When a colleague asked me if I´d accompany her and a form of 31 15/16-year-old pupils on a 2½ day excursion to Strasbourg I agreed, I knew most of the boys and girls and expected they wouldn´t be too stressful and I´d been to Strasbourg so many years ago that I felt my memory could do with some brushing up.
The first impression was so-so, we came out of the train station onto an enormous place flanked by enormous buildings from the era when the city was annexed to the German Empire (1871 – 1918), bombastic representative ones in the so-called Wilhelmian style, historical eclecticism, quite depressive when the sky is overcast.
We took our luggage to the hostel Ciarus, a walk of 15 minutes along the banks of the river Ill. The streets flanking the river and the footpaths below running beside it seem to be favoured by dog-walkers and bums and bums with dogs, in a quarter of an hour I saw more dogs and more dog poop than, say, in one week in Lisbon. According to a teacher of French I asked later this is a countrywide problem which is known but not solved yet, the dog owners still rule. That takes away one star, no mercy!
We arrived on a Sunday and as Monday is the day when the museums are closed, we started with the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, 1, Place Hans Jean Arp (from Tuesday to Sunday 11-19 pm, 4 €/concession 2€), it´s five minutes away from the train station. The building itself is fascinating with much glass on the outside, it was inaugurated in 1998, huge rooms and not too many artefacts make for a generous atmosphere. Don´t think that young people appreciate contemporary art, their taste is as conservative as can be. Never mind, it doesn´t hurt to see new things and broaden one´s horizon, and – one never knows – such a visit may have a long term effect.
We hadn´t eaten properly the whole day and had therefore booked a room in the restaurant Flam´s, Rue de Freres (behind the Cathedral), where Tartes Flambées are served, the specialty of the Alsace region, as much as you can eat for 12 € (~ 8, 10 GBP), a soft drink or a glass of beer included. A Tartes Flambée resembles a pizza, it´s thin dough with something on it baked in an oven with open fire. Considering that a pizza size Tarte Flambée costs 6,80 € in other restaurants, drink not included, Flam´s was a bargain. We got our Tartes Flambées on oblong wooden boards, approximately 30 x 40 cm large, first the bacon, onions and cheese variety was brought, then bacon, cheese and mushrooms, followed by two sweet varieties (according to purists a sacrilege), with a layer of pudding, slices of apple and cinnamon or pudding and choccie crumbs. At the end of the Tartes orgy we calculated that we had devoured approximately 8 m² (the equivalent of four normal sized doors), I have never been fuller in my life and will certainly not touch another Tarte Flambée in the near future!
The following morning we did a sightseeing tour by boat, a vessel with a glass roof, departure from Palais des Rohan (150m away from the Cathedral) lasting 70 minutes (from 9.30 am to 21.00 pm every 30 minutes, adults 6.80 €, children 3.40 €), good explanations over headphones in six languages. This tour is very recommendable, especially when the sun is shining as it was for us, the old centre of Strasbourg is surrounded by the river Ill so that it is really an island, people have always lived on and with the river, one doesn´t see the backside but the showside of many houses. The branches of weeping willows hang into the water, swans, ducks, coots pass the boat, it´s quite picturesque.
Strasbourg flourished from Roman times, but it was the Middle Ages that represented the Golden Age of the city. If you like half-timbered houses then this is the place for you, one can find them throughout the city but most are in the oldest quarter called La Petite France in the south west of the inner city island. Many restaurants have their tables outside on the river bank, my favourite was La Taverne du Quai on the Quai de la Bruche beside an enormous plane in whose branches musicians used to sit and play in the olden days, pity they don´t do that any more.
There are also many fine and well-kept Renaissance and art deco buildings, Strasbourg exudes wealth, the expensive shops in the city show that there still is money. The most famous piece of architecture, however, is the cathedral begun in 1176 and built over a period of nearly 300 years, yet it´s not finished, it has only one steeple, no idea why they didn´t keep on building after being at it for such a long time. It´s a Gothic masterpiece in reddish sandstone, bring binoculars to study the thousands of statues inside and outside, more Gothic it doesn´t get anywhere! Look at the façade in the afternoon when the sun is shining on it and the stone seems to glow!
Every day at 12.30 pm one can watch the astronomical clock constructed around 1550 by a team of Swiss clockmakers, during the performance the area is sealed off and lit, visitors have to pay a small fee (the tickets are sold outside from a hole in the wall [yes, indeed!]) if they want to see it, when it´s over, one can stroll by without paying anything, but one doesn´t see much as the corner where the clock is is quite dark. Before the figures on the two levels start moving an explanation is given in French, German and English which all in all lasts about half an hour, the performance itself lasts only five minutes.
During the following free time some pupils went shopping, others visited the Botanical Garden, yours truly the Museum of Fine Arts in the Palais Rohan 2, Place du Chateau (4 €/2€] presenting an overview of European painting from the Early Middle Ages to 1870, simply wonderful! Oh, to have one of the Dutch still lifes at home, some of the formats were of stealable size . . .
The following morning we visited the European Parliament; we had already seen the buildings on our sightseeing tour by boat, modern steel and glass ones on either side of the river Ill, not as tall as I had expected, quite nice to behold. The Palais de Europe was the first to be built, it was completed in 1975, council of Europe sessions are held here, the Human Rights Building was inaugurated in 1995, the European Parliament building is the youngest, it´s from 1999.
New York, Geneva and Strasbourg – the only cities in the world that are home to international organisations without being national capitals. The choice of Strasbourg as European capital just after WW2 was not arbitrary but rather intended as a symbol of reconciliation between the peoples of Europe and their future together. The Council of Europe was founded by the treaty of 5th May, 1949, on a proposition by Winston Churchill as early as 1942, today some 45 countries are members of this club of pluralist democracies representing a population of 800 million. The council is primarily concerned with ensuring that human rights are respected, but also deals with social, educational and environmental matters.
We were welcomed by the assistant of the representative of our constituency, one of 732 members elected every five years in the 25 countries forming the European Union. The representatives sit according to the political parties they belong to the conservative parties being in the majority at the moment. Later our representative told us that she sits between a Spaniard and a Pole with whom she has no common language, she implored our pupils to study languages, good woman!
We were allowed to listen in to a discussion on financial matters, all seats had headphones and we could follow the various translations, there were some languages I could not identify, I´ve never heard Hungarian, Lithuanian or Slovenian before to name but a few. Most pupils were thrilled by the atmosphere and the discussion and were reluctant to leave the discussion on the ways money had been spent and also wasted. I know now that the members of the European Parliament care and discuss the matter heatedly and I´ve understood that working in and for a united Europe is very, very difficult, but there´s no alternative and if money is wasted, so be it, a war costs more.