In previous posts, we learned how river cruising evolved from an experimental steamboat on the Saône to paddle-wheelers plying rivers in the United States and Europe to something resembling river cruising today: the first hotel barge on French canals. After that first barge made its debut, forward-thinking entrepreneurs began to develop and build riverboats that became the blueprints for the magnificent vessels of today. In this post, we head to a city on the Rhine to meet one of river cruising’s unlikeliest pioneers. Who would have thought that the son of a potter would grow up to change the course of river cruising? And yet he did. Here’s his story.
In this post, our adventure takes us to Strasbourg, France. It was here, as we’ll later discover, that river cruising changed course to become what it is today. We’ll meet the man responsible for that change and learn how one of his innovations spawned the industry that followed. First, though, we’ll get to know the region where he grew up and learn about the city that set the stage for his success.
Rhine river cruises have brought me to Strasbourg many times. My visits here, however, were always brief, never more than a day. In 2012, that changed when a quest to find my family roots landed me in this beautiful city for an entire week (my surname Grizzle evolved as Gris, Grissel, then Grizzle). During my week in Strasbourg, I got to know the city and found myself wanting to return as soon – and as often – as possible.
For livability and for tourists, Strasbourg ranks among France’s most desirable cities. This lovely city is graced with inspired architecture, picturesque parks, charming canals, a network of bicycle paths, and a mix of German/French culture.
Throngs of river cruise passengers step ashore to visit Strasbourg annually. Visiting between the arrival of spring and the close of the new year, they typically set out to explore the Old Town, where they inevitably can be seen craning their necks upward to gaze upon the impressive Strasbourg Cathedral. As the centerpiece of Strasbourg, the cathedral is a sight to behold. Described by the German poet Goethe as a “sublimely towering, wide-spreading tree of God,” the 466-foot ornate structure ranked as the world’s tallest building from 1647 to 1874.
Though the cathedral is a must-see, inside and out, we’ll stray from the crowds for a 10-minute stroll to the historic quarter known as Le Petit France. As we make our way there, be sure to mind the trams and bicycles. They’re ubiquitous throughout Strasbourg, making the city easy to get around for residents and tourists alike. You’ll no doubt be tempted by the pastry shops we’ll pass along the way. Not to worry. We’ll sit down for a bite to eat later on.
Situated at the Grand Île’s western end, Le Petit France features half-timbered buildings and fabulous (and filling) restaurants. During the Middle Ages, this charming quarter was home to the city’s tanners, millers and fishermen. Today, it’s one of the city’s major tourist attractions.
Coursing through the center of Le Petit France is the River Ill, a tributary of the Rhine. Let’s get a closer look at the river. From our vantage point, we see that the Ill splits into cascading channels that are spanned by an unusual building. We’ll pause here for a moment to admire this feat of engineering. With its three bridges and four towers, the structure ranks among Strasbourg’s most photographed tourist attractions.
Built in the 17th century, the Barrage Vauban (Vauban Dam) was designed as a defensive work. In the event of an attack, the dam could raise the level of the River Ill to flood all the lands south of the city, making those lands impassable for the enemy and thus protecting Strasbourg’s historical center. Military commanders opened the flood gates in 1870 when forces attacked Strasbourg during the Franco-Prussian War. Despite the maneuver, however, the French later surrendered.
The Barrage Vauban was designed by the French military engineer Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban. His plans called for a substantial number of sandstone slabs from the quarries in the nearby Vosges, a range of low mountains east of Strasbourg. To transport the sandstone, engineers constructed the 12-mile Canal de la Bruche. Starting near Molsheim, the canal descends via 11 locks from the Vosges foothills to the western side of Strasbourg.
The importance of canals to Strasbourg cannot be overstated. Canals not only played a role in the construction of the Barrage Vauban but also contributed to Strasbourg being an important center for fluvial navigation. As we’re paused here admiring the Barrage Vauban, we see several glass-enclosed canal boats passing. The boats are carrying tourists seeing Strasbourg via its canals.
In 2019, I got my wish to return to Strasbourg for an extended stay. I hosted my first barge trip from the city. During the days before we “set sail,” we visited the surrounding region. Our guide drove us through the wine-producing region of Alsace, visiting lovely towns such as Colmar and Riquewihr. The more I got to know Strasbourg and Alsace, the more I liked the region. I knew that others who visit this site would like Strasbourg too.
The barge trip that followed our regional tour was particularly lovely, traveling over the course of a week via charming canals downstream from LaGarde to Strasbourg. On the last evening of our trip, as our barge was docked in the city center, our group did an evening canal cruise on one of the glass-enclosed canal boats. Seeing the city from the perspective of the canals was enjoyable. It’s time now that we moved on.
Before leaving Le Petit France, however, let’s sit for a moment. I promised you something to drink and eat, so I’ve ordered a bottle of Crémant d’Alsace, a refreshing sparkling wine, and a Tarte Flambée. Both are regional specialties. While it would be a disservice to liken the Tarte Flambée to pizza, it does bear a striking resemblance, although the Alsatian version is smothered in thinly sliced onions. And the Crémant d’Alsace? It doesn’t carry the reputation (or price) of true champagne, but to my palate, it’s just as good – à votre santé!
Drink up. In a few minutes, we’re going to leave Le Petit France for Betschdorf. It’s only 40 minutes away, but magically, we’ll arrive decades before leaving our table here. Yes, we’re going to time travel. World War II has ended and Europe is rebuilding itself. The good folks of Betschdorf are busy doing what they have done best for centuries: manufacturing pottery. And though generations of potters have stayed in Betschdorf their whole lives, we’re going to meet one potter who left. Through a series of entrepreneurial endeavors, the young man we’re about to meet would grow up to change the course of river cruising.
A Potter, An Artist & An Entrepreneur
Here we are in Betschdorf, a lovely city abutting the northern edge of Forêt de Haguenau, France’s sixth-largest forest. People have inhabited the vicinity since neolithic times, but it was in the early 1700s that immigrants from the Rhineland began making stoneware in the Betschdorf region. A stroll today along the city streets reveals many 18th-century half-timbered houses, typical of the rural villages in the Alsatian lowlands. The stoneware tradition that began in the 1700s continued, and today, Betschdorf ranks as a center for craft pottery, especially salt-glazed stoneware.
The son of a potter, Gérard Schmitter was born in 1936. Following in his father’s footsteps, the young Schmitter studied decorative art in Limoges, but later would set his sights on a series of entrepreneurial endeavors. After receiving his education, he and two colleagues bought a quarry, and in 1970, they opened a leisure park in Berg (France) called Paradisland. Following that, the young Schmitter opened a restaurant called Rhinland.
Situated on the popular Plobsheim Lake, upriver along the Rhine from Strasbourg, Schmitter’s 500-seat restaurant did a booming business on the weekends but not so much during the week. The entrepreneur came up with an idea to drum up business. In 1976, he chartered a boat to cruise between Strasbourg and Plobsheim. The boat he chartered, appropriately named Strasbourg, signified the launch of a new company called Alsace Croisières.
In 1982, Schmitter bought his first ship, the aptly named Alsace I to cruise the Rhine between Lauterbourg and Plobsheim. You could drive between the two, about 50 miles apart, in an hour, but Schmitter’s boat allowed for leisurely sailings, where people could dine during the day and dance the evening away upon their return.
Inspired by Alsace I’s success, in 1984 Schmitter began to offer cruises between Strasbourg and the Lorelei, which you’ll remember from our post on steamboats on the Rhine. The voyage lasted several days, and as there were no sleeping quarters on Alsace I, guests had to disembark for overnight stays at hotels in towns such as Rudesheim.
Seeking to improve on that and encouraged by his wife Janine, Schmitter built the first riverboats with cabins. And thus it was that in 1984, the company launched its first cabin boats to navigate on the Rhine and its tributaries. Those boats – Hansi, Kléber and Petite France – made it possible for Alsace Croisières to extend its voyages along the Rhine and its tributaries – the Neckar, the Moselle, the Main and the Saar – and to venture to Holland’s inland waterways.
Two years later, the company upped the comfort ante by acquiring what it called its first “Prestige” category boat. Originally built as a tugboat, the redone Kellermann introduced a totally new design. At 75 meters, it was the longest in Schmitter’s five-ship fleet. And with 48 cabins, Kellermann was also the most comfortable. (Until a few years ago, Kellermann operated as MS Andante for Holland’s Calanda Riverline Cruises for Dutch guests ).
In 1990, Schmitter decided to take charge of his fleet design. The first result: MS Liberté, built in Belgium with a capacity of 150 passengers and more space per passenger than on his previous ships.
Alsace Croisières began a rapid expansion, building new ships and opening new itineraries on the Danube, Rhône and Saône rivers. The company was no longer only a regional operator. In 1997, Alsace Croisières was renamed CroisiEurope. The name change was marked by the company’s entry into the French capital, with the first Paris-Honfleur cruise, on by MS Douce France.
In 1999, Schmitter sold his company to his four children, who continue to run CroisiEurope today. Schmitter returned to his art, painting canvasses in the Vosges. Many of his paintings grace the public rooms on CrosiEurope’s riverboats. He passed away in 2012.
The story does not end there, however. CroisiEurope now operates on all of Europe’s major rivers, as well as in Russia, Asia and Africa. The company also has a fleet of ocean-going ships and coastal cruisers. And a few years ago, CroisiEurope developed paddle-wheelers that allowed for navigation of the notoriously shallow Loire and Elbe rivers.
In 2013, CroisiEurope brought back to life what it called a “historical navigation mode on French canals.” CroisiEurope embarked on an ambitious mission to launch five modern hotel barges. Unlike the converted cargo barge Palinurus, which we learned about in an earlier post, CroisiEurope’s vessels were custom-built for leisurely adventures along the French Waterways in Alsace-Lorraine, Burgundy and the Loire Valley, Provence and the Camargue, Champagne and the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris.
This all takes us back to where our story began, on the beautiful canals of France. River cruising as a vacation industry was beginning to blossom, particularly for Europeans (North Americans and other nationalities would come later). In the next posts about the history of river cruising, we’ll learn about the pioneers who built some of the most innovative riverboats afloat. Many of those pioneers came from Europe to the United States to tap into millions of would-be travelers eager to explore Europe’s beautiful waterways and the continent’s lovely cities on the rivers, not the least of which is the city where our story began, ever-lovely Strasbourg.
Join Me On A Barge Journey In France
Luxury hotel barges on the canals in France are a great way to travel. You can learn why by reading this post: 10 Reasons To Choose Barge Cruising. If you’d like to join me on a barge trip in France, see what’s available at Ralph Grizzle’s Hosted River Cruise Trips
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