Hike through the history and culture of France’s Alsace Region
The Alsace region of France springs vivid pictures when I think of it— brightly colored half-timbered houses lining narrow cobblestone alleys, a foodie’s paradise with Michelin-starred restaurants in quaint villages, and of course, award-winning wines. Cities such as Strasbourg, Colmar and Riquewihr beckon visitors with promises of charming and idyllic scenes, including their world-famous “Marchés de Noel” or Christmas markets. However, if you travel a little deeper beneath the surface, you’ll discover there’s so much more than meets the eye. With summertime slowly fading away, it’s a great time to take a hike and a history lesson through this stunning region of France.
A tale of two countries
It may be an understatement to say the Alsace has a complex and tumultuous past. Settled by the Celts, cultivated by the Romans, and claimed by the Germans and the French, Alsatian culture is incredibly unique. In the past four centuries, the area has been passed between Germany and France at least five times — with the proprietor dependent on who won the latest war. The result is a fascinating hodgepodge of German and French influences. Street signs are written in both French and Alsatian (a German dialect), and food is either decidedly German or French with a twist of the other. For instance, “Flammkuchen” — a delicious, pizza-like flatbread with crème fraiche, caramelized onions and savory bits of pork — is also known as “Tarte Flambée.”
Take a hike
Nestled along the banks of the Rhine River, the region encompasses a 3,200-square mile swath of land sandwiched between the Black Forest and the Vosges Mountains. With rolling hills of vast vineyards, the views are breathtaking. Take advantage of the dwindling tourists and great weather and hit the trails! There are plenty of paths linking the picture-perfect villages, with winery stops along the way. If you’re up for a bit of adventure, here’s a 24-kilometer challenge for you: start the day in lovely Sélestat, take a nice breather in enchanting Hunawihr, and finish in beautiful Kaysersberg-Vignoble.
Situated a mere 17 kilometers from the French-German border, Sélestat is a quintessential Alsatian town. Start your day with a visit to the Maison du Pain d’Alsace (Alsace Bread Museum). Learn the art of Alsatian baking and pick up a few tasty treats. Afterward, hike up the hill to Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle, a 12th century castle rebuilt by Kaiser Wilhelm II at the turn of the 20th century. Or stop off-the-beaten-path and monkey around with more than 200 Barbary monkeys at Montages des Singes. Bibliophiles won’t want to miss the Bibliothéque Humaniste (Humanist Library). This library houses rare, original manuscripts from the 15th and 16th centuries.
Located just south of Ribeauville (approximately 16.5 kilometers from Sélestat), Hunawihr is truly a hidden gem. The tiny town is named after the legend of St. Hune, a washerwoman who would wash the clothes of the poor. Stroll through the narrow streets without the hurried feel of the bigger towns. Climb to the fortressed church Église St. Jacques le Majeur, which sits atop the hill overlooking the village. If your legs are a bit tired, you can forgo the hill and hit up one of the nearby nature parks. NaturOparc is home to hundreds of storks, European otters and other marine mammals. If smaller creatures are more your speed, walk through Jardin de Papillions (Butterfly Gardens) and discover caterpillars and beautiful butterflies. Or just stop at Restaurant Suzel or Caveau du Vignernon for traditional Alsatian fare.
A mere 7.2 kilometers from Hunawihr (just past the medieval walled city of Riquewihr) is the birthplace of famed theologian and philosopher Albert Schweitzer. Tucked away on the eastern slopes of the Vosges Mountains, Kaysersberg is the perfect ending to the day. Walk along the 16th century stone bridge that crosses the Weiss River. If you’ve got a little more gas in your tank, hike to the ruins of Chateau de Kaysersberg at sunset for a stunning glimpse of the Alsace below. Home to several Michelin-starred restaurants such as Le Chambard and l’Alchémille, there is no shortage of amazing gastronomy. However, if you want to keep it a little more low-key, grab a pint and a Tarte Flambée at Le Sham’Rock Pub.
With the lazy days of summer winding down, grab your hiking shoes and backpack for one last hurrah through this magical region of France.
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