The crypt at Strasbourg Cathedral isn’t how I’d imagined it. I’d expected something richly atmospheric, sepulchral, a space stuffed with the accumulated religious ephemera of more than eight centuries.
It’s actually quite tidy; almost cozy, in fact. There are simple wooden chairs in neat rows, a humble altar with a beautiful, blue-and-green, stained-glass window above it, an elegant wooden statue of the Virgin of Strasbourg (Mary, arms stretched, with Jesus, clutching a fleur-de-lis, on her lap), and a stone memorial etched with the names of the archbishops buried under the cathedral’s main altar.
All very charming, but I’m looking for something more personal. I’m hoping to unravel an old family story: my great-great grandfather George Giesner left France to seek work in Manchester, England, in the mid-19th century. He had a relative — a brother, perhaps? — who apparently was commemorated in the cathedral.
This vague tale was embroidered by an elderly aunt who told my mom at a family funeral in the 1970s that said brother — Henri Giesner — was buried in the crypt.
If he ever was, he’s not now. Michel Bocci, the chef des sacristans (chief janitor) who opened up the crypt especially for me, can’t help with Henri.
Oh well. I wasn’t really expecting to find him here and, anyway, it’s not my final option; I’ve arranged a meeting with Sabine Bengel, who works for the Fondation de l’Oeuvre Notre-Dame, the organization that built the cathedral and still looks after its stonework. If anyone will know about an old memorial tucked away, perhaps it will be them.
In the meantime, there’s a day-and-a-half to enjoy Strasbourg, which is about 250 miles east of Paris (about two hours by train) and 150 miles southwest of Frankfurt, Germany. The city seems quiet, I tell Bocci as we climb the steps out of the crypt. “This is the best time to visit,” he says, meaning before the Christmas market begins in late November. “We have 5 million visitors to the cathedral each year, but not many right now. It’s very tranquil.”
It’s true; there are perhaps a dozen people in the cathedral and most of them are waiting patiently in front of the astronomical clock to the right of the altar. This 59-foot-tall clock, built in the 16th century and renovated in the 19th century, is ornate and richly decorated with antique moving parts. At 10 a.m. the crowd is rewarded when — 32 feet up — a little automated model youth, arrow in hand, shuffles across in front of a bony, barely clad depiction of death. Smartphone cameras flash and click.
On the wall opposite, there’s Sylvie Lander’s modern work “Ex Tempore,” but a name amateurishly etched into the stone below catches my eye: “George Koehler Zimmer Dresden 1666.” I approach the man running the nearby souvenir stall. Is it really from 1666? He lowers his glasses to get a good look. “Possibly,” he says. “But he wasn’t a very good draughtsman!”
No, and he wasn’t Henri Giesner, either, who is nowhere to be found.
But there’s plenty more to see: stained-glass windows featuring 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 noon in France — is fast approaching, so I step outside heading along the north side of the red-stone cathedral. Rainwater thuds on cobblestones as it races from the building’s guttering system; outside a shop across the way, Alsatian-costumed dolls and soft gingerbread toys are sheltered under plastic sheeting.
My heart is set on Choucroute garnie, the hearty, afternoon-be-damned Alsatian classic dish; it’s on the lunch menu at Le Clou, a wine lounge on the nearby Rue de Chaudron. Pushing open the heavy wooden door, I step through deep-red curtains into a wave of warmth and happy conversation. I’m just in time; there’s only one table left.
With its dark wood furniture, floral tablecloths, wine served from gray-blue ceramic jugs and plates also used as decorations, Le Clou is fitted-out in typically rustic Alsatian style. One blue-rimmed plate on the wall shows two men in traditional Alsatian garb squaring up awkwardly ahead of a wrestle: “Une Affaire d’Honneur,” or matter of honor, reads the legend.
“I don’t think I could eat all that,” the elderly man at the next table says, chuckling, when my Choucroute garnie arrives. “I’m not sure I’ll be able to,” I lie. It’s very good: a mixture of knack sausages (smoked and country-style), thick, smoked bacon, and pork neck served on a huge mound of rich, delicately tangy sauerkraut, plus an unnecessary boiled potato (a third of which I leave, not wishing to appear greedy). A quarter-bottle jug of Riesling eases it down.
The afternoon and evening pass in a gentle blur. I stride around to the east and north of the cathedral, taking in Place Gutenberg — where a pair of handsome old restaurants, boasting neon signage for defunct breweries, overlook Gutenberg’s statue and Place Kleber, the city’s central square, where bicycles seem constantly on the verge of colliding with pedestrians.
The next morning, I head back to the cathedral through Petite France, perhaps the most chocolate-box part of this wonderfully preserved city.
A tour guide is entertaining his American guests with well-practiced jokes. He points to a tower on the Ponts Couverts, a bridge connecting three islands on the River Ill: “It was built in 1250.” Pause. “I can see you are disappointed madam, it is not old enough!” Laughter. “It was a jail for a special type of woman.” More laughter. “Witches!”
I’m going to the Musee de l’Oeuvre-Notre-Dame, in the shadow of the cathedral’s 465-feet-high spire, before my meeting. Inside, a boisterous group of small children is squatting in front of a 12th-century lintel decorated with animals, but I have the rest of the museum virtually to myself.
There isn’t enough time to do it justice. There are too many marvelous stained-glass windows, statues, fragments of stonework, paintings and more besides. A 15th-century painting called “Les Amants Trepasses,” a grotesque depiction of deceased, partially decomposed lovers complete with a crotch-covering frog, sticks in the memory if only for its shock value.
I meet Sabine afterward, at the Fondation’s base behind the museum. It is an exciting time for the Fondation, she tells me; it has recently been added to the French national inventory of intangible cultural heritage with a view to applying for UNESCO “intangible heritage” status. That would really raise awareness of this remarkable cathedral workshop, the only one of its kind in France.
“The first mention of the Fondation is in the 1220s,” she says. “Despite the reformation, despite the French Revolution, despite the city’s changes in nationality, it has persisted since then.”
At the moment, she says, they’re restoring the southern facade of the cathedral’s transept, where original Romanesque work combines with 12th-century Gothic sculpture. She shows me a diagram detailing which parts are to be repaired. “These are the first Gothic sculptures in Strasbourg and they’re very, very good quality,” she says.
Fascinating stuff, but I have one more question as we finish up the tour in the top-floor workshop. Has she heard of Henri Giesner? “I don’t know about anyone of that name,” she says, before thinking. “I have a big book called Biographies Alsaciens; I will have a look for you.”
It’s a kind offer, but I’m not holding out much hope. Unlike Strasbourg’s historic charm, Henri Giesner — if he ever existed — appears to have been lost to the vagaries of time.
Place de la Cathedrale; 011-33-3-88-21-43-34; cathedrale-strasbourg.fr
Entrance to the main cathedral is free, although access to the crypt is unavailable; check the website for further details. Open from 9:30 to 11:15 a.m. and 2 to 5:45 p.m. A platform, located 332 steps up, offers sweeping views of the city and surrounding countryside. Admission (converted from euros): Adults, $6; children (5-18), $3. Free entry on the first Sunday of each month.
Musee de l'Oeuvre-Notre-Dame
3 Place du Chateau; 011-33-3-68-98-51-60; en.musees.strasbourg.eu
This is an essential accompaniment to the cathedral, offering centuries of priceless art and decoration from Strasbourg and Alsace. Admission (converted from euros): Adults (18), $8; children, free.