Nestled between Germany and Switzerland, the hilly Alsace region of eastern France lies
in the Rhine River plain and foothills between the west bank of the Rhine and the Vosges Mountains. Renowned for its vineyards, the area’s quaint cobblestoned villages with their steep-roofed, medieval half-timbered buildings, numerous castles and profusion of flowers is truly the stuff of fairy tales. If the region’s physical attributes weren’t enough to create a land where visitors could envision magical and imaginary beings, the combination of storks on the rooftops and witches hanging at doorways and windows seal the deal!
More than 70 towns and villages line the famed Alsace Wine Route, which spans just over 100 miles beginning below the northern capital of Strasbourg and ending south of Colmar. Passed back and forth from German to French governance for the last two centuries, the Alsatian heritage and culture are an interesting blend of both countries, as is the wine. The area is best known for its whites (such as riesling and Gewürztraminer). Visitors are often surprised to find that a glass here bears little resemblance to characteristics typically attributed to a particular varietal (think dry rather than sweet). Requiring that 100% of the grape variety labeled be used in its making (unlike the U.S., where the stipulation is 75%), the wines here are generally described as fresh and aromatic.
The food is a meshing of cultures as well. Beer is a favorite drink (Kronenbourg or Meteor), and heavier German meats, potatoes and warm sauerkraut (choucroute in French) are commonly eaten (but often served with sauces more reminiscent of French dishes). The traditional favorite dish of Flammekueche (Tarte Flambée in French) looks similar to an oval or rectangular thin-crust pizza (minus the tomatoes) covered in melted cheese, crème fraîche, thinly sliced onions and bacon. As a lover of paté, I jumped at the chance to attend a tasting. My taste buds were ready for rich, smooth duck or goose liver mousse, but the triangles of oily pressed meat and fish were a disappointment. I was equally surprised by the food considered a symbol of Alsace, the bretzel. I expected it to taste just like it looked — a thick German-style pretzel — but it was much closer to a tasty brioche roll sprinkled with salt.
And about those storks. If you imagined that they were something decorative, think again. These white birds with their red beaks and long red legs are quite real, standing 4-5 feet in height and weighing up to 20 pounds. Their nests, often reused for many years, consist of solidly built stick structures over 6 feet in diameter and 10 feet in depth. Most sit on strong man-made platforms atop rooflines placed by local governments to help in the conservation of this threatened species. These sturdy bases encourage safe nesting choices rather than atop power poles or chimneys where their habitation is more precarious and can cause damage. Considered a symbol of good luck, both adult and young storks return to where they were born year after year. Their broad wingspan allows them to soar, where they are an aerodynamic sight to behold.
But the idea that anyone would want his bird flying with a swaddled baby dangling from its sharp beak is downright bizarre. Most agree that the concept of this infant “delivery service” probably began in medieval northern Europe. The practice at the time was for couples to wed during the summer solstice, coinciding with the storks’ annual nine-month migration from Europe to Africa. When the storks returned to welcome their chicks in the spring, many couples were then having their first children. This coincidence had many seeing this bird as the herald of new life. The legend gained further traction with publication of Hans Christian Andersen’s story in the 19th century in which storks plucked babies from ponds and lakes and delivered them to deserving families.
Thankfully, the witches are only decorative, but they are in fact yet another local symbol of good luck. Although their elongated noses and warty chins wouldn’t seem to be the embodiment of good fortune, the 17th-century legend behind their use puts a better face on the practice. Folklore has it that Marie Wolf lost her fiancé in battle while defending their city against intruders. Full of grief, she shut herself away with her black cat and she soon was declared a witch by village gossips. Her uncontrolled sobbing while wandering the besieged city’s ramparts terrorized intruders, causing them to flee. Transformed overnight into a guardian of the people, these witches (symbolizing Marie) are hung near windows and doors to protect the family within and drive away evil.
Despite the area’s pastoral splendor and quaintness, it would be redundant to attempt to visit all of the towns and villages along the Alsace Wine Route. Here are the ones most “stop-worthy”: Colmar: With its population of 70,000, this town is referred to as Little Venice for its many canals. Of all the towns and villages, it has the best-preserved historic city center and is absolutely charming.
It sits at the southern end of the 100-mile wine route, and its many restaurants, shops, small hotels and bed-and-breakfast options make it an excellent home base while visiting the region.
Strasbourg: At the northern end is the region’s capital, a city of 275,000. With many of the same pastoral qualities as the smaller towns, it offers the museums and modern features found in a city.
Strasbourg is referred to as the Christmas City. Its Christkindelsmärik (the Alsatian dialect’s origins of the term “Christmas Market”) is the oldest and largest in Europe. First held in 1570, the market runs from Nov. 29 to Dec. 31 each year. Filling the central squares and surrounding the city’s magnificent Cathedral of Notre Dame, the market has a vast array of handmade items, exhibitions by local craftsmen, mulled wine and local goodies.
The city’s cathedral, founded in 1015, is the oldest Gothic cathedral in the world. It is considered a symbol of the enduring spirit of the Alsatian people. Its astronomical clock is believed to be the oldest example of automata. Originally from the 1300s, it’s had two ambitious rebuilds. The current Renaissance-era masterpiece is a result of the combined work of clockmakers, sculptors, painters and automaton designers. It boasts a working mechanical model of the solar system, a perpetual clock and multiple characters parading past while a life-sized rooster beats its wings and crows.
Riquewihr: This fortified town in the heart of the vineyards is 30 minutes northwest of Colmar and one hour from Strasbourg. Dating back to the Roman Empire, its pedestrian-only town center is filled with examples of the town’s rich architectural and historic heritage. It has two castles: the Reichenstein just outside town and the Castle of Count Montbeliard-Württemberg within the city walls. No visit here would be complete without trying the local specialty — green sauerkraut with herbed cream sauce.
Ribeauvillé: This lovely little village 2 1/2 miles from Riquewihr literally blossoms with quaintness; its exceptional spring and summer floral displays have earned it a coveted four-star Village Fleuri (or flowering village) ranking.
During the Middle Ages, Ribeauvillé was ruled by the count of Ribeaupierre, known as the “king” of the region’s traveling musicians, who paid dues to the count for protection and gathered in the village each year for the Fiddlers’ Festival (still held the first Sunday in September). Seemingly a center for unusual cultural events, the Kougelhopf Festival is held in May (devoted to this cake made with raisins and almonds) along with the Festival of Ancient Music in October.
An important symbol of the Alsatian heritage, the majestic Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg (high royal castle) is 20 minutes outside town on a rocky promontory 2,300 feet high. This 12th-century castle was strategically situated to provide defense from invaders. Besieged and pillaged in 1633, it was abandoned for 200 years until fully restored in the early 1900s.
Hunawihr: Just 2 miles from Ribeauvillé, the pastoral charm of this village has earned it a place on the coveted list of “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France.” It has two unique attractions: the Butterfly Garden (with exotic butterflies in greenhouses replicating their natural habitats) and the Stork Reintroduction Center (which reintroduces abandoned and injured storks into the wild).
Sélestat: Located about 20 minutes from Ribeauvillé, Sélestat is recognized as a city of art and history. It has two unique attractions: a library founded in 1452, with thousands of valuable manuscripts dating from the 7th to 16th centuries, and a museum with working bakery dedicated to the art and techniques of Alsatian baking. Visitors can watch bakers create and then sample local specialties such as bretzels, kougelhopf, brioche, bredele (cookies) and a variety of breads.