Le voyage, pas l’arrivée – T S Eliot
The journey, not the arrival matters – T S Eliot
Once it was a despised area where the patients with an abominable diseases, were treated. Though it was a busy workplace courtesy of abundant natural freshwater it reeked of foul smell. And present-day, it’s a tourist attraction for its postcard-worthy, colourful vibrant avatar with rustic charm… what’s meant to be will always find a way, isn’t it?
Welcome to La Petite France which makes Strasbourg ‘sassy’!
Ile river crisscrosses the historic centre of Strassbourg gifting it a unique identity. To the southwest of Grand Ile, Ile divides into five canals resulting in an amazing delta. Its aerial view gives the impression that the river with its five fingers is trying to hold the city in its grasp. Out of the five canals, Zorn, Düntz, and Spitz are canals where one could find the mills from the 15th to 17th century and the rest two are navigation canals.
Proximity to waterbody invited tanners, fishermen, mill men, metal workers, washermen, and brewers to this area. The navigational canals provided excellent means of the trade fair. Thus resulting in a busy pace of life around the canals, as early as the 15th century. It became the de facto home for workers and the poor. Here, one could find as many as 100 wash-houses even at the turn of the 20th century.
Why the name?
The name, La Petite France, may indicate that it has something to do with the history or tradition, or architecture of France. Unfortunately, it’s not the case. Though it’s related to France, it’s out of an undesirable connection. In the Middle Ages, syphilis was called ‘Franzosenkrankheit’ meaning the ‘French disease’ or ‘French malaise’. The foot soldiers affected by ‘Franzosenkrankheit’ were brought and treated at the establishment in this area since1503. It was a marshy place then and was neglected apart from being looked down upon. By the beginning of the 18th century, the place was called Hôpital des Incurables (Hospital of Incurables). In 1795, the establishment was renamed La Petite France
Though the history has ignoble roots, at present it’s a must-have itinerary item for every Strasbourg visitor. Let’s find out…
La Petite France
La Petite France is a melange of old-world narrow cobblestone streets lined by the half-timbered houses of typical Alsatian style, the fulsome clear waters of the canals bound by the quays with sturdy railings, peppered with the bridges which often are flower-bedecked and historical monuments here and there.
La petite France starts with Place Benjamin -Zix and ends at Les Ponts Couvertes with some remarkable highlights in between.
Place Benjamin-Zix (Benjamin-Zix square) has the oldest tanners house, built-in 1572, Maison des Tanneurs. At present, it houses a fine-dine restaurant.
Very next to the square is the winding Rue du Bain-aux-Plantes. It is the tanner’s quarters. The white-coloured, half-timbered, well-preserved houses of the tanners dot the entire stretch of the alley. Don’t forget to notice the ventilated attics here which were used for drying the hides. Can you see why it must have been a place with a fetid smell?
Just round the corner is the ‘Pont Tournant’, aka Moulin’s footbridge. It’s a small, swivelling footbridge with a priority to the tour boats! Watching the bridge turn to the side and let the tour boat pass by is pure fun.
A few strides ahead is a stone bridge with two arches and a single column, Le Pont Saint-Martin (Saint Martin Bridge).
From here, one can view the mills, dams, locks, and charming waterside terraces.
As we stroll up, the massive guard towers of Les Ponts Couvertes (Covered Bridges) from the 13th century catch our attention.
Though the bridges are open to the sky now, they were covered for sheltering the soldiers guarding the city. Hence the name. There were 5 towers. However today one can find only four. Here one can see the five canals of the Ile river distinctively.
A little south of the covered bridges is an impressive structure. Built with the intention of fortifying the defence of the city, Barrage Vauban (Vauban dam) is a pink sand stone-built bridge with 13 arches. It was built in the 17th century during the reign of Lous XIV, by the French Engineer Jacques Tarade according to plans by Vauban. It was called Grande Ecluse (Grand Lock) then. The dam was meant to flood the south of Strasbourg when completely sealed as the Ill River wouldn’t then be flowing in its bed, bogging down the enemy army. At present, it is named after its chief architect. Its terrace offers a wonderful view of the Covered Bridges, Petite France, and the Cathedral (the picture above)
To end the scenic and memorable day, I would suggest some retail therapy. Shops around Grand Rue have everything you may want to buy like clothing, souvenirs, crockery, wine, and speciality teas. You can sip local beer or wine at one of the Alsatian eateries.
It’s time now to move on as the historical yet modern side of Strasbourg awaits!
Click here for posts so far in the “Exploring l’Hexagone” series