Alsace - Six Reasons to Go
Alsace, it seems reasonable to assume, is not as familiar to UK tourists as the likes of Normandy, Brittany, Provence or the Dordogne. Maybe this is the result of the region's personality, apparently part German, with German style wines and recipes. At first acquaintance this seems hardly surprising. The dark outlines of Black Forest are visible across the Rhine to the east. On further reflection you sense a certain contradiction, for this is territory fought over and twice annexed by Germany in under 80 years and on the second occasion, when the Nazis were responsible, its resolutely French inhabitant were forced to speak German, an obligation clearly destined to produce a reaction. So perhaps the surprise is that its personality remains seemingly unchanged - and it's all the more fascinating as a result:.
With their half timbered buildings, renaissance bay windows, window boxes spilling over with vivid flowers and chimneys topped with storks’ nests they’re unfeasibly, almost cloyingly, beautiful. If you visit in summer, don’t expect to be alone. Villages such as Riquewihr and Kaysersberg, with its ancient, fortified bridge can be very crowded. But those lesser known can be much quieter – such as Andlau, seat of a great abbey founded by Charlemagne’s wife in the 9th century and even lovely Eguisiheim, in whose narrow, cobbled streets after dark, you may imagine yourself transported to an earlier age.
All right, I know we’ve been warned against drinking all but a few thimblefuls per night but you’ve got to make an exception in a region where vines stretch almost as far as the eye can see. In the village of Itterwiller, for example, where they were strung across the main street, I could find no boulangerie or shop to buy other standard provisions – but I lost count of the number of wine “caves”. Excellent Gewürztraminers and dry Rieslings can be had for very reasonable prices. And Cremant d’Alsace makes a very pleasant sparkling alternative to Champagne.
The cooking is perfect for those with big appetites. With Germany so close, German influences are prevalent. There's what you might call the Alsatian national dish, choucroute garni, which is Sauerkraut, usually with sausage, ham and pork. White asparagus is often served with ham. One night for pudding I ate portion of wonderful Kougelhopf, a cake with a hole in the centre, soaked in rum and topped with crème fraiche.
Take a guided ride in a put through the narrow waterways of Petite Venise (Little Venice); stroll through streets and squares full of handsome old buildings. The star attraction in the regional capital is the 16thC Isenheim altarpiece, one of the greatest examples of religious art. Now back in the expanded Unterlinden Museum it was painted by Matthias Grünewald, with sculpture by Niclaus of Hagenau. The work was commissioned for the hospital chapel of St Antony’s monastery at Isenheim, not far away. The monks there specialised in treating St Anthony’s Fire, a sickness caused by eating bread made infected grain, which explains The harrowing appearance of Christ’s flesh. Grünewald’s masterpiece illustrates the power with extraordinary clarity of such art to warn and educate the receptive viewer.
Walking and cycling
Lovely, gentle routes meandering from village to village through vineyards. For something more energetic, hikers should arm themselves with an IGN map and head up the steep scarp to the west, into the Parc Naturel des Ballons des Vosges. Park on the Col de la Schlucht perhaps, where you may head out through woodland, emerging on open ridges that run on the rims of great natural amphitheatres, hollowed out by the movement of ice age glaciers.
It depends when you go, of course, but don’t imagine that summers are dull and rainy. During my last visit June temperatures rocketed to over 36C.