Monday, April 5, 2010

Full-Tilt Half-Timbers

The villages of Alsace's Route des Vins have the greatest profusion of half-timbered buildings I have ever seen. When Susie and I visited Strasbourg, we were impressed with the great number of white, half-timbered houses in la Petite France. When we visited Trier, we were impressed with the colorful half-timbered houses. But in touring the villages that cling to the lower slopes of the Vosges mountains and that spill onto the valley of the Rhine, we encountered half-timbered houses beyond my imagination. Our first stop was in Riquewihr, where colorful half-timbered houses crowded along narrow medieval streets.

In these villages, it seems like the vast majority of buildings in the village center are half-timbered. The effect, even with the monochromatic scheme of these houses in Eguisheim, is more exuberant than the sober streetscapes of an aristocratic city such as Bar-le-Duc.

The half-timbered buildings form the places of everyday life. Susie and I had lunch in this restaurant on the main square of Dambach-la-Ville. The place was so popular that customers were being turned away.

The city of Colmar, about which I will write later, also had many streets lined with half-timbered houses. We were told that the color of each house had meaning, either the occupants' religion or trade. The design of the half-timbering also had meaning.

Whether or not the inhabitants adhered, or still adhere, to conventions of color, many villages have neighborhoods or streets with striking patterns and combinations, such as in this view of Bergheim.

While some buildings let the half-timbering speak for itself, others added additional decorative elements to highlight and emphasize structure and pattern. This restaurant in Ribeauvillé, like many other more formal buildings, outlined the the half-timbering with additional color.

The connection of half-timbering to the Middle Ages was sometimes physical as well as conceptual. In Turckheim, as in several other villages, half-timbered buildings abutted city gates. Actually, in some villages the gates themselves were half-timbered. In Turckheim we saw a house being rebuilt. The facade was intact, and the roof beams were clearly important, but the main part of the house appeared to be being redone from scratch.

The houses, although quaint, are not museum pieces. These houses in Turckheim, with their window boxes, well-kept shutters, and television antennas, show that they, like almost all of the buildings we saw, are dwellings adapted to contemporary life.

These half-timbered houses, such as these in Ribeauvillé, originally built 400 years ago or more, clearly communicate the tradition, charm, and liveliness of village life in Alsace's wine country.

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