I lived in Strasbourg for a year. Most of the time, I was so busy with my studies that I hardly had any time to enjoy the city, properly explore its unbelievable cultural heritage, and learn about its complicated history. Well, there was another obstacle too – it’s France, they are not really keen on speaking English: “Learn French if you want to live here!” is most probably what they think. I tried, but being a complete beginner when I arrived, it was rather tough.
Nevertheless, when my friend – a Czech TV cameraman came to visit me for a couple of days, it was clear we had to make something out of Strasbourg’s story. It is truly fascinating. Located directly on the borders with Germany, the capital of the region called Alsace has been an apple of discord between the two European powers since the middle ages. Actually, as the name clearly suggest, it was originally a German town. Basically, since the 17th century, local inhabitants were being forced to change their nationality almost every century.
“Strasbourg was a part of the German Holy Roman Empire until 1681. It was only after Germany lost in the Thirty Years’ War that it was annexed by France,” says Annie Dumouein of the Strasbourg Tourism Office. Supposedly, the German speaking population at that time wasn’t really happy about the shift, as they had enjoyed more freedoms when part of the Holy Empire than under the centralist French monarchy.
However, it didn’t take long and the Strasbourgians embraced fully their new French identity. When in 1871 Germans reclaimed the territory, they were less than welcome. “Between 1871 and 1918, Strasbourg was again part of Germany. The Germans build the Imperial German Quarter but the locals simply refused to live in that part of the city,” says Anne Dumouein.
In spite of this hostility, you can clearly sense the German influences in the local culture everywhere you turn. It was before Christmas when me and my Czech cameraman friend embarked on the quest to discover Strasbourg. And Christmas is probably the busiest time in the city as Strasbourg hosts the largest Christmas market in France. In fact, the tradition of holding this annual market was established – guess by whom? – yes, by the German Protestants in the 16th century.
In fact, you can not only sense the German cultural influences, you can actually taste them. It’s not only the mulled wine that you can buy in the market to warm up a bit in the December cold. If you enter any random restaurant in the center of Strasbourg, you might be surprised to find sauerkraut and sausages instead of snails and frog legs.
“Here in Alsace, the cuisine is rather specific. Our most famous dish is probably sauerkraut which you can also find in Germany. Veal heads are also a very popular local dish,” explains Marjolaine de Valmigere, the owner of the restaurant Chez Yvone, who managed to squeeze an interview with us into her hectic pre-Christmas schedule. “It’s a really busy period,” she says. “In fact, we have to start getting ready for Christmas already in July, otherwise we wouldn’t have enough time to figure everything out: the menu, the decorations, we are concerned with every detail.”
Also the picturesque medieval city center of Strasbourg, protected by UNESCO since the 1980’s, tells the story of the German – French struggles in the region. One of the biggest tourist attractions of the city is the cute riverside neighborhood called Petite France – Little France. It might sound patriotic to the ears of the French, but in fact, the origin of the name is far from that.
„About the 1500, there was a hospital in this neighborhood were syphilis sufferers were treated,“ says the tourist officer Annie Dumouein. „It was the French army who brought syphilis to Strasbourg during the wars when the town still belonged to Germany,” she explains. “And so, the locals called syphilis the French disease and the neighborhood where it was treated was named Little France, but you know what? In Paris they called syphilis the Italian disease, everyone tried to blame the others for it,” adds Dumouein.
The last time Strasbourg was taken over by the Germans was during the World War 2. Since then, it has come a long journey and became the second capital of the European Union after Brussels. Needless to say, the French have to advocate the usefulness of the second European capital all the time. Especially during the economic crisis in Europe, many EU representatives keep pointing out to the unreasonable costs incurred by maintaining the second residency and the need of the European Parliament Members to travel here and there every month. But it probably wouldn’t be Europe if things were all that easy. And the history of Strasbourg can probably testify that better than anything.
The following video is in Czech….