Strasbourg is renowned for its X-Mas market, often trumpeted as the best in the world and our primary reason for visiting. We (my friend Cathy has joined me) arrived on Sunday, checking into our Airbnb apartment located in Petite France, just 100 meters from Pont St. Thomas, one of the many bridges that crosses the Canal de la Marne au Rhin. The canal encircles and separates the Grande Ile, the medieval old city, from the rest of Strasbourg. Our apartment was housed in a 17th century building, atop a theater and restaurant; a traditional medieval house with dark timber frames supporting the structure and enough quirkiness to satisfy any odd taste.
We crossed the bridge to the Grande Ile, to be stopped by two security officers wearing bright yellow jackets. They checked inside our bags and waved us in. The old city was decked out in its holiday attire, living up to its nickname of the Christmas Capital of Europe. All over were over-the-top X-Mas decorations: teddy bears hanging from windows, gingerbread men strung across the street, giant X-Mas trees, reindeer pulling Santa Claus, everything except a nativity scene (there was one in the Cathedral). It was bright and joyous, a visual treat.
The highlight of the Strasbourg X-Mas market are the 300 or so wooden stalls that are clustered in the streets, at the main Kleber Square, beside the majestic Strasbourg Cathedral, occupying every vacant spot. Gingerbread cookies and cakes, Alsatian sausages, chocolate creations, mulled wine, dough men and crepes dominated the food stalls; snow globes, handcrafted jewelry, clothes, jostled to be bought by the thousands of people milling about.
I purchased a glass of the hot, cinnamon flavoured mulled wine and walked about, loving the colourful decorations and the wonderful architecture of Strasbourg, rooted so clearly from medieval times.
We returned again on Monday, enjoying the market in daylight. On Tuesday, we took the train to Colmar, an even better preserved medieval town, to enjoy its X-Mas market. Much smaller than Strasbourg, the buildings and their X-Mas dressings were even more magical than Strasbourg.
Upon returning, we decided against going back into the old city for dinner and instead chose to eat at a restaurant right down the street, immediately across the bridge from Grande Ile. Midway through the meal we started to hear sirens, not just a few, but dozens and dozens. We looked out to see ambulances and police cars racing both ways down the road outside. As the sirens continued, we surfed the internet to see if something was happening. There, we first learned of the shooting in the Place Kleber.
Just then, a couple in their 60’s came in and sat down. The lady asked if we spoke English. When we replied affirmatively, she yes explained that they had both just come from the old town, where they had seen a man on the ground, bleeding profusely, with his wife screaming for someone to help him. The couple had been quickly ushered away from the area by the police, and once they crossed the bridge from the old town, the now much larger security presence would not allow them to re-enter so they came to the restaurant for dinner and a carafe of wine.
Next to us sat a local Strasbourg gentleman, Philippe, his daughter and a friend and her daughter. He too started talking to us in English, confirming that his twitter account indicated there had been a shooting in the X-Mas market and at least 2 people were dead. The Grande Ile was on lock-down, he advised, with no one being allowed in or out. Restaurants had pulled down their shutters and locked their doors. Hotels were shut tight, stores dark. People were lying flat on the floors, waiting for instructions. The manhunt for the shooter was underway.
We talked with the couple, Paul and Carolyn from Victoria – we had introduced ourselves by now – and they were understandably rattled. The security wall that now surrounded the old town meant they couldn’t return to the old city, or their hotel, so they told us they planned to make their way to the train station and wait out the night there. Cathy and I invited them to spend the night at our place which the maitre d’ and Philippe had indicated was safe to walk toward. Phillippe’s information now advised that the shooter had left the old city, was injured and was holed up in an apartment on the south side of the city, but he warned this was just the latest rumour and might not be accurate. We decided to take our chances. As we left the restaurant, a heavily armed soldier stood outside – he had not been there earlier. The 4 of us walked quickly and safely to our apartment.
We spent the next few hours glued to the French 24 Live news station, watching the broadcast live from Strasbourg. The news reported that the death toll had reached 3, then 4, then back to 3; that the shooter was surrounded, that he had escaped, that he was known to police as a 29 year old Strasbourg native, but never his name. The lock-down continued and police urged people to stay inside and open their houses to people displaced by the lock-down. By midnight, we were mentally exhausted and fell to sleep.
Carolyn and Paul struggled to get any sleep. Their kids back home were anxious to talk to them and the sight of the bleeding victim weighed heavily. Sunrise came at 8:15. The news said the lock-down was over, even though the killer had not been caught. Their hotel had reopened and they were free to return.
Later that day, Cathy and I returned to the X-Mas market area. Security was noticeably higher. No longer was each bridge guarded only by civil security officers checking bags. Now two police officers, each toting automatic rifles, patrolled behind the security officers on each bridge. Half a dozen Gendarme vehicles lined the walkway to the museum and soldiers, in full camouflage uniforms and more automatic rifles, walked the streets in groups of 4 or 6.
The streets were nearly deserted. We knew from the news the X-mas market was not re-opening on the Wednesday, but the museums were also closed and at least half the shops and restaurants remained shut. Only the Cathedral was open, with an additional security officer, but unlike the previous days, there was no line up.
A few locals were around, some tourists, but mostly security personnel and journalists, filming their broadcasts. We walked to Place Kleber, which had just re-opened after the investigation had concluded, to see the start of two makeshift memorials, with the phrase, loosely translated, “We stand united against the terrorists” hand written on pieces of cardboard. Two other memorials, lined with candles, marked spots where people had been wounded. People just stood there staring at the candles, shaking their heads.
There was nothing to say, nothing to do, just look with a heavy heart at the candles and leave, saddened that such a horrible tragedy marred this wonderful city.