Author: Aida M Garcia-Toledo
Date of Trip: March 2008
Just a few hours east from Paris is Alsace, one of the loveliest and most picturesque regions in France. With its quaint towns and natural beauty one would think that it is always full of tourists, however it is one of France’s most well kept secrets. Alsace, located in the extreme East of France, borders both Germany and Switzerland. This region has something to offer just about everyone:
Do you like to eat wonderful gourmet food? (and who doesn’t in France!) Well, aside from the regions specialty cuisine (sauerkraut, tart d’oignion, tarte flambees) Alsace is the region in France, after its capital Paris, where there are more Michelin starred restaurants. Do you like wine? (once again: who doesn’t in France!) Wine is probably the one thing that as given the region of Alsace the most recognition. Among the most well known vineyards and wines are the Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Muscat, Pinot Blanc and (for those who favor red wine like me) Pinot Noir. The key to visiting Alsace is to follow the Route des Vins d’Alsace a path that will take you through hundreds of vineyards small and large and where you can taste the different local wines. For history buffs, the Alsace region has a rich and tumultuous history. The region has a strong German influence which can be seen by simply looking around at the architecture and tasting the food. Until World War II this very region was part of Germany (and had been off and on for hundreds of years). Today there are more than 300 castles, many of which were destroyed during violent battles not uncommon in the region in the distant past. Luckily, more than 100 of these castles remain in good conditions and can be visited by the public. And for fans of picture perfect towns and scenery: driving through the so-called Route des Vins d’Alsace you will see and enjoy more than 100 different picture perfect towns: all of which seem to have come from the pages of Hansel and Gretel. Personally I enjoy all of the above: eating well, good wine, history and taking pictures (many many pictures!) of small French towns… so choosing Alsace as a short retreat from life in the city was a no brainer.
DAY 1 Strasbourg was our first stop, and it deserves– at a minimum –an entire day to stroll around and discover the magic of the old city (if you wish to visit the entire city: old and modern Strasbourg which would include, for example the European Parliament, you will need more days!). Our first stop was the Tourism Office, where we rented their audio guide which allows you to tour the old city at your own pace. (Strasbourg Tourism Office is located right on the Cathedral plaza to the left of the Cathedral. Hours: 9H to 19H. Audio guides: 5.50 euros each one). Among the most impressive stops on the tour is the medieval Cathedral, Cathedrale de Notre Dame. Built from 1190 to 1439 it is a majestic monument that dominates the city’s skyline and that can be admired from afar. A couple of blocks from the Cathedral is the “Petite France”. The walk to the ‘Petite France’ is probably one of the loveliest walks that you will ever make in France. All the streets of old Strasbourg are lined by half timbered houses each in a different bright color. The result are beautiful, picture perfect streets that frame your walk and that seem to transport you to another world. Tres jolie!
The quarter known as the ‘Petite France’, is the quintessential Alsace quarter. It is where the city’s millers, tanners and fishermen used to live, and it is surrounded by the canals of the river Ill. The reflection of the beautiful facades on the canal’s still water seems to duplicate the beauty of the district. Wanting more time to take in the beauty of the scenery we decided to sit and admire the scene. We chose the Plaza Benjamin Zix, (near Quai des Moulins) to chill, admire the scene and try a specialty of Alsace: its Kronenbourg beer.
For lunch we ate at La Cloche a Fromage: a true paradise for cheese lovers! Everything is made with cheese and they claim to have more that 200 different cheeses to try. The rest of the afternoon was spent walking around and admiring the city. We made our way to the boutiques in the Rue de Vieux-Marche aux Poissons and the RUE DE LA MESANGE. Not to be missed are the epicieries that are found in the streets that surround the cathedral. Since we arrived the night before we had dined at a very hip restaurant called Le Marquet, a place to see and be seen by the locals, although the food was a bit pricy for the quality. So on our second night we decided to eat at Chez Yvonne, an institution of Alsacean Cuisine.
DAY 02: WINE ROUTE Early the next morning we rented a sporty BMW 125 to enjoy the Route Des Vins and the gorgeous day in (not to mention that it had a very convenient and recommendable GPS system installed!) We left Strasbourg and took the A35 towards Colmar until we arrived at our first stop: Obernai. At only 25 km from Strasbourg, Obernai’s charm immediately won us over; it would become a perfect introduction to the charming towns of the ‘Route des Vins’: the wooden German facades, the flowers in the balconies, the general charm of the town. We did, however, have a very ambitious schedule set out for the day so we really did not stay too long at Obernai. We walk around the ramparts that surround the city taking in the great views, and basically allowed ourselves to get a little bit lost in the small charming streets. Worth a mention is the Renaissance well with lovely inscriptions from the Bible, situated by the main Church. AS we left Obernai we officially found and joined the ‘Route des Vins’ (the GPS will want to take you back to the main thoroughfare which is the A35, so make sure you ask for directions on where the Route Des Vins starts. Once you find it you will see plenty of signs telling you which route to follow, and the GPS will be able once again to aid you) Traveling from town to town on the route proved remarkably easy, although on occasion we decided to take alternate routes and, with the aid of the GPS, would find ourselves back on track although having driven through vineyard and dirt roads. But even the main roads are surrounded by vineyards: you can actually stop your car, get out and stroll through them without anything stopping you. We drove through a couple of cute towns, (Bernardswiller, Saint-Nabor, Heiligenstein, Barr) without stopping. Many of these towns are made up of 5 streets and are literally a five minute drive from the next town, separated only by a small stretch of vineyards.
And so we drove on, enjoying the views, stopping on occasion to take pictures, and (best of all) hardly running into another tourist on the road. After about 40 minutes we arrived at the small town of Kintzheim. From there we followed the signals that led us to Haut-Koenigsbourg: the best preserved castle of the region and, by far, the most impacting ( http://www.haut-koenigsbourg.fr/. Entrance: Adults: 7.50 euros, under 18: free). It is located at the top of a mountain at more than 755m high, with panoramic (and strategic at its time) views. Dating back to the XII century, a fire partially destroyed it and it was later abandoned for more than 2 centuries until 1899 (when Alsace was part of the Germany) when the German Emperor Wilhelm II decided to restore it. We toured the castle, which today has been outfitted with period furniture (the originals were lost in the fire) and where the restoration process is explained in detail. On our way out, it was quite cold so we stopped to have a chocolate chaud and vin chaud (hot chocolate and wine).
As we returned to the ‘Route des Vins’, we drove by Saint Hippolyte, and continued on until we reached the outskirts of Bergheim where we found a local vendor selling over 30 different home-made jelly’s on the side of the road. I bought a Gewerztramine wine jelly (not bad with cheese!) and as it was almost past lunch time, continued on to Ribeauville.
We were starving when we arrived at the gorgeous little town of Ribeauville… unfortunately for us it was past 2pm, which in France means good luck if you find a place open to serve you lunch (outside of big cities, lunch in France is strictly between 12pm and 2pm). Everything was closed, however we finally found Chez Martine, an adorable little cafe where we had the trips best tart a l’oignion.
After lunch we set out to explore Ribeauville, one of the nicest and cutest towns on the Route des Vins. All of its streets seem taken out of a post card, and although the buildings are very similar to those found in other towns, there is something about Ribeauville that makes it extra special.
Ribeauville is surrounded by three ‘Gran Cru’ vineyards (the most prestigious wine denomination of the region) Geisberg, Kirchberg y Osterberg. Each of these vineyards allows for tasting, so pick your favorite but do stop by. Also, if you like Beauville table linens, the company has a large store to the west of Ribeauville worth a stopover, as the prices and selection are great.
As the afternoon came to an end we continued on to Colmar, where we would spend the night. Colmar is a much larger city, however it is worth stopping by and spending at least half a day. The ‘Petite Venice’ is the heart of Colmar and is full of restaurants and bars, that come alive at night. The quarter, as a whole, literally lights up at night, when its beautiful facades, monuments and canals are lit up with special street lights.
DAY 03: ROUTE DES VINS WE left Colmar quite early and headed towards Riquewihr, a small town we had been told was so picture-perfect that it looks like a ‘French town recreated in Epcot’. We arrived super early on a Saturday, which in France of course meant that everyone in town was still asleep. We did, however, allow our noses to guide us to breakfast, as the smell of fresh croissants filled the air. We had our ‘petite dejeauner’ at the local patisserie ( right at the entrance of the town on Rue de General De Gaulle. Breakfast for two: 9 euros) and took with us the local coconut cookies, which were impossible to resist.
In Riquewihr there are vineyard trails where you can walk through the vineyards and touch (if you wanted to ) the grapes. As your tour the trails you can read all about the wine making process and, if you visit during the harvest, even see the process in person. The entire walk/tour takes no longer than an hour and a half and is recommendable. Lunch was at La Table Du Gourmet one of two Michelin starred restaurants in the small town.
Fully satisfied with the amazing lunch, and tired after two long days of driving and sightseeing we headed to Rouffach. On our way we stopped in Eguisheim. By early evening we arrived at our hotel in Rouffach: the Chateau d’Insenbourg, an old Chateau which has been converted into a top hotel, and the perfect end to our visit to Alsace. The Chateau has a spa and a top rated chef, so dinner was also amazing and complimented by a beautiful setting and view. Of the valley and the Chateau’s private vineyards. So it was at the Chateau’s garden, overlooking the vineyards that surrounded us and enjoying the sunset that we finally enjoyed a proper tasting of Alsace’s finest.
ALSACE’S WINE ROUTE Alsace’s vineyards might be less known that the vineyards of Bordeaux and Burgundy, but they are among the oldest and of the highest quality in France. Add to that the almost 100 picturesque, colorful and charming villages that border the hillside vineyards and the ruins of Medieval Castles that once stood tall guarding the rich countryside… and it is easy to see why a trip to Alsace will leave you smiling for a very long time. Now is the time to go, while tourism (which is growing ) and the crowds that come with it are still relatively low in numbers, allowing you to truly enjoy the serenity and beauty of this little known region of France.
WHEN TO GO -End of Spring, summer or fall to enjoy the beautiful views and abundant flowers and vineyards -Christmas: Alsace is also known for their Christmas markets, considered among the best in France -February – April: off season, for complete solitude. However, some restaurants and vineyards might be closed.
HOW TO GET THERE
TRAIN: Thanks to France’s high speed TGV trains, travel time between the capitol and Strasbourg is now only 2 hours and 20 minutes.
PLANE: Strasbourg-Entzheim International Airport is located just 12kms from the city and receives flights from around the world. The Euro Basel Mulhouse Freiburg International Airport in Basel, Switzerland is only a 40 minute drive from Colmar.
DRIVING: Strasbourg is connected to Paris by the A4 highway and to Munch, Germany via Stuttgart by the A8 autobahn.
VILLAGES (and cities) NOT TO MISS Strasbourg, Obernai, Ribeauville, Riquewihr, Colmar, Equisheim