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What a Lovely Garden!

lsace: where nothing is different from the rest of France... except for what isn't the same! Social Security, real estate laws, the relations between Church and State, and so many other aspects of community life follow rules unique to Alsace. Then there's the dialect, more Germanic than Voltairean. The architecture, too, is definitely different. So are the native costumes. And so is the food...

Despite these differences, Alsatians are more resolutely French than the “inlanders” (as they refer to their countrymen) and have proved to be fervent patriots throughout their turbulent history. For visitors unfamiliar with that history, Alsace will remain an enigma.

So you should know that for seven centuries Alsace belonged to the Holy Roman Empire (which, of course, was really the Germanic Empire). You should also know that despite—or because of—its size, that Empire was not structured like a unified nation or state. Alsace gradually forged stronger and stronger links with the French Crown. In the thirteenth century Philip the Fair, a firm believer in centralized government, claimed Alsace for France. But it was Louis XIV, the Sun King, who in the seventeenth century finally annexed Alsace to France. Gazing down at his conquest from the Saverne Pass he exclaimed: “What a lovely garden!”

A lovely garden indeed, rich with the fruits of prosperity, religious freedom, and unfettered trade. That Alsace prefigured the Europe of the Common Market—now the European Union. Today one of the Union's principal institutions, the European Parliament, is headquartered at Strasbourg, capital of Alsace.

A Taste for Celebration

Back to the history: Germany's appetite for expansion on the left bank of the Rhine never abated. Germany snatched Alsace from a defeated France in 1871, controlling the province until the Allied victory of 1918, when Alsace was restored to France. In 1941, attempting to revive the Germanic Empire, Hitler again seized Alsace, which returned to France in 1945. During this time, many Alsatians emigrated rather than become German nationals. The presence of Müllers and Schweitzers all over the world attests to these forced exiles. Wounded by battles, victimized by blind ambition, Alsace now symbolizes the desire for peace and harmony felt by people on both sides of the Rhine.

For Alsatians love life and they show it! Their joie de vivre overflows in village festivals and parades. Led by the local band (in which it is considered an honor to play), decked out in traditional costumes, Alsatians celebrate any and every occasion, from victory in some ancient battle to a patron saint's feast or a successful grape harvest.

Wine and beer lead a peaceful coexistence in Alsace. The best brews in France are produced here and are great favorites with the local population. And since Roman times Alsace has lovingly cultivated the vine, producing divinely fragrant wines (ah! those geranium-scented Gewürztraminers!). You don't have to be a wine buff to be enchanted by the Route des Vins, especially in autumn when the grapes glow golden and ripe on the hillsides, tended by genial winegrowers who seem to be another Alsatian specialty.

Touring the realm of Riesling and Traminer, you will get to know the locals by sharing their table, an all-important part of life in Alsace. The food is sturdy and filling, suited to a severe climate. Typically Alsatian is choucroute garnie: braised sauerkraut piled high with sausages and ham. Modern versions of the dish are garnished with fish, duck, or mushrooms. Traditional, too, are baeckeoffe (marinated meat layered with potatoes and onions and baked for hours), ham en croûte, onion quiche, and wild game—pheasant, hare—from Alsace's extensive forests. And then there's foie gras (which Alsatians claim to have invented), flammekueche (a kind of creamy pizza), and for dessert, kugelhopf, a sweet yeast cake garnished with almonds.

Your most unforgettable meal, should the occasion arise, would surely be the one you share with a farm family on the day they slaughter the pig. The farm-reared porker is sacrificed to prepare the hams and sausages that the family will consume throughout the year. The feasting that marks the occasion is worthy of a medieval banquet! And finally, don't neglect to taste (in moderation, of course) the clear fruit brandies for which Alsace is justly famous, distilled from cherries (Kirsch), plums (Mirabelle and Quetsche), and raspberries (Framboise).

There is much to see in this fascinating land, where cultures and languages get along so well together that it is not always easy to sort them out. The Marseillaise, that proud French anthem, doesn't come from Marseille, but from Strasbourg where in 1792 it was known as the Rhine Armies' War Song. And Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press, lived here in Alsace (you can visit his house in Strasbourg).

An Alsatian Itinerary

The Wine Road, Romanesque churches, deep forests, and romantic châteaux—Alsace is all this and more: flower-decked villages and hop fields, a province prized by gastro-tourists for its great restaurants and cheerful winstubs. But in the end, the puzzle that is Alsace falls together beneath your steps, as you follow your tastes and inclinations. Along the way, you'll cross industrial towns like Strasbourg and Mulhouse, and villages surrounded by small-scale engineering and technological firms.

Starting from the north, at the German border, our itinerary takes us to Wissembourg where Stanislaw Leszczynski, the exiled king of Poland, raised his daughter, Marie; in 1725 she wed Louis XV and became Queen of France. She surely knelt to pray in the church of Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul, a Gothic structure capped by a Romanesque tower, with fourteenth-century frescoes; and she certainly strolled along the quays of the River Lauter, admiring the fine Renaissance dwellings.

Saverne, gateway to Alsace as you drive from Paris, boasts a sumptuous eighteenth-century château. After Haguenau, with its curious old Wheat and Hops Market and late Gothic church of Saint Nicolas, the magnificent city of Strasbourg awaits. The cathedral, built of red and pink granite from the Vosges Mountains, is an undisputed masterpiece of Gothic architecture. Begun in the sixth century, 900 years later it was hailed as the eighth wonder of the Western world: its boldly soaring Gothic spire, in delicate stone filigree, rises to a height of 468 feet. Grandeur marks the Palais Rohan (home to a major art museum); gentle nostalgia haunts the Petite France district, where patrician dwellings line the canals, just like in Venice (minus the gondolas and vaporetti). Along the banks of the Ill visitors stroll through streets and squares touched by history, where famous figures have left their mark: Gutenberg, Goethe, Frederick of Prussia, Louis Pasteur...

To the south, after following the charming River Bruche, you'll reach Molsheim, with its medieval market square and town hall, then Rosheim, home of the oldest house in Alsace (twelfth century), and a cathedral that is arguably the most beautiful example of the Alsatian Romanesque style. Obernai, at the foot of Mont Sainte-Odile on the Route des Vins, is a picture-postcard vision of Alsace. At Ottrott, while meditating on a Bronze Age wall you might want to sample a glass of Pinot Noir, one of the region's rare red wines. A drive through the vineyards leads to Sélestat: there, the church of Saint Georges (splendid stained glass) rises above the steep roofs of the town where Charlemagne once lived. Now booklovers come here to marvel at the town's Humanist Library, a treasure trove of rare editions.

An Incredible Wine Fest

By this time, a glass of Tokay, or Riesling, or Muscat, Sylvaner, or Gewurztraminer would go down well... Here's to your health! Each year on September 8, Ribeauvillé hosts one of the merriest winefests imaginable: the Riesling flows, washing down mountains of local charcuterie. Due south lies Riquewihr, the “pearl” of Alsace's vineyard towns, so called for its superb old homes adorned with carving, corbels, and bay windows. Nearby Kaysersberg, birthplace of Nobel Peace Prize—winner Albert Schweitzer is another lovely winegrowing village, with a picturesque fortified bridge, Renaissance houses, and a castle that belonged to Frederick the Great.

In Colmar history and poetic beauty await in ancient cloisters, magnificent houses (the Maison des Têtes, the Maison Pfister...), and noble gardens. The genius of medieval art unfolds in the collections of the Musée d'Unterlinden, where Mathias Grünewald's powerfully moving Issenheim altarpiece is displayed. Colmar is pedestrian-friendly: on foot is truly the best way to explore the Petite Venise district, and admire the sculptures of the church of Saint-Martin and the Dominican Church (enter to view the sublime Madonna of the Rosebush). To the west, the green and peaceful Munster Valley lies at the foot of the Hohneck peak and the Schlucht Pass, which links Alsace to its sister province, Lorraine. Beyond Guebwiller and its three remarkable churches, you'll be dazzled by the pink granite abbey church of Murbach, nestled in a leafy valley against the backdrop of Grand Ballon, the tallest peak of the Vosges. On the back roads of these game-rich mountains, you may well encounter deer, hare, foxes, boars, or grouse; and you may hear the metallic whirr of a sawmill down in a valley.

Alsatians say that while Strasbourg's is the highest and Fribourg's is the biggest, Thann's church of Saint-Thiébaut is the most graceful of all. Mulhouse is a must-see for car and train buffs, owing to its popular Car Museum (500 vehicles) and French Railway Museum. Mulhouse is also the cradle of local industry: the offset press was invented here—the earliest model was powered by oxen! Now machine tools and locomotives are manufactured here. Nearby are the salt and potassium mines that were once an important source of wealth for the region. Farther south, just beyond Altkirch (for some obscure reason Prince Rainier of Monaco holds the title of baron of Altkirch), lies Switzerland. We're already sorry that we couldn't stop in Lembach to see the remains of the Maginot Line, in Rouffach to admire its medieval church and Renaissance square, or in Hagenthal, pride of the river-crossed Sundgau.

On your journey through Alsace, you'll surely spy a stork or two. These birds return each spring from Africa to build their nests on the roofs and in the chimneys of Alsatian villages. Symbols of fidelity and perseverance, they are the ideal emblem for Alsace.

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