Strasbourg in Alsace, now in France..for many years in Germany, is a stately and gracious city with wide streets, effective trams and very polite drivers …even with those who drive the wrong way in one way streets and occasionally hesitate in the midst of quite heavy traffic! Our “Couvent Franciscan” hotel is not, as we imagined an out of town quiet retreat but a mid-town hotel right in the thick of things. So this morning after brekky we were able to walk quite easily from our hotel room directly to the bridge over the river Ill (that’s capital I as in eye and two “ls” as in lake), a tributary of the Rhine and directly three blocks further to the old town (where we found a wonderful Lalique shop) and of course to Strasbourg Cathedral.
The Church of Notre Dame de Strasbourg is currently celebrating its millennial year, being created in 1015 with of course many additions since. This is really one of the world’s “great” cathedrals. I hate to use that word ever since being told in year 7 that it is a pretty ordinary adjective and surely I could think of something more explicit! But “great” this Gothic cathedral is as well as monstrous in a photograph defying sense. What ecclesiastical grandeur can compare with Strasbourg?…well certainly of course the other wonderful French Gothic cathedrals (Chartres, Amiens, Rouen, Rheims, Notre Dame de Paris; of course St Peter’s in Rome and St Paul’s in London, Lincoln? Seville?Cologne?.St Patricks New York?.not many more I think.
The stained glass is exquisite..high, everywhere, complete; the decoration and statuary subdued (during the Reformation a great many statues and other decoration was destroyed); It’s astronomical clock incomparable! The external bulk and complexity defies our little iPhone photographic skills. It was a privilege to be quietly in this sacred space this morning.
We had a a wander in old town Strasbourg then came back to town and took off in the Renault Capture for the Rhineland towns of Colmar in France and Freiburg in Germany. Colmar is to Strasbourg what Olinda is to Melbourne. About 90kms by easy freeway to a picture perfect town with a wonderful market and lots of unusual shops as well as all the normal tourist stuff.
But art lovers come to Colmar for one reason only…the Isenheim altar piece in the Unterlinden Museum. Somehow this C16th masterpiece by an artist known as Grunewald (actual name Mathis Gotthart Nithard and a sculptor named Nicolas de Hagenau. It is a complex work physically with three levels of openings. Currently Underlinden Museum is closed for renovation so the Isenheim altarpiece is on display in the local ancient Dominican monastery church which has its own stained glass quiet beauty. I am sure greater art critics than I can explain the popularity of this altarpiece. To me the resurrection scene does not ring true and the connection made between St Anthony and St Paul and Christ is not helpful. Nevertheless there is a richness in the colour and drama of the whole display that is compelling and I saw people quite moved to sit and look at the crucifixion depiction in particular
After a simple lunch we drove the short distance from Colmar across the mighty Rhine with its cruiser boats busy, into Germany to the Minster city of Freiburg. Everything is an anticlimax after Strasbourg but Freiburg Minster has its own charm with its deep red stone, high towers, and again some impressive stained glass; the flying buttresses with their fleeing “demons” are exciting and as in Strasbourg folk seem to love just sitting in these vast worship spaces, overwhelmed by the sense of ancient piety, scope and strength of architecture and exquisite beauty of the glasswork in the windows.
The journey home to Strasbourg was even quicker owing to the superior German highway engineering on their side of the Rhine. It was a very quiet and happy day in beautiful sunshine.