Daydreaming in Petite France

7 JAN 2017

It is easy to imagine the small ships and ferries navigating the canals of Petite France in Strasbourg. Here, the tanners, millers, and fishermen lived and worked. Set aside from the wealthier part of town because of the “evil” smell of the tanning process, Petite France grew up in the early 12th century. I can see the pitched, half-timbered roofs of the former tanneries. This architectural design would trap the smell, for the most part, and divert it from the surrounding area. As well as tradesmen, soldiers would man the four towers and the bridges connecting them over the Ill River.

The seemingly untouched image of these old homes and fortifications make it easy to shut my eyes and see and hear the sights and sounds of a medieval metropolis hard at work: the cathédrale bells ringing, the horse-drawn carriages creaking along, the farmer selling his fresh produce, the tradesman hawking his wares, and the Alsatian stork’s call sounding as if a drummer beating against a wooden drum.

Now, the pitched roofs are chic, oft-sought-after apartments; the streets are full of couples, families, and groups touring; the tannery smell gone; and the horse-drawn carriages replaced with bicycles and small sedans. I think I can most appreciate how, like in Paris, the medieval apartments are still lived in. They are not relegated to some historical society or museum, which is important indeed, but these, even being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are no ruins. They are teeming with life, thriving.

As if breaking away from a dream, I am pulled away to continue our tour of the Grande Île. We weave through the winding alleyways back toward Gutenberg Square and then a little further toward Notre-Dame de Strasbourg. It has hardly set in that this gothic tower, this medieval town, is my new home for a few months. I am sure once classes begin, though, that that will all change. Soon, I will be rushing to the bus and the tram, racing down the street past centuries-old buildings to make sure that I am not late for class.

Hah, in fact, I am looking forward to it.

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