Day 3 of my trip to Strasbourg.
Today, we were going to do more museums. The Museum Count currently stood at two; by the end of the day, we were aiming to have more than doubled it. So, we headed off first thing to the Palais de Rohan, which contained the archaeological museum, the decorative arts museum, and the annoyingly-shut fine art museum. The palace is a big Baroque-styled building on the south side of the cathedral square, which was briefly the town hall in the Revolutionary period. It’s quite attractive in and of itself, but we headed in to get on with the museums – several of the state rooms were part of the decorative arts museum, so we’d look more at the architecture later. Before talking about museums, though, it’s perhaps time to give some brief observations of Strasbourg itself, given we’d had a bit of time to wander round it. The old city is very pleasant and feels pretty medieval – there are a lot of narrow, windy shopping streets around the main north-south and east-west axes, which, unsurprisingly, follow the main streets of the old Roman legionary fortress. The architecture spans the medieval to the modern, but the place mostly feels enjoyably antique and historical and covers a much larger area than any UK equivalent, such as Bath or Canterbury. Being on an island is also great, because it makes navigation very easy – if you walk in any one direction, you’ll hit some water soon enough and you’ve also got the cathedral spire as a reference point – and because it means you can have plenty of attractive water features. We hadn’t really explored the parts of town nearer the water yet, though, so I’ll talk more about that later.
Right, back to the museums: we started with the archaeological museum, which covers everything from 60,000 BC up to the early medieval period, i.e. it stops where the town history museum picks up. The first bit we came to was a temporary exhibition on how archaeology is actually practised, the main message of which was that all pop culture archaeologists bear no resemblance to real ones. So, none of Lara Croft, Indiana Jones nor Jurassic Park are accurate, it turns out. Who knew? We then went into the museum proper, which, as per usual, was a pot-fest. Lots and lots of potsherds. And some very well-groomed reconstructions of prehistoric men and women. There was all the usual array of Roman-era finds – also mostly pot-based – and one room at the end about the Merovingians, the first dynasty of Frankish kings. That was more interesting and I wish there’d been more on them. I’m not saying the archaeological museum was a bad museum – far from it – but there’s only so much you can do with the same array of pots and stone tools.
After this, we headed upstairs to the decorative arts museum, which was half a set of state rooms and half a load of glass and porcelain. The state rooms were impressive in the standard Baroque manner. If anything, they were actually somewhat understated – the ceilings were mostly plain, rather than dressed to the nines in allegorical cherubs and stucco, and the furnishings were, if not subtle, at least not as eye-wateringly opulent as some. Though I suppose that reflects more the status of the building as the residence of a provincial bishop rather than, say, the Emperor of Austria, as opposed to a lack of peacocking on the part of the bishops. It was, I imagine, a lack of means rather than ambition. The actual exhibits were a mix of the ridiculous and the not-quite-sublime-but-fairly-good. There were a lot of porcelain birds and food, the appeal or purpose of which escapes me, but also the oldest preserved automaton in Europe, a 14th-century cock, though not in working order, more’s the pity. Overall, it was worth going round as part of the 3-day museum pass, but I’m not sure I’d have bothered otherwise.
After a quick lunch, it was time for museum number three, which meant we had to leave the palace and cross just over the river to the Alsacian folk museum. Neither of us were quite sure what to expect from this one, but it turned out to be a surprising highlight of the trip for both of us. The museum mostly set out to recreate the interiors of rural Alsacian dwellings from the last 400-odd years and, in doing so, really reminded you how grim life was for most people for most of history for most of the time. ‘Dingy’ would be a fair description of your average Alsacian farmhouse. And also ‘stove-centric’: Alsace gets pretty cold in winter, so the house was built around the stove, which was the only heat source, acting as boiler, oven and radiator. Only one room of the house would be heated, so all the other rooms majored heavily on blankets. It also explained what all the big green-tiled things we’d been seeing in the corners of rooms were in the Palais de Rohan – they were old stoves. We had been a bit confused by them. But the most surprising thing was that Alsace is the only bit of France where laïcité is not the law. Laïcité is the term the French use to refer to the separation of church and state, which is very rigidly enforced in all public offices and spaces – witness all the debates about wearing burkas or crosses in public. In Alsace, though, this doesn’t exist, because it was part of Germany when the relevant laws were passed in 1905 and, for some reason that wasn’t explained fully, they weren’t enforced upon its return to France a decade later. So, in Alsace, there is religious education in state schools, ministers are paid by the state and so on. Though only four religions are currently recognised: Catholicism, Lutheranism, Reformed and Judaism. There is debate about whether Islam, Hinduism, etc. should be admitted, but, so far, the club of recognised religions remains closed. But, I was genuinely astonished that there was a bit of France where public religion was a thing – my experience of living there had made me certain that all of France was draconically laïque. So that was an interesting fact to end the day on.
As per usual, Frederic was trying to learn something specific on the trip: in this case, I was mostly teaching him how to speak better French, which, given we were starting from what he’d admit was a very low bar, was not difficult. Even if his pronunciation was painful. But, if he was willing to learn, I was willing to teach. He also decided he wanted to learn about the order of succession of the Carolingian monarchs of West Francia (remember, ≈ France), which I was also happy to enlighten him on. Even though it’s bloody complicated. But, he was making progress there too.
Also, as per usual, our conversation was starting to head into the surreal. Frederic had decided he wanted to be Holy Roman Emperor Frederic IV and possibly also Pope Hadrian VII. I did try to point out that the Holy Roman Empire didn’t exist anymore, so it wasn’t entirely clear who he should submit his claim to, but he remained undeterred. He also offered to make me Prince of Cornwall and Devon, should he succeed in his bid. This plan became a regular topic of discussion for the rest of the trip.
Back at the apartment, we played a couple of games: first up Watergate, the board game recreation of the eponymous scandal. One player is Nixon trying to cover everything up, the other is the media trying to uncover it all. I ended up playing as Nixon and lost, which was probably for the best – I’d spent all game feeling obscurely as if I should lose, because Nixon was certainly in the wrong, which made it challenging to really play for the win. It’s a good game, though. We then moved on to our stalwart of Carcassonne, which, for the first time ever for me, resulted in a tie. 174-174. I think I must be getting better at it, as I usually lose to Frederic. After that, we headed to an Italian restaurant for what we hoped would be a lighter dinner – finding something that was actually open on a Monday evening had proven surprisingly difficult – but pizza and tiramisu were a good way to finish the day. The Museum Count was now five.
 Unfortunately nothing to do with the Mark of the Rohirrim in Middle-earth, but named after a French noble family who were the local bishops for several decades in the 18th century.
 I like the Romans and the fact that they managed to spread a fairly uniform cultural model across the entire Mediterranean basin is very impressive. But it does mean that all Roman museums everywhere have essentially the same exhibits, unless there’s some sort of major monument in the area – e.g. Hadrian’s Wall or Pompeii. Pretty much what I’m saying is the Romans were too good at being Roman. Similarly, once you’ve seen one Neolithic hand axe, you’ve seen all Neolithic hand axes. There’s not a lot of variety appreciable to the amateur eye. Archaeological museums often therefore tend to be a bit samey.
 Essentially, fancy pots. People in all times and places just really like pots. Maybe we should rename ourselves Homo ceramicus? I find it slightly depressing for some reason that the best way to track the spread of settled civilisation is through pots. NASA’s got the wrong idea entirely – we shouldn’t be looking for evidence of life on Mars; we should be looking for evidence of pots. It’s potty. This whole day was, in some ways, the Apotacalypse. Pots. Everywhere. They’re coming.
 I mean, who was buying a life-size porcelain turkey? Really?
 We’re still on a bird theme here.
 i.e. miscellaneous Protestants.
 Straightforward dynastic succession based on primogeniture didn’t really become a thing until later in the medieval period. So Carolingian succession is mostly father to son, but there are a lot of occasions where brothers, nephews or cousins succeed instead. And they’re mostly called Charles or Louis. And the same individual can have several different hats. Charles the Fat, for instance, ends up as Emperor and king of East Francia and king of West Francia, but succeeds to them all at different times, inheriting them from different branches of the family. It’s not entirely straightforward is all I’m saying.
 After initially offering Duke of Rugby, which I flat-out refused.
 OK, ‘plan’ is a strong word, better read as ‘hare-brained notion’.