Compared to rainy London and Paris, spring has definitely arrived in Strasbourg. Aside from the occasional fleeting band of clouds, the skies are bright blue and the temperature wonderfully mild.
Strasbourg is a city of wide streets and avenues and buildings which can be either distinctly German or distinctly French in their architecture – a legacy of two thousand years on the border between France and Germany.
This legacy, in many ways, defines the city. Most Strasbourgeoise, especially the younger generation, speak French, but most of the older generation still speak the Alsatian dialect of German. The region might be famed for its fine Alsatian wines, but you will also find choucroute (Alsatian sauerkraut), pork and Germanic beers on the menu in most restaurants.
And, despite decades of Francisation, the city remains littered with German place names.
The city’s old town, built on an island and dominated by the towering cathedral, is stunningly beautiful and Strasbourg as a whole is well served by a public transport system of buses and trams that are cheap, regular and quick. Aside from the obvious differences between a French city and a British one (architecture, leafy avenues, cars driving on the right, etc.) what struck me was how remarkably clean the streets are – with even chewing gum on the pavements being relatively rare compared to most British streets.
Of course, most people will know Strasbourg as the second seat of the European Parliament. Though the European Parliament nowadays primarily sits in Brussels, one week every month the entire apparatus of the parliament gets on a train and relocates to Strasbourg – as required by treaty.
The parliament building itself looks like some modern castle when approaching from the main entrance. The main Louise Weiss building is a very wide steel and glass tower with a giant oval courtyard in the centre and offices and rooms located inside the walls, interlinked by a confusing network of corridors and bridges which spread out across the river to the various other buildings of the parliament
Entering through the press entrance you find yourself in a narrow, dark corridor which leads to the somewhat dingy series of offices and rooms which make up the lower levels of the building. But, once you get in a lift (staircases are nigh impossible to find), you find yourself rising up towards the famous Hemicycle where the European Parliament itself actually meets. Rising above that you find yourself emerging from the darkness into the light as you reach the uppermost levels and the offices of the President of the Parliament and the Secretariat.
The parliament building in many ways gives you a sense of the EU as a whole: Confusing, costly and bureaucratic – yet also an inspiring reminder of the fact that a city which was at the heart of countless conflicts now houses an organ of an institution which has helped to bring about the longest period of peace and prosperity in European history.
* George Potter is the Secretary of Guildford Liberal Democrats, writing in a personal capacity.