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
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.
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.
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.
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