Travel notes: Strasbourg

To Strasbourg for the first time, for a conference at the Council of Europe on democracy and participation (more on which in a separate post).

My trip did not begin well, with a late change of plan at the Brighton end requiring a last-minute change of travel arrangements and an overnight in the Mercure Gare de l’Est Château Landon before catching the 0644 train to Strasbourg. The Mercure hotel was pleasant enough in terms of fittings, but the room was SO HOT I could barely catch a minute’s sleep, and with only six hours from arrival to departure, I got on the train the next morning feeling very much in need of a café noir and a croissant. In another blow, the train was a Corail express to Munich, and the cafe was run by DB, whose coffee was poor and whose croissants were non-existent.

Finally, when I arrived at Strasbourg, twenty minutes late, I ended up going to the wrong place – to the European Parliament building rather than the Palais de l’Europe where the Council is based. They are only across the canal from each other, but without the magical blue badge of a guest at the Parliament, you have to make a 500m detour along the towpath to cross the water. Add to that the contradictory directions given by well-meaning people in the Parliament building (who assumed I had a pass), and you get an hour wandering around in the hot sun with a heavy suitcase and an increasingly tetchy frame of mind.

Happier tales after the jump.

The old town and the part where the European institutions are could not be more different. The European Institutions (the Court of Human Rights – part of the Council – is there too) are very modern buildings, plonked in a nondescript suburb with poor public transport links. The Parliament, though a complete white elephant and hard to navigate around – is rather impressive and will doubtless make a good corporate HQ for someone when the EU finally sees sense. The new Court buildings are OK, even if when viewed from the Palais they have a sort of metal chimney stack rising up in the middle of them. The Council buildings are a real Bond villain hideout, with every touch that a 60s architect could add to emphasise how up-to-the moment they were. Hello, sweeping carpeted staircases and curved wooden roof supports.

But the old town of Strasbourg, though partially reconstructed after WWII, is charming and beautiful. A mix of Germanic and French styles, with more half-timbering than I’ve ever seen in one place except perhaps Chester, wandering around the streets and canals is a hugely rewarding experience. We drank at the friendly bar Aux 12 Apôtres on the Rue Merciere, which had a great selection of beers, including Meteor, the last local independent. We followed this up with a hearty (and enormous, and tasty) dinner at “L’Ancienne Douane”, sitting on a terrace overlooking the river (or perhaps canal).

My hotel was in an impossibly charming area called Petite France (named in the days before Strasbourg was a French city, and – someone with local knowledge told me – a reference to the French disease rather than the nationality. It was called the Regent Petite France, and was pleasantly plush without being silly. My room was large, on the third floor with a view of the canal, but none of the electric sockets seemed to work and there was neither iron nor ironing board. I wouldn’t recommend paying the rack rate, which was some ludicrous number in the hundreds of euros range, but the deal I got via Eurostar was very reasonable. The receptionist suggested that I take their breakfast at €20, at which prospect I laughed all the way to the cafe at the Palais de l’Europe (€2.30).