Beautiful Strasbourg

If you are traveling the Eastern part of France, or the Western part of Germany, be sure to visit the city of Strasbourg.  Little shops and restaurants invite you to stay and shop or eat. Wear comfortable shoes, because most of the historic downtown area is a pedestrian zone, with cobble stones. Of course lots of tourists are crowding the streets, but if you visit the Cathedral de Notre Dame in the late afternoon, lines might not be as long as during the day.  You need a ticket to go all the way up to the top, but can get inside for free and marvel at the architecture of one of the most beautiful gothic cathedrals in  Europe. During church services, access is restricted. Strasbourg is supposed to be especially beautiful in December, when its Christmas Market is open.

Strasbourg’s history goes back many, many centuries. It was originally a celtic village. In more recent times, the French city was captured by Germans twice, the first time after the 1870/71 war between the two countries, and then again during WWII.  Today, it is the official seat of the European Parliament.

Feste Kaiser Wilhelm II – The Fort to Withstand Modern Warfare

Warfare has always  been a driver of technological innovation, today as much as over a hundred years ago.  At that time, the Germans were seeking ways to protect themselves at the Western front, and against the newest invention of explosives: melinite, much more powerful than black powder which had been in use until then. In 1893, emperor William (Wilhelm) II ordered the construction of a fort that would withstand attacks with this new weapon.

Situated mostly underground, with thick walls of concrete and steel-armored doors, the Feste Kaiser Wilhelm II – Fort de Mutzig – was built to defend Strasbourg. It took 25 years to finish the fortification with about 50 buildings below the surface, spread out to make them more difficult to destroy and better to defend. The complex was equipped with the newest technology at the time, like air conditioned tunnels, electric light, generator rooms, a hospital and much more, to house 7000 soldiers. A lot of it is still intact. The underground surface covers 40.000 m² (430.000 ft²). It takes two and a half hours just to tour a part of it. But it is definitely worth the time.

The guided tour takes you behind the massive doors into the claustrophobic and chilly labyrinth of tunnels and stairs. You can see where the soldiers ate and slept, where food was prepared and surgeries were performed.  It is not hard to understand why the men often were miserable, living at close quarters for months at a time. The fort also had a – for the time – sophisticated defense system. The fortress, however, never saw major battles, although it was occupied at different times by German, French, and American soldiers. Today, this prototype of the fortresses of the 20th century such as the Maginot Line and the Atlantic Wall serves as a museum.