There is never a bad time to visit Strasbourg, which must rank in any list of contenders for Europe's most beautiful city. But this is a particularly good time. Strasbourg's past is defined by war, but its present and its future are defined by dreams of peace, reconciliation and co-operation. The past week, which we spent amid the city's splendours, provided all too many reminders as to why Europe has more need of those dreams than at perhaps any moment in the past half-century.
Visitors flock to Strasbourg for its matchless half-timbered medieval streets, gorgeously reflected in the river Ill; for its monumental yet lace-delicate cathedral; and for its hearty cuisine. Politicians, officials, petitioners and lawyers gather in the dazzlingly modernistic European district on the edge of town, home to the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights. Or, as UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman wittily called it last week, 'a foreign court'.
Really? Well, true, the building is in France (though the architect, Lord Richard Rogers, was a Brit). Braverman spoke with the insular dismissiveness of the obsessive Brexiteer. 'A European court over-ruled our Supreme Court,' she complained. 'We need to take back control.' I'm not entirely sure when we lost it. The ECHR is a function, not of the European Union, but of the Council of Europe, which brings together 46 countries on a shared commitment to uphold human rights and democracy. They include the UK, which is represented both on the ruling Committee of Ministers and in the deliberative Parliamentary Assembly. Braverman's remarks suggest she is either culpably ignorant of this, or wilfully indifferent to it. Neither circumstance stands to her credit.
Strasbourg's encapsulation of principled sovereignty-sharing is to be found, not just in the institutions it hosts, but in the way it lives. It is the capital of Alsace and, as every Scottish schoolchild used to be taught, across the centuries Alsace and the neighbouring region of Lorraine have swung back and forth between warring sovereignties like a ping-pong player's wristwatch. Today Strasbourg nurtures an apparently contented cultural fusion between the ancient foes of France and Germany. That may sound Panglossian, with the last German military occupation still within living memories; but spend time in the city today, and it feels like the most natural thing in the world.
One morning, for the hell of it, we got on a city tram (Line D) outside our hotel in central Strasbourg, and went to Germany. The German town of Kehl is 15 minutes away across the Rhine. All that changed at the border was that the in-car tannoy switched from a brisk French voice to a jocular German one. The passengers didn't even look up from their phones as we crossed a border that has provoked slaughter for half of all history. On another day, we took a 40-minute train journey to Karlsruhe, a rather seedy German town built around a splendid palace. The only reference to the frontier was a reminder from the conductor that Germany had just made Covid masks mandatory on public transport. On the tram, no-one bothered about that either.
But you don't need to cross the Rhine to experience this frictionless cultural fusion. Step out of Strasbourg's main station and the French you hear around you sounds almost incongruous, because you are standing in a massive square, complete with scaffolded rooftop hoardings, that might be in Frankfurt or Hamburg. Both populations cross the border in droves to shop: France is cheaper, Germany has held on to more grand department stores. You hear almost as much German in the streets or restaurants as French (Also Americans, loudly recounting their life stories to one another and everybody else. Yes, Uncle Sam is travelling again. Such a boon to us all).
Meanwhile, the vocabulary skips nimbly between the two languages. Strasbourg's favourite snack can be ordered as a tarte flambée or a Flammekueche. Its favourite casserole is Baeckeoffe, served with choucroute/sauerkraut or spaetzles/spätzles. The boulangeries and patisseries – unmistakably French – sell Streussel, Bopfkuche and Kougelhopf. At the book market on Place Gütenberg, French and German titles are mixed together in the boxes. A nearby bar is called Bierre Schutzenberger.
Even the French spoken in Strasbourg has a Germanic edge, and there is a local dialect which blends the two. Answers in French to questions tend to begin with a Teutonic 'Zo…'. A young professional, keen to show off his English, engages us in conversation beside an information board in the Petite France quarter, and asks where we come from. His English is pure General von Klinkerhoffen, so I ask in turn if he is German. No, he tells me, with surprise: French, born and bred in Strasbourg.
Petite France is the exquisite heart of the medieval French old town, contained on an island in the River Ill. Between the island and the futuristic European quarter is another Strasbourg, known as Neustadt, or the German quarter. Built between the German annexation of Strasbourg in 1870 and its return to France in 1918, it looks startlingly different from the city around it: a methodical grid of broad avenues and grand squares, lined with heavy stone buildings that trumpet the imperial pomp of Wilhelm I and Franz Josef, but don't exude much charm. All the same, Strasbourg has embraced the grandeur with every appearance of enthusiasm, and some of its most treasured institutions – the National Library, the National Theatre – have settled homes amid the statues and portals.
Nor is Germany Strasbourg's only case of neighbourliness. A glance at the departures board in the main station reminds you that Switzerland is not much more than an hour away in one direction, Luxembourg in another. Strasbourg has a particular affection for the Swiss, with whom it has maintained a mutual solidarity pact since 1456 that repeatedly delivered food relief – the 'millet porridge' drops – when the city was under siege, and also provided humanitarian aid via the Geneva Society (later the Red Cross) after the German occupation of 1870.
For sure, Strasbourg is not to every taste. It can be chocolate boxy, and touristy; and in the botanical gardens we get chatting with a long-time resident, a fellow grandparent, who says she longs to return to her southern origins because German coal-burning has made the air of Strasbourg foul. Well, if you say so, madame. I suspect she is a supporter of Marine Le Pen.
Plus, one is wary of sounding naïve. But it is hard not to be inspired by Strasbourg's conciliatory view of Europe at a moment when a grotesque land war is once again raging on the continent; and when politicians with scant enthusiasm for partnership in defence of humane democracy are gaining power in capitals as diverse as Rome, Budapest, Stockholm… and, some would say, London.
If the European Political Community – conceived by President Macron, inaugurated in Prague last week and creditably supported thus far by Liz Truss – needs to find a crock of values to guide it forward, Strasbourg is not a bad place to start looking. Meanwhile, to those of us who will go to our graves grieving for the decision that voters in southern Britain took on 23 June 2016, Strasbourg stands as a beautiful symbol of the hopes and the principles on which Brexit turned Britain's back. No doubt, for others it's just some foreign city.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster