The following episode took place in December 2013.
Strasbourg was a city it took me quite some time to get. Usually I am a really good navigator, and it doesn’t take me a long time in a new city before I have a general idea of its layout, and able to get around without a map. Many a time have I impressed fellow travellers with my ability to quickly get my bearings and get around in a new city.
In Strasbourg I felt really lost the first three out of four days. Only on our last day there did I finally understand the layout of the city, and then it dawned on me. The problem wasn’t me or the complexity of the city streets. The city was quite easy to get around in actually, and I should have been able to create a mental map of it much earlier. The problem lay with the locals, and the really strange way they got around in the city.
We went to Strasbourg just before christmas, my friend Erik and I. A well deserved vacation at the end of the year. Christmas time is not a particularly bad time to visit Strasbourg. The city calls itself Capitale de Noël, the Capital of Christmas. Before christmas there are christmas markets all over the city.
The Christmas Market in Strasbourg, there are several of them and I never made a proper count, is one of the city’s biggest atttactions. In a city of some 250.000 people, the two million visitors the market draws is year is huge. Hotels are booked a year in advance and it is considered one of the most famous christmas markets in Europe. Luckily we had friends in Strasbourg we could stay with.
Arriving in Strasbourg, taking the train from the airport, we quickly met up with our friends. Two girls we had met while they were traveling Norway the year before.
We had a lot of catching up to do, and went to the Academy of Beers for some beers and a chat. It was only a five minute walk from the train station. Straight ahead, then into a side street where the bar was.
The Academy of Beers was really cool, an old German beer hall with a massive selection of beers. All kinds of beer, on tap and bottled. So many I never had tried before. Better order small glasses to sample as many as I can.
The German influence in Strasbourg was very visible. It wasn’t hard to see that this area had been German in the past. Many houses were what I picture as typical German houses, and there was of course the beer culture, as opposed to the wine culture in the rest of France. Even in Nice, far to the south, Kronenbourg, a beer from Strasbourg, was what I would get if I simply ordered a beer in a cafe or bar. The Alsacian beer has become the local beer all over France. The Academy of Beers fit right into Strasbourg’s beer culture.
We didn’t stay long that night, around ten pm we left and headed for the bus. Already here I felt there was something wrong with the direction we walked in, but couldn’t quite put my finger on why.
The next morning the girls were at university and Erik and I were going to explore Strasbourg. We lived in a suburb to the city, a fifteen minute bus ride from the city center. The weather was nice, and as we both like to explore, we decided to walk there. It took about an hour, but was a really fresh start to the day.
The day was spent in Strasbourg, visiting the many christmas markets, seeing the famous cathedral, walking along the canal, and trying the popular Glühwein or Vin Chaud, a mulled wine sold in every other stand in the markets it seemed like. It kept you warm on a cold winter day.
We spent most of the time in the city center, and after a while I felt I had a good idea of the main streets. In the evening we met up with one of the girls, the one whose living room we were staying in, and went back to her place.
Back in her apartment we had dinner before leaving for a party at ten in the evening. The plan was to meet the other girl and her friends there, then go to a concert.
Leaving the party, we headed for the concert venue. Some had gone ahead in a taxi, but we were told it was only a short walk from where we were at. As most had stayed behind, planning to walk, we figured that was best.
It was on this walk my mental map started to shatter. I trusted the locals to know the way, hadn’t been paying attention to where we were walking that much, but as we walked through the city center, past places I had seen before, we did some, for me, strange turns. Two rights in a row, then a left for example. We approached certain monuments from what I felt was the wrong direction. Sometimes I felt we were walking in semi-circles. I tried to dismiss the doubts, they were probably due to a lack of attention and the influence of a few beers, but I really started doubting my mental map. Maybe the city wasn’t like I thought. Could I have got it all wrong?
As it turned out, the others didn’t actually know where exactly the venue was, they got lost and called their friends who had taken a taxi.
They spoke in French for a while, on the phone and off the phone, we walked some more and ended up at Nelson, a pub trying to look British. Turns out the people taking a taxi hadn’t found the place either and had come here instead. We didn’t let that ruin the evening. It was a great night and who cares if we missed some concert.
Next day we went to see the European Court of Human Rights. We didn’t go out until quite late in the afternoon and by the time we had seen the court it was time for dinner. One of the girls was with us, she knew a great restaurant in town. We took a tram to get there.
Once again I was getting confused by directions. First we took a tram to a station I thought was very close to the restaurant, but there we changed to another tram and took it two stops, got off in a large open field, in front of the Palais du Rhin, the former residence of the German emperor in Strasbourg, back when Alsace was German. We were still as close to the restaurant I thought, only approaching it from a different direction. We started walking back in the direction of what I thought was the station we came from. I was really confused. I asked Erik, he felt the same way. The restaurant turned out to be exactly where I thought it would be, but if I was right we took quite a detour to get there. Unless the last tram ride was really pointless, I really had no clue of how the city was organised. I trusted my friend who lived here, I was having serious doubts about my own sense of direction.
We had dinner, went to a party at the apartment of the other girl we met in Trondheim. The plan for the night was to later head for Nelson, same place as the night before. We had a great time, but as none of the girls’ friends spoke much English, Erik and I ended mostly up chatting amongst ourselves, sometimed with the two girls.
On our way to Nelson that night, first I despaired, thinking I had lost my inner compass, but then it all dawned on me.
We took a bus and got of it in front of the Palais du Rhin. I thought we would walk from there, Nelson wasn’t that far ahead. What puzzled me was that by my calculations the ten minutes it took us first waiting for the bus and next taking it, had only saved us maybe five minutes of walking. By now I was almost ready to scrap my mental map and start over.
When we next jumped on a tram, and took it back, in my opinion, to where we came from, I really freaked out. I used to be good with directions. I turned to Erik, he was as lost as me, together we statted comparing notes.
We quickly established the major points of interest in the city, and where they were in relation to the tram. We could see the spire of the cathedral looming over the rooftops, we just passed the train station, and the closest canal was only a block away. We agreed so far. And we both felt that Nelson should now be between us and the cathedral. We should be moving towards the cathedral but the tram was driving a route going in a circle around the cathedral.
We got of the tram, neither of us felt the tram ride had taken us any nearer Nelson. When we next continued walking in a direction both Erik and I thought was still in the wrong direction, still circling Nelson, we both gave up, just followed.
As we got closer and closer to Nelson, I didn’t care about direction anymore, just walked and looked at the city. I could not help to notice, however, we passed the same building twice, then one more time. Everytime a bit closer. My brain went into over-drive, I was quickly thinking of streets and directions again. I mapped out the city, as I thought it was, in my mind. Tried to backtrack out route that day, earlier that day, the day before. Started to see a pattern. Could it be true? It was so weird, so inefficient, so pointless. It couldn’t be. I double checked it in my mind. It all worked out, but why?
I still wasn’t sure what to believe when Erik confirmed my suspicion. He was walking next to me, turned towards me.
‘Torgeir,’ he said. ‘Have you noticed how every one here is walking in circles all the time? Not really circles, more like in spirals.’
It was true. Our friends here usually went to a place by walking or riding in buses or trams in circles around it, slowly homing in on their destination. If traced on a map the route would look like a spiral. I understood the streets of Strasbourg, my mental map was correct. I still had it. I was relieved, but at the same time perplexed.