Located right in the northeast and part of the Alsace region, Bas-Rhin is one of the most unique and distinctive departments in France. Boasting a colourful history and an exceptionally protean culture, it is also home to some of France's best sights and is subsequently very popular with tourists.
Bas-Rhin is one of the most densely populated areas in the country, with a population of well over a million inhabitants situated across a land area of just 4,775km². The largest city by far is the prefecture of Strasbourg, with other important communes including the following:
Established in March 1790 during the French Revolution after absorption into France over the course of the 17th century, one cannot ignore the massive influence of Germany on Bas-Rhim throughout its history. As part of the Roman Empire, the military outpost of Argentoratum (now Strasbourg) was part of the Germania Superior province, and the entire department spent much of its extremely prosperous medieval past as part of the Holy Roman Empire.
The short period of stability which followed absorption into France was rocked by the Napoleonic era, as the border was extended north to the Quiech river in Germany. However, with Napoleon's defeat came the Treaty of Vienna in 1815, contracting Bas-Rhin. This would prove to be a harbinger of further change as, with Germany's victory during the Franco-Prussian War between 1870 and 1871, Bas-Rhin became a part of the German Empire. The give and take continued over the course of the 20th century, France taking the department back in 1919 before losing it once again to Germany during the Second World War.
It is therefore fitting that Strasbourg stands as a European rather than a purely French city, hosting sessions of the European Parliament and home to the Council of Europe. Indeed, one can still hear the High German dialect of Elsässisch in Bas-Rhin today. However, this only adds to Bas-Rhin's appeal and, when coupled with outstanding food and drink and fabulous sights, it's easy to see why tourists flock to the department.
Bas-Rhin's climate can be best described as maritime, with cooler summers than much of France and relatively wet winters (akin to those of southern England). Strasbourg gives you a sense of average quarterly temperatures across the department:
Average temperature in Aveyron
With almost half a million inhabitants, it goes without saying that Strasbourg is the most happening city in Bas-Rhin. Moreover, it is also without doubt the best place to go for sightseeing, with a staggering range of beautiful architecture which a brief summary cannot hope to cover properly.
The chief starting point is the Grand Île (Grand Island), the historic centre of the city and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Island's status is largely thanks to the magnificent Our Lady's Cathedral. Built between 1176 and 1439 on foundations dating back to the Roman era, the Cathedral is one of the most beautiful examples of high Gothic architecture in the world, with a few Romanesque touches on the eastside to add character. Currently the fourth largest church in the world, the 142 metre-high north tower actually made the Cathedral the tallest building in the world between 1625 and 1847. Beyond its imposing frame though, the edifice is further highlighted by the 18-metre 19th century astronomical clock and the marvellous stained glass, especially the rose window. It is unquestionably the must-see monument of Bas-Rhin.
The religious-theme doesn't end there either, with the Island also home to the huge St. Thomas' Church, the neo-Gothic Church of St. Pierre-le-Vieux, the Romanesque Church of St. Etienne and the more modest Church of St. Pierre-le-Jeune.
The German influence on Strasbourg is evident in a number of buildings aside from the Cathedral, but two in particular stand out. The first of these is the Maison Kammerzell, a beautifully preserved medieval building first constructed in 1427 when the city was part of the Holy Roman Empire. Despite changes in 1467 and 1589, the Maison's Gothic beauty is still intact and further magnified by the outstanding frescoes on the interior.
Counter-balancing the quaintness of the Maison, the second of these is the overwhelming Palais du Rhin. Built between 1884 and 1889 in a broadly neo-classical style, the Palace was established as a symbol of German imperialism and used as a residence by the Kaiser. Standing today as a French Historical Monument, the irony of its status certainly doesn't detract from its beauty.
The French influence naturally also pervades much of the city in areas such as Petite France (home to some of the prettiest buildings in Strasbourg) and enshrined in structures like the Chambre de Commerce et d'Industrie and the neo-classical Opera House.
Outside of Strasbourg, there are some fine buildings to be found. One of the most popular attractions in the department is the Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg in Orschwiller. Situated in the Vosges mountain and originating from the 12th century, the castle was restored in the 20th century and is now a National Historic Site. Also well worth checking out are the 13th century Saint-Georges Church in Sélestat and the 18th century Château des Rohan. However, sightseeing is an easy task in Bas-Rhin, such is the wealth of material on offer.
Bas-Rhin is generally more a vicinity for culture vultures, but there are a few decent areas for families. The Planetarium in Strasbourg and La Volerie des Aigles zoo in Kintzheim are good options for days out. Sports fans will also be interested in RC Strasbourg, the city's football team, who play their games in Ligue 2 at the Stade de la Minau.
Museums, galleries and culture
Strasbourg has a stunning array of culture, with some 15 museums and galleries. Three of these are located in the beautiful Baroque-style Palais Rohan – the Decorative Arts Museum, the Archaeological Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts. The latter is an especial delight, with an outstanding collection of historical European art, including works by Goya, Tintoretto, Botticelli, Rubens, El Greco and many more.
Beyond the Palace, the Musée de l'Oeuvre Notre-Dame (specialising in medieval and Renaissance art, with tapestries, sculptures and stained glass), the Musée d'Art Moderne et Contemporain de Strasbourg (mainly French and German art) and the Musée Zoologique are also excellent.
There are a number of fine museums outside of Strasbourg as well, such as the Alsatian Museum in Haguenau and La Musée de la Chartreuse in Molsheim, both focusing on regional history.
However, if you want a musical or theatrical performance, Strasbourg is the place to go yet again, being home to a Philharmonic Orchestra, the Opéra National du Rhin and the Théâtre National de Strasbourg.
Shoppers will naturally flock to the excellent opportunities around Strasbourg. The Place des Halles shopping centre, the Galeries Lafayettes on the rue du 22 novembre and the rue Hellebardes are the best areas for high-street shopping and luxury stores. A flea market is held on Wednesdays and Saturdays in the rue de Vieil-Hopital and a Christmas market is a highlight of Bas-Rhin's calendar, taking place from late November to the end of December.
Bas-Rhin isn't naturally fruitful territory for hiking, being predominantly flat in many areas. However, the Vosges mountain and the forest of Haguenau do offer some good opportunities and you will find a list of routes here.
Any shortcomings are more than made up for by a range of beautiful gardens and parks such as Parc de l'Orangerie and Parc de la Citadelle in Strasbourg and the beautiful Rose Garden in Saverne (containing some 350 varieties of rose).
There are 5 courses in the Bas-Rhin area. These are Le Kemperhof Golf Club in Plobsheim, Golf de Strasbourg and Golf du Fort in Illkirch-Graffenstaden, Golf Club de la Wantzenau in La Wantzenau and Golf Club Soufflenheim Baden-Baden in Soufflenheim.
The Alsace region is renowned for its white wines, using the riseling, gewürztraminer, sylvaner and pinot grapes to name but a few. You can actually check out the entire Alsace wine region by taking the 170-kilometre 'road of the wines of Alsace', passing the province's many vineyards.
Food and drink
Alsace regional produce is king in Bas-Rhin's restaurants, unique for its strong German influence. Specialities include sauerkraut (pickled cabbage), flamenküche (a mix of onion, cream and pork on a wafer-thin base), Baekehof (a beef and pork stew), regional foie gras and all manner of onion tarts.
For dessert, why not try some of the varieties of tartes alsacienneces (typically very fruity) or kugelhopf (a specially-produced, hollow cake).
As the first beer-producing area in France, the drink is extremely popular, so be sure to sample a few of the local beverages.
Ease of access
If you're travelling from outside France, Bas-Rhin can be easily reached via Strasbourg Airport, which has a link to London through Air France. Alternatively, you could go to Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris and take a TGV high-speed train to Strasbourg (the line itself opens in June 2007 with an expected journey time of just over 2 hours).
Value for money
You can find a general search engine for accommodation in Bas-Rhin here, ranging from hotels to bed and breakfasts, flats and campsites. In general, prices are very good, with the average for a single room in a 3-star hotel per night in Strasbourg around 60 to 70 Euros.
However, you should book well in advance if you plan to stay in the prefecture. Sessions of the European Parliament are held monthly, not to mention the many other institutions in the city, and the city is therefore occasionally swamped.
Such is the history and the culture of Bas-Rhin, you may wonder whether you're actually in France at times. That said, although it may be France with a distinctive twist, the many fabulous sights and the excellent cuisine are just a few of the reasons why, if you choose to visit, you won't leave disappointed.