Al­sace: East­ern prom­ise

With its pic­ture-post­card vil­lages, the fa­mous Route des Vins and the vi­brant city of Stras­bourg, Al­sace def­i­nitely keeps all its prom­ises, says Solange Hando

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From the east­ern slopes of the Vos­ges moun­tains to the Rhine plain, Al­sace is a scenic land of forests and vine­yards where medieval vil­lages nes­tle in lu­mi­nous green­ery and an­cient cas­tles bris­tle on the hill­tops. Fully joined to France by the end of the 18th cen­tury, then tossed back and forth across the Rhine in later wars, Al­sace has a unique cul­ture coloured by its past but en­twined in a new Euro­pean di­men­sion.

Tucked away in the east, over the moun­tains, it’s a largely ru­ral prov­ince; a long rib­bon of land barely 50 kilo­me­tres across, boast­ing only two size­able cities. To the south, in the Haut-Rhin depart­ment, mod­ern Mul­house is noted for its brightly coloured town hall on Place de la Réu­nion and the canal link­ing the Rhône to the Rhine and its museums. The city boasts the world’s largest rail­way mu­seum, the Cité du Train, as well as the world’s largest au­to­mo­bile mu­seum, the Cité de l’Au­to­mo­bile. Mul­house has spruced up its im­age in re­cent years and tra­di­tional tex­tiles and Al­sa­tian flags liven up the streets dur­ing fes­ti­val time.

FES­TIVE CITY

Mean­while in the Bas-Rhin depart­ment, Stras­bourg dis­plays all the charm and her­itage you would ex­pect from the cap­i­tal of Al­sace. At the start of the fes­tive sea­son, the city comes into its own when the old­est Christ­mas mar­ket in France opens its doors from late Novem­ber to New Year’s Eve. Dat­ing back to 1570, it spreads around a dozen venues – the largest in the town cen­tre where chalets and stalls dis­play sea­sonal dec­o­ra­tions, presents and Al­sa­tian crafts. Car­ols echo from church to church and on Place Kléber, chil­dren look up in won­der at the high­est Christ­mas tree in Europe. All over town, the fra­grance of mulled wine min­gles with gin­ger­bread and salted pret­zels, but most mag­i­cal are the evenings when the city lights up like a won­der­land.

“I just love Al­sace this time of year,” ex­plains Valérie Lodge from York­shire. “In these long win­ter evenings, the Christ­mas mar­kets brighten up every vil­lage and town right across the re­gion. But, of course, Al­sace is great year-round. We came to Stras­bourg two years ago. It’s such an at­trac­tive city; var­ied, open­minded, cos­mopoli­tan, and with 50,000 stu­dents, it’s vi­brant and young so there’s al­ways plenty to do. The his­tory and cul­ture are unique. Did you know this is where La Mar­seil­laise was born and Guten­berg per­fected his print­ing press? Then, we’ve got the vine­yards, the Vos­ges moun­tains, sun­shine in sum­mer, snow in win­ter, so you can ski, ram­ble, cy­cle… and thanks to the im­proved TGV we’re only 1hr50 min­utes from Paris. I have lived in var­i­ous French re­gions, but with my long-term part­ner from the south of France, we couldn’t imag­ine leav­ing Al­sace any time soon.”

It’s easy to un­der­stand Valérie’s point. The minute you set foot in Stras­bourg, the River Ill cap­tures your heart, me­an­der­ing across the city on its way to the Rhine, split­ting into pic­turesque chan­nels and cre­at­ing the Grande Île where the his­toric

cen­tre claims UNESCO sta­tus. The lofty cathe­dral rises above it all; a Gothic mas­ter­piece in pink sand­stone from the Vos­ges, close to Palais Ro­han, the for­mer res­i­dence of princely bish­ops, now hous­ing sev­eral museums. Paved lanes and se­cluded squares re­call the an­cient trades – coop­ers and millers – suck­ling pigs’ mar­ket, and along the Rue d’Or, the Cave des Hospices prom­ises to re­veal the old­est white wine in the world (1472). Mean­while life moves at a gen­tle pace along the river, not least in the Pe­tite France district where vis­i­tors can sail un­der flower-draped bridges, gaz­ing at the quaint half-tim­bered build­ings, the medieval for­ti­fi­ca­tions and the Bar­rage Vauban, or Vauban Dam de­signed by France’s fa­mous mil­i­tary en­gi­neer.

Be­yond the is­land, St Paul’s church her­alds the ‘new’ im­pe­rial town, built un­der Ger­man rule (1871-1918) in an eclec­tic mix of ar­chi­tec­ture along wide reg­u­lar streets. Today at the cross­roads of Europe, Stras­bourg is proud of its di­verse her­itage, its mod­ern EU in­sti­tu­tions and eco-friendly cre­den­tials: gar­dens, parks, trams glid­ing through the streets and the most ex­ten­sive cy­cling net­work in France.

COLOUR­FUL COL­MAR

Stras­bourg is su­perb, but head south and Col­mar soon works its magic; a true mi­cro­cosm of Al­sace framed by vine­yards, sprin­kling charm and nos­tal­gia from the heart of town to the ro­man­tic ‘Pe­tite Venise’. In this peace­ful haven, the hum­ble River Lauch flows like a dream, along ver­dant banks home to ot­ters, moorhens and swans, and past el­e­gant vil­las tucked un­der the trees or colour­ful half-tim­bered build­ings pop­ping straight out of a fairy tale. At Christ­mas time, chil­dren sail along the river in flat-bot­tomed boats, singing car­ols like lit­tle an­gels.

With about 67,000 in­hab­i­tants, Col­mar comes third in terms of pop­u­la­tion, but out of sea­son, the Old Town still feels like a vil­lage laced in cob­bled lanes and bridges fes­tooned in flow­ers. There are foun­tains and con­vivial squares where tra­di­tional win­stubs set out their ta­bles, and ar­chi­tec­tural gems from the Mid­dle Ages to the Re­nais­sance. Here you’ll find the pink Mai­son des Têtes and its fluted gable; the 16th-cen­tury Mai­son Pfis­ter built for a rich hat­ter; the Cus­toms House, the old­est pub­lic build­ing, and its glis­ten­ing roof of glazed tiles; the old houses in the Tan­ners’ and Mer­chants’ dis­tricts. The col­le­giate church turns pink and gold in the set­ting sun, the Bartholdi Mu­seum

cel­e­brates the lo­cal artist who sculpted the Statue of Lib­erty and in the for­mer Do­mini­can con­vent, the newly ex­tended Un­ter­lin­den Mu­seum dis­plays, among nu­mer­ous trea­sures, the multi-pan­elled Issen­heim al­tar­piece.

Down by the river, the gor­geous red-brick mar­ket sells wild mush­rooms, rus­tic bread, honey, foie gras (in­vented in Al­sace), blueberries or mirabelle plums in sea­son, and gi­ant cab­bages to shred into sauer­kraut – the iconic Al­sa­tian dish served with sausages and meat or three kinds of fish. Other spe­cial­i­ties in­clude Baeck­e­offe – meat and veg­eta­bles mar­i­nated in wine – and the light tarte flam­bée topped with ba­con, onion and cream, not for­get­ting Kougel­hopf brioche or Mun­ster cheese from the Vos­ges.

BUCOLIC VAL­LEY

A short drive west of Col­mar, in the Parc Na­turel Ré­gional des Bal­lons des Vos­ges, the de­light­ful lit­tle re­sort of Mun­ster nes­tles in a bucolic val­ley on the banks of a bab­bling stream. Storks nest on the chim­ney pots, walk­ing trails head into the hills through pas­tures and forests dot­ted with lakes and tra­di­tional fer­mes-auberges. Up on the moor, the panoramic Route des Crêtes climbs up to the Grand Bal­lon (1,424m), high above the Al­sa­tian plain and the vine­yards which en­joy one of the low­est rain­falls in France.

From north to south, the Route des Vins stretches over 120 kilo­me­tres along the foothills of the Vos­ges. It’s the do­main of Al­sa­tian wines – six whites and one red named af­ter un­blended grape va­ri­eties, plus a sparkling cré­mant, but the wide range of ter­roirs add sub­tle dif­fer­ences to fra­grance and taste.

Wine aside, the Route des Vins shows you some of the most beau­ti­ful vil­lages in the coun­try, gar­landed in flow­ers through­out the sum­mer or twin­kling lights

The Route des Vins shows you some of the most beau­ti­ful vil­lages in the coun­try

and fes­tive mar­kets at Christ­mas. Hire a car or cy­cle along the trails and every vil­lage greets you like a per­fect pic­ture post­card with old ram­parts and gates, cas­tles, churches, foun­tains, wells burst­ing with flow­ers, bright Re­nais­sance houses draped in tim­ber frames. Riquewihr; Ribeauvillé, fa­mous for its Min­strels’ Fes­ti­val; Tur­ck­heim and its night watch­men; Kay­sers­berg mir­rored in the River Weiss; Eguisheim and its cir­cu­lar lanes; Hu­naw­ihr – a des­ig­nated plus beau vil­lage. The panoramic cas­tle of Haut-Koenigs­bourg at­tracts crowds but ven­ture off the beaten track and you might dis­cover some time­less jewels, such as the for­ti­fied vil­lage of Bergheim and its 700-year-old lime tree, or Nie­der­morschwihr doz­ing undis­turbed in an ocean of rolling vine­yards.

Benoît Delepaut set­tled in Al­sace when he mar­ried a lo­cal girl. “I have no wish to go any­where else,” he says. “We have the best of both worlds: cities buzzing with life and cul­ture right on the doorstep, the pret­ti­est vil­lages you could ever imag­ine, masses of flow­ers, colours and so many fes­ti­vals. A few years ago, I set up my own com­pany, Al­sas­cope; we take small groups of vis­i­tors along the Route des Vins or on per­son­alised ex­cur­sions. I love it, ev­ery­one’s so friendly and re­laxed and I re­ally en­joy shar­ing what I know.

“There’s a great qual­ity of life; no rush, no pol­lu­tion, plenty of fresh air. It’s lovely every sea­son but my favourite things are au­tumn colours and the Christ­mas mar­kets, lights, car­ols, dec­o­ra­tions – it’s tra­di­tional, it’s au­then­tic. Then add a glass or two of Al­sa­tian wine, what more could we want?”

Above: The River Lauch flows through Col­mar’s ‘Pe­tite Venise’ district Top right: Stras­bourg in the win­ter Be­low: Visit Stras­bourg dur­ing De­cem­ber and en­joy all things fes­tive

These pages, clock­wise from top left: Stras­bourg’s Christ­mas mar­ket is the old­est in France; the city’s Ponts Cou­verts is a set of three bridges and four de­fen­sive tow­ers built in the 13th cen­tury; the pretty vil­lage of Am­mer­schwihr on the Route des Vins; tra­di­tional Christ­mas bis­cuits from a Stras­bourg bak­ery

Col­mar’s Pe­tite Venise is be­decked with colour­ful flow­ers in the sum­mer

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