Inside the Palace of Europe
February 12, 1997
(CNN) -- The quiet canals and half-timbered houses of Strasbourg hide a past that's not so peaceful. For centuries, this French city was the setting of a bloody territorial clash between two powerful European armies. Today, supporters of a unified Europe look to Strasbourg not as a reminder of division, but as a symbol of friendship.
Strasbourg, the biggest city in France's Alsace region, lies in the heart of Europe, just 240 miles from Paris, Geneva, Munich and Brussels. Once a free town of the Holy Roman Empire, it was taken by Louis XIV of France in 1681, became part of Germany during the late 1800s, then was handed back to France in 1918. Continuing the wartime ricochet, the French city was occupied by German forces from 1940 to 1944.
In the years following World War II, with the movement toward European reconciliation, Strasbourg was chosen to be the seat of the Council of Europe. That role has persevered, with Strasbourg's strikingly modern Palace of Europe providing a highly visible reminder of unification.
The palace houses two important European entities: both the Council of Europe and the European Parliament. Made up of 40 European countries, the council works to promote peace, democracy and culture. Russia and Croatia recently became its newest members. One of the council's major accomplishments: the establishment of the European Court of Human Rights, which is located just a few steps away.
The European Parliament, meanwhile, is the legislative branch of the European Union. Composed of representatives directly elected by their countries, the Parliament concentrates on economic issues, such as developing a single currency for all 15 nations in the Union. If successful, the plan would do away with Francs, Deutschmarks and the like in favor of the all-purpose "Euro." While controversial among natives, the common currency would ease exchange time for travelers touring throughout Europe.
To get inside the Palace of Europe, you don't have to be an international diplomat, a security guard, or adept at impersonating either. If either the Council or Parliament is meeting -- usually during one week each month -- visitors can watch the proceedings from the gallery. However, it might be worth going when neither organization is in session. Then, guides offer free behind-the-scenes tours 14 times daily. A popular attraction since its debut in 1989, the tour attracted 70,000 last year.
Angele Bras, of the Palace of Europe Information Tours, said the walks help change common perceptions. "The biggest problem in European mentalities is that many people think Europe is a very abstract thing and that it stands for a sort of elite, you see, for members, for politicians. And that nothing is close to them," said Bras. "This is the aim (of the tours)... that they feel part of it."
The palace visit includes a stop in one of the meeting rooms used by the various parties of the European Parliament. This is where strategies and proposals are mapped out before they're sent to the full assembly. Interpreters translate the proceedings into 11 different languages from booths overlooking the room.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the tour is the large debating chamber, where both the Council of Europe and the European Parliament make their final decisions.
But before long, only the Council of Europe will remain here. The European Parliament is planning to move out next year. In the meantime, a visit to this European Palace is one way to see the inner workings of European politics -- an educational stop on any journey through Alsace.
Weather: World forecasts
City guides and maps: France
A Strasbourg Christmas - December 11, 1996
Alsace Region - French Government Tourist Office
Alsace Hotel Information