Al­sace of­fers best of French, Ger­man charm

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - TRAVEL - The front, back El Rey, RICK STEVES

The French prov­ince of Al­sace stands like a flower-child ref­eree be­tween Ger­many and France. Bounded by the Rhine River on the east and the Vos­ges Moun­tains on the west, this is a green re­gion of Hansel-and-Gre­tel vil­lages, am­bi­tious vine­yards, and vi­brant cities. Food and wine are the pri­mary in­dus­try, topic of con­ver­sa­tion and per­fect ex­cuse for count­less fes­ti­vals.

For cen­turies the re­gion flipflopped be­tween Ger­many and France, depend­ing on who won the last war. The Ger­mans be­lieved the moun­tains were the nat­u­ral bor­der, while the French thought it was the river. It’s in­ter­est­ing to think that this is a kind of con­ti­nen­tal cul­tural di­vide, cre­at­ing a fas­ci­nat­ing mix of French and Ger­man cul­ture. That’s why you find peo­ple here named Jacques Schmidt or Gunter Dubois, and the wurst comes with fine sauces.

Al­sace’s best city, Col­mar, is one of Europe’s most en­chant­ing. I ab­so­lutely love Col­mar. The town’s dis­tinctly French shut­ters adorn ye-olde-Ger­man half-tim­bered build­ings, giv­ing them an in­trigu­ing am­bi­ence. His­toric

beauty was usu­ally no ex­cuse for be­ing spared the rav­ages of World War II, but it worked for Col­mar. The Amer­i­can and Bri­tish mil­i­tary were care­ful not to bomb the old burghers’ houses, pitched red- and green-tiled roofs and cob­bled lanes.

To­day, Col­mar’s an­tique shops wel­come browsers, home­own­ers fuss over their gera­ni­ums and hote­liers hurry down the sleepy streets to pick up fresh crois­sants in time for break­fast. Each Tues­day, folk dancers and mu­si­cians from a nearby vil­lage share their tal­ents on the town’s main square — a fun and free slice of Al­sa­tian cul­ture. On a visit here you’ll en­joy great cui­sine, lovely white wine and a proud her­itage.

Col­mar also has in­cred­i­ble art. The Un­ter­lin­den Mu­seum holds Matthias Grunewald’s circa 1515 Isen­heim Al­tar­piece — one of the most pow­er­ful paint­ings ever pro­duced. The al­tar­piece is a mind-blow­ing polyp­tych (a many-pan­eled paint­ing on hinges) that was de­signed to help peo­ple in a me­dieval hos­pi­tal en­dure hor­ri­ble skin dis­eases long be­fore the age of painkillers. The paint­ing tells Je­sus’ story — from An­nun­ci­a­tion to Res­ur­rec­tion — and pa­tients who med­i­tated on it were re­minded that they didn’t have it so bad.

Us­ing Col­mar as a spring­board, it’s easy to tour the re­gion. Al­sace’s Wine Road (Route du Vin) is blan­keted with lush vine­yards and dot­ted with de­li­cious, pic­ture-per­fect lit­tle towns. You can drive, hike, bike, hire a taxi, catch the bus or join a minibus tour as I did on a re­cent visit (a half-day for about $70). Al­sa­tian vil­lages nes­tle in val­leys on small rivers, which me­dieval vil­lagers broke into canals and used to power their mills.

Kay­sers­berg is one of the most charm­ing stops along the Wine Road. As you wan­der the cob­bled streets be­low the half-tim­bered houses, you may find a sign with a pic­ture of a wine-swill­ing fel­low, which marks what was once the man­sion of the town gourmet. I never re­al­ized the deriva­tion of the word “gourmet”: Each city in a wine re­gion (like Al­sace) had a man ap­pointed to rate and price wines, and to serve as the mid­dle­man be­tween vint­ners and the wine-drink­ing pub­lic. He fa­cil­i­tated the sale of wine and knew that hav­ing qual­ity food to pair with it would help. Even­tu­ally he be­came the man with the finest food in town, or the “gourmet.” The ac­tual job of the gourmet sur­vived in Al­sace un­til the 1930s.

Like the gourmet of old, those vis­it­ing Al­sace’s Wine Road to­day make a point to try the lo­cal wines. Thanks to Al­sace’s Franco-Ger­manic cul­ture, its wines are a kind of hy­brid. The bot­tle shape, grapes and much of the wine ter­mi­nol­ogy are in­her­ited from its Ger­man past, though wines made to­day are dis­tinctly French in style (and gen­er­ally drier than their Ger­man sis­ters). Lo­cal vint­ners of­fer a warm — and liq­uid — wel­come. The Caveau des Vignerons de Kay­sers­berg rep­re­sents 150 wine­mak­ers from around town and of­fers free and easy wine tast­ings with ex­perts who speak “a leetl” English.

In the vil­lage of Eguisheim, it’s a treat to visit one of count­less cozy winer­ies, such as Paul Sch­nei­der’s in­de­pen­dent win­ery lo­cated in a one-time hos­pice, now run by a third-gen­er­a­tion fam­ily wine­maker. On my re­cent trip, my guide took me into the fra­grant cel­lar of Eguisheim’s Do­maine Emile Beyer Win­ery, where enor­mous wooden bar­rels age white wine, a method rarely used in mod­ern times.

Un­til the 17th cen­tury, Al­sace pro­duced more (and bet­ter) wine than any other re­gion in the Holy Ro­man Em­pire. In­vest­ments in the re­gion then fi­nanced many of the beau­ti­ful build­ings and vil­lages we see to­day. You’ll get the full ben­e­fit of that his­tory by stay­ing in Col­mar — still one of Europe’s most en­chant­ing cities — and me­an­der­ing through the de­light­ful and charm­ing small vil­lages that dot the Al­sa­tian Wine Road.

AP/JAE C. HONG

and top of a cus­tom­ized 1963 Chevro­let Im­pala by Al­bert de Alba Sr., are open to show off its mu­rals and in­tri­cate work in “The High Art of Rid­ing Low.” The ex­hibit at the Petersen Au­to­mo­tive Mu­seum in Los An­ge­les pays trib­ute to lowrid­ers as an art form.

Rick Steves’ Europe/CAMERON HE­WITT

Col­mar’s Ger­manic half-tim­bered houses com­bine with tra­di­tional French shut­ters to make this town a pic­turesque place to linger.

Rick Steves’ Europe/RICK STEVES

In Kay­sers­berg, an evoca­tive sign marks the for­mer man­sion of the town gourmet.

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