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Alsace: History, Wine & Scenic Beauty
The Rhine is arguably Europe's major waterway, an artery of commerce that has been important since time immemorial. Upstream, it flows out of Switzerland and becomes the border between Germany and France where the region on the French side from the river to the Vosges mountains is known as Alsace. Legend tells us that the river here is full of Rhine maidens that spend their days lolling around and just laying in wait for unsuspecting river-sailors. But those who can resist their charms are sure to enjoy the great Alsace wines that are produced along the French side of the Rhine. Yet this picture-postcard-pretty region has a turbulent, war-torn past of constant conflict.
If there's one thing that makes me agree with Pan-Europeans who want to see the EEC develop into a united Europe, its the history of Alsace. The area has been a bloody battlefield, fought-over by France and Germany, from the time that the Roman Empire fell apart. The Franco-Prussian War, the horrific battles of WW1, and the subsequent conflict of WW2 have left their mark all along this region.
As one drives through wooded fields and along the slopes of the Vosges Mountains, it is almost impossible to avoid seeing cemeteries filled with what was, at the time, the flower of Europe's youth. Everyone who even thinks that war has any glory should be made to walk through one of these cemeteries and read the inscriptions on the poignant tombstones that mark the too-early end of so many sadly-wasted lives. But today the roar of the cannons is replaced by the buzz of bees and the occasional bark of a dog. The countryside is at peace, and one prays it should stay that way.
There are many who like to take organized tours, but we had "been there, done that" and decided to "do our own thing" and explore Alsace by car. It was to be a marvelous experience.
The first decision was to check out the best time of the year for our visit. I never like traveling around Europe in July or August. Everyone's on holidays, wall-to-wall crowds are everywhere, prices are up, service is down and roads are filled with bumper-to-bumper traffic. And being mid-Summer, the days are often hotter than I'm comfortable with.
By contrast Spring (May-June), or Fall (September-October), are absolutely wonderful. In Spring, poppies and cornflowers splash the fields and roadsides with patches of red and blue, while fields of mustard-seed produce a brilliant yellow so vivid that to me it represents the very essence and soul of that color. Regimented rows of grape-vines bursting into leaf seem to march down the hillsides like a verdant army, and the villages here, each of them a visual delight, beckon me to try last year's vintage.
Autumn is equally lovely in Alsace. This is the time when grapes are harvested and the young wine of the region packs a kick that few mules can equal. New wine -- particularly the whites of Alsace, Switzerland, Germany and Austria -- is celebrated by locals and visitors alike. At this time wine buffs have arrived from throughout Europe to try the new harvest, and everyone seems to be in a state of alcohol-initiated merriment, much of it induced by the great Muscats, Rieslings, Gewurztraminers, Tokay-Pinot Gris and the simpler Chasselas, Pinot Blancs and Sylvaners.
We generally like to "go with the flow" and join the celebrants, taking turns for one of our party to teetotal for the day while we Hertz our way from one wine tasting to another. I know there's a rule that one should just swill the wine around the mouth and then spit it out, but I've yet to find any of my friends who actually do this with wines they like. I know I don't, and make no apologies for this deviation.
The official wine road starts at Marlenheim not far from Strasbourg, and proceeds through a vast number of lovely little villages that mostly have German names, finishing at Thann, a little town near Mulhouse. We had come down the N4 from Paris and decided to explore Strasbourg before heading for the vineyards.
The smart thing to do here is to explore on foot. We left our car in the large car-park at the place Kleber, the city's main square, and were immediately captivated by Strasbourg's trams. With their sleek glass fronts and huge picture-windows, these must be the most modern and impressive-looking in the world. Anyone who thinks that one cannot bring style into streetcar designs has never seen a Strasbourg tram.
This city, its inner center ringed by canals and waterways, is both historic and impressive. First settled by Celts over 2000 years ago, it was later the center for the Romans who called it "Argententoratum." Later, with the advent of German settlers, the city name was changed to Strateburgum from which the current name derived. In the Middle Ages it was a major trading crossroads, whose German-speaking citizenry at one time included Johann Gutenberg, who lived there before moving to Mainz, there to invent the printing press that was to change the world.
In the 17th Century this city became part of France, with subtle changes in language and culture. The inhabitants spoke French but never lost their use of German as a second language. Apart from the period after the Franco-Prussian War and the period of the German occupation, it has remained French. Being so central to so much of Europe it is now a major headquarters for the EEC, its staff housed in the magnificent Palais de l'Europe complex on the outskirts of town. Strasbourg is also one of the home bases of the European Parliament.
A great sight seeing opportunity in the city, and one I heartily recommend, is to take a barge trip right around the town. Nothing will give you a better taste of what Strasbourg has to offer -- except a meal at this city's culinary treasure, the restaurant Au Crocodile.
There are many claimants to the title of "World's Best Cuisine" -- France, Italy, China, Turkey, Japan and more recently Thailand -- and all have considerable justification for their claims. But having earned my PhD in Fine Dining the hard way by never shirking the duty of dining at a truly great restaurant, I have to admit I lean towards France. Gourmets maintain that there are three cities in this country that have the very finest cuisine -- Paris, Lyon and Strasbourg -- and when it comes to the latter I have to sing the praises of Au Crocodile's Master Chef Emile Jung and his restaurant at 10 rue de L'Outre.
Emile Jung, the owner of this establishment has an impressive background. Born in Masevaux, a little Alsatian town in the foothills of the Vosges, he came from a family of chefs and restaurateurs. He trained in Lyons at the 2 Michelin Star "La Mere Guy."
Subsequently, he polished his art at those French temples to gastronomy Fouquet's, Ledoyen, La Maree and Maxims, earning his own first Michelin Star at the age of 25. His charming and impeccably-groomed wife Monique has that personal touch with the restaurant's clientele and her presence adds to its already formidable class. It doesn't matter what you order here! Each and every dish is nothing short of superb!
One of only 20 French chef's to have received the ultimate accolade of three Michelin stars, Jung is a charming man whose mastery of the kitchen has not gone to his head, and who is totally passionate about his cuisine. And with full reason. We lunched there to enjoy one of the best meals anyone could possibly have.
But don't think that all Strasbourg restaurants serve great cuisine. I looked up my notes from the last trip I'd had to that town and quote from my diary. "The concierge recommended the restaurant L'Ami Schutz in the old town as being a good, typical Bierstub serving Alsatian specialty dishes. We got there through walking over bridges into a most picturesque part of the old town, and were seated on the umbrella-topped outside terrace next to a group of raucous Germans bent on enjoying themselves even if it killed them."
Just as we were hoping that dinner would arrive, the sky opened up to an absolute deluge. Pandemonium! No one, most of all, the restaurant owners, had made any allowance for the possibility of rain and dishes strongly diluted by rainwater were served by bedraggled waiters who looked as if they had just swum, fully clothed, across the Rhine. Eventually I was served "Farmers Platter" of what tasted like 70-year-old pig that, having died of old age, had been steamed for another 30 years to remove all possible vestiges of flavor. Yuk! It was the worst meal I had had in Europe for three to four years.
You win some, you lose some! That earlier meal had been one heck of a loser, but has been more than compensated for in my culinary memory by the creations of Mr. Jung's superb examples of gastronomy.
And there is so much to see and do in Strasbourg. Visit the Cathedrale of Notre Dame, the West facade of which was started in 1277. It is a true architectural homage to the creativity of mankind.
Museum buffs should also make sure they see the Cathedral's own little Museum that offers 11th Century stained glass, some of the fine early sculptures and some outstanding Alsatian art as a bonus. Look for the astronomical clock near the south portal. If you get to the Pillar of the Angels just before 12.30pm you will be fascinated by the movements of the figures of this magnificent medieval timepiece. Then perhaps head for the Cathedral's viewing platform to enjoy the brilliant views of the whole city.
And if you are planning to shop, here is a hint that you may find of interest. London's Marks and Spencer seems to me to have headed down-market to go up-profit, in the process bringing a touch of an eastern bazaar to these once-venerable stores. But if you shop at the French branches of "Marks and Sparks" as the English fondly call this store, the touch-of-class is still there. The store in Strasbourg seems to offer, beautifully displayed, a more elegant selection of merchandise that we had found in England, and with the duty free aspect of the Common Market, prices are about the same.
Strasbourg also has some marvelous museums. One of the most impressive is the Palais des Rohan. Designed in 1730, by Robert de Cotte, architect to the King, this complex now contains three museums -- the Museum of Fine Arts, the Archaeological Museum and the Museum of Decorative Arts, where one can not only see one of France's finest collections of ceramics, but also the luxurious State Apartments. And as a bonus, you will find that the nearby building once used as a customs house is now the Museum of Modern Art with some fine exhibitions of works by Klimt, Braque and Rodin.
This time we decided not to overnight in Strasbourg, so headed for the wine road. Molsheim, with its Renaissance buildings, is also home to a Bugatti Museum that complements the new Bugatti factory that has again been built in this part of Alsace (after having gone out of production for many years, new owners have revived the production of Bugatti racing cars by building a small modern plant here). From here the road continues through picturesque vineyards to Ottrott before continuing to Obernai, with its 13th Century Marketplace. Our stopover for the night was Ottrott, which, locals say, makes the best red wine -- a Pinot Noir -- in this part of Alsace.
Our choice was the Hostellerie des Chateaux, a charming picture-book establishment that is a member of the ILA group of Chateau Hotels de Charme which includes some outstanding country-house and castle properties around the world. The Hostellerie des Chateaux is run by Ernest and Sabine Schaetzel. We loved every minute of our stay at this top-notch hotel. The rooms were spacious, spotless and beautifully appointed, yet maintained all their Alsatian charm, everything from the heated swimming-pool to the comfortable public rooms was just about as good as anyone could possibly make it, and we then discovered that Ernest Schaetzel was also the Chef, providing classic Alsace cuisine that is so distinctive -- a marriage between the cooking styles of Lyon, Munich and Zurich. Ernest is a true master and dining here was a pleasure indeed.
At his suggestion, between us we tried several dishes -- such as: Quail with morel stuffing and truffle vinaigrette, Sliced salmon in "Red Ottrott sauce" (unusual in that the salmon was cooked in red wine), Sole in crayfish sauce with home made noodles and Pear and cassis flaky pastry pie.
The next little medieval town, Dambach-la-Ville, was again picture postcard pretty, as was Ribeauville, a town not only famous for its Riesling, but for the fact that its fountain spouts free wine every Pipers Day, which is the first Sunday in September.
But be warned! The wine may be free, but you will find a thousand visitors per litre queuing up at the fountain, so don't plan to drink your fill! You'll be lucky to get more than a mouthful before you're asked to move on.
Just off the wine road between these two towns in the picturesque village of Colroy-La-Roche is a superb Relais & Chateaux Hotel called the Hostellerie La Cheneaudiere -- very elegant, upmarket and stylish but requiring a deeper credit card than many others. We had stayed here on our last visit to Alsace and for anyone looking for a most romantic hideaway that would make a perfect place to spend one's honeymoon, with the added bonus of gourmet cuisine, this place is a hard act to beat.
Another charming village that we had visited previously was Itterswiller, a village that still has an old section of road built by the Romans. And a Gothic Bell Tower and wall painting that date back to the 14th and 15th Centuries. There we stayed at the Hotel Arnold, a budget hotel with comfortable accommodation. This small hotel which won't break the bank backs onto picturesque vineyards.
Across the road the same owners have La Boutique Arnold, which is perhaps the best gift shop we saw in the whole of Alsace. The merchandise here was the best selection of Alsatian gifts and knick-knacks I've ever seen. As well as this, the wine shop next door sells their premium grade muscat, a magnificent fruity semi-sweet wine that will always, to me, be the Alsace muscat I judge all others against. I think if my local wine shop carried this wine in stock I would be in real danger of needing Alcoholics Anonymous.
I couldn't help thinking of the peace and serenity of Itterswiller when I first saw the next place we were to visit along the Alsace wine road. This was Riquewihr, a beautifully-restored village which, sadly is a classic example of how tourism can turn a jewel of a village into a mini-Disneyland. This is not a place to come to if you enjoy privacy!
We had the added disadvantage of arriving on a Sunday, to find a veritable tide of people flowing through this village. If you've been to Grand Central Station or Times Square on a busy day you will have unknowingly completed your basic training for walking through Riquewihr! I've rarely seen denser crowds outside India! And this lot were, to my amazement, looking so solemn that I wondered if they'd turned up straight after a funeral.
Everybody seemed to be looking into every shop window, assessing every wine, checking out every stall selling Alsace sausage in a bread roll, ogling all the souvenir stalls without buying much, and finally entering a restaurant for a lunch of Alsatian specialties -- perhaps a pork-filled Munster pie that goes so well with Alsace Muscat -- and dancing to the three piece orchestra that many of the restaurants featured, along with a little dancing area, in their vine-bedecked outdoor courtyards.
I pitied the musicians! Fancy having to play for such an expressionless and often sour-faced lot! All I can say is that I hope that the day I had in Riquewihr was the exception rather than the rule. Having said that, however, I must admit that the crowds were very well behaved and that not one single drunk was to be seen. And the village, like most others in Alsace, was spotlessly clean and superbly maintained. I have to say that the fault may have been in me in the sense that I could have been too critical. However, I like a small more spontaneous-looking village and am not at all partial to such overwhelming crowds.
If however, you manage to get here at a time when the crowds are not overwhelming, and can walk up the Grand'Rue without being washed along by the human wave, you will enjoy the medieval half-timbered or stone-clad houses, the fascinating sign boards that date back hundreds of years, the 13th Century belfry known as the Dolder, and the village's 2-tiered 16th Century ramparts.
Next we visited what must be my favorite town in Alsace -- Colmar. This wonderfully preserved little town is interlaced with canals reminiscent of Venice and was, in the 16th Century, a major centre of the wine trade. The houses here somehow seem more authentic and the best way to get the "feel" of this town is to take a boat tour that starts in the tanner's quarters.
Colmar has many attractions -- the galleried customs house known as the Koifhues, with its classic Burgundy-style tiled roof, the gothic St. Martin Church in the cathedral quarter, the Dominican Church with its surrounding cafes and the Musee d'Unterlinden, a museum of early local painters that is housed in a Dominican monastery. Look for the alter piece by Matthias Grunewald. It is classic for its era and a beautiful work.
If you are planning to overnight in Colmar, my absolute favorite in this town is a hotel we stayed at on our previous trip to the city -- The Hostellerie le Marechal at Petit Venise. If you look at any stand of picture post-cards you're likely to see this hotel as it is one of the most picturesque in town. But the real secret of this lovely little place, appropriately a member of the Romantik Hotels Group, is Mrs. Bomo, the owner. Her charming group of young assistants were some of the best-trained, friendliest and most efficient staff we had encountered at any European hotel.
And it was clear others thought so too. Previous guests had included VIPs from top French politicians like Giscard d'Estang and Baladur to violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin. The hotel itself is housed in a building that was built for the French marshal who led the troops into war in the 1400's. The Bono family bought the building and the three neighboring ones and turned them into a hotel in the 1970s. If you stay there, I'm sure you won't be disappointed.
Eguisheim is another picture postcard town well worth a stop along this wine road. Three concentric rings of 13th Century ramparts protect this little gem which, not getting the tourist hordes that descend on Riquewihr, is not as dollied up and filled with hotels and Weinstuben.
Here you just don't get as much pizzazz and oompahpah, but the feeling of authenticity more than makes up for this. Check out the octagonal castle of the Counts of Eguisheim that is located in the middle of town. Then look at the Renaissance fountain that you find located at the front of this. The statue on it is of Bruno Eguisheim who, born here in 1002, later became Pope Leon IX.
Guebwiller, the next step along the wine road is, to my mind, just a mite over-rated. Spoiled by the picture-book prettiness of the other Alsace wine towns that, apart from being homogenized, sterilized, restored, polished, painted and geranium-bedecked for the tourists, have been virtually unchanged since the Middle Ages, I found this little town disappointing.
It may be the "gateway to the valley of flowers," as the local promos call it, but its also a town of factories producing machine tools, textiles and other manufactured goods. To quote Marx (Groucho, not Karl), "Pretty it ain't."
So why do I suggest you go there? Simply because of its outstanding churches (Eglise Notre-Dame, Eglise des Dominicans and Eglise St Leger) which will appeal to church buffs, and the outstanding caves (wine cellars to the uninitiated) which I found quite brim full of some of the best wines of this region. If fruity whites are to your liking, you'll think you've died and gone to heaven when you try some of the superb wines to be found here.
This was virtually the end of our wine tour of Alsace. But for those planning to go to this area there is one other place I can wholeheartedly recommend. And that is the French National Auto Museum at Mulhouse.
It's a fascinating story which I have written for many a magazine. Two Swiss textile magnates, the brothers Schlumpf, had a successful group of textile factories in the area. One started to collect vintage cars and soon became obsessed by his hobby, pouring millions of francs from his textile empire to build the most incredible collection of European vintage cars, including the worlds finest collection of Bugattis. In the process he sent his company bankrupt and owed the Government millions in back-taxes.
The French Government seized his factories and car collection, and one of the largest of the factory buildings became the National Motor Museum. I might add that my wife is totally disinterested in vintage cars and only came in to the building at my request for her to do a photo shoot. Three hours after this finished, she was still admiring the unbelievable collection to be found here. Want to see Emperor Hirohito's Mercedes Benz? It's just one of the many cars here. If you don't come away from this museum open-mouthed then I fear there's not much romance in your heart.
And romance, history and great wine is what Alsace is all about. Go there, and the chances are that you will love this area as much as I do. And like me, you'll even be prepared to put up with the crowds in Riquewihr, and the fact that it "Hertz" when you have to spend a wineless day at the wheel, when the others are tasting the wine.
Our two favourite ways are to fly to Paris and drive from there via Reims and Nancy, or to fly to Basel-Mulhouse Airport which is at the border of the Alsace district. There are also regular air services from Paris to Strasbourg, and the TGV express train from Paris also comes to Alsace. If you are flying in from North America or Asia/Australia/Africa, British Airways has an excellent service to Basel-Mulhouse via London.
How to get around
Hertz Rent-a-Car Not many people know that Hertz has a special free service in which they give you a print-out of the best way to drive through any place, and also give you the highlights of the towns you go through. If you rent your car through this excellent outfit, don't forget to ask your Hertz agent for a map with their suggested driving routes around the area you plan to visit. This is usually a service that is only provided on demand, but it's a beauty. And it doesn't just cover Alsace. Any journey you plan using one of their cars in Europe can get you the same sort of driving program. Don't forget to tell them whether you prefer to use the European freeway system or would like them to take you through small country towns and the most scenic routes. If you have the time we certainly recommend the latter and do this ourselves.
Where to stay
There are some marvelous hotels in this area. We recommend contacting three groups for their catalogues or checking their websites. These are:
ILA, Chateaux and Hotels de Charme
Chaussee de Boondael, 6, 1050 Brussels, Belgium
Ph.: (32) (2) 647 2923
Fax: (32) (2) 647 4251
Horsteiner Strasse 34, Postfach 1144, D-8757, Karlstein, Germany
Ph.: 49 61 88 5020 / 6005 / 6006
Fax: 42 61 88 6007
Relais and Chateaux
15 rue Galvani 75017, Paris, France
Ph.: 33 01 45 72 9000
Fax: 33 01 45 72 9030
Recommended places to stay
Hostellerie des Chateaux - 11 rue des Chateaux, Ottrot, Alsace, France
Ph: 33 3 88 95 81 54
Fax: 33 3 88 95 95 20
Hostellerie La Cheneaudiere, 67420 Colroy-La-Roche, Alsace, France
Ph: 33 3 88 97 6164
Fax: 33 3 88 47 2173
Hotel Arnold, 98 Rue Principale, Itterswiller, 67140, Alsace, France
Ph: 33 3 88 85 5058
Fax: 33 3 88 85 5554
Hostellerie le Marechal, Petit Venise, F-68000 Colmar, France
Ph: 33 3 89 41 60 32
Fax: 33 3 89 24 59 40 or 33 3 89 23 73 61
Au Crocodile, 10, rue de l'Outre, 6700 Strasbourg, France
Ph.: 33 03 88 32 1302
Fax: 33 03 88 75 7201
Hostellerie La Cheneaudiere has two dining rooms. One serves exquisite gourmet cuisine, the other concentrates on regional dishes.
All the hotels we stayed at had their own excellent restaurants where we sampled local dishes.
French National Car Museum, Mulhouse is not to be missed. Check the opening hours by getting your hotel to phone ahead once you're in the region.
If you are a non-EEC citizen and do any shopping, you will get a value-added tax (VAT) refund if you ask for the appropriate form and spend over the minimum amount. This is definitely worthwhile as it cut your purchase costs by around 15%.
You will find Alsace to be extremely photogenic. All our pictures were taken on Kodak film, which we have found to be excellent under all conditions. Make sure you have some fast film like 200 ASA for the narrow streets of the picturesque towns.
For more information on Alsace and France contact the French Tourist Office in your country or:
Maison de la France
8 Avenue de l'Opera
Walter & Cherie Glaser are an international travel-writing team based down under in Melbourne, Australia.