“What is it that gives a frontier its magic? Not the fact that that it is a territorial or political boundary, for these are artificial, dictated by history. Perhaps it is language that gives to the crossing of a frontier its definitive flavour of voyage. Whatever the answer the magic is there. The traveller’s heart will beat to a new rhythm, he will examine the strange new coinage. Everything will seem to be changed, including the air he breathes” – Lawrence Durrell
It was another disappointing morning and there was a slight drizzle in the air but the weather looked brighter to the west so we decided to drive in that direction and visit the French city of Strasbourg on the other side of the Rhine.
After breakfast in the hotel we drove through Offenburg heading for Strasbourg and followed the road to the border where the road crossed the Rhine and passed into France through an immigration control without any sign of activity.
The Rhine is one of the longest and most important rivers in Europe; it begins in the Swiss Alps and flows for one thousand three hundred kilometres to the North Sea. That’s only about half as long as the Danube and it certainly doesn’t make the top one hundred longest rivers in the world, coming in at only one hundred and eleventh but is still very impressive. From the very earliest times it has been an important trade route and today it remains a vitally important transport link that serves the industrial cities of the Rhine through France, Germany and the Low Countries and today, just like every other day, it looked businesslike and industrious with huge freight barges transporting raw materials to the factories along its banks.
All of a sudden there was absolutely no mistaking the fact that we were in France.
The river is about three hundred metres wide and in that short distance there was a total transformation from one country to another. The architecture, the language, the dog shit on the pavements and the French grunge was in total contrast to the clinically clean German towns and villages that had been left behind on the other side of the river.
Strasbourg is the seventh largest city in France and is regarded as the cultural cross roads between Germanic and Latin culture. In the recent past Strasbourg has been passed between Germany and France like an unwilling baton in a relay race. Before the French Revolution it was a free city but the fanatical Jacobins seized it for the Republic. In 1870 after the Franco-Prussian war culminated in the creation of modern Germany it was ceded to Berlin but after the First-World-War in 1918 it returned to France. In 1940 the Nazis seized the city and it was liberated again in 1944 and has remained French thereafter.
I have often wondered about national boundaries and how people stop being one nationality and become another and speak another language just because there is a line on a map but here it was easy to understand because the River Rhine creates a very clear boundary between two very different cultures.
Because of this I expected to be a mixed up sort of a place but actually not a bit of it because, thanks to an intense period of Francization immediately after the war including the forced suppression of the use of German and other local dialects, Strasbourg is definitely French which is appropriate really because it was here in 1792 that Rouget de Lisle composed the Revolutionary marching song La Marseillaise, which later became the national anthem of France.
It is an interesting fact that France is one of four nations (together with Andorra, Monaco, and Turkey) that has never signed the Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.
Strasbourg is in the French region of Alsace which itself lies on the major European political fault line that more or less follows the Rhine and separates France from Germany. It includes the independent states of the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland which are collectively a legacy of the old independent European state of Burgundy which ultimately failed to survive because of its vulnerable geographical position lying as it did between the states of France and Germany (although not existing as we know it today until 1871) which from the fourteenth century onwards were always grinding horribly against each other. And it is quite possible to imagine that the disputed regions of Alsace and Lorraine might themselves also have ended up as an independent state. In fact in November 1918 the Diet of Strasbourg proclaimed an Independent Republic of Alsace-Lorraine but this only lasted a few days before French troops arrived and occupied it.