. Peter’s Dome, on our way back, which had a 1000 year old tree in the compound, and a statue of Jesus in the courtyard, showing his hand raised in blessing over his persecutors.
The stork – an emblem of the Alsace, looked down at us from a flag fluttering in the breeze, as we drove away.
ALIVE Magazine – July 2006