A day in Strasbourg
At the central train station, an enormous bubble of glass encasing an older stone structure, there is a clear sense that we had arrived in another country. Even on a quick day trip from Germany, less than five kilometres away, the differences are immediately apparent. I notice a distinct joie de vivre in the air, maintained by the well-dressed denizens strolling leisurely across the pavement. My sister gestures towards the shiny traffic poles in textured aluminium – even the green man, she points out, seems consciously designed with a flair for beauty.
The name Strasbourg tells us a lot about its identity. A Gallicised take on a name of Germanic origin, the “town on the road” lies at the confluence of two nations in the Rhine Valley. Founded by the Romans as a military outpost, the growing settlement eventually gained prominence as a Free City of the Holy Roman Empire, falling under the Germanic sphere of influence. The French took over in the late 17th century, setting off a long cycle of invasion and restoration that would only end more than 260 years later.
There’s a postcard which my sister is keen to show me when we cross over into Grande Île, Strasbourg’s historic centre. It depicts several outlines of France, with one corner appearing and disappearing almost comically, corresponding to a period of seventy-odd years when the region changed hands no less than four times.
The first image, labelled 1871, points to the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, when Alsace and Lorraine were annexed to the newly-established German Empire. Strasbourg – Alsace’s capital – had been bombarded into submission in a 44-day siege, destroying the Museum of Fine Arts and the rare collections of the Municipal Library. World War I and the Treaty of Versailles eventually restored Alsace-Lorraine to France, but twenty years later the Germans would once again be knocking at the gates.
In the opening days of World War II, the French had the entire city evacuated. Given its position on the border and the speed at which German troops were storming into Poland, the government decided not to take any chances. With the exception of the local garrison, Strasbourg would remain empty for the next ten months, until the arrival of Hitler’s Wehrmacht in the summer of 1940.
Strasbourg came through World War I relatively unscathed, but this time it was not quite so fortunate. Between 1943 and its liberation in November 1944, Allied bombing raids damaged parts of the old town – bombs fell on the Cathedral, the Old Customs House and the Palais Rohan, which housed three municipal museums.
Crucially, much of Strasbourg still managed to escape the widespread destruction that befell so many other European cities. Whereas the medieval centres of Braunschweig and Frankfurt am Main were utterly destroyed, the half-timbered houses of the Alsatian capital survived the war. Since 1988 – the 2000th anniversary of the city’s foundation – the Grande Île has been inscribed as a World Heritage site.