We had fallen in love with the charm and beauty of the Alsace region of northeastern France last year when making a couple of brief day trips with the family. Katrina and I promised each other that at some point we would take a road trip through the many towns and villages and explore more of the area. This year, as Autumn beckoned, we decided that it might be a good time to keep promises and make the trip. We weren't disappointed.
We collected a hire car across the border in Basel, Switzerland and set off towards the town of Colmar. The journey is mostly motorway, well sign-posted and takes less than an hour.
Colmar, at the heart of Alsace, has an undeniable charm and is a top tourist destination. In the past we've day-tripped in summer and also at Christmas when the narrow cobbled streets and squares in the historical old town are turned into enchanting festive marketplaces. In contrast, visiting between these two popular tourist periods gave the town a more relaxed feel and we were able to admire the half-timbered houses, streets and canals without the high season bustle and queues. On a visit here you'll enjoy great Alsatian cuisine, lovely wine, and a proud culture. Our hotel, chosen because of it central location in the old town, gave us plenty of opportunity to step out onto the cobblestones and immediately begin strolling through the centuries-old town. This was to be our base for the next three nights whilst we explored the region during the day.
The Alsace has changed rule several times over the centuries between France and Germany and these combined influences have created a unique heritage of architecture, cuisine and traditions guaranteed to charm and delight.German half-timbered buildings adorned with distinctly French shutters give the town an intriguing photogenic ambience. Around every corner is another photo opportunity. In the late afternoon and evening when the streets and shops are illuminated, the town takes on an enchanting atmosphere
Probably the most photographed view of Alsace is taken from the Rue de Turenne bridge in the 'Petite Venise' area. Gondola boats transporting tourists along the river Lauch glide silently below in this most picturesque area of the town. This is the Krutenau district, where market gardeners, fishmongers and tanners once transported their goods by boat. The old fishing cottages on Quai de la Poissonnerie (fisherman’s wharf) conjure up a delight of candy-coloured architecture that look as though the pages of a child's fairytale have come to life.
Colmar is situated on the Alsace Wine Route (Route des Vins d'Alsace), considering itself to be the capital of Alsatian wine (capitale des vins d'Alsace). The 170 kilometre wine route is one of the most popular ways to explore the traditional villages of the Alsace region whilst learning more about the region's world-famous wines. We drove out of the town next morning and followed the wine route North for around 15 kilometres.
Our drive took us through gently rolling countryside, lined with beautiful golden coloured vines, aglow in the late autumn sunshine. We didn't know much about Riquewihr prior to this visit, so we were immediately stunned by the beauty, colour and character of this romantic, medieval gem. Behind its 13th century fortified walls there is an authentic charm with brightly painted buildings, timbered walls, arched doorways, window boxes bursting with colour and a maze of narrow alleys. The insanely picturesque Rue du Général de Gaulle is the pedestrian-only main street with numerous souvenir shops, patisseries, wine merchants, cafés and restaurants spilling onto the cobbles. At the top of the street is the Dolder Tower, dating back to 1291, the Dolder was an integral part of the town's walls serving as a watchtower and gated access.
We had expected to stay in Riquewihr for around an hour, some three hours later we reluctantly left and headed for our next destination.
We only had to travel around 5 kilometres for an afternoon visit to Ribeauville. Framed by vineyards and rolling hills extending to the foot of the Vosges, the town is overlooked by three ruined castles and once again we found ourselves strolling through streets straight from of a storybook. The narrow main street, crowded with eateries, pottery shops, bakeries and wine sellers is bisected by the beautiful Tour des Bouchers, or Butcher’s Tower, a medieval clock tower and gateway.
Enjoying a well earned beer, we rested our now aching feet and sat outside a typical winstub allowing the afternoon sunshine wash over over us. A winstub, if you didn't know, is a traditional tavern of northeastern France. A typical Alsatian Winstub (means literally “wine room”) will usually have a cozy interior, panelled walls, heavy wooden chairs, traditional red checked tablecloths and curtains. This is where you will find Flammkuchen or Tarte Flambée offered, a thin layer of bread dough covered with crème fraîche, thinly sliced onions and lardons.
The next morning we drove through early morning mist to reach the edge of the Vosges mountains. As the low-lying veil began to thin, we could clearly see our next destination. The Haut-Koenigsbourg castle dominates the skyline at an elevation of 757 metres (2500 ft). Constructed in the 12th century, the castle is built on mountain summit rock and was positioned to watch over important trade routes below. It was reduced to ruins by the Swedes during the Thirty Years' War and subsequently abandoned. 200 years of neglect followed. In 1899, after Alsace was reincorporated into Germany following the Franco-Prussian War, Kaiser Wilhelm II began a ten year restoration project.
With spires, courtyards, spiral staircases, chandeliers, stained glass and canons, the castle has been beautifully restored. Following centuries of battles, fires, pillaging and abandonment, Haut-Koenigsbourg castle is a wonderfully restored monument of European history. From the castle, there are stunning views spanning the surrounding Vosges Mountains, the Alsace plain, Germany’s Black Forest region and, on a clear day, as far as the Swiss Alps.
We drove back down the winding roads of the mountain and rejoined the Alsace Wine Route. We covered around 30 kilometres before reaching the town of Kaysersberg. Overlooked by the Chateau de Kaysersberg ruins, Kaysersberg is another picturesque village with a pedestrian only main street and, the now very familiar, brightly painted shops and houses.
Recently voted on French TV as this year’s winner of France’s Favourite Village, Kayersberg translates to ‘Emperor’s Mountain’ a reminder of its strategic importance in this area's warring past.
After exploring the main street and a maze of narrow streets we came to the point where the buildings straddle the River Weiss. This is probably the most photographed views of Kayersberg and can be seen on numerous tourist guidebooks and postcards.
Eguisheim is yet another village that you just can't help but fall in love with, picturesque, accessible and friendly. We visited last year during the Christmas markets and instantly knew that we had to return. Walking through the narrow streets and ornate squares, we were able to appreciate even more the charm of this beautiful medieval village during a quiet autumnal afternoon.
As soon as we parked our car we could see one of the prominent stork nests in the village on top of the Church of Saint-Peter and Saint-Paul. The stork is a constant feature in many Alsatian villages and towns folklore, having been part of Alsace culture for centuries. Symbols of happiness and good luck, legend says that if a stork flies above your house, then a baby is on the way. In the mid 1970s, the white stork was almost extinct in Alsace. Conservation programmes have encouraged the birds to return once again from their wintering grounds of Africa. A stork sanctuary on the edge of Eguisheim are hoping to breed and re-introduce storks to the region.
As sun started to set over the sprires and towers, we began our journey back into Colmar for our final night.
Next morning we bid Au Revoir to Colmar and began our drive back to Switzerland. There was to be one final stopping off point, more sombre and respectful than any of our previous destinations. Hartmannswillerkopf, known also as the Vieil Armand is a rocky peak in the Vosges mountains of Alsace. During the First World War, French and German troops fought a continuous, bloody battle to control he mountain.
An estimated 30,000 French and German soldiers fell on the "Mountain of death", as it became known. A National Monument and Franco-German remembrance site is dedicated to those who lost their lives. The cemetery here has 1,264 graves of soldiers who could be identified. 12,000 unknown soldiers are buried in a memorial crypt. Above the Crypt stands the altar of the Homeland (l’autel de la Patrie), bearing the coats of arms of towns that contributed towards the monument.
The battlefield, including well preserved trenches and shelters, can be accessed on foot. It was surreal to imagine the horrors that must have unfolded here as we walked through the forest, a carpet of freshly fallen leaves crunching beneath our feet. Looking at photographs taken at the time of the battles, the mountain was a desolate, ravaged landscape of tree stumps as far as one could see. Now, some hundred years later, nature has reclaimed the land.
The new facilities and museum at Hartmannswillerkopf are impressive, the cemetery and crypt are beautiful, respectful memorials to futile hostilities and appalling loss of life.
On our way back down the mountain, through the vineyards and eventually along the motorway, we didn't speak much. No doubt the experience at Hartmannswillerkopf had touched us but there was something more. After a four wonderful days, that had flown by too quickly, we didn't want to leave this amazing cultural and historical region, always a good sign when you're left wanting more after a holiday. We'll miss the colours, hearty meals, wine, beer and the friendly welcoming atmosphere. There is a lot more to explore and experience in Alsace and already we are talking about a possible return next year.
All photographs were captured on an iPhone 7 Plus. All images © Adrian McGarry 2017.