As a tourist destination Strasbourg keeps breaking its own records regarding the number of visits. Where else can you visit the Middle Ages and Modernism so easily and comfortably? More than half a million guests arrive by river cruises, pleasure boats or the TGV bullet train which links the city with all of Europe’s metropolises.
Council of Europe, European Parliament, European Court of Human Rights, the Eurocorps and other institutions all have their seat in Strasbourg. But this is no coincidence: after World War II the Council of Europe was encouraged to settle specifically in this border town which had for centuries suffered considerably under the so-called “traditional Franco-German enmities”. Now it was to become a place of reconciliation and friendship and at the same time the symbol of a unified Europe. The largest city in the Alsace region (280,000 inhabitants) can by rights be called a Capital of Europe. Already during a first walk around the city one cannot help but notice it: here, in the northern and left-bank part of the Upper Rhine Valley the animosity is definitely a thing of the past, the cross-border park Le Jardin des deux Rives, which stretches between Strasbourg on the French side of the Rhine and Kehl on the German side, is not only a welcome photo opportunity for politicians but also a place where the French and Germans encounter one another on a daily basis and in a relaxed atmosphere. A tale of peaceful coexistence is also told by the European quarter, the former building of the Court of Human Rights and the European Parliament.
Roman outpost, centre of the Frankish Empire, French and German province
Strasbourg was European already some two thousand years ago - it was the Roman military outpost Argentoratum, or silver fort, and lay between two branches of the river Ill. In 842 the grandchildren of Charlemagne signed the first bilingual document here, deep within the heart of the Frankish Empire, the Oaths of Strasbourg Les serments de Strasbourg which was written in Old High French as well as Old High German. The old centre Grand Ile is nowadays a listed and protected UNESCO world heritage site. With its timber-framed houses, protruding dormers, colourful window shutters and multi-storey steeply angled gables it offers the most beautiful examples of the local Allemanic-South German architectural style. Strasbourg has always been a wealthy city, during its time as a Free Imperial City of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, with the help of Gutenberg’s invention of letterpress printing and through its prospering publishing industry and driven by a thriving centre of university erudition. And the generated wealth was readily put on display: the elegant facades in the sumptuous French style - Strasbourg belonged to the Kingdom of France since 1681 - that can, for example, be seen at the Palais Rohan which is nowadays home to three museums, convey the prosperity of the inhabitants of Strasbourg. An urban quality of life also manifests itself in the quarters that were erected in 1871 (after the Alsace was annexed by the German Empire) and follow the historicist architectural style that was so very popular at the time in all parts of Europe. In 1919 the city once again became French. Today, following the ominous interlude of the German occupation during World War II, the streets and marketplaces are busy and lively, the Winstubs are crowded and the sunny spots are taken - an ideal place for just strolling about but also for doing some avid shopping. During the run-up to Christmas the Christmas markets entice the visitors with gingerbread, Etoiles, Männele, foie gras and other delicacies; a gigantic Christmas tree is put up, illuminating the Place Kléber with its sparkling lights. Everything is so beautiful that they even attempted to copy it - in Tokyo!
Stonemasons, diplomats, free spirits and geniuses
A Roman road connected the silver fort with wealthy Augsburg and Mainz. Later on pilgrims passed through on their way to Santiago de Compostela and Rome, prayed in front of the magnificent stone figures of the churches, stayed for the night and fed on beer and hearty meals such as the Choucroute garnie, a sauerkraut dish with pork that was as popular then as it is now. They were guided from afar by the richly decorated spire of the Gothic cathedral: with a height of 142 metres and its 636 steps it was the tallest building in the world right up until 1874! Goethe hailed the cathedral as the example for German architecture - an error that can be attributed to his youth, because the style and master builders were, of course, French. Goethe came here to study law, but preferred reading Shakespeare and found inspiration for his first play Götz von Berlichingen. Strasbourg’s university educated Europe’s elite: in the political sciences Graf Görtz - Frederick the Great’s master diplomat - or Metternich, who later on in his career chaired the Congress of Vienna, in medicine the later Nobel laureate Wilhelm Röntgen, and Alsace-born Albert Schweitzer - the founder of the famous hospital in Lambaréné - in theology, philosophy and medicine. The historians Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre founded the influential Annales School of history here. Tomi Ungerer achieved world-wide fame without studying; the city even honours the gifted illustrator and author with his own museum.
The University of Strasbourg remained Lutheran - even though the Sun King Louis XIV favoured and encouraged the strengthening of Catholicism by increasing the number of Catholic immigrants to Strasbourg. The French culture, however, prevailed in everyday life. Naturally anyone who wanted to be someone spoke French - as in all of Europe at the time. During and after the French Revolution persecuted revolutionaries and critical minds from the small German states that had also attempted, but failed, to cause uprisings found refuge here. The dramatist Georg Büchner (who had studied medicine here) was one of them. On the other hand the Marseillaise, later to become the French national anthem, was written here as a battle song of the French Rhine Army.
In the meantime France’s only Grande Ecole which is not in the French capital itself has been opened here - the ENA Ecole Normale d’Administration. This is where the French state trains its elite. The one or the other student that one encounters biking to the university might one day become the Prime Minister or the leader of the European Central Bank - Strasbourg, truly European!