On the clock — Frank McNally on the challenges of getting to and from Strasbourg

City’s famous clock is a multifaceted tour de force of science and religion

For a city that prides itself on being a capital of the EU, Strasbourg has always been notoriously hard to reach by public transport. I was reminded of this during a press trip to the European Parliament on Monday, when we first flew into Frankfurt airport.

From the airport, there remained a two-and-a-half hour bus journey, Ryanair-style. Although in fairness to Ryanair, they would usually land you a bit closer your destination than Lufthansa had just managed.

On the plus side, continuing the trip by road from Germany does serve to remind you why the EU exists and why – despite the monthly inconvenience to MEPs and staff – it seemed a good idea to co-locate the parliament there.

As we entered France, the bus passed an old border checkpoint, now a museum piece. Shortly afterwards, a sign reminded us we were also crossing the “Maginot Line”, a vestige of times when impeding certain kinds of transport, rather than facilitating them, was the priority.


André Maginot’s 1930s defensive system was designed to slow down a German assault or, more cynically, to reroute it through Belgium again, where it could be defended off French territory. It was a famous failure in the end, before becoming, as it remains, a metaphor for attempts to draw uncrossable lines, in sand and elsewhere.

But speaking of German lightning strikes, no sooner had we arrived in Strasbourg on Monday than a strike of the industrial relations variety caused our flight home to be cancelled.

The colourfully-named Verdi trade union – it’s a contraction of Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft, referring to “United Services” staff – whose members include ground-handlers at Lufthansa, had called a 24-hour work stoppage for Wednesday, when we were supposed to be flying out of Frankfurt.

Verdi’s Requiem for that plan further illustrated the challenges of Strasbourg as a destination.

And it led to operatic levels of melodrama on the press group’s Whatsapp, as well as some shocking plot developments, one of which envisaged abandoning the last day of the trip in favour of a 4.30am bus and a two-flight retreat to Dublin via Frankfurt and Geneva.

The alternative was staying an extra night, mostly likely in Frankfurt airport, before a red-eye flight Thursday (although even as I write this, a small group of resistance operatives is also considering a desperate retreat westwards via the TGV to Paris).

Oh well, at least when you’re in Strasbourg, the transport is excellent, much of it based on two wheels. One of our group, when faced with bad news, is in the habit of saying “Christ on a bike!” But he probably would be on a bike, here, in what the local tourist board claims is France’s most cycle-friendly city, ranking fourth in Europe, behind only Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Utrecht.

The massed ranks of parked bicycles outside the central train station contrast starkly with the lack of cars there and elsewhere. Parking anything with four wheels in Strasbourg is difficult and expensive.

There are bike lanes everywhere, meanwhile, and cyclists whizz around with the confidence of people who own the place, albeit slowed down regularly by the need to cross the ubiquitous tram lines at right angles.

Everything runs like clockwork in Strasbourg, including the clockwork, which as it happens is a big tourist attraction.

In the local cathedral every day, crowds gather to watch a show involving the astronomical clock: an enormous, multifaceted tour de force of science and religion, built and rebuilt over centuries.

Behind the scenes, as a film demonstrates, are extraordinarily complex mechanisms: a forerunner of the modern computer among them.

But the clock’s dramatic facade includes such pageants as a procession of Roman gods in chariots announcing the days of the week, and a parade of the Christian apostles, representing the hours. None are on bikes, so fa), but the clock never has any traffic jams either.

The cathedral itself (completed 1439) is a wonder of the world. Despite having only one of the two towers originally planned, that was enough to make it the world’s tallest building until as recently as 1874. And its vast construction of stone and stained glass reminds you of how wealthy this city has been for so long.

Some of us think Dublin is old. But the year Dublin celebrated its supposed millennium, 1988, Strasbourg was marking 2,000 years since the Romans founded it in 12BC.

Speaking of old money, it was called Argentorate back then. The “argent” referred to silver. The “rate”, interestingly, was from a Celtic word for “fort”. Yes, the same root that gives us those old-monied Dublin suburbs: Rathmines and Rathgar.

Getting back to the clock, one of the most popular features of the daily show is a mechanical rooster, way up at the top, which marks midday by flapping its wings and crowing alarmingly three times.

The rooster is a biblical warning to St Peter, parading adjacently. But at least yesterday, it also sounded like a dire caution to any journalists who might be thinking of going out on the town in Strasbourg later and then catching the 4.30am bus to the airport.