All very charming, but I’m looking for something more personal. I hope to untangle an old family story: my great-great-grandfather George Giesner left France to seek work in Manchester, England, in the mid-19th century. Apparently he had a relative – a brother, perhaps? – who was commemorated in the cathedral.
This vague story was embroidered by an elderly aunt who told my mother at a family funeral in the 1970s that said brother – Henri Giesner – was buried in the crypt.
If it ever was, it isn’t now. Michel Bocci, the chief sexton who opened the crypt especially for me, cannot help Henri.
Never mind. I didn’t really expect to find it here, and anyway, it’s not my last option; I made an appointment with Sabine Bengel, who works for the Fondation de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame, the organization that built the cathedral and still maintains its masonry. If anyone knows of an ancient hidden memorial, it might be them.
In the meantime, there is still a day and a half to enjoy Strasbourg. The town seems calm, I tell Bocci as we climb the steps to the crypt. “This is the best time to visit, before the start of the Christmas market [on Nov. 24 ]”, he says. “We have 5 million visitors to the cathedral every year, but not many at the moment. It’s very peaceful.”
It’s true; there are maybe a dozen people in the cathedral and most wait patiently in front of the astronomical clock to the right of the altar.
This 59-foot tall clock, built in the 16th century and remodeled in the 19th century, is ornate and richly decorated with antique moving parts.
At 10 a.m., the crowd is rewarded when – about 32 feet tall – a small, young automated model, arrow in hand, crawls past a bony, scantily clad depiction of death. Smartphone cameras flicker and click.
On the opposite wall is Sylvie Lander’s modern work ‘Ex Tempore’, but an amateur-engraved name in the stone below catches my eye: ‘George Koehler Zimmer Dresden 1666’. I walk over to the man manning the nearby souvenir stand. Is it really from 1666? He lowers his glasses to see better. “Maybe,” he said. “But he wasn’t a very good draftsman!”
No, and it wasn’t Henri Giesner either. It’s nowhere to be found, but there’s plenty more to see: stained glass windows depicting long-dead kings, a plaque commemorating the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1988, a handful of shrines where offerings can be made to saints.
Lunchtime – restaurants are often already full at midday in France – is fast approaching, so I head out towards the north side of the red stone cathedral. Rainwater slaps on the cobblestones as it escapes from the building’s gutter system; outside a shop opposite, dolls in Alsatian costumes and gingerbread stuffed animals are sheltered under plastic sheeting.
My heart is set on sauerkraut garnished, the hearty and damned Alsatian classic afternoon dish; it’s on the lunch menu at Le Clou, a wine bar on the nearby rue de Chaudron. Pushing open the heavy wooden door, I step through the dark red curtains in a wave of warmth and cheerful conversation. I’m just in time; only one table remains.
Dark wood furniture, floral tablecloths, wine served in blue-gray ceramic jugs and plates that double as decorations, Le Clou is furnished in a typically rustic Alsatian style. A blue-edged plate on the wall shows two men in traditional Alsatian dress awkwardly confronting each other before a struggle: “Une Affaire d’Honneur”, or question of honor, reads the caption.
“I don’t think I could eat all that,” laughs the old man sitting at the next table when my garnished Sauerkraut arrives. “I’m not sure I can,” I lie. It’s very good: a mixture of knack sausages (smoked and country), smoked bacon and pork neck served on a huge mound of rich and delicately tangy sauerkraut, plus an unnecessary boiled potato (of which I leave the third party, not wishing to appear greedy). A quarter-bottle jug of Riesling sweetens it.
The afternoon and evening pass in a soft blur. I walk east and north of the cathedral, passing by Place Gutenberg – where two beautiful old restaurants, sporting neon signs for defunct breweries, overlook the statue of Gutenberg and Place Kleber, the central square of the city, where bikes constantly seem on the verge of colliding with pedestrians.
The next morning, I return to the cathedral via Petite France, perhaps the most chocolaty part of this wonderfully preserved city.
A tour guide entertains his American guests with well-rehearsed jokes. It designates a tower on the Ponts Couverts, a bridge connecting three islands on the Ill: “It was built in 1250”. Pause. “I see that you are disappointed madam, she is not old enough! To laugh. “It was a prison for a special kind of women.” More laughs. “Witches!
I go to the Musée de l’Œuvre-Notre-Dame, in the shadow of the cathedral’s 465-foot high spire, before my appointment. Inside, a noisy group of small children crouch before a 12th-century lintel decorated with animals, but I have the rest of the museum pretty much to myself.
There is not enough time to do him justice. There are too many marvelous stained glass windows, statues, stone fragments, paintings and more. A 15th century painting titled “Les Amants Trepasses”, a grotesque depiction of deceased and partially decomposed lovers with a frog covering the crotch, remains in memory if only for its shock value.
I meet Sabine afterwards, at the base of the Foundation behind the museum. It’s an exciting time for the Foundation, she tells me; it has just been listed on France’s national inventory of intangible cultural heritage with a view to applying for UNESCO “intangible heritage” status, possibly alongside similar organizations in Germany, Austria and Norway. This would make this remarkable cathedral workshop, unique of its kind in France, better known.
“The first mention of the Foundation dates back to the 1220s,” she says. “Despite the Reformation, despite the French Revolution, despite the city’s changes in nationality, it has endured ever since.”
Right now, she says, they are restoring the south facade of the cathedral’s transept, where original Romanesque work combines with 12th-century Gothic sculpture. She shows me a diagram detailing the parts to be repaired. “These are the first Gothic sculptures in Strasbourg and they are of very, very good quality,” she says.
Fascinating stuff, but I have one more question as we wrap up the tour in the top floor workshop. Has she heard of Henri Giesner? “I don’t know anyone by that name,” she said before thinking. “I have a big book called Biographies Alsaciens, I’ll get you.”
It’s a kind offer, but I don’t have high hopes. Unlike the historic charm of Strasbourg, Henri Giesner – if he ever existed – seems to have been lost in the vagaries of time.
A few minutes from the cathedral, the Gutenberg hotel offers modern decor and a hearty Alsatian breakfast. Double with breakfast from $136.
ibis Strasbourg Historic Center Hotel
A short walk from Strasbourg train station, Petite France and the cathedral, this is a great budget option. Expect friendly staff and a small but tidy room. Double rooms with breakfast start at around $74.
This Michelin Plate rated Alsatian winstub (wine restaurant) has an excellent lunch menu, with two dishes for around $17 or three for around $22. The à la carte menu is full of Alsatian classics and a bit more expensive. Open from 11:45 a.m. to 2 p.m. and from 5:30 p.m. to midnight.
Expect a warm welcome from owners Karine and Daniel and excellent Alsatian cuisine in this tiny one-room winstub. It is recommended to book in advance; sector from around $17.60. Closed Saturday, Sunday and Monday around noon; open the other days from 11.45 a.m. to 1.30 p.m. and from 7 p.m. to 9.30 p.m.
Entrance to the main cathedral is free, although access to the crypt is not available. see website for details. Open from 9:30 a.m. to 11:15 a.m. and from 2 p.m. to 5:45 p.m. A platform, located at 332 steps, offers a breathtaking view of the city and the surrounding countryside. Adults about $5.90; children 5-18, approximately $2.69. Free entry on the first Sunday of each month.
Museum of the Work of Notre-Dame
For lovers of the cathedral, it is an indispensable accompaniment, offering centuries of priceless art and decoration from Strasbourg and Alsace. Adults $7.60, children 17 and under free.