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, although you’ll find plenty of creativity in modern Alsatian cooking. 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 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.
Top image: Cathedral of Our Lady, Strasbourg © Travelerpix/Shutterstock
Alsatians are hearty eaters, with their local cuisine characterized by generous helpings of pork, potatoes and spaetzle (a type of pasta usually fried in butter). But the region also has an international reputation for gastronomy, with exciting, new and well-established Michelin-starred restaurants dotted across its towns and villages.
The classic dish is choucroute, the aromatic pickled cabbage known in German as sauerkraut. The difference 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).
A thirty-minute drive north of Metz lies Amnéville, an easy-to-overlook town off the A31 motorway. But, just outside, in the Parc Amnéville-Les-Thermes, there is a gigantic tourist site with a conglomeration of attractions, cinemas, restaurants, spas and hotels you'd expect to see in North America rather than Europe. There are three large spas, Centre Thermal St Eloy (with a more therapeutic-medical orientation), Thermapolis (relaxation for all the family) and Villa Pompéi (offering massage and beauty treatments), which have been built over natural thermal springs; there are also sports arenas that include France’s only indoor ski slope, an 18-hole golf and mini-golf course, a “Fitnessium”, an ice-skating rink and an Olympic-size swimming pool.
But the main attraction is the zoo – one of the largest in France. You need a car to get there – and to move around the site. The zoo holds a large number of rare species; many of them are photogenic mammals, such as snow leopards, Siberian tigers, dwarf hippos and a big number of monkey species. In 2015, a new arena was opened to host a choreographed tiger show (1–3 times daily). Feeding of animals takes place several times a day; the wolf-pack feed is the biggest draw.
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 562m 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.
Metz (pronounced “Mess”), the capital of Lorraine, lies on the east bank of the River Moselle, close to the autoroute de l’Est linking Paris and Strasbourg. Today the city has another connection to the capital in the much-lauded satellite branch of the Centre Pompidou. Along with its rather splendid cathedral, a strong dining scene (inspired by the Renaissance writer and famous gourmand, Rabelais, who lived here for two years), large and beautiful flower-lined public spaces and riverside setting, the honey-coloured city of Metz is something of an undiscovered gem.
The city’s origins go back at least to Roman times, when, as now, it stood astride major trade routes. On the death of Charlemagne it became the capital of Lothar’s portion of his empire. By the Middle Ages it had sufficient wealth and strength to proclaim itself an independent republic, which it remained until its absorption into France in 1552. Caught between warring influences, Metz has endured more than its share of historical hand-changing; reluctantly ceded to Germany in 1870, it recovered its liberty at the end of World War I, only to be re-annexed by Hitler until the Liberation.
Metz is, in effect, two towns: the original French quarters of the vieille ville, gathered round the cathedral and encompassing the Île de la Comédie, and the Quartier Impérial, undertaken as part of a once-and-for-all process of Germanification after the Prussian occupation in 1870. Developing with speed and panache is a third section: the Quartier de l’Amphithéâtre, south of the train station, heralded by the Centre Pompidou and the adjacent sports stadium – shops and offices are slowly following.
The Centre Pompidou-Metz, the first decentralized branch of the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris, opened with much pomp and ceremony in Metz’s Quartier de l’Amphithéâtre in May 2010. Designed by architects Shigeru Ban and Jean de Gastines, it’s a curious, bright white building resembling a swimming stingray and, with its huge glass windows and wooden scaffolding, is extremely light and inviting. The same spirit reigns here as in Paris: showing off a varying percentage of the Parisian stock, the aim of the museum is to bring modern art to the masses, and judging by the queues it’s working. Expect to spend around two hours here; there’s a café, as well as workshops for children (ask at reception for details).
A large, sprawling, industrial city 35km south of Colmar, Mulhouse was Swiss until 1798 when, at the peak of its prosperity (founded on printed textiles), it voted to become part of France. Today it bills itself as a “museum town”, with at least four that might grab your interest. It’s much cheaper to stay here than in neighbouring Colmar (or Basel), plus it offers the best nightlife in Alsace should you find yourself there over a weekend. The hôtel de ville on the central place de la Réunion contains a beautifully presented history of the city in the Musée Historique. The Neo-Gothic cathedral opposite the museum was built in 1866, replacing a twelfth-century church, yet its fourteenth-century stained glass is considered the most beautiful in the Upper Rhine; this is the only Protestant cathedral standing in a main square in France.
A couple of tram stops north of Mulhouse’s city centre, the Cité de l’Automobile, Musée National-Collection Schlumpf, houses an overwhelming collection of more than six hundred cars, originally belonging to local brothers Hans and Fritz Schlumpf, who made their fortunes running a nearby spinning mill. Lined up in endless rows, the impeccably preserved vehicles range from the industry’s earliest attempts, such as the extraordinary wooden-wheeled Jacquot steam “car” of 1878, and the very first attempt at an environmentally friendly, solar-powered car made in 1942 to the 1968 Porsche racers. The highlights are the locally made Bugatti models: dozens of alluringly displayed, glorious racing cars, coupés and limousines, the pride of them being the two Bugatti Royales, out of only seven that were constructed. There’s also the most expensive Bugatti in the world today, priced at a cool €1.6 million.
The city of Nancy, on the River Meurthe, is renowned for the magnificent place Stanislas, cited as a paragon of eighteenth-century urban planning and today the finest in France. For its spectacularly grand centre, Nancy has the last of the independent dukes of Lorraine to thank: the dethroned king of Poland and father-in-law of Louis XV, Stanislas Leszczynski. During the twenty-odd years of his office in the mid-eighteenth century, he ordered some of the most successful construction of the period in all France. The city is also home to some impressive examples of Art Nouveau furniture and glassware hailing from the days of the École de Nancy, founded at the end of the nineteenth century by glass-master and furniture-maker, Émile Gallé.
From the gare SNCF, walk through Porte Stanislas, straight down rue Stanislas to reach the Rococo place Stanislas. Both this gate and Porte St-Catherine opposite are meticulously aligned with place Stanislas’s solitary statue – that of the portly Stanislas Leszczynski, who commissioned architect Emmanuel Héré to design the square in the 1750s. On the south side of the square stands the imposing hôtel de ville, its roof topped by a balustrade ornamented with florid urns and winged cupids. Along its walls, lozenge-shaped lanterns dangle from the beaks of gilded cockerels; similar motifs adorn the other buildings on the square – look out for the fake, two-dimensional replacements. The square’s entrances are enclosed by magnificent wrought-iron gates; the impressive railings on the northern corners frame fountains dominated by statues of Neptune and Amphitrite.
Stanislas Leszczynski, born in the Polish–Ukrainian city of Lemberg (now Lviv) in 1677, lasted just five years as the king of Poland before being forced into exile by Tsar Peter the Great. For the next twenty-odd years he lived on a French pension in northern Alsace, but after fifteen years Stanislas’s luck changed when he managed, against all odds, to get his daughter, Marie, betrothed to the 15-year-old king of France, Louis XV. Marie was not so fortunate: married by proxy in Strasbourg Cathedral, having never set eyes on the groom, she gave birth to ten children, only to be rejected by Louis, who preferred the company of his mistresses, Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry. Bolstered by his daughter’s marriage, Stanislas had another spell on the Polish throne from 1733 to 1736, but gave it up in favour of the comfortable dukedom of Barr and Lorraine. He lived out his final years in aristocratic style in the capital, Nancy, which he transformed into one of France’s most beautiful towns.
Flanked to the west by the rising forests of the southern Vosges, which stretch all the way down to Belfort, Alsace’s picturesque Route des Vins (“Wine Route”) follows the foot of the mountains along the western edge of the wide and flat Rhine valley. Beginning in Marlenheim, west of Strasbourg, the route, on or around the D35, snakes its way over 180km to Thann, near Mulhouse, through exquisitely preserved medieval towns and villages characterized by half-timbered houses, narrow cobbled streets and neighbouring ancient ruined castles – testimony to the province’s turbulent past. The route is blanketed with neat terraces of vines, which produce the famous white wines. Tasting opportunities are plentiful, particularly during the region’s countless wine festivals that mainly coincide with the October harvest.
The old centre of Colmar, a thirty-minute train ride south of Strasbourg and lying east of the main Route des Vins villages, is echt Alsatian, with crooked half-timbered and painted houses. Its small canals and picturesque narrow streets are a flaneur’s paradise. This is prime Elsässisch-speaking country, a German dialect known to philologists as Alemannic, which has waxed and waned during the province’s chequered history. As the proud home of Mathias Grünewald’s magnificent Issenheim altarpiece – on display in the Musée d’Unterlinden –the town is a magnet for tourists all year round.
Colmar’s foremost attraction, the Musée d’Unterlinden is an even richer experience after a lengthy period of renovation and extension. The core of the collection is housed in a former Dominican convent with a peaceful cloistered garden; it includes the museum’s biggest draw, the Issenheim altarpiece, which is thought to have been made between 1512 and 1516 for the monastic order of St Anthony at Issenheim, whose members cared for those afflicted by ergotism and other nasty skin diseases. The extraordinary painted panels are the work of Mathias Grünewald (1480–1528). The luridly expressive centre panel depicts the Crucifixion: a tortured Christ turns his outsize hands upwards, fingers splayed in pain, flanked by his pale, fainting mother and saints John and Mary Magdalene. The face of St Sebastian, on the right wing, is believed to have been modelled on Grünewald’s own likeness. The reverse panels depict the annunciation, Christ’s resurrection, the nativity and a flamboyant orchestra of angels, all splendidly bathed in transcendental light. On the rest of the panels, you’ll find a truly disturbing representation of the temptation of St Anthony, who is engulfed by a grotesque pack of demons; note the figure afflicted with the alarming symptoms of ergotism.
The renovated convent is now linked via an underground gallery of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century art to a brand-new wing, which houses modern and contemporary works, and to the town’s former municipal baths, re-imagined as a venue for cultural events. Highlights include Impressionist paintings by Monet and Bonnard, plus a couple of Picassos.
Verdun lies in a bend of the River Meuse, some 70km west of Metz. Of no great interest in itself, what makes this sleepy provincial town remarkable is its association with the horrific battle that took place on the bleak uplands to the north between 1916 and 1918. In 1916, aiming to break the stalemate of trench warfare, the German General Erich von Falkenhayn chose Verdun as the target for an offensive that ranked among the most devastating ever launched in the annals of war. His troops advanced to within 5km of Verdun, but never captured the town. Gradually the French clawed back the lost ground, but final victory came only in the last months of the war with the aid of US troops. The price was high: hundreds of thousands of men died on both sides. To this day, memorials in every village, hamlet and town of France are inscribed with the names of men slaughtered at Verdun. Not far from Verdun’s railway station, the Rodin memorial, a disturbing statue of winged Victory, stands beside a handsome eighteenth-century gateway at the northern end of rue St-Paul where it joins avenue Garibaldi. Nearby, a simple engraving lists all the years between 450 and 1916 that Verdun has been involved in conflict. The fourteenth-century Porte Chaussée guards the river-crossing in the middle of town. Beyond it, further along rue Mazel, a flight of steps climbs up to the towering Monument de la Victoire, where a helmeted warrior leans on his sword in commemoration of the 1916 battle, while in the crypt below a roll is kept of all the soldiers, French and American, who took part.
The Battle of Verdun opened on the morning of February 21, 1916, with a German artillery barrage that lasted ten hours and expended two million shells. The battle concentrated on the forts of Vaux and Douaumont, built by the French after the 1870 Franco–Prussian War. By the time the main battle ended ten months later, nine villages had been pounded into oblivion.
The most visited part of the battlefield extends along the hills north of Verdun, but the fighting also spread to the west of the Meuse, to the hills of Mort-Homme and Hill 304, to Vauquois and the Argonne, and south along the Meuse to St-Mihiel, where the Germans held an important salient until dislodged by US forces in 1918. Unless you take an organized tour the only viable way to explore the area is with your own transport. The main sights are reached via two minor roads that snake through the battlefields: the D913 and D112.
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.