Look at this thing. It cannot be ignored. When you’re in Strasbourg, or even 100 miles away, it’s there. Either a pale ghost in the background, or an ornate, breathtaking, slightly ominous presence that leaps out at you between streets and alleys.
It’s Cathedral Strasbourg de Notre Dame. Or as Goethe described it, “a sublimely towering, wide-spreading tree of God.”
The first time I saw it was from the airplane. Flying over the Vosges Mountains, then the Alsace plains from which this gothic beast rises, ringed by the city and the Ill river like a huge moat.
Visiting the Cathedral certainly wasn’t on my list of things to do (not that I had a list). My objective was to see Strasbourg and fill my annual quota of one top European Christmas market city every December (last year was Vienna and the year before was Berlin). Strasbourg is the self-proclaimed Capital of Christmas, and home of the best Christmas market in France.
I generally try to avoid churches or God forbid, enter them for fear that He will sense my agnosticism and smite me. But everywhere I go, every Christmas market, every sight, every stroll, every place I visit, it’s there watching me. And yes, I’m intrigued. It seems to have a gravitational force all its own.
I resist for a couple of days. Distracting myself with all forms of wursts, choucroutes, flammkuchens, pastries, mulled beverages, the full moon and Christmas displays that would be tacky almost anywhere else in the world, but somehow, are cute and picturesque here.
I’m mildly interested in the fact that the first printing press (the forerunner to the internet for those of you unfamiliar with books) was invented. But my main preoccupation in Gutenberg Square, where this year’s Croatian Christmas Market resides, is to wonder what the view must be from that 466 foot spire looming overhead.
By the third day, the lure of the church is too much to resist. I hesitantly approach the door and enter, waiting for either a person or powerful Godly force to stop me. No such luck. I take a quick look around at the statues, astrological clock, soaring buttresses and stain glass windows. It’s beautiful and it’s impressive and I’m kind of itching to get out before something falls on me.
I emerge from the church, and take a few gulps of pagan air in relief. I take one last lap through the Christmas market in front of the cathedral to fortify myself for the more daring task ahead. I’m going to climb that 330 step spire and have Strasbourg at my feet!
I’m hoping that I’ll be less exposed to the wrath of God in a dark, narrow, cobbly stairwell than the chapel. I buy the five Euro ticket from a women who wishes me “bon courage.” I wonder if she knows something.
There’s a 20-something-ish couple also making the climb and I strategize whether to go first and have the luxury of falling back on them, or letting them go first and not have to worry about slowing them down when I collapse in heap of exhaustion on the 207th step.
I opt for the latter, but we quickly change places when it turns out they’re slowing ME down with their incessant photo taking. Fortunately, the stairwell isn’t completely dark, and little glimpses of outside pop up along the way. It makes the climb a lot less tedious. It also allows me to stop and pretend to look at the view while nonchalantly gasping for breath.
I don’t know if the endorphins are kicking in, but I make it to the top without becoming a doubled up, sweat-drenched, cramping, pile of protoplasm. On the other hand, it’s also possible I am all that, but too delirious to notice.
The view? Eh.
I kid, it’s great. But as with most things arduously won, a wee bit of a disappointment follows the win. When you climb 330 stairs, you kind of feel like you deserve to see God and Truth and blinding beauty. My real reward was to see the two young photo-taking whippersnappers emerge from the stairwell 15 minutes later wheezing and doubled over. Score one for the older woman!
But this is no time to get cocky. Sure, going down as opposed to up has it’s advantages, particularly from a gravity point of view. But it certainly has its perils. Those stone steps can be slippery. And they’re freaking narrow and it’s dark. For a moment, I freeze in terror and consider calling for a helicopter rescue. Must. Not. Dwell. On. It.
Every step I get closer to the bottom, the lighter I feel. Wow. I climbed up and down all those steps and I’m not all that tired. But maybe that’s how you feel right before you die… Then I see the light coming from the door leading from the street to the entrance. Well, it’s either the exit or the white light of death.
My heart leaps as I take the 559th step. The only problem is, it turns out to be the 558th th step and while my heart is leaping, I fall. I come down hard on my left foot and fall into a belly dive across the floor. Yes, I have been felled by the “tree of God” and damn, does my foot hurt!
Somehow, I make it back to the hotel (cursing everything from God to Gothic architecture to Germans who I’m sure have some part in all this), which is fortunately only about 100 hops away. I tell the receptionist that “je pense ma pied est casse” She gets me some ice, calls a Doctor and asks me how I did it. I tell her I was smote in the Cathedral and that I think God must be punishing me for something.
She exclaims, “No, it is a miracle! You could have fallen at the top!”