Making the French connection

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 July, 2007, 12:00am

France remains the world's most popular country in terms of foreign tourist arrivals, according to official figures - and quite deservedly in the opinion of tens of millions of visitors. Many of its cities and regions have, through familiarity, entered the popular imagination and consciousness, from glamorous Cote d'Azur and lavender and cypress-scented Provence to seductive Paris and raffish Marseilles.

For decades, Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace in northeastern France, has borne a rather staid image as a city where red tape takes precedence over red wine. But that unfair perception is set to change, thanks to a new high-speed TGV rail-link from the city to Paris which opened last month, cutting the four-hour trip to a mere two hours and 20 minutes.

It also finally connected Strasbourg with the growing pan-European network of high-speed lines that stretches from the London end of Eurostar, through France to Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and beyond.

Strasbourg is the seat of many of the continent's most important institutions, including the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, and the European Court of Human Rights, and so integration into this network would appear long overdue.

As a result of having been off the high-speed steel track for so long, the city as a destination has remained a largely overlooked vintage, medium-bodied and complex, in the vast wine cellar of French destinations. Enjoyed slowly, it reveals its charms as viscerally as a fine Riesling from one of the vineyards on the hills overlooking the city.

Located in the Rhine Valley between France's Vosages mountains and Germany's Black Forest, Strasbourg with its population of about 650,000, is a compact metropolis built on a human scale, but whose historic centre is sufficiently grand to have been awarded World Heritage site status by Unesco in 1988.

Soaring above the medieval townscape of black and white timber-framed buildings and cobbled streets is the city's icon, the Cathedrale Notre-Dame-de-Strasbourg, which, at 142 metres, is the fourth-tallest church in the world. In the 15th century it was the highest man-made structure in the world.

Strasbourg houses several other medieval churches, notably the Romanesque Eglise Saint-Etienne and the enormous Eglise Saint-Thomas with its Silbermann organ which Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart once played.

Architecturally, Strasbourg is a living museum that mixes five centuries of Rhine valley architecture as well as neo-Babylonian and other eastern elements and styles.

The German influence is evident in the disciplined form of the Chambre de Commerce et d'Industrie and other structures, and an outstanding example of French baroque is provided by the 18th-century Palais Rohan, which houses three excellent museums.

The architectural timeline extends through a number of art nouveau buildings right up to some stunning and thoroughly modern administrative buildings such as the one that houses the European Court of Human Rights.

Rivers and canals give the city a welcome spaciousness, and are traversed by some of the most distinctive bridges in the region, including the distinctive Ponts Couverts, the ornate stone Pont de la Fonderie, and the Pont d'Auvergne.

Like many historical cities in this part of the world, it was at the site of Strasbourg that the Romans established a military outpost, and this is viewed as Strasbourg's origin; the city celebrated its 2,000th birthday with considerable fanfare in 1988.

Early in its history, Strasbourg became a repository of an epoch-shaping event. It was here, in 842, that the Oath of Strasbourg was signed by Louis the German (son of Louis the Pious) and ruler of the eastern Frankish kingdom, and by his brother Charles the Bald, ruler of the western Frankish kingdom. The historical significance of this trilingual text (which contained Old French, Old High German, and Latin) is that it is the oldest known document in the French language.

Subjected to Germanic cultural and linguistic influences since the days of the Holy Roman Empire, having passed hands between France and Germany several times over subsequent centuries, and lying on the shared border, Strasbourg is palpably bicultural.

But the city's history is not without its dark shadows. Following the fall of France in 1940, in an act of characteristic savagery, the first thing the Nazi invaders did was destroy the Strasbourg synagogue, which had been one of the largest in Europe. In November 1944, after four years of pitiless occupation, the city was liberated and Strasbourg resolutely set about becoming a bridge to a peaceful post-war Europe, a role it maintains successfully to this day.In 1949, the city was chosen to be the site of the Council of Europe and, since 1979, Strasbourg has been a seat of the European Parliament and is home to the largest parliamentary assembly room in Europe.

To the city's north and west lies one of the great (relatively) undiscovered landscapes of France. The mountains and forests of the Vosges Range offer outstanding mountain-biking and hiking opportunities. And over vast tracts of land closer to the Rhine, vineyards sprawl as far as the eye can see.

Alsace's white wines, particularly its dry Rieslings, enjoy global renown. Alsace is also the main hops-growing and beer-producing region of France. The best known beyond France's borders of these local beers is Kronenbourg, which happens to be the only Alsatian amber nectar available in Hong Kong.

Strasbourg is a thoroughly enjoyable city to get lost in. Get on the train in Paris. Qu'est-ce que vous attendez? What are you waiting for?