a Lovely Garden!
Alsace: 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
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
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
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
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
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