Monday, April 5, 2010

Alsace: La Route des Vins

Over the last few days, Susie and I have been in the heart of Alsace, touring the villages and countryside of the region known as la Route des Vins. In the next several posts, I'll fill you in on much of what we saw and experienced. This post will be an introduction to the region. In subsequent posts I hope to cover half-timbered buildings, the city of Colmar, an excursion on a skiff, the castle at Haute-Koenigsburg, and the castles above Eguisheim. I haven't been doing this as we went along in part, because, the material would benefit from an organization other than temporal, and because I've been battling a pretty awful respiratory infection for the last week or so that left me exhausted and hoarse. I'm happy to report that, while I'm still under the weather, at least the trend seems to be in the right direction.

The villages of the Route des Vins span the region's main wine-growing area, which, on the lower eastern slopes of the Vosges mountains as they fan out into the valley of the Rhine, parallels the river as it flows from Mulhouse in the south to Strasbourg in the North. The vineyards stretch for miles and miles. Looking across the vineyards to east, you can see mountain ranges in Germany, just across the Rhine.

The villages of the Route des vins vary along several dimensions--size, topography, culture, style, history... Many villages still have fortifications. For example, the ramparts at Bergheim, with their dry moat, still surround much of the village.

Some villages, like Eguisheim, have streets and squares that strongly reflect where the walls were, even if the walls are not there today. Eguisheim's narrow streets run in concentric circles around the remnants of the walls of the octagonal fortress that defined the village's center. Half-timbered buildings are everwhere!

Many villages still have their city gates, like this one in Bergheim. Indeed, the road of the Route des Vins runs right through several village gates. Susie and I drove through this gate in Rosheim.

Many of the houses in the villages have round stone doors with keystones that indicate the date that the house (or at least the door) was built, the initials of the house's owner, and, sometimes, a representation of the owner's trade. This house, in Soultz, was apparently built in 1575 by H.B, an axe-maker.

Some villages, like Riquewihr especially, are awfully touristy. Shops selling tourist-oriented stuff from souvenirs to pizzas line Riquewihr's colorful streets. Other villages, like nearby Zellenberg, are smaller but retain a more authentic charm. We stayed in an hotel at the north end of Zellenberg, and one morning walked up into the main part of the town, which sits perched on a hilltop, almost completely surrounded by the vineyards from which its wines are made.

Almost every village we visited made efforts to keep a pair of storks. Zellenburg's nest for storks was on top of a tower next to the town's church. Storks have a long history in Alsace; tradition holds that they bring good fortune and, of course, fertility. The population of storks had declined significantly, but recent conservation efforts are starting to bring the birds back. These birds are big. When you see them fly, with their long beaks and longer legs, they look prehistoric.

Our visit was over Easter weekend, and many of the villages had undertaken concerted efforts to decorate with bunnies, eggs, ribbons, and the emerging flowers of spring. The village of Turckheim, for example, had an official competition that, at least to my eyes, managed to weave flowers, yellow ribbons, and other decorations across every building in town. Not just buildings were decorated: this old public well was as colorful as the rest of the village.

Nature contributed its own bursts of color for the spring. Trees were flowering everywhere. Plum trees lined village streets. Other trees bordered vineyards.

For a number of reasons the area boasts many castles. Almost all, like this one above the village of Ribeauvillé, are in ruins. This was typically the result of deliberate slighting of fortifications, for instance after the Thirty Years War or on the order of the French kings after the integration of Alsace into France.

Castles in better shape appear to have been the results of restoration. The most spectacular the castle received the most spectacular restoration: the chateau of Haut-Koenigsbourg, which from its high perch surveys the vineyards and villages of the valley below.

Indeed, castles dot ridges almost everywhere you look. From Haut-Koenigsbourg looking south, you can see this castle tower rising on one of the ridgetops leading to the snow-covered summits of the Vosges.

The villages of the Route des Vins are living, interesting places. The great number of wineries and tasting rooms makes clear--as if the vineyards themselves were not a big clue--the area's economic engine. We also saw small factories in villages that, I think, produced the glassware for which the region is known. And now that I think about it, the connection of the production of wines and glassware makes sense. While we were there, villages large and small had festivals and events. We skipped the Easter Bunny event in Turckheim but did catch the huge flea market in Beblenheim.

This market included vendors of antiques, antlers, art, clothing, glassware, LP records, musical instruments, toys, and general stuff and junk. We saw shoppers triumphantly clutching lamps, antlers, and you name it as they left. You can check Susie's blog for our own triumphal 10-Euro purchase. The market was so big that it extended around the corner and right out of the village into the vineyards.

Our long weekend in Alsace brimmed with great experiences, such as having lunch on the sidewalk terrace of this restaurant in Eguisheim.

Our return to Metz on Monday took us back through the forested slopes of the Vosges.

1 comment:

  1. Hi,
    I am traveling to France this summer with a few friends. I want to travel to some vineyards, however I don't know where to stay. I will be traveling from Nice to Eastern France in the Alsace region, this is where I plan to visit some vineyards, however we only have time to spend one day there. Do you have any suggestions where we should stay and which vineyards we should see?