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STRASBOURG : The city is rich in old, half-timbered houses and mighty cathedrals, promenades and hidden squares.

April 24, 1988|GEORGIA I. HESSE | Hesse is a San Francisco free-lance writer and former travel editor of the San Francisco Examiner

STRASBOURG, France — "This town is a dazzler!" my friend sang out as we crossed the square in front of the soaring cathedral. Minutes later we were seated in La Bonne Auberge on the Rue du Maroquin, a few steps from its debouche into Place du Marche aux Cochons de Lait (square of the market of the suckling pigs).

We shared a young and vigorous Riesling that flowed clearly from its long-necked bottle ( la flute d'Alsace ) into the traditional tall, green-stemmed glasses.

Modestly, we accompanied it with a shared slice of tarte a l'oignon (onion tart), the better not to spoil dinner at the Strasbourg Hilton's highly respected La Maison du Boeuf.

Strasbourg, to the Franks, was Strateburgum (crossroads). On today's chain of Europe's most popular destinations, however, it is a missing link. Too bad.

Years ago, when I lived here and attended the university, I thought in my naivete that all of Europe's second cities must be like this: rich in old, half-timbered houses and mighty cathedrals; river promenades and pretty hidden squares, distinctive dishes and manicured gardens.

Now I know better: Along with Bern in Switzerland, Strasbourg is one of Europe's most overlooked capitals. Capital it is, too--of the lovely land of Alsace, the department of the Bas-Rhin (Lower Rhine) and, with Brussels in Belgium, of the European Parliament.

Born as Argentoratum, a Roman stronghold set up in 10 BC, the town was rechristened Strateburgum during the days of the daring Clovis, near-legendary Merovingian king of the Franks. A crossroads it has remained throughout the centuries, often unfortunately: Invaders from the days of Vandals and Huns down to our own times have burned, pillaged and devastated it.

One morning when I turned up for class, the university was empty. A sign said: "Closed for the anniversary of the liberation of Alsace."

The third time this happened I asked my professor how many liberations the school celebrates. "Every one," he answered, "since the days of Julius Caesar."

Somehow, many of the charming old quarters still stand, embraced by the multiple arms of the Ill River. The name Alsace probably derives from Ill Sass (banks of the Ill).

Strasbourg has done nothing but improve over the years I have known it. La Petite France, the former tanners' quarter, was always attractive, its half-timbered houses with flower-filled window boxes reflected in the mirror-clear waters of the canals.

But between there and the area around the cathedral, war and economic decline had left some squat, ugly, often unused structures.

But now the streets are spic and span, and shop windows glow with the goodies for which Alsace is famous: pastries and pies and pates, fine wines and liqueurs, fruits and meats and other edibles.

Besides, the fashions in the windows of the smart streets just off the Place de la Cathedrale--Rue des Orfevres, Rue des Hallebardes and their neighbors--are now tempting, no longer Teutonic.

The faceless buildings of modern industrialism have been clustered in a zone near the Rhine and the border with West Germany, where they annoy the traveler as little as possible. The classic city may best be seen on a stroll, beginning at Place Kleber.

The square owes its name to native son Gen. Jean Kleber, born in 1753 and assassinated in Cairo in 1800. His statue stands in the center, upon it carved the words in which he replied to an English admiral who suggested a French surrender: "Soldiers," he said to his men, "one responds to such insolence only with victories."

The north side of Place Kleber is bordered by the enormous Aubette, an 18th-Century building so called because there at aube (dawn) the troops of the garrison would assemble to receive their daily orders.

It is the largest restaurant in eastern France, with a rotisserie, brasserie , dance bar and snack bar, plus a dining hall that can seat 1,000 patrons and a giant sidewalk cafe from which you can watch the passing parade.

One might sip a Kronenbourg, because l'Aubette is owned by that brewery; it's really the only top beer commercially produced in France. (Many bistro-type breweries have sprung up in recent years, but their tasty temptations are little known to foreigners.)

If you want to approach Notre-Dame de Strasbourg directly (that sensation in the rose-pink sandstone of the nearby Vosges Mountains), you will walk south from Place Kleber along Rue des Grandes Arcades and turn abruptly left into Rue Merciere.

Little Streets and Squares

If you care to sneak up on it in more sinuous style, you can stroll east and then south through delightful little streets and squares (many bright with banners and wrought-iron shop signs) such as Rue des Orfevres.

Strasbourg's is one of the best cathedrals. Inside and out, it boasts a facade remarkable in its intricate details. Among the portal sculptures you'll find the irresistible Foolish Virgins.

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