Alsace: the land of half-timbered cuteness overload (Colmar, Strasbourg, Eguisheim, Kaysersberg, Riquewihr, Hunawihr, & Ribeauville)

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September 23rd 2009
Published: December 1st 2009
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Day 27 (Wednesday, September 23, 2009)

We left sunny Beaune, and began the two and a half hour drive towards Alsace, where we would stay for two nights in the town of Colmar. I slept for most of the journey, but did wake up at one point to see that the sun was being covered by a very thick layer of fog. Considering it was nearly 12:00 in the afternoon, I found it very strange to see the fog. Luckily, the sun finally won the battle and burned through all of the gray fog because by the time we reached Colmar, there were no clouds in the sky.

Prior to going out and exploring the city, we wanted to stop by the hotel to park the car and check into our room at Hotel Turenne. Although we had a spot reserved for our car in the garage, we were not able to enter inside until we received instructions from the hotel staff. As a result, we left the car in front of the hotel, with the caution lights on. It was partially parked in the street, but only slightly, which is not an uncommon sight in cities in France.

We grabbed all of our bags and then brought them into the lobby. I saw a woman standing at the front desk, and proceeded to say to her “j’ai une reservation” (I have a reservation). She then responds “pardon” as though she cannot comprehend what I’m saying and becomes quite irritated with me. So, although I have spoken perfectly clear French (I know, my accent obviously isn’t perfect, but COME ON!) I proceed to tell her in English that we have a reservation, and then she quickly responds while pointing outside “you can’t leave the car there!!” Well, DUH, lady. Can’t you hear the very loud engine running and see the hazard lights blinking (it was about 15 feet away from all three of us)?. It would be fairly obvious to most that the car is only parked there temporarily until we receive instructions from your unhelpful self on how we are able to get into the locked garage. Instead of helping us, she huffs off and finds someone else to help us. We soon realize that she is one of the cleaning staff, thus why she wasn’t willing or able to help us (but why in the hell then was she standing at the front desk???).

Anyway, the second woman explains how to enter the garage so we then proceed to drop off all of our bags in the lobby and the leave for a few minutes to move the car. As soon as we return to check in, the lady informs us that our room isn’t ready yet. Of course, she couldn’t have mentioned this to us before we left to move the car, while the luggage sat in the lobby? No, because that would have been too easy. So, we then had to lug everything back into the garage, which was quite irritating. Even more annoying, we were asked to come back several hours later that afternoon to check in. We had plans to spend a little bit of time in Colmar, and then drive over to Strasbourg for the rest of the evening. Instead, we would have to waste more time coming back later to grab our luggage, complete the check-in process, and then bring everything upstairs. It might not seem like too big of a hassle, but when you are already behind schedule, have a tightly-packed sightseeing schedule, and when you have just dealt with the most unhelpful hotel staff, it certainly doesn’t make one very happy.

After that ordeal, we headed into Colmar, where we began a walking tour of the town listed in Rick Steves France guidebook. Colmar is a mid-sized town with approximately 70,000 residents and is a great place to base oneself while sightseeing within Alsace. The city was lucky enough to be sparred of wartime damage during World War II as both the Americans and British took special note of Colmar and made sure not to bomb the city. Colmar, like much of Alsace, has been thrown back and forth between France and Germany over the last few hundred years. In 1679, the city was ceded to France, and stayed within the boundaries of France until 1871, when the Franco-Prussian War caused Colmar to be annexed by the German Empire. It was then returned back to France after World War I, to only be annexed again, this time by Nazi Germany, in 1940. Finally, Colmar reverted back to French control in 1945. As a result of the multiple changes in boundaries, Colmar has a wonderful mixture of both German and French influences which can be found in the food, architecture, and even language.

Instantly, I fell in love with the beautiful and ridiculously charming town. Everywhere we looked, there were brightly half-timbered colored houses and buildings which had the most charming Germanic flair to their design. Almost every single building was in immaculate condition; in fact, I can’t actually remember seeing a building that appeared to be in any need of help. Another interesting aspect that we discovered about Colmar was that the historic town core went on and on and on. It was the largest area of historically preserved buildings I could ever remember seeing anywhere; very impressive, especially for a town of less than 70,000 people.

Along our walk, I stopped in at the Unterlinden Museum while Mike waited for me outside. This museum is housed in a 13th century Dominican religious convent and features a wide range of art, from the famous Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald to a large collection of religious art to 18th and 19th century furniture to modern art; something to please almost everyone (except for those completely uninterested in art, like Mike). The entrance fee to the museum also included the use of a very informative but interesting audio guide, which was very helpful. Audio guides tend to assist with bringing art to life for me, so I usually appreciate them immensely. I was able to tour the museum within an hour, although I obviously could have spent much more time if I had looked at every single piece of art. However, an hour was good to me and the museum is one that I would actually recommend to most visitors due to its unique and wide range of art collections.

After walking through town for about 2.5 hours, we headed back to the hotel. Fortunately, we were greeted on our second arrival by a much more friendly and helpful woman at the front desk. After being assigned a room, we took the elevator to our room. Unfortunately, as soon as we swung open the door to our room, all we could smell was an awful smoke odor. Sure enough, the room was a “smoking” one. I looked at Mike and said “nope; this isn’t gonna work for us”. In complete agreement, he immediately left the room and went downstairs to have them rectify the situation. As I waited in the room for him, the smell of the smoke continued to reek even worse than before. My head was stuck outside the window for most of this time. Mike came back up about five minutes later, and told me that they had been able to switch us to a non-smoking room. Why in the hell they would put us in a smoking room without asking us is beyond me, especially since smoking rooms are no longer common in Europe. Apparently, when Mike went downstairs and asked her if they had any non-smoking rooms, the woman replied “does the room smell?”. Mike then said “it does enough” and then she stated “not a problem”. Thank God, otherwise we would have been out looking for a different hotel.

From the hotel, we got back into the car and began what should have been a 45 minute drive to Strasbourg. Unfortunately, due to traffic (first time we had experienced that in France) it ended up taking nearly one hour and 15 minutes until we finally reached the parking garage near the train station.

Strasbourg is the largest city within Alsace, with a population of about 275,000 within the city proper, and about 638,670 inhabitants in the metropolitan area. The city is home to thousands of university students and people from all over Europe. Due to the peace that had been brokered between France and Germany, Strasbourg was chosen as the home to the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the European Ombudsman of the European Union, and the European Court of Human Rights. In 1988, Strasbourg was the first large city to have its historic city center (the Grande Île "Grand Island") designated as a World Heritage site by UNESCO.

From the train station, it was about a 15 minute walk into the historic core, where the Strasbourg Cathedral was located. Construction of the cathedral began in 1176 and was not finished until 1429. Part of the cathedral is of the Romanesque style, but the majority of the building is of Gothic style. I learned that the massively tall church held the title of world's tallest building from 1647 to 1874. Currently, it is the sixth tallest church in the world, quite amazing for a church of its age. The exterior of the cathedral was absolutely exquisite, but led to a big disappointment, in terms of its interior, which was rather dull when compared to its exciting shell.

After touring the church, we purchased some very expensive but delicious gelato from a store located across from the church (4 Euros per person!) and then meandered our way through the town, enjoying the many half-timbered buildings.

Unfortunately, we had arrived in the city just a tad bit too late in order to take advantage of the sun, which was quickly setting. As a result, I was not able to get as many photos as I had hoped for. In terms of comparisons between Colmar and Strasbourg, there are some similarities, the most obvious being the similar style of architecture. However, Strasbourg is a much bigger and thus livelier city and would be best for visitors who require more restaurant options and better nightlife opportunities. Out of the two, I preferred Colmar more simply due to the fact that it had many more historic and charming buildings than did Strasbourg. Although they are both beautiful cities, Colmar is definitely more photogenic so photographers and those who appreciate quaint cities will want to overnight there instead of Strasbourg.

We eventually left Strasbourg and drove back to Colmar. By the time we arrived, it was just past 20:00, so we decided to quickly find something to eat, preference being that it was cheap and fast. Per the recommendation in a guide book, we decided to eat at a place called La Krutenau due to its listing for tarte flambée, which is a traditional Alsatian dish that is similar to a thin-crust pizza covered with crème fraîche, onions and small pieces of bacon. We both ordered the same tarte flambée; although there wasn’t many options; just two. Mike ordered a beer called Desperados; it smelled terrible but tasted quite good as it was made with tequila. The food arrived quickly enough and was rather tasty, although quite thin. We both considered it to be more of a snack than an actual meal. If you like cream, bacon, cheese, and onions, then you will love this simple but delicious dish!

Day 28 (Thursday, September 24, 2009)

Our second day in the Alsace region was to be spent visiting the nearby Route du Vin region. Surprisingly, this area receives less rain than many parts of southern France, making its dry climate a great place to grow grapes. Many different types of wine are produced in this area, but the most common are Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Crémant d'Alsace, as 90%!o(MISSING)f the wine produced in Alsace is white. Although one could probably spend days touring this region, we decided to visit several of the villages, including Eguisheim, Kaysersberg, Riquewihr, Hunawihr, Ribeauville, and also Chateau de Haut-Koenigsbourg.

Eguisheim was our first stop of the day, which is conveniently located just a few miles south of Colmar. After parking our car for a few Euro in the pay lot, I walked around for a long time exploring all of the village's many nooks and crannies while Mike waited in a courtyard for me. The streets of Eguisheim seemed to go on forever with houses that looked as though they could have belonged in a fairytale. While in the village, we also did some wine tasting at Joseph Gruss et Fils, sampling a Gewürztraminer and Crémant d'Alsace, neither of which I had never heard of prior to our trip. The woman who assisted with our tasting was extremely friendly and patient, juggling multiple customers at one time with complete ease. We ended up purchasing two bottles of the Gewürztraminer as gifts for both of our mothers.

Our second stop was the small village of Kaysersberg. As with Eguisheim, we spent the majority of our time in the village just walking around, enjoying the gorgeous and colorful buildings and houses.

Next, we traveled to Riquewihr, which is probably the most heavily-visited of all of all of the villages of the wine route. This walled village has more stone houses than any other place in Alsace because it was the most wealthy of all the villages hundreds of years ago. Once we passed through the city walls, my eyes diverted immediately to a Christmas store called Féerie de Noel, much to the disdain of Mike. Being the huge Christmas freak that I am, a stop was absolutely mandatory. The store was massive, and had a wide range of decorations and ornaments, from the very traditional European ones to the more modern silver and white, which is my preference. In total, I walked out spending about 35 Euro on about ten ornaments; way too much money, especially since I can get them much cheaper in the US. However, the only items I usually buy for myself while traveling tends to be ornaments, so really, its more of a tradition than anything!

Afterward, we headed to our fourth village of Hunawihr, which is far-less visited than the other villages along the Route du Vin. The most important site within the village is the 16th century church, which rises proudly above the village. While Mike waited in the parked car at the bottom of the village, I walked all the way up to the church. From the burial grounds of the church, I had an amazing view of the village and the surrounding vineyards.

Next, we headed to Ribeauville. By this point, we were both becoming overwhelmed by the “cuteness factor” of the Route du Vin. The villages were all beginning to blend together and it was difficult to remember which ones were which. When we finally reached Ribeauville, I walked around for only five to ten minutes as Mike was unable to secure a parking space. It was a cute town and was larger than the others we had visited, but I just had absolutely no desire to explore it further. In hindsight, a maximum of three villages is all that I would recommend to most visitors to prevent overdose. Instead, visiting fewer villages would allow more time to complete wine tasting.

Finally, our last planned stop of the day was Chateau de Haut-Koenigsbourg. After viewing the chateau from a distance, we decided to go ahead and drive up the hill in order to view it closer. Unfortunately, when we finally reached the parking lot of the chateau, we found that it was packed full of cars and tourists, which turned us off from the small amount of interest we might have had in the chateau. Instead, we just enjoyed the views of the surrounding valley from the top, which were quite beautiful.

In addition to the many villages we visited this day, we also saw grape harvesting in full action wherever we went. The villages reeked of fermented grapes and machinery and equipment could be seen everywhere. It seemed as though about half of the grapes had been picked, so I was able to get some great photos of grapes that were still waiting to be picked on the vine.

We eventually made our way back to our hotel in Colmar, where we decided we wanted to find a place to eat for dinner. While in Eguisheim earlier that day, we had seen several promising restaurants. After driving back to Eguisheim and conferring with the menus posted outside the restaurants, we ended up going with a place called L'Aurberge Alsacienne due to its daily menu. For a starter, I requested the Salade Vigeronne, which ended up being a green salad topped with tomatoes, cheese, and some sort of meat, which tasted and resembled bolonga. Mike's starter was the pate en croute, which also came with a green salad, although his was normal. The pate was absolutely delicious, especially when spread on the crusty bread. We ended up switching our appetizer plates shortly after they had arrived as I did not care for the meat that came with my salad.

For the main entree, I ordered the poulet au Riesling (chicken with Riesling cream sauce) which came with spätzle (small noodle-like dumplings). I had never tasted spätzle before, but it was love at first taste! Mike's entree of choice was the filet de sandre sur lit de choux avec pommes vapeur (perch on a bed of cabbage with boiled potatoes) which was also very good. We had ordered a Riesling with dinner to drink; throughout the trip, I was beginning to learn and appreciate that wine tastes much better when eaten with the proper food.

We left the restaurant feeling very satisfied with our choice, and also looked forward to eventually reaching Paris the following night.

Additional photos below
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8th January 2011

Ribeauville Schoolhouse 1944
Hi. I'm looking for a pic of Ribeauville school 1944. It doubled as hospital for American and French soldiers fighting in Colmar Pocket. Thanks
5th June 2011

Hello Jennifer
You have not blogged in a long time and you were such a nice writer. I hope you will start blogging again. Love to read your adventures. In the general forum there was a recent question about why bloggers stop blogging. It would be interesting to hear from you on the topic.

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