Disputed for centuries by French kings and the princes of the Holy Roman Empire, and subsequently embroiled in a bloody tug-of-war between France and Germany, France’s easternmost provinces, Alsace and Lorraine, share a tumultuous history. It’s no surprise then that almost everything, from the architecture to the cuisine and the language, is an enticing mixture of French and German – so much so that you might begin to wonder which country you’re actually in.
Cute Hansel-and-Gretel-type houses – higgledy-piggledy creations with oriel windows, carved timberwork, toy-town gables and geranium-filled window boxes – are a common feature in Alsace, especially along the winding Route des Vins, which traces the eastern margin of the forests of the Vosges mountains. This road also represents the region’s chief tourist raison d’être – wine – best accompanied with a regional cuisine that’s more Germanic than French: think hefty portions of pork, cabbage and pungent cheese. Ruined medieval castles are scattered about, while outstanding churches and museums are concentrated in the handsome regional capital of Strasbourg and in smaller, quirkier Colmar. Bustling Mulhouse stands out for its industrial heritage and entertaining nightlife. A noticeably wealthy province, Alsace has historically churned out cars and textiles, not to mention half the beer in France.
Alsace’s less prosperous and less scenic neighbour, Lorraine, shares borders with Luxembourg, Germany and Belgium. The graceful former capital, Nancy, is home to a major school of Art Nouveau and is well worth a visit, as is leafy Metz, with its sparkling new contemporary art gallery. The bloody World War I battlefields around Verdun attract a large number of visitors, as so does the zoo in Amnéville, one of the largest in France. Gastronomically no less renowned than other French provinces, Lorraine has bequeathed to the world one of its favourite savoury pies, the quiche lorraine, and an alcoholic sorbet, the coupe lorraine.Read More
The cuisine of Alsace is quite distinct from that of other regions of France. The classic dish is choucroute, the aromatic pickled cabbage known in German as sauerkraut. The extra ingredient here is the inclusion of juniper berries in the pickling stage and the addition of goose grease or lard. Traditionally it’s served with large helpings of smoked pork, ham and sausages, but some restaurants offer a succulent variant replacing the meat with fish (choucroute aux poissons), usually salmon and monkfish. The qualification à l’alsacienne after the name of a dish means “with choucroute”. Baeckoffe, a three-meat hotpot, comprising layers of potato, pork, mutton and beef marinated in wine and baked for several hours, is a speciality. Onions, too, crop up frequently on menus, either in the guise of a tart (tarte à l’oignon), made with a béchamel sauce, or as flammeküche (tarte flambée), a mixture of onion, cream and pieces of chopped smoked pork breast, baked on a thin, pizza-like base.
Alsatians are fond of their pastries. In almost every patisserie, you’ll find a mouthwatering array of fruit tarts made with rhubarb (topped with meringue), wild blueberries, red cherries or yellow mirabelle plums. Cake-lovers should try kugelhopf, a dome-shaped cake with a hollow in the middle made with raisins and almonds.
For the classic Alsatian eating experience, you should go to a winstub, loosely translated as a “wine bar”, a cosy establishment with bare beams, wood wall panels and benches and a convivial atmosphere. The food revolves around Alsatian classics, such as choucroute, all accompanied by local wines (or, in a bierstub, beer).
The wines of Alsace
The wines of Alsace
Despite the long, tall bottles and Germanic names, Alsatian wines are unmistakably French in their ability to complement the region’s traditional cuisine. This is white wine country – if you do spot a local red, it will invariably be a Pinot Noir. Winemakers take advantage of the long, dry autumns to pick extremely ripe grapes producing wines with a little more sweetness than elsewhere in France, but good wines will have a refreshing natural acidity, too. Each of the three main grape varieties listed below can be made with a sweetness level ranging from off-dry right through to “Séléction des Grains Nobles” for the most highly prized dessert wines (vendages tardives being the label for the slightly less sweet late-harvested wines). Grand Cru labelled wines come from the best vineyard sites.
Riesling The ultimate thirst-quencher, limey, often peachy, excellent with fish dishes and choucroute.
Gewurztraminer Alsace’s most aromatic grape, with roses, lychees, honey, spices and all manner of exotic flavours. Try with pungent Munster cheese or rich pâté.
Pinot Gris Rich, fruity, smoky and more understated than Gewurztraminer. A versatile food wine; try with white meat in creamy sauces and milder cheeses.
Other wines you’re likely to come across include the grapey Muscat, straightforward Sylvaner, and delicate Pinot Blanc/Auxerrois, which also forms the base of the region’s excellent sparkling Crémant d’Alsace. Pinot Noir is used for light, fruity reds and rosés.
Four fabulous Alsace fortresses
Four fabulous Alsace fortresses
Alsace is dotted with medieval fortresses, heirlooms from a quarrelsome past. Here’s a rundown of the very best castles in the region:
Bernstein Explore the marvellous ruins of this castle perched 552m up on a rock overlooking Dambach-la-Ville. It’s a 45-minute walk from the village past the chapel of St-Sébastien or a drive up the D35, turning left at Blienschwiller towards Villé on the D203 and then following the sign to Bernstein on the GR5 until the Schulwaldplatz car park. From there it’s a gentle 20min walk uphill through a spruce forest. Free access.
Haut Koenigsbourg A massive pile of honey-coloured sandstone that sits astride a 757m bluff, this castle dates from the twelfth century. It was heavily restored in the twentieth century under the tenacious management of Kaiser Wilhelm II and is today one of the most visited monuments in France – try to come midweek or out of season to avoid the crowds. It is a stunning spot with fantastic views on a clear day.
Château Hohlandsbourg Six kilometres outside Eguisheim, this enormous castle surrounded by massive walls is the largest in the region. It was extensively damaged during the Thirty Years’ War but there’s still plenty to see, including beautiful gardens. The castle is also a venue for cultural activities, music concerts and children’s workshops – check the website for events.
Château Kintzheim Small but wonderful ruined castle built around a cylindrical refuge-tower and located just south of Haut Koenigsbourg. Today Kintzheim is an aviary for birds of prey – the Volerie des Aigles – and puts on magnificent displays of aerial prowess by resident eagles and vultures.