Weekend in the Alsace
Grab your passports and pack your bags for a weekend in the Alsace. Discover beautiful cities, quaint villages, preserved castles, renowned wine and delicious cuisine in this diverse region of eastern France.
While living in Europe, one must-see city is Strasbourg, the capital of the Alsace. During the Christmas season, its Marché de Noël is one of Europe’s best. Located throughout the center city, a visit at night is very special when the city twinkles under a blanket of lights. Stroll through the cobblestone streets and along the canals of Little Venice (also called Petite France) and admire the historical architecture. Finally, you cannot miss the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. Built over several centuries, it is one of the world’s most spectacular structures.
Alsatian Wine Route
As wonderful as Strasbourg may be, getting out into the countryside provides a glimpse of the real Alsace. This remarkable area has the advantage of two distinct cultures because it belonged to either France or Germany throughout history. As late as 1918, the Alsace was part of Germany. It is not uncommon for residents to speak both languages, and individuals may have German last names and French first names. There is no better way to experience the Alsace than by traveling along the Alsatian Wine Route. This 60-year-old, 170-kilometer route meanders through picturesque villages and vineyards, past fortifications and alongside the edge of the Vosges Mountains.
The Alsace is first and foremost a wine region, where Riesling is king. The vines are some of the oldest in France, though production is relatively small with only 39,500 acres of vineyards. The region’s prized AOC wine designation was obtained in the mid-1970s and even today, production is highly regulated. For example, Alsatian Rieslings must be bottled in long-necked green bottles called flûtes d’Alsace.
The vineyards on the slopes and valleys of the Vosges Mountains are located in a unique microclimate that is one of France’s driest wine regions. The slopes allow for improved drainage and better access to the sun. To encourage tourism in the area, the Wine Route was created more than 60 years ago. In nearly every town and village, you will find opportunities to sample wine. Do not be dismayed if you find yourself in front of a person’s house looking to try wine. These small vintners come from generations of winemaking, and you will undoubtedly sample some very good wine.
Land of castles
Centuries ago, along the mountain ridgeline, nearly 300 castles existed that served as strategic locations for security and protection. Today, there are nearly 100 left. If you only have time for one castle visit, make Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg part of your trip. Constructed in the 12th century, it held significant strategic importance to the area by providing protection to the wine routes to the north and east and protection for the salt routes from the south and west.
Along the route are more than 100 villages; however, three stand out as true gems and are not to be missed.
South of Colmar (also worth a visit) is the village of Eguisheim. Not only has it received a Ville Fleurie four-star rating by the French government for its flowers; in recent years, it was declared one of France’s favorite villages.
This village beckons you to get out and walk its cobblestone, concentric streets and soak in the beautiful architecture and abundant flowers. The compact village is also home to several noteworthy winemakers, including Paul Ginglinger. The Ginglinger family has been making wine in Eguisheim since 1610, and offers a comfortable tasting room. Wine barrels are also significant in the Alsace and are often works of art. For a superb example, visit the house of Leon Beyer and admire the huge, ornate barrel.
Riquewihr has the designation of being one of the most beautiful villages in France. Visit the small village and you will see why — it maintains its authentic character with 15th century half-timbered houses and an impressive defensive gate, the Dolder. The wines of the Schoenenbourg vineyards are highly prized Grand Crus and were notably famous in the 16th century. Crémant d’Alsace is thought to have started in this town back in 1900. Visit the Dopff tasting room on the edge of town and sample this wonderful sparkling wine that makes up nearly 22 percent of the area’s production.
When in Riquewihr, make sure to get out of the village to the area’s wonderful wine walking routes. Pack a picnic and hike up the hillside for breathtaking views of the village and surrounding areas. If you are in the area during the holiday season, a visit to the town’s Christmas market will create memories to enjoy for years to come.
The least touristy of the three, Kaysersberg is perhaps the most impressive. Tucked off the main road, there are forests to one side and vineyards to the other. A short hike from the village center brings you to the remnants of the town’s high fortress built in the 12th century. Today, its venue provides panoramic views of the area. Stroll through the compact medieval center, and visit the quaint cafés and specialty shops.
The architecture is impressive with immaculately maintained timbered houses. The Église de la Sainte Croix, built around 1250, is worth a tour inside to see the impressive altar. Behind the church is a small graveyard, the final resting place for a group of French soldiers who aided in the liberation of France during World War II.
Tastes of the Alsace
The food of the Alsace has distinctive German roots but with a French flair. Tarte flambée, the French equivalent of Flammkuchen, is a popular lunch dish. Wafer-thin crust is topped with a variety of ingredients, the most popular being diced bacon, onions and crème fraîche. Choucroute garni can be found in most restaurants. The dish consists of sauerkraut simmered in Riesling and served with whole potatoes and a variety of sausages, pork loin and bacon.
Another hearty and extremely satisfying meal is Backoeffe. Various cuts of meat are marinated in Riesling. Carrots, onions and potatoes are added to the dish, which is then covered, sealed with a loop of bread dough and allowed to slowly cook for several hours. Legend has it that this dish was made on Mondays, when the women of the town spent most of the day washing clothes. They sent this dish with their children, who dropped if off with the local baker to cook. When school was over, the children collected the finished dish for dinner that evening.
Whether sipping wine, touring villages, hiking the mountains or biking the valleys, the Alsace provides endless hours of adventure for everyone.