Alsace is the region in northeastern France famous for its wonderful wines, fairytale facades, medieval towns, and unforgettable Christmas markets. Situated on the Rhine River between Germany on the East, the Vosges Mountains to the West and Switzerland to the South, Alsace has alternated between German and French rule over the centuries resulting in a wonderful melding of cultures and traditions.
Alsace Wine Route spans 105 miles (170 kilometers) from Strasbourg in the north to Colmar in the south. Castles, churches and stunning landscapes permeate the region making it a wonderful destination for everyone from lovers of culture to gourmands and oenophiles to nature enthusiasts.
I spent some time visiting the Alsace Wine Route and here are some highlights of the region, including a look at some of the idyllic towns and the area’s traditional cuisine.
Strasbourg was founded in the first century B.C. and in addition to being the capital of the region, is one of the three European capital cities (along with Brussels and Luxembourg). A delightful mix of medieval and modern, it is the perfect place to begin your exploration of Alsace.
Stroll through Grand Île, Strasbourg’s historic center, and the first city center to be classified entirely as a UNESCO World Heritage City due to its medieval characteristics, such as the cobbled streets and oddly askew half-timbered buildings found in the Petite France neighborhood.
Next, visit the stunning Strasbourg Cathedral, considered a marvel of Gothic design the world over, see the famous astronomical clock and climb the church tower.
Quaint and colorful, Bergheim is a fully fortified town, surrounded by vineyards and more than a mile of ramparts.
Enter the tiny town through Obertor (Porte Haute), Bergheim’s only remaining gate, which dates back to the 14th century.
Walk to the town square, Place du Marché where you’ll find the town hall and the old flower-filled fountain.
Our Lady of Assumption Catholic Church was built in the 14th century with red sandstone from the Vosges Mountains. The church, whose bell tower can be seen throughout the town, houses paintings from the middle ages and frescoes and statues from the 1400s.
If you think Riquewihr looks like a fairytale you wouldn’t be wrong. Riquewihr and the neighboring town, Ribeauvillé were the inspiration for Belle’s village in Beauty and the Beast.
Riquewihr’s architecture and the quality of its wine has earned it the nickname “Pearl of the Alsatian Vineyard”, and many of the town’s pretty pastel-colored half-timbered houses serve as wine shops and tasting rooms.
At the top of Riquewihr’s main street is Dolder Tower. The medieval tower, constructed of pink sandstone and timber from the Vosges, looms over the village and serves as its historical museum. The wonderfully distinctive tower is one of the most photographed buildings in Riquewihr.
Colmar is the enchanting little village known as “Ville Fleurie” (flowering city) because of all of the dazzling floral displays.
Petite Venice, the neighborhood where brightly hued half-timbered houses line the canal, captivates everyone who visits and is a favorite on Instagram. St. Martin’s Church, the Gothic church that dates back to the 13th and 14th centuries, dominates the center of Colmar’s Old Town.
Colmar’s architecture goes from Gothic to grotesque at the House of Heads, the 17th-century building adorned with 111 sculptures of heads.
The statue of the Alsace barrel-maker, which sits atop the building to acknowledge that the building was used as the Colmar Bourse aux Vines [Wine Exchange] was made by Colmar’s native son, Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, Bartholdi, a French sculptor is best known for creating the Statue of Liberty. A museum dedicated to the sculptor’s work is located in Colmar’s Old Town.
Just as cultures meld in this border region, so do the culinary traditions of France and Germany. Laden with generous portions of lard and cream, Alsatian cuisine is rustic, hearty and unique.
My favorite savory dish is Flammekueche (also known as tarte flambée, in French and flammkuchen in German), a traditional dish that is similar to pizza except without tomatoes, and covered with cheese, cream, and ham.
A staple of Alsatian cuisine is choucroute. Choucroute is pickled cabbage, which is similar to sauerkraut except that it’s made with wine, serves as a popular garnish to many meat dishes and potatoes. Baeckeoffe is another traditional dish from Alsace. A type of stew, baeckeoffe is made with vegetables, lamb, beef, and pork cooked for 24 hours in a terrine with spices and Alsatian white wine.
There are lots of wonderful offerings in the sweet category of Alsatian food, including bredele, a spice cookie that became popular when East Indian spices arrived in the Rhine Valley via The Netherlands during the 16th century, and kugelhopf.
And then there are the Alsatian macaroons. Macaroons, folks, not to be confused with its distant cousin the macaron, because they aren’t the same thing. Macaroons are coconut cookies made with egg whites and sugar and popular in German-speaking areas of Europe, while macarons are the sandwich cooks made from almond meal.
The macaroon thing threw me because before walking past a pastry shop while Riquewihr and being handed a warm one fresh from the oven to sample, I knew nothing of these little bits of heaven. But when you know better, you do better, as I did by eating lots of macaroons while meandering through Alsace.
I can’t very well talk about the towns along the wine route and not talk about the wine, can I? Well, I most certainly will, just not here. The wines of Alsace deserve a separate post.
HOW TO GET THERE
Alsace is in close proximity to three international airports: Strasbourg Airport, Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg, and Karlsruhe /Baden-Baden. Alsace is also easily accessible via train since Strasbourg has the second largest railway station in France after Paris, and has a wide range of train connections from other parts of the country, as well as from Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, The Netherlands, and several other European countries. Since Alsace shares borders with Switzerland and Germany, there are two major highways, which makes for easy access to the region.
Have you ever been to Alsace? Which towns were your favorites?