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Published: October 27th 2014
This was the question after, “Where are you off to next?”- not only from fellow Kiwis but those we met during our travels. Alsace is a region in France where the River Rhine forms the eastern boundary with Germany. It has been disputed and fought over by the two countries for centuries, sometimes being part of Germany, sometimes ‘taken back’ by France.
This makes it interesting in several ways – cuisine and customs reflect the heritage of both countries and the hundreds of little villages which have in varying degrees survived the ravages of many conflicts including two world wars are like living museums of medieval Franco-Bavarian architecture.
But our main reason for visiting was to sample the magical wine of Alsace.
It’s no mystery why gewürztraminer, the most famous wine of the region, isn’t popular in New Zealand – very little is grown here or in Australia and no-one can pronounce it properly to order it off restaurant menus.
However it’s been my favourite wine variety for many years, so it was a bit of a pilgrimage to visit the home of the
Alsace isn’t on the usual French tourist route…or so we thought. We’d chosen Colmar, just south of Strasbourg, for our week stay as it looked gorgeous with half-timbered houses while being close to the vineyards and big enough to get to by train.
This was an addition to our itinerary after we decided not to stop off in Hong Kong on the way home (what a good decision that turned out to be!) and instead have an extra week in France. We’d had a bottle of gewurzt that night and the label showed it came from the romantic looking little hill village of Riquewihr so that was our first choice. However romantic little hill villages tend to be a nightmare re transport logistics so chose nearby Colmar instead.
We experienced the pleasure of travel-relief when we visited Riquewihr on our wine trail and found it SO gorgeous and romantic it was Alsace-cuteness in the extreme - chock full of tourists every day and lacking any normal facility like a supermarket so we were much better off in Colmar, which as well as being gorgeous and romantic is also a
normal working town.
Our apartment (five floors up, no lift) was just on the edge of the historic town centre - absolutely gorgeous. The next morning we woke to someone talking very loudly in German on the pavement below. Opening the shutters we saw a large group of tourists gazing up at the building two along from us, clicking their cameras like mad as they listened to the guide – the first tour of the town started at 8am!
The rest of the world may know nothing about Alsace but French and German tourists certainly do. Bus tour groups swarmed through the cobbled streets each day in their hundreds and we were told the Rhine River cruises bring their day trippers here because Strasbourg gets too full!
Colmar is central to the Alsace wine region which runs like a green crushed velvet ribbon along the eastern ridge of the Vosges Mountains for 170 km. The nearest village is more or less a suburb of Colmar and over 100 wine villages run north-south with irresistible names such as Pfaffenheim, Katzenthal and Goxwiller. We hired a car for two days to do the
vineyard trail which is well signposted in a French way - i.e. you just get the hang of where the sign posts might be then they change or disappear completely - but as the villages are at the most 5km apart you can’t really get lost.
We covered about half the trail in one and a half days. On the second day we decided to make full use of the car and drive into Germany with a view to walking and picnicking by the banks of the Rhine, which was only about 20km away. But as we headed east towards the Rhine valley we drove into thick fog so we crossed the bridge and saw – nothing. Not only could we not see the river I couldn’t see any side roads which might lead down to it so we drove north to the next bridge, stopping at a small German wine village for what we hoped might be a warming cup of coffee and strudel but it was completely deserted although it was 10am and there was some kind of wine harvest event advertised for 11am.
By that time the fog had lifted slightly
so we could just make out the river below on our second crossing and I guessed a brown road sign might indicate where you could get down to the river bank.
As we’d driven over the border into Germany (along with a minor panic that we might need passports – we didn’t) we realised neither of us knew a single word of German except for strudel and stein. We’d been doing quite well in Colmar with our limited, halting French, managing to order entire meals in French with the assistance of pointing and miming. But it’s one thing to know your veau from your rognon on a French menu and be in another country where you don’t recognise a single word.
We did eventually find the banks of the Rhine, had a chilly picnic and a brief walk along what would have been a beautiful cycleway if we could have seen more than a few metres in front of ourselves, then in the interests of avoiding hypothermia got in the car and scurried westwards back into France – which in the space of a few kilometres became warm, sunny and if not completely understandable,
at least interpretable.
So - not a good first impression of Germany - we’ll have to try again.
Even if we’d had a car for the whole week we couldn’t
all the villages in the wine trail - I would have loved to – they were all adorably quaint with narrow cobbled streets, wonky four or more storied half-timbered houses in delightful pastel and sometimes a bit more than pastel colours. They were fairy-tale villages.
As we drove through them I hung out the window oohhing and ahhhing and we stopped at a few which took our fancy or sounded significant from the tourist map.
Our favourite was Ribeauvillé which is one of the bigger villages but has a nice laid back feel – not too touristy twee. I also loved Éguisheim but Rhys got grumpy because you had to pay for a day’s parking no matter how short your stay. A guaranteed way to work out how touristy twee a place is going to be before you even get out of the car is whether you have to pay for parking and how much.
And the wines? Devine. We were buying the local plonk at tiny family vineyards for 7 euro (about NZ$10) and it was more delicious than the best NZ gewurzt I’ve tasted. We also sampled their Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and Crémant (bubbly) – all delicious.
At the local market we also bought for 3 euro a litre of vin nouveau, the first release of the season which has only just started to ferment. It was a little bit too delicious as you wanted to drink it like juice but it’s still alcoholic and we were warned not to take too much at a time and stay near a toilet as it’s very yeasty and can sometimes have an unfortunate effect!
We took bottles of gewurzt with us to Paris and shared one at a lovely lunch with my French cousins, but sadly could not bring any home.
Paris is an expensive city to stay in but we save a considerable amount in airport taxes by flying home from there rather than London. Our small apartment was one of the most stylish and well equipped we’d stayed in
– so what was the negative that put it in our accommodation price range?
It wasn’t a negative for us – in fact it provided a bit of added entertainment value – we were just off Rue Saint-Denis, a notorious red light district. Apparently there’s been a recent crack-down by authorities to curb this ancient activity and no new ‘ladies’ operate dans le rue, so the working ‘girls’ all looked in their 40’s or older which was a little disconcerting at first, but…you know…there must be a market for it, what with the baby boomer demographic.
It was also the centre of the wholesale fashion industry so bustling all day as well as all night. I’d definitely recommend the 2nd
arrondissement if you are looking for accommodation in Paris – walking distance to Ile de la Cité, train stations, Montmartre and the Big Three (the Louvre, Pompidou Centre and Musée d’Orsay).
It has tons of cafes, heaps of restaurants and lots of fascinating shop-lined gallerias or ‘passages’ which were the precursors to shopping malls - all the rage in the area in the late 18th
C and now being rediscovered. The
area is a little bit edgy and completely Parisian.
So after five days of culture we had to drag ourselves off to the airport to endure the 25 hour flight home. It’s the best way I reckon – no stop overs, don’t prolong the pain, just prepare yourself for no sleep, a seat next to the loos so you’re always being bumped and distracted by the queue, or near the toddler who yells and screams all the time and runs up and down the aisle with a noisy flashing space toy. The only thing for it is to plug yourself into a movie marathon – I managed four and most of the first series of Fargo.
We’re now back home and into the unpacking, mail checking and garden rescue stage.
Three months away and there are many highlights – ballooning over the surreal landscape of Cappadocia, sunsets over the Acropolis, unbelievably beautiful Santorini, meeting up and having fun with Moya and Jackson, being in Scotland for their referendum, drinking gewürztraminer in Alsace at harvest time…
Travel certainly is a funny thing – three months away and it only
takes a day or two to feel like you never left…except for the memories and photos.
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