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).
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.
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.
A NOBEL MAN OF PEACE
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.
TRAGEDY IN A TIME OF WAR – AND A PUZZLE
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.
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.
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 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.