WINE COUNTRY - ALSACE

 

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ITINERARY AS EXCERPTED FROM KAREN BROWN’S E-BOOK:

Alsace borders Germany-in fact, from the Franco-Prussian war to the end of World War I Alsace was part of Germany. After World War II the district began to market its white wines sold in distinctive long, thin, green or brown bottles. The vineyards are at the foot of the Vosges mountains on east-facing hills set back from the broad Rhine river valley. The hills are never particularly steep or spectacular but are laced by narrow roads that wind along the vineyards from one picturesque village to the next. Villages such as Riquewihr and Kaysersberg are picture-book perfect with their painted eaves and gables, narrow cobbled streets, archways, and window boxes brimming with colorful geraniums.

Recommended Pacing: Select a property in the wine region and use it as a base for your explorations of the area-two nights minimum. Finish your tour with a night or more in Strasbourg, a beautiful city.

In Alsace, the wines are known by the names of the vineyards or villages and are identified by the type of grape from which they are made: Riesling, Gewürtztraminer, Muscat, or Pinot Gris, and sometimes by the phrase réserve exceptionelle, which indicates a higher price and premier wine. The grapes are similar to those used for German wines but the majority are used to make dry wines, not dessert wines.

Just before Mulhouse, a sprawling industrial city, leave the autoroute (exit 6) and take the N83, following signposts for Thann, around the outskirts of Cernay (signposted Colmar) to Rouffach. Nestled at the foot of the vineyards, this is a delightful town that is known in the region for its Festival of Witches, held the evening of the third Saturday of July, in recognition of the sorcerers held captive in the tower so many centuries ago. Rouffach also has a wonderful park dedicated to the preservation of storks. As recently as the 1950s there were just seven breeding pairs, and as a direct result of efforts such as the protective park in Rouffach, there are now more than 250 pairs that are known to migrate from France to the African shores. Babies born here are kept in protective custody for three years until they are strong enough to sustain the long, arduous journey.

Surprisingly, altering their natural cycle in youth does not seem to influence or negate their natural instinct to migrate when released after maturity.

Just north of Rouffach is Pfaffenheim, a tiny wine village, where you leave the busy N83 to weave through the narrow village streets and into the vineyards to join the Route du Vin, a signposted routing that follows a winding itinerary through the vineyards. You soon arrive at Gueberschwihr, a cluster of gaily painted houses where, as you reach the village square, intricate painted signs advertise wine tasting in cobbled courtyards.

From the square, turn right and drive 2 kilometers to Hattstat, and on to Obermorschwir where the narrow road climbs steeply to Husseren les Châteaux, a cluster of homes with its castle perched high above the village.

Plan on spending some time in Eguisheim, a trim little medieval walled town complete with dungeon, lovely old timbered houses, shops, and restaurants set along narrow cobbled lanes. From Eguisheim the road drops down to the busy N83, which quickly brings you into Colmar.

Colmar is the largest town along the wine road and an important center for wine trade. Beyond the suburbs lies a pedestrian zone-an interesting mix of French and German culture and architecture. Short streets wind round old buildings between the plazas and lead you to the town’s old quarter, with its intricately carved and leaning houses, known as Petite Venise because a shallow canal weaves its way through the narrow streets. Enterprising students offer gondola rides along the waterways, reminiscent of Venice.

Although Colmar is an easy city to explore on foot, with many streets restricted to pedestrians only, another option for touring the heart of the old town is a fun ride on the colorful train that chatters along the cobbled streets and offers an interesting commentary of the city’s highlights. There are numerous craft, antique, and boutique shops, and a full offering of restaurants. When sightseeing, be sure to visit the Dominican monastery, now the Unterlinden Museum with an excellent collection of portraits and an exhibition of crafts and customs. One room is a re-created Alsatian vintner’s cellar complete with wine presses. (Closed Tues, Nov to Mar, tel: 03.89.20.15.50.)

Colmar is an intimate city and one you will want to explore but it can also be used as a base from which to explore Strasbourg. It is a short commute by train between the two cities, and Strasbourg, a truly large city, is not as overwhelming to negotiate when you arrive conveniently sans auto at its center.

Just west of Colmar is the charming Alsatian village of Turckheim. Park outside the town walls and then venture inside to explore a maze of cobbled streets that boast numerous shops and restaurants-a wonderful town.

From Turckheim, make a detour off the Route du Vin up the D417. As the vineyards wane, the valley narrows and pine trees decorate the heights as you drive the 15 kilometers to Munster, situated at the foot of the Vosges. Munster is famous for being the home of the celebrated cheese, rather than for its picturesque streets.

From Munster, the D417 climbs and twists through green Alpine fields dotted with farms. Climbing higher, you enter a vast pine and oak forest to emerge at the summit, Col de la Schlucht, which offers spectacular views across the wild slopes of the Vosges mountains. Turn right on Route des Crêtes (D61), a skyline road constructed by the French during World War I to ensure communications between the different valleys. Now the route presents a scenic trip and signposts lead you to several beautiful spots that you can walk to before coming to Col de Calvair, a tiny ski resort. At Col du Bonhomme, join the D415, which travels down the ever-widening valley to Kaysersberg.

Kaysersberg rivals its neighbors as being one of the most appealing towns in Alsace. Vineyards tumble down to the town from its ancient keep and 16th-century houses line narrow roads along the rushing River Weiss. Albert Schweitzer was born here and his house is open as a small museum. (Open May to Oct.)

Leave Kaysersberg on the narrow D28 in the direction of Ribeauvillé and pass Kientzheim, a picture-perfect little village encircled by a high wall and surrounded by vineyards. Ammerschwihr, another charming town, and Riquewihr, the finest walled town and a gem of Alsace, lie just a few kilometers farther on, one to the south and one to the north.

Turn south from Kientzheim to the lovely walled town of Ammerschwihr, worth a detour if only to seek out its Porte Haute Cigognes, one of the entry towers, where each year storks nest-it is from here that their young test their first flight.

Just to the north of Kientzheim, Riquewihr, one of the most beautiful villages in Alsace, is completely enclosed by tall, protective walls and encircled by vineyards. It is easy to understand why this picturesque spot is a magnet for visitors. This picture-book village is a pedestrian area, its narrow streets lined with half-timbered houses. Signs beckon you into cobbled courtyards to sample the vintners’ produce, and cafés and restaurants spill onto the streets. The local museum is housed in the tall square stone-and-timber tower Dolder Gate and Tour des Voleurs (Thieves’ Tower), which exhibits grisly instruments of torture. (Open Jul and Aug, closed Oct to Easter, open weekends rest of year, tel: 03.89.49.08.40.)

Just beyond Riquewihr is another charming, picturesque town, Zellenberg, worth a detour off the Route du Vin, if only to circle up through its medieval streets and back down-here you find nothing commercial, just a pretty village.

Nearby Hunawihr boasts a much-photographed fortified church sitting on a little hill among the vineyards beside the village and the Center for the Reintroduction of Storks. Just a few years ago the roofs of the picture-book villages of Alsace were topped with shaggy storks’ nests. Alas, in recent years fewer and fewer storks have returned from their winter migration to Africa and the center is dedicated to their reintroduction into the area. Concentrated within the boundary of the park are seemingly hundreds of the birds who build their nests on the multitude of frameworks provided. Storks born in the park are protected and kept until the age of three to establish the instinct of the park being a migratory base to which to return, season after season.

It is wonderful that the storks are returning in greater numbers each season and it is truly captivating to travel the region and look up to see the nests and pairs of large white, long-legged birds atop many of the region’s rooftops. (Closed Nov 11 to Apr, tel: 03.89.73.72.62.)

Rising behind the attractive town of Ribeauvillé are the three castles of Ribeaupierre, a much-photographed landmark of the region. The shady side streets with their beamed houses are quieter and contain some lovely buildings.

Continuing on the Route du Vin, just a few kilometers to the north is the charming town of Bergheim. Protected by its walls, Bergheim lies just off the main road and is a much quieter village than many along the wine route.

Continuing north from Bergheim, make a sharp left on the D1-bis at the medieval village of Saint Hippolyte and climb steeply up from the vineyards to Château du Haut Koenigsbourg, the mighty fortress that sits high above the town. This massive castle was rather overzealously restored by Kaiser Wilhelm II in the early part of this century to reflect his concept of what a medieval fortress should look like, complete with massive walls, towering gates, a drawbridge, a keep, a bear pit, towers, a baronial great hall, and an armory. From the walls the view of vineyards tumbling to a sky-wide patchwork of fields that stretches to the Rhine river valley is superb. On especially clear days you can see the very distant outline of the Black Forest. (Closed in Jan.)

Leave the castle in the direction of Kintzheim and turn left on the D35 for Chatenois. Take the narrow entry into the town square and continue straight across the busy N59 on the D35 through Scherwiller, dominated by the ruined castles of Ortenbourg and Ramstein high on the hill above, through the vineyards to Dieffenthal, Dambach la Ville, where a bear clutching a flagon of wine between its paws decorates the fountain in front of the Renaissance town hall, and the wine village of Blienschwiller before arriving in the hillside village of Itterswiller.

Itterswiller has its attractive, timbered houses strung along the ridge facing south to the vineyards. This is a lovely village with lovely shops and lovely views.

Continuing north along the Route du Vin from Itterswiller, the road travels through a number of wine towns crowned by the ruins of their castles, Château d’Haute Andlau, Château de Landsberg above the larger wine town, Barr, and the Château d’Ottrott above the charming village of Ottrott. Between Andlau and Barr, it is worth the short detour off the wine road to drive up and through the village of Mittelbergheim, designated as one of France’s Most Beautiful Villages. Although there are not many stores, Mittelbergheim boasts some of the region’s best winemakers and many of their cellars are located along the village streets and are open to visitors.

From Ottrott, follow the road as it winds back toward the main road and the larger city of Obernai. If you like to shop, park on the main street through town and then investigate the maze of pedestrian streets with their enticing shops and restaurants.

Strasbourg, the grande dame of the region and one of France’s most beautiful cities, is just a short distance northeast of Obernai on the border with Germany. Although, personally, I usually avoid large cities, Strasbourg is gorgeous and well worth the effort to navigate its miles of urban surround to penetrate its old quarter. Begin armed with a good map and take the time to chart a route before you begin the journey.

Set on the banks of the River Rhine where it meets the Ill, Strasbourg’s city center is full of charm. The old quarter is an island banded by the River Ill, with the Place Kléber and the lacy pink-sandstone Nôtre Dame Cathedral at its core. It is filled with interesting little streets of shops, restaurants, and hotels and leads to the footbridges that span the River Ill. The nearby Petite France Strasbourg quarter, where craftsmen plied their trades in the 16th and 17th centuries, is full of old timbered houses, most notably the fine Maison des Tanneurs with its intricate wooden galleries. Many of the craftsmen’s old workshops are now delightful restaurants.

From Strasbourg, you can cross into Germany’s Black Forest, journey on into Switzerland, or travel a 350-kilometer drive (four hours) on the autoroute to Reims where you can join the Champagne wine route. It is also approximately a 300-kilometer drive (three and a half hours) from Strasbourg to the heart of the Burgundy region and Beaune, reputed to be the capital of the wine industry.

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