Wednesday, June 15, 2005


Last week, on Tuesday, we took a train to Sélestat. Like Colmar and Strasbourg it was one of the cities of the Decapole, and like Colmar it grew up around the wine trade. Perhaps most significantly, it was a major intellectual center because of the library created by Beatus Rhenanus in the fifteenth century.

The coolest thing that we saw in Sélestat was the first: three storks circling us!

The old city center (vieille ville) is very attractive. There is little logic to the layout of the buildings and streets. In fact, the streets do not as much cut through the dense agglomeration of buildings as lead from one square of houses to the next. I would guess that no one (read the Germans during the period of the Kaiserreich) tried to rationalize urban planning. Consequently, the old city center of Selestat is one area, not clearly subdivided into living and shopping areas.

There are lots of the half-timbered houses that are so familiar to the region, and if they are not as tall as those of Colmar and Strasbourg, they are perhaps more beautiful. The compactness of the old town creates a traditional atmosphere: it is impossible to take a whole building in, you can only crane your neck up close and look at the buildings in awe.

Port Neuf Briesach

Many buildings are brightly colored; others have been painted with faux elements of Renaissance and Classical architecture. I sensed that painting played the same role that sculpture normally played in medieval cities, expressing the sentiments of the merchants who lived in them. Clearly some of these paintings (frescoes?) were modern, kept up by the people to maintain the visual traditions of the city.

Because of the compactness of the old city center, I never got the angle I wanted to photograph the architecture, like St. Foy (12th century). The church, an elegant Romanesque structure, alternated stones of different colors, giving a varied look to the outside. Near the back it has a wide, octagonal spire. The interior is a masterful play of light: rays stream in through the windows onto the various surfaces.

The Gothic St. Georges (completed in the 15th century) was less inviting, perhaps because Gothic is becoming quite ordinary for this trip. St. Foy and St. Georges are but a few hundred feet from one another, and one has a perfect view of the other upon exiting from the side doors. The best parts of St. Georges are the long, stained glass windows which depict the lives of saints.

My big disappointment came when the Humanist Library was closed. I had become so used to things being closed on Mondays around here that I got sloppy and did not check the times.

Feeling that the day might be wasted, I rented some bicycles from the tourist office. K was not at first convinced that my idea was good. She had never biked in Europe, and was afraid of getting lost. However, it was the first beautiful day of the trip, and I thought we would enjoy seeing something other than the cities and towns.

At first things were dreary – I took us the wrong direction to get to the bike paths outside town. We also were unclear about how to ride on streets and sidewalks in France: should one stay on the road unless a bike path is marked? Will drivers see us, or even care?

Finally we got out of town and into the Ried (literally the reeds, being that Selestat is at the edge of a swampy, reedy area west of the river). The landscape was flat, with large fields divided by long stands of trees and streams. At parts the forest of the Îllwald became more dense. At some point we bike into the forest itself. We stopped to talk to an older couple who said that they hiked through the forest two miles everyday. They told us about efforts to preserve the Îllwald.

We ate lunch at a Tunisian restaurant not far from the churches. The owner was friendly and hospitable, shaking everyone’s hand as they entered and chatting with every table. The restaurant is clearly loved by the locals.
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