It’s hard for today’s American expatriates to fathom the lives of our forbearers who lived in France before the internet, commercial airlines, the telephone, or even the telegraph, completely cut off from their homeland for months at a time. When I first arrived in Paris as a student in 1995, France’s communications industry was suffering from a full blown identity crisis. They seemed both behind and ahead of the US, determined to modernize but only on their own Gallic terms.
Entries in France (45)
"They stormed Omaha and Utah Beaches early on June 6, 1944. They've been written out of history. Movies don't show them. Most books don't mention them. But they were there." Watch the video to learn more about the men of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion.
Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day's Black Heroes, at Home and at War is the riveting story about the African-American soldiers who landed on the beaches of France on D-Day, virtually written out of history, their faces missing from iconic WWII films such as Saving Private Ryan. This well-researched book not only covers the military history, it also takes a hard look at race relations in the Jim Crow South and the sad lack of recognition these brave men were denied when they returned home.
American journalist and author Linda Hervieux, former editor of the New York Daily News now living in France, first learned about the 320th in 2009 when she attended a ceremony in Normandy for the 65th anniversary of D-Day awarding one of the soldiers from that African-American unit the Legion of Honor, France's highest honor. This began Hervieux's long and detailed research into the other men of the 320th that would eventually become the book Forgotten, published in fall of 2015 to much critical acclaim.
"Forgotten is an utterly compelling account of the African Americans who played a crucial and dangerous role in the invasion of Europe. ... The story of their heroic duty is long overdue." – Tom Brokaw, best-selling author of The Greatest Generation
"Hard to believe this story hasn’t been written before. Linda Hervieux’s Forgotten is essential, fiercely dramatic, and ultimately inspiring. All Americans should read this World War II history, which doubles as a civil rights primer, to learn the true cost of freedom." – Douglas Brinkley, best-selling author of Cronkite
I joined a fully-packed audience for the presentation of her book at the American Library of Paris earlier this month, and I doubt there was a dry eye in the room after she shared their stories with us. One of the most inspiring was about Corporal Waverly B. Woodson Jr. of West Philadelphia, a medic with the 320th.
You can read an excerpt from the book about his heroism and the many lives he saved on the beach that fateful day despite his own injuries, heavy firing from the Germans, and the slowly rising tide. But although Woodson was nominated America's Congressional Medal of Honor, no African-Americans would receive their own nation's highest honor in WWII. There is now an online petition to award Woodson the honor posthumously (he died in 2005).
Another fascinating part of her presentation were the stories of how kindly the African-American soldiers were treated in the small Welsh town where they were stationed before the invasions, and the friendships they formed with the locals who welcomed them into their community. Linda is currently touring the US for the book this February and March (including Washington, DC; the National D-Day Memorial in Virginia; Berkeley, San Francisco and Los Angeles, California; and Harvard Law School in Massachusetts).
The publisher is also offering the Kindle eBook version of Forgotten for just $1.99 during Black History Month (February). For more information about the men of the 320th, progress on the Medal of Honor petition, author appearances and news about the book, sign up for Linda Hervieux's free mailing list here.
The Mairie de Paris (City Hall) just announced a new “Carte Citoyenne-Citoyen de Paris” or a Paris Citizenship Card, free for any resident of Paris – of any nationality and at least 7 years old – “to promote civic pride and reaffirm adherence to the values of the French Republic”.
Some people may think it’s little more than a feel-good publicity stunt aimed at making the city’s multicultural kids feel more a part of the community, but I think it never hurts to err on the side of inclusion from an early age.
So what does this card actually do? It allows access to a diverse schedule of special events hosted by the City of Paris such as concerts, guided visits of municipal services and sights such as the Hôtel de Ville, official launches and sporting events, educational workshops and other interesting ways of making Parisians feel like they’re a part of the local community, and of course it’s also a way for City Hall to show off all the ways they’re working for the people of Paris (the entire spring schedule is already posted online).
The cards will be given automatically to school kids, but you can get yours by simply filling out the form online. Note: this card has nothing to do with the French naturalization process and has no legal value.
Every December in France you'll see the French firemen, or pompiers, selling their annual calendar to raise money for their non-profit association, ADOSSPP (Association pour le développement des œuvres sociales des sapeurs-pompiers de Paris), which provides assistance to injured fire fighters, as well as their families in case of death. As the French fire fighters are part of the French military, the calendars are rather...professional. You will see images of the fire fighters at work, putting out the flames, saving lives, in training exercises, etc.
I've seen two different covers, not sure if they're the same inside.
I like to follow the Sapeurs-Pompiers de Paris on Facebook because they always post photos and videos of their work. I should warn you the remains of burn-out houses and apartments are depressing, but you also get some pretty cool stuff, like this amazing rescue of an injured tourist in the dome at Sacré Coeur Basilica and needed to be taken out through the windows in a stretcher. You can watch one of their training videos to see what kind of physical strength and endurance is required of all fire fighters (note: they're not all firemen; women make up 8% of the French fire brigade, or about 14,000 total).
If you would like your own 2016 Calendrier des Sapeurs-Pompiers de Paris, and you haven't run into any firemen selling them at the market, you can simply stop by any caserne in Paris to buy them direct. Here is a map of all of the fire stations in Paris and immediate suburbs.
It should be said that the French buy these calendars to support the fire fighters, not because they're very interesting calendars. Or rather, not very exciting. But now there is a new calendar by Pompiers sans Frontiers (Fire Fighters without Borders), a French NGO that responds to humanitarian crises around the world as well as working with at-risk and vulnerable populations in France. To raise money and awareness for their work, they have come out with a très chaud calendar featuring the sexiest firemen photographed by Fred Goudon and published by Flammarion.
For this month's recommended reading list, I've got something old, something new, and something that will probably make you want to pack up and move to Paris if you're not already here.
To start off with the most magical of the three, The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs is not, in the words of its author Elaine Sciolino, "a chick-lit expat book about how I discovered sex, fashion and life in Paris". It is, however, a story about how this highly honored international news journalist fell in love with a market street in Paris, its people, its history, its food and the way it slowly but surely transformed her into a "local" in her adopted neighborhood south of Pigalle. Yes, this book will make you die of envy if you don't already live in Paris, and make you nod in recognition if you do (because like Elaine, we all can't help but fall in love with our own market street in Paris).
When my long-ago intern, running buddy, and tour guiding colleague Bryan Pirolli finished his doctoral thesis and obtained French citizenship this fall, I wanted to find the perfect gift. I stopped into the Abbey Bookshop and one of the other clients recommended Sudhir Hazareesingh's new book, How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People. Perfect! Only when I started reading it on the way home, I quickly realized I'd need a second copy for myself. Even after 20 years in France, I can pretend I know the French, but the "why" remained a mystery. This book, heavily researched by a British academic, finally clued me in. I'm only two chapters in (Descartes, the cult of Napoléon, Victor Hugo's occultism) and I already feel the little pieces of insight I've collected over the years are finally falling into place with the right context. It may be a bit heavy for the casual visitor, but if you live in France, this should be required reading. As an aside, I find it amusing that the UK cover has a suave-looking man smoking a cigarette, but the US cover is just the cigarette on its own.
The last book is one that I never actually thought I'd read. Secrets of Paris is a novel by Luanne Rice, one of those prolific romance writers who comes out with a book every year. This one came out in 1991, and I hadn't heard about it until I started using Google search around 2001 (anyone remember metacrawler?) I'm not really a romance genre reader, but when I was at my aunt's house in Arizona last month she had a pile of paperbacks and told me to take one, and guess what was in the pile? I hate badly-researched books set in Paris (yes, I'm looking at you Dan Brown), but this one is faultless. Either the author lived in Paris or did her homework. It's a perfectly entertaining airplane or poolside read, and you can probably find it at your local library.
This is the last week of Strasbourg’s famous Marché de Noël. Europe’s oldest Christmas market was founded in Strasbourg in 1570. Four and a half centuries later it continues to celebrate Alsatian holiday traditions with over 300 chalets in a dozen locations throughout the picturesque town of cobblestone pedestrian streets and half-timbered buildings with decorated facades and twinkling lights. I’ve visited several times and have taken friends and family, and the Strasbourg Marché de Noël never fails to impress. Disneyland wished it looked this cute!
Unlike the Parisian markets, the focus here is on the Alsace holiday traditions, so instead of tacky Santa Clause hats and electronic toys, you get a more down-to-earth feel, with a focus on hand-made ornaments, local foods and drinks, and musical celebrations in the churches and public squares.
Planning a Trip to the Strasbourg Marché de Noël
If you’re in Paris in December it’s worth the effort to make the day trip to Strasbourg by train. Even if it’s too late for you to go this Christmas, it’s never too early to plan for next year. The tips below will help you organize a day trip, but if you have the time, I heartily recommend an overnight trip to fully enjoy the sights and tastes of the town.
The Marché de Noël takes places the last weekend in November through Christmas Eve (in 2015 the dates are November 27-December 24). There is no entrance fee; the event takes place throughout the town. You can download this free English guide “Strasbourg: Capital of Christmas” from the Strasbourg Tourism Office website. It has detailed info to all of the markets, events and activities around the Marché de Nöel so you can plan the best day to go and what you want to see during your short visit. If you can, try to avoid the weekends, when the markets and restaurants are most crowded.
The TGV from the Paris Gare de L’Est station (in the 10th arrondissement) takes two hours and 20 minutes to get to Strasbourg. The earliest ones leave at 6:25am, but I recommend the 6:55am or 7:25am trains which arrive at 9:15am and 9:45am, ideal for a full day. Note: no cafés are open at or around the Gare de L’Est station before 6:30am, so don’t get there too early! The latest trains back to Paris leave Strasbourg at 8:16pmand 8:46pm and arrive at 10:35pm and 11:05pm. Get your SNCF tickets two months in advance (it’s not possible to reserve earlier) for the best deals from €25 each way; last-minute tickets tend to be €75-€95 each way. I use Capitain Train to get my tickets because they’re easier to use, but either one works. Note: I recommend getting the “print your tickets at home” option if you have a printer; if you need to pick them up at the station be SURE you pack the same credit card you used to make the payment or you won’t be able to retrieve your tickets.
What to Bring
Have a basic map printed out (you’ll get a better one at the Tourism Office on arrival), unless your smartphone has good maps like this interactive Strasbourg map (don’t forget your phone charger for the train), camera with charged batteries, money and ID or passport (in case they check on the train), a water bottle (you can get snacks and drinks on the train, but they’re pricey), and for the cold bring those cool Toe Warmers to put in your shoes, an extra scarf, rain jacket or parka, hat, warm gloves (required for skating), and a recycle bag for shopping. A good lightweight backpack, and smaller wallet or purse for money and tickets that you keep on you (pickpockets are always in large crowds). Err on the side of packing light; you can always buy stuff in Strasbourg if you need it, there tons of shops, pharmacies, etc. Note: there is free WIFI in five of the markets in Strasbourg (ask at the tourism office) as well as many cafés.
Getting Around Strasbourg
Strasbourg is very easy to get around on foot, tram or bike from the TGV train station. You could walk across the entire center of town (which looks like an island because the L’Ill River splits in two and surrounds it) in about 45 minutes if you’re slow. If you’ve got good shoes you may be tempted to walk everywhere, but you can save time and shoe leather taking the tram at least into the center. The Cathedral in the center can be seen from almost everywhere in Strasbourg (20 minutes on foot from the station); the tourism office is right next to it. The main pedestrian street Grand’Rue is a nice walk from the station with a lot of unique shops and cafés, while the Rue du Vieux Marché and Rue du 22 Novembre tend to be chain stores (including the high-end luxury brands you see in Paris).
The Strasbourg tram network is one of the best in France, with six lines in the city center. Lines A,C, and D are at the Gare station; All three go to the Homme de Fer station in the center of town, and A or D both go to Langstrosse Grand’Rue closest to the Cathedral (Broglie is another close station to the Cathedral but is closed during the Marché de Noël for security reasons). The tram entrance just outside the train station is actually underground like a metro (it then comes out and runs along the streets), just ask someone if you don’t see it. For tickets, you will likely only need to make two trips, so considering how many people you have, you can buy individual ones for €1.70 each, a round-trip ticket for €3.30, or a pack of ten that can be shared for €14. There is also an unlimited 24-hour pass for one person for €4.30, or €6.80 for 2-3 people (the best deal if there are three of you). The trams run every few minutes and are easy to use.
Like Paris, Strasbourg has a city bike-share system, Vélhop. Click on “Occasional Hires” on the website if you’d like to use it for the day. The rate is just €5 (you’ll need a credit card, which will be charged €150 if you don’t return the bike). The nearest station is right outside the train station (to the right), and throughout the town, and the actual boutique (if you need a human to help you) is on the lower level of the train station, open weekdays at 8am, Saturdays at 9:30am, closed Sunday. Don’t forget where you park yours, they all look alike. You’ll notice right away that there are a LOT of cyclists in Strasbourg, so watch out for them as much as watching out for the tram and pedestrians.
Early Arrival in Strasbourg
None of the shops or markets are open before 10am, so take advantage of your early arrival to do these three things (in any order): get maps and info at the tourism office, eat breakfast, visit the Cathedral.
First, get informed. There is a small tourism information desk at the train station where you can pick up the free printed copy of the guide “Strasbourg: Capital of Christmas” (make sure you get the English one) as well as a free basic map of the markets and holiday event locations. The main Strasbourg Tourism Office is at the Place de la Cathédral (on your left as you’re facing the cathedral entrance), open daily 9am-7pm. I also recommend getting an actual city map if you don’t have a smartphone with working GPS so you can easily find your way around the smaller streets and tram stations. The Tourism Office is also where you can reserve spots for guided tours of the city in English; ask about the schedule when you arrive since it changes regularly.
There will be plenty to eat at the Marché de Noël stands, so no need for a huge breakfast. I always use breakfast as a chance to read over the guide I picked up at the tourism office and plan out my itinerary with the map (easier to do on a printed one that you can read with gloves on). Many cafés are open early for breakfast. My favorite place is Christian (10 rue Mercière, right by the Cathedral), a bakery with a cozy tearoom upstairs that gets packed around 11am. I get a traditional Kougelhopf (a type of brioche with almonds on it) and a gourmet tea or hot chocolate. Two others I like are the Salon du Thé Grand’Rue (80 Grand’Rue) and Bistro & Chocolat (8 rue de Râpe), around the back of the Cathedral, but not open unti1 11am weekdays and 10am weekends, so better for lunch or an afternoon hot chocolate and pastry.
Cathédral Notre Dame de Strasbourg
There are many churches in Strasbourg, but you can’t miss the towering Cathédral Notre Dame de Strasbourg completed in the 15th century (with a Romanesque crypt dating back to the 11th century). It is open Monday-Saturday 9:30am-11:15am and 2-6pm, and Sunday 9am-7pm (closed to sightseeing during mass). Note: the hours have changed recently, the English version of website is wrong. Aside from the church itself, which is free to visit, you can also climb up the 332 steps to the rooftop viewing platform, which has great views over Strasbourg and all the way to the Black Forest in Germany on a clear day. In winter it’s open from 10am-6pm (last entry 5:30pm), fee €5. The entrance is around the south exterior of the cathedral (on the right as you face front entrance). There is also a big deal made of the Renaissance Astronomical Clock, l’Horloge Astronomique, which, for €2, you can see moving like a very elaborate cuckoo clock. I personally thought it was a lot of waiting around for a short show, so check it out here first and make your own decision.
The Christmas Markets & Sights
There are eleven markets in different squares throughout central Strasbourg, including just outside the train station, outside the Cathedral, on Place Broglie, on Place Kléber (with the largest real Christmas Tree in France grown specifically for the market), at Place Corbeau by the Alsatian Museum, at Place Gutenberg where there’s a guest visitor market each year (Luxembourg for 2015), in Petite France overlooking the River L’Ill, at Place d’Austerlitz specializing in only foods and drinks, outside the Temple Neuf Church, and the furthest at Cité de la Musique et de la Danse next to the ice skating rink. Each market supposedly has its specialty, but they basically all have ornaments, gifts, pottery, linens, foods and plenty of mulled wine, and of course, storks. You won’t see actual storks in the winter, but there are plenty of them in Strasbourg in the summer, so it’s now their official bird mascot. You’ll see plenty of ornaments and fuzzy hats. They are all worth a visit, but I particularly like the one at Petite France because it’s absurdly cute. The “Sharing” or Solidarité Village at the Place Kléber is where you’ll find all of the local non-profits and charities like UNICEF and the Lions Club selling souvenirs or food and drink for a good cause. They are all open 10am until 8pm (Friday and Saturday until 9pm).
Getting sick of cutesy Christmas Village Land? For 2015 there is also an “Off” de Noël highlighting Strasbourg’s street art scene, young local designers, a fair trade food and artisan market, and live music events. The HQ of the “Off” is around the Quartier Gare train station district (home to much of the street art). Yes, Strasbourg also has a bit of an edge to it! Pick up a map and schedule of events at the cool Graffalgar Hotel (just outside the train station), one of the official hosts (they also have a great little café where you can get a hot drink and charge your phone). See their Facebook page for the full schedule. Another address in the “Off” Noël itinerary is La PopArtiserie, an alternative art gallery around a cozy cobblestone courtyard with a bar and live concerts in the evenings.
La Petite France
This district in the southwestern corner of the city is full of picturesque half-timbered houses dating back to the Renaissance overlooking a series of canals. I usually walk straight here from the train station, cutting across the square in front of the colorful Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MAMCS) to cross the River Ill on the Barrage Vauban, a 17th century dam with a free rooftop terrace that has excellent views over La Petite France. You’ll see the Cathedral in the distance, but in direct sight are the four stone towers of the former Ponts Couverts, the bridges that were once covered in the 15th century. The neighborhood has several shops, cafés and two markets.
Musée Historique de la Ville de Strasbourg
This museum covers the fascinating history of the city of Strasbourg from its Roman beginnings, its status as a Free Royal City under the French kings, what happened when France ceded the entire region to the Germans after the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, and the city’s Nazi occupation in World War II. You’ll find armor and uniforms, history maps and relief scale models of the city. Open 10am-6pm, closed Monday. Entrance €6.50. http://www.musees.strasbourg.eu/b
Just across the river near the Place Corbeau is the museum of the Alsatian people and their traditions, housed in one of the city’s oldest half-timbered homes faithfully decorated to show what the interiors would have looked like. It’s a great introduction to the spirit of the locals, who consider themselves Alsatian, not German nor French, and what their daily lives were like. If you have to choose one museum to visit, make it this one. Open 10am-6pm, closed Tuesday. Entrance €6.50. http://www.musees.strasbourg.eu/
Food & Drink at the Markets
You can seriously eat your way across the Marché de Noël: bretzels (soft pretzels), Kougelhopf brioches big and small, Bredeles (star-shaped spice bread cookies), Pain d’Epice (spice bread or ginger bread, many variations on flavor), every kind of pastry, crêpes, tartes flambés, also called flammekeuche (wood fired pizzas made traditionally with crème fraiche, bacon and onions, but also can have Gruyère cheese or mushrooms), knacks (sausages), choucroute (sauerkraut), and vin chaud (mulled wine) or if you’re not into hot wine there’s also hot spiced orange, apple or lemon juice. For drinks you need to pay an extra €1 consigne for the decorated plastic cup, which you get back when you return the cup (but if you keep it you have a nice souvenir).
You may get sick of standing when you eat, or just need to seriously thaw out. Central Strasbourg has a ton of restaurants, cafés and bistros, some obviously better than others. For very traditional, old-fashioned Alsatian cuisine I usually go to Zuem Strissel, the oldest winstub in Strasbourg dating back to the 14th century. Lots of dark wood paneling, stained glass windows, and all the local specialties including choucroute, flammekeuche and hearty meat dishes with German-sounding names you’ll need an Alsatian dictionary to decipher. Very similar and also on two floors is Le Gruber, a very cozy Alsatian restaurant with a lot of décor to distract you from the impossible quantities of food you’re consuming. I prefer the upstairs in both restaurants to get away from the winter drafts. Of course, some people are looking for something a bit more modern, where the locals actually eat. I really liked Le Troquet des Kneckes on the Grand’Rue, a casual and cozy place popular with the university students that has surprisingly good food (I had their pumpkin soup and a bretzel for a hot snack), but is more like a bar after hours. Locals in the know book ahead for a table for a nice lunch or dinner at Vince Stub, which is always packed despite being hidden from the tourist crowds on a little side street. They serve traditional French market cuisine in a cozy setting near Petite France. If you’re visiting on the weekends you may want to book ahead no matter where you eat, just in case, as it can get very crowded.
More affordable than Paris, a night in Strasbourg is highly recommended if you have the time. It’s best to stay in the city center (inside or near the River Ill), preferably close to the train station or a tram stop so you don’t have to go far with your bags. There are many different hotels for all budgets, the nicest are usually booked all of December two months in advance. Le Bouclier d’Or is a luxury hotel and spa on the edge of La Petite France, with gorgeous rooms showing the historic building’s beams. Hotel Cour du Corbeau is a contemporary 4-star hotel within a historic building, close to the tram and easy walk to all of the sights. The Marché Place du Corbeau is just outside. Hotel Suisse is an adorable little 2-star hotel overlooking the Cathedral, with a few tables on the sidewalk (for the summer) and a lovely tearoom next door. Graffalgar Hotel as mentioned above in the “Off” Noël section, is a budget hotel with edgy style, rooms decorated by graffiti artists, a great café, and easy to find right by the train station. Great for solo travelers. Hotel Patricia is for those on a severe budget. This is a minimalist hotel that resembles the dorm room I had in college, but one step up from a youth hostel (you don’t have to share a room, but the cheapest ones have shared bathrooms in the hall). Great location on a quiet street near the Cathedral and La Petite France.
Join Me in Strasbourg in 2016
Experience the best of the Strasbourg Marché de Noël with Secrets of Paris! Heather will be hosting just five guests for a two-day excursion including train, hotel, meals and a guided tour of Strasbourg and its Christmas markets. Join us if you’d like to enjoy this magical city without having to worry about logistics, language barrier or navigation. More information and pre-booking coming in January 2016.
Because of the November 2015 attacks in Paris, the Strasbourg Marché de Noël is under exceptionally tight security. The center of town is pedestrian only, with guards checking bags and all delivery vehicles, and the Broglie tram stop is closed. Some events have been cancelled because of the security issues (all listed on the Tourism Office website, but check with them if you’re not sure). They were also checking all bags before you could enter the Cathedral, so there is sometimes a line to enter, but not more than 15-20 minutes. Generally I didn’t find it affected my enjoyment of the market, it felt very safe.