Strasbourg is a French city, but only just: it is in the easterly province of Alsace and sits on The Rhine river which forms the border with Germany.
The Rhine is a mighty river, and regarded by Wagner as so German that he based the legend of his Ring Cycle there: the first opera being Das Rheingeld. It leaves Switzerland at Basel and flows northwards in it’s wide and fertile valley, between the Black Forest (Schwarzwald) and the Vosges mountains towards Strasbourg, The Netherlands and finally the North Sea. Nowadays, between Basel and Lautenburg, the East bank is in Germany, but the West bank is in Alsace which, these days, is a province of France. However I met a man, aged about 50, in a brasserie in the middle of Strasbourg who’s mother had experienced Alsace changing from French to German, to French, to German, To French during her lifetime. Most of the place names on the Alsatian side of the river are German (Strasbourg derives from the German for town at the meeting of roads), but everyone speaks French, and although there are a number of dialects that use German words, these are not widely spoken. On the German side, the names are exclusively German, as is the spoken language.
In the flat Rhine valley, the land is very fertile and mostly intensively farmed, the fields stretching for kilometres, unbroken by hedges or woodland, but speckled with settlements. As the land rises from the valley, the agriculture turns from arable to fruit farming as you approach the Black Forest, and intensive viniculture as the land rises towards the Vosges mountains in Alsace.
Here, walking through one of the better preserved villages, such as Riquewihr, feels like walking through the film set of Pinocchio, as you are surrounded by impossibly picturesque timber-frame houses, brilliantly painted and with storks nests adorning the steep, tiled roofs. Among all the tourist kitsch is the huge, and serious, business of wine and there are opportunities to taste the delicious Alsatian Riesling, Gewurtztraminer and Pinot gris wines. There are also some less known reds, including a pinot noir that is served from the chiller that has become fashionable in the bars of Strasbourg and beyond.
Strasbourg is an important city: one of the largest ports on the Rhine and at a major cross-roads for both road and rail, and the home to the European Commission and the European Court of Human Rights. The old city, mostly situated on an island in the River Ill, holds an historic cathedral with a famous unbalanced single spire on it’s two towers, and retains many of it’s lovely old Alsatian buildings. These are criss-crossed by timbers in a multitude of patterns and penetrated by shuttered windows right up into the roof. At street level are smart clothes shops, little delicatessens, and countless cafes and restaurants, mostly offering the local specialities such as Choucroute Garni a l’Alsacienne (sauerkraut dressed in the Alsatian style), calves head, veal steaks and quiche lorraine.
As we finished our delicious brasserie meal, surrounded by murals of past events and the cathedral, the sound of German, French, English and other languages floated from the tables around us and seemed to be spoken by all of the waiters. It occurred to me that Winston Churchill would have been delighted to sit here, 67 years after the end of WW2 and see how his idea that ‘jaw-jaw is better than war-war’ has been realised. A Europe living in cooperation and peace, where a short river crossing takes you from one language and culture to another, but no passports are needed, and where those cultures are enjoyed but not imposed; where people are open to sharing friendship, or commerce whatever your origin or nationality. In Alsace, where the tanks have rolled and army boots tramped the growing vines into splinters time and again over the years, the Rhine rolls on regardless of it’s German and French banks, and ignorant of the legends that humans have thrust upon it.
The gentle prosperity of Strasbourg is a huge achievement that belittles all of the petty self-interest, jealousies and ‘traditions’ that are thrown up by narrow nationalists. Their emotive posturing, and harking back to a history that can be spun and embellished with tradition and legend to suit their needs, only serves to divide folk and foment unjustified fear and resentment which, unfortunately, may often be the actual objective.
In 1937, my father was an iron miner in nearby Lorraine and saw the advance of the Nazis with horror, so although a pacifist by nature, he joined the Allied army to fight them. He lost his left hand in a battle in Narvik, but never regretted the sacrifice and rejoiced as the European Union developed. In his youth, his friends were French, Polish, German or Italian, and my Uncle Oscar, who enjoyed a drink could be heard speaking all four within a single sentence. This is what people are like: they get on and live all jumbled up like Oscar’s speeches, making some kind of sense, until some political nutcase with an axe to grind intervenes, setting folk at each other’s throats.
The European Union may have brought bureaucracy, and the spread of the Euro currency caused financial difficulties, but it has also brought peace and cooperation on a continent that was forever riven in strife and wars. May Strasbourg live in peace for as long as the Rhine (or Rhein, or Rhin) flows through Europe, to the sea.