Turning around street corners in the old town of Strasbourg on the Grande Île in the middle of the river Ill, you may end up in one of the most atmospheric sections of this World Heritage Site. Timber houses, narrow streets: you are in Petite France, in the Middle Ages the tanners’ quarter of the city. River canals cut through the area and slow-moving boats pass through the locks, the two halves pulled aside to let them by.
Why “Petite-France”? The quarter, as it turns out, is not named for the country but for an old name for a disease. “Franzosenkrankheit” (French sickness) was the German name for syphilis, a hospital for the treatment of which was located in the neighborhood. The hospital came to be known as “Französel”, or “little France”, by which title the whole area of tanning and slaughterhouses was then called.
Today the area is a major tourist attraction, boasting as it does a plethora of medieval buildings as well as picturesque paths by the canals and over bridges. Restaurants also abound to offer the visitor a chance to treat his or her palate while imbibing historical charm. A fine eatery such as the Maison de Tanneurs, located in a former tannery built in 1572, offers the diner a view of the canal and traditional Alsatian cuisine. The quaintness of the area and the well-preserved buildings draw visitors from all over the world, and you may see marrying couples having their wedding pictures taken with the ancient tanning houses as the backdrop. But even with tourists wandering through the quarter or a bride in a modern white dress and veil, Petite-France retains its air of belonging to a time many centuries past, when the streets by the canals were inhabited by the medieval tanners going about their business.