The Villages of the Alsace, France

The Village of Riquewihr

 ROUTE DU VIN

It was thanks to our holiday host  across the border in Germany that my partner and I toured the scenic Route du Vin below Strasbourg, in the Alsace region of France. Christine mentioned several ‘not to be missed’  medieval villages nestled into  the vine covered foothills of the Vosges Mountains. The route runs for 170 kilometres between the Vosges and the Rhine, encompassing a dozen or more equally beautiful towns  and villages.

Our first stop was Obernai. Perhaps I can be forgiven for using the words ‘fairytale’ and ‘enchanting’  to describe this town (and the region itself), as  just across the Rhine is the fabled Black Forest, inspiration for tales such as Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, and Cinderella.  The ancient Alsatian houses lean into each other for support along narrow, cobbled lanes. They are painted in a variety of pastel shades, their  charm  increased by half-timbered framing now somewhat warped  under  the weight of generations of villagers.  In summer the houses are adorned with flowers; most notably ivy geraniums.  Obernai, like many of the Alsace communities, was originally fortified  and the remains of the  city walls contribute to a  sense of history and enclosure.

Other places of interest in the area are Molsheim (home of the iconic Bugatti motorcar) and Barr, where a 17th century political prisoner  famously sliced through his bonds with his wine growers pruning knife before fleeing to the Vosges. The pink sandstone Château of Hout-Koenigsbourg near Sélestat is one of the most visited sites in Alsace, but lacking sufficient time to do it justice we followed Christine’s itinerary to Ribeauville (pop. 5,000).

The shops in the villages are  divine. I bout a beautiful pillbox in here.

The shops in the villages are divine. I bought a beautiful pillbox  here.

Once again we were captivated by the colours of the houses; apricot, violet, turquoise, musk pink, yellow and pale blue. It was impossible not remember the old fairytale, and to imagine  café owners breaking pieces off to serve alongside the regional specialty of kougelhopf; a brioche like cake flavoured with almonds and raisins and baked in a ribbed mould. The cuisine of the Alsace combines French style and German substance, such as when  kougelhopf  is steeped in brandy and served with berawecka (dried, brandied fruits) and beer sorbet….sheer bliss, especially accompanied by a glass of the dessert wine Gewurztraminer or a sparkling Crémant d’Alsace.  Perhaps the most famous Alsatian  main course is Choucroute; a  dish of white cabbage, smoked pork, potatoes, and Strasbourg sausage.  Any confusion over the choice of a dinner wine (Reisling, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc)   is simply an excuse for a round of free tastings at the local cellars.

The grape harvest takes place relatively late here (mid September/ October). By the time  the new vintage is bottled and cellared,  window boxes of  flowers are being replaced by candles and coloured lights.  Alsace truly embraces Christmas, with each community holding a market featuring  mulled wine and cider,  the obligatory gingerbread, confectionary, wooden toys and  imaginative tree ornaments. In fact the Christmas tree is said to have originated when small firs were suspended from the rafters of Alsace farmhouses,  decorated with polished  apples.   I find myself planning a Christmas tour, culminating in the famous  market held  in front of Strasbourg’s gothic cathedral.

Ribeauville has had a  long standing tradition of offering protection to wandering minstrels, commemorated by  the annual Fête de Ménétriers (first Sunday in September) when costumed performers arrive to pay tribute to their patrons.   Happily for us one musician  had  arrived early, and  as a horse drawn carriage passed  he played his wooden pan pipes to the melodic beat of  hooves on cobblestones.

The beautiful village of Riquewihr

The beautiful village of Riquewihr

Neighbouring Riquewihr is the  quintessential Brothers’ Grimm village, and  understandably  the most visited along the route.  A tiny belfry tops its  four storey,  13th century watch-tower, while underneath is a defensive gate with an intact portcullis. The half-timbered watch-tower contains a museum preserving the history of the town.  A short walk away is a romantic 15th century prison tower  featuring  a five metre deep dungeon or oubliette, a deceptively gentle term  referring to the horrible fate of being hurled in and forgotten. Let’s hope any captured princess was rescued by a gallant suitor before the collection of medieval torture implements was put to use.

Our final stop on the wine route  was Kaysersberg, with its fortified bridge (built 1514) and 13th century castle. It was the birthplace of  Dr Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965),  the philanthropist and  missionary who trained as a doctor in order to  provide practical assistance  at the  hospital he established   in French Equatorial Africa (now Gabon).  The house he was born in has a display celebrating his life and work. When Schweitzer was born in 1875 Alsace formed part of the German empire,  and in 1917 the Doctor was interned by the French as an enemy alien.  Schweitzer’s  philosophy was  Reverence for Life. He campaigned for peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons  and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952.

Before heading home we wandered (free of charge)  into the local  glassblower’s workshop, where   beautiful  objects are produced much  as they would have been in the 16th century. The timeless skills and traditions of potters, glassblowers and  winemakers  no doubt provided a sense of  continuity throughout the  tumultuous history of this border region.  Fittingly, Alsace glassblowers were the first to produce the  delicate  baubles that eventually replaced Christkindel apples  on  Christmas trees.

The cosmopolitan city of Strasbourg is of course the perfect base for visiting the  wine route, and has its own medieval village of Petite France. Along the canals are the ancient  tanners’ houses,  constructed with open lofts for the curing of  hides. Another convenient base is  the town of Colmar, south east of Kaysersberg. Not to be outdone, Colmar (pop. 70,000) has an historic centre of half-timbered buildings plus the charming waterways of  Little Venice, where merchants once delivered their wares by boat.

Close to the end of our holiday by the Rhine  we crossed into France again heading for Hatten, the only village Christine had suggested north of Strasbourg.  Oddly enough there were no tourists and almost without exception the buildings were modern. It was not until  we passed signs to The Maginot Line and the Musée de l’Abri  (Museum of the Shelter) that the penny dropped.

The Maginot Line consists of a series of defensive battlements built after WWI, and at the heart of the privately owned museum is a giant bunker capable of housing over 200 soldiers.  It is completely self-contained down to its fully fitted infirmary and  dental clinic.  Unfortunately the Maginot Line  proved completely ineffectual and the villagers of Hatten fled in 1939, returning to live under German occupation. As the war drew to a close Hitler made a last ditch offensive and in January 1945 Hatten became the scene of an intense battle between American and German forces. For  two weeks  people hid in their basements, cold, hungry and justifiably terrified.  There were stories of great courage, including that of  the local schoolteacher who braved the crossfire to distribute food and water. By the time the Americans were forced to withdraw, 90% of the lovely old village had been  destroyed and eighty three civilians were dead.  In a tragic irony, Hatten was liberated a few months later without resistance.

WWi exhibit, Hatten

WWII exhibit, Hatten

Huge exhibition halls on the three hectare site  trace the history of the Maginot Line and the 1945  battle.  We were intrigued by a compact but wonderfully functional US army field kitchen, and by pre war civilian vehicles laden with the belongings of evacuees.  There is also a tiny wood, planted in memory of the villagers who died. Both German and American losses were heavy, and  years later US Captain William Corson would write; ‘part of me was forever left behind on those snow covered streets.’

 As we said goodbye to Christine (a child of the Sixties)  I mentioned  our day in Hatten, commenting that I presumed  she had sent us there because of the  museum. There was an awkward pause before she replied, ‘Well not really, I meant for you to see  the architecture…the half timbered buildings’.   Nonplussed, I could only murmur that we had found our visit very moving.

The mystery of our host’s ‘medieval’ Hatten  may never be solved,  but unintentionally Christine had directed us beyond the gorgeous villages of the  Route du Vin to  somewhere equally unforgettable. We continue to reflect on the contrast between  Hatten and Kaysersberg, and the  forces of good and evil personified by Albert Schweitzer and Adolf Hitler.

GETTING THERE

The most convenient  airport is Strasbourg, but from Paris it is possible to drive to the Alsace within a few hours via  the péage.   Alternatively, the new, high speed TGV train  makes the journey from Paris to Strasbourg in just over two hours.   The villages along the wine route are well serviced by trains and buses from Strasbourg and Colmar.

Another option is to do as my partner and I did and visit from across the Rhine in the  Black Forest, staying around the spa town of  Baden-Baden to the north or Frieburg to the south.

General tourist  information on the Alsace region can be found  at www.tourisme-alsace.com

FESTIVALS AND MARKETS

Details  (including dates and contacts) on the area’s Christmas markets and related festivals is available at www.alsace-noel.com

The website  www.vinsalsace.com/en/index.html provides a calendar  of  wine festivals, details of tasting cellars, and information on  gastro tourism (wine appreciation, Alsatian cooking classes etc).

HATTEN

Hatten is located 50 kilometres north of Strasbourg. For anyone contemplating a visit, Californian Glenn Schmitt’s account of the battle and his subsequent capture and internment  is well worth  reading; www.tankbooks.com/stories/schmidt1.htm. Opening hours at the Musée de l’Abri vary and can be  checked at www.maginot-hatten.com.

 

15 Comments
  1. Congratulations on the new website Pauline. I love the design and layout, and the mixture of history and humour. It’s obvious from reading your books and articles that you enjoy writing in many different genres. ‘A Butterfly On His Shoulder’ and ‘SSS Waratah’ made me feel sad, but then ‘Overdosing on Breakfast’ made me laugh out loud – though I won’t be going to Tesco’s to buy Vegemite anytime soon.

    And, congratulations on finishing your manuscript six weeks early – that must be a writing first. Does that mean we’ll be able to buy, A Taste of the Thames, six weeks early? I do hope so – that wonderful river has a very special place in my heart. In the meantime, I look forward to reading ‘The Water Doctor’s Daughters’ and to meeting you when you come to London for the launch in February 2013.

    • Hi Madalyn

      Thank you for your very generous comments. I’m glad you share my great love of the Thames. And yes, I enjoy writing both humour and history.

      Will be exciting to return to London next year for the launch of The Water Doctor’s Daughters…those girls are very special to me.

      I look forward to meeting you; we might have lunch by the river, well wrapped up against the winter chill!

  2. Lunch by the river? How lovely, I look forward to it.

  3. Very nice website Mrs Midas.

  4. Hola,my Spanish friend!

    Thank you for trying so hard to access the site and thank you also for your advice. The site is very new so there are a few technical things to improve on. I am so pleased you like the content and I will try to add new material when I can.

  5. It is highly helpful for me. Huge thumbs up for this site post!

  6. Your review of Alsace is tremendous. Alsace, despite, or because of its mixed French and German history has, I think, as many great French Chefs per square km as any other part of France.

    In my three weeks plus every year in France one week was nearly always dining in Alsace. Everything you wrote brings back memories, stories etc. Then my mouth begins to water!

    Wonderful.

    Bryan

    • Pauline

      Alsace does combine the best of both food cultures I’d say Bryan. Thanks for your kind comments. Mind you, we probably would have gained a lot more from the dining experience if you (or your proposed book) had been with us!

  7. Hi Pauline,

    You may well be correct. More than probably.

    You are a writer and if you had joined me at one or of my many dinners in the Alsace there might be some suprises. Not only the food and the dining would be unique. Nor just because I was there. Rather because, albeit in bad French, I have ended up with invitations and suggestions for where the chefs Maitre D’s and chefs go on their day’s off. Then I listen to their stories. You might have well ended up with strange ideas for a book based on a composite of these slightly odd chefs, slightly odd waiters and slightly odd diners.

    Regards,

    Bryan

  8. Great tour… After reading your post, I would like to visit and check out Alsace. No wonder people always like to decorate their home, specially outdoor with attractive window boxes – it seems true in Alsace too as per you post here…..!! I would like to check out some pictures of your tour to Alscae – if possible could you load it on another post? Cheers… great post indeed..

  9. Thanks for this very descriptive post. Very enjoyable and making me wish that when I was in Europe in my 20s I had looked more at the scenery instead of the men.

    Interesting to think that Albert Schweitzer and Hitler were contemporaries. How could the world produce two such vastly different men?

    • Pauline

      I don’t think I took much notice of European architecture when I was young either, Christine! Der me yes, I agree about Albert and Adolf.

Leave a Reply

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

Notification of new stories via Email

Enter your email address to receive notification of new stories on this website (your address will not be shown).

Search Pandora

Find us in the National Library of Australia's archive of Australian online publications in perpetuity.