On my first visit to Alsace several decades ago, I commented to my local host about the warm welcome I had experienced everywhere I went. “We have had plenty of practice with visitors over the past couple of millennia,” he quipped. Quite. First came the Romans in the first century B.C., who are credited with covering the undulating hills of this wedge of alluvial plain on the west side of the Rhine with the vineyards that are to this day the pride of the region. After the Roman Empire fell apart came the Allemans, who gave the region its language, then the Franks. That marked the start of a one thousand year tug-of-war that saw Alsace change hands multiple times between France and Germany; and develop a unique culture that, while remaining definitely French, has maintained strong German influences in its architecture, cuisine, arts and traditions.
Vineyards, geraniums and foie gras
La Route des Vins, the 170 kilometer (106 mile) itinerary that meanders north to south from Marlenheim to Thann through the legendary Alsatian Vineyard abound with villages and towns filled with picture-perfect half-timbered facades and window-boxes of cascading red geraniums. Along the way, a proliferation of noted eateries dish out the succulent specialties for which Alsace is renowned, such as choucroute garnie (sauerkraut simmered in white wine with smoked pork and sausages), paté de foie gras (goose liver paté, which originated here in the eighteenth century), a wide variety of local charcuteries and smoked fish, and the pungent Munster cheese.
For me, however, the ultimate destination of any visit to Alsace is Colmar, the self-appointed capital of La Route des Vins. Mainly spared the destructions of the French revolution and two world wars, it has an exceptionally large and well-preserved historic center for a city of its size (population 65,000). Its cobblestone streets lined with architectural treasures that span eight centuries of combined French and German evolution welcome visitors with the laidback cheerfulness of a small town. At the edge of the historic center, the especially picturesque La Petite Venise (Little Venice) neighborhood is clustered around a network of canals from the river Lauch, where tanners and fishmongers were once located. Farmers also used these waterways to ferry their products to the town market in small pole-propelled wooden barges. Similar barges are in operation today with silent electric motors, to allow visitors a close look at the ancient and still inhabited riverside homes.
La Petite Venise is also home to the romantic Hostellerie Le Maréchal, created from four adjoining sixteenth century homes overlooking the river. Under the traditional steep tiled roofs, neat rows of windows are underscored by flowerboxes overflowing with the ubiquitous red geraniums. Inside, passageways have been opened through the common walls to link the various public areas, forming a maze of cozy nooks filled with antiques. At the rear of the property, the intimate dining room of L’Echevin (French for high ranking medieval magistrate) overhangs the river. In addition to its inviting setting the restaurant is a recognized destination for Alsatian gastronomy with two toques from Gault et Millau and three forks from Michelin to its credit.
Beyond La Petite Venise
The opportunity to roam at leisure through entire neighborhoods of meticulously maintained medieval houses and the prospect of a couple of superb dinners at L’Echevin would be reason enough for a weekend break in Colmar, especially now that several daily TGVs (short for Train à Grande Vitesse or high speed train) make it an easy three hour trip from Paris. But on this recent visit, the lure was the town’s foremost artistic treasure: the striking Isenheim Altarpiece, considered Matthias Grünewald’s greatest masterpiece, originally painted in 1512-1516 for a monastery in nearby Isenheim. After undergoing extensive restorations in anticipation its five hundredth anniversary, it had been recently returned on display at the Underlinden Museum. Housed in a former thirteenth century convent for Dominican sisters, the museum also holds a major collection of Upper-Rhenish medieval and early renaissance sculptures and paintings, including several altarpieces by native son Martin Schongauer as well as works by Lucas Cranach the Elder and Albrecht Dürer.
For me, no visit to Colmar is complete without a side trip to Riquewihr, the walled village classified as one of the most beautiful in France, a mere 12 kilometers (seven miles) away. Nestled in the middle of some of the most prized winegrowing land in the region, it is still home to families who trace their uninterrupted winemaking tradition back to the early seventeenth century. There I looked forward to a visit to my favorite vintner, Hugel and Sons, and a walk up the hill beyond the city walls to their venerable Schoenenbourg vineyards, reputed since the Middle Ages for producing some of the finest Riesling in the world. But it was raining on the day of my visit, hard enough to postpone the Schoenenbourg until next time. Instead, Etienne Hugel, the current head for the vinery took a few of us under the historic sixteenth century building of the Hugel headquarters for an extensive tour of the cellars. We set off through a succession of vaulted halls that reach deep under the old town. Wines are maturing there in rows upon impressive rows of giant oak casks, including the famous Sainte Catherine dating back to 1715, still in use and a Guinness World Record holder, before ending our tour in the tasting room. A warm welcome indeed!
Visits of the Hugel cellars are by prior appointment only.