I'll start this blog with a little shout-out to Google Earth and Booking.com, which helped us to identify Alsace as a beautiful part of France, and our village in particular as the prettiest part of Alsace. While many sources seem to suggest that Colmar is the most beautiful town in the province, this is simply hype. It was inferior to our little mediaeval corner in every way - except it had a chocolate shop to die for, even if the hot weather meant that we carried home a plastic bag of liquid hot chocolate. Certainly there were some lovely colourful pictures of Colmar online, but pictures can be deceiving - I know, because I'm a photographer. We decided to find a smaller town nearby and tour round in our own hire car. GourmetA typical restaurant sign in this region. Rue de la Premier ArméeThe door to our holiday apartment is first on the left of this picture.
A little more research led us to a self-catering apartment in Riquewihr and this turned out to be a great decision.
Riquewihr is a quiet village; you can walk from one side to the other in about 5 minutes yet it has colourful medieval buildings, lots of shops and 24 restaurants. In short we had everything we needed right here (except a chocolate shop).
The vineyards came right down to the edge of the village so of course we had to sample some of the local produce! Many of the wine producers have shops in the high street where you can have a free tasting. We tasted several, purely in the name of education, and then of course felt obliged to buy a bottle. Gilly decided that she liked the Gewurztraminer whereas I prefer red wines so really was in the wrong region. Having said that the local Pinot Gris is quite acceptable.
At the end of an alleyway we discovered just how close the village is to the vineyards. I guess the locals don't have far to go to work in the morning.
At various times in its history Alsace has been independent as well as being part of Rome, France, Germany, France, Germany and France again! On arrival at Basel airport you can exit to France, Switzerland or Germany. So it is hardly surprising that there is a mixed French/German feel to this area. Locals identify themselves first as Alsatians, second as Europeans and third, as French, and yet the traditional language of the region is a dialect of German.
Some of the architecture looks German, and Alsatian food has a strong German influence too, the menus heavily featuring sausage, pork and choucroute (Sauerkraut). The wine is predominantly white and tastes very similar to German whites (of which I am not a fan).
On the wagonA feature made of old wine barrels on the edge of town. RiquewihrLooking across the vineyards towards Riquewihr We had a hire car so of course we went to explore some of the other villages. Just outside of Hunnewihr we came upon this little chap looking for food among the vines.
In the surrounding countryside (below): its all about the wine!
In Hunnewihr the vineyards even go right up to the church.
The vineyards even go right up to the church. Another beautiful town is Ribeauvillé. We found a rather nice patisserie for lunch and then went back there later for coffee and cakes. Well the calories don't count on holiday do they?
As you can see in the photo above, storks are actually encouraged to nest on the roofs of some public buildings.
Next we went to Colmar which is where we had first planned to stay. It certainly had some beautiful canals and buildings but these were restricted to a very small area known rather boastfully as 'Little Venice'.
Colmar itself is quite a large and unremarkable town trading on the reputation of this small area. Boat trips were available for tourists and were quite reasonably priced but it was a short trip up and down one stretch of canal. It is picturesque, but Venice it is not!!
The boats were shaped very much like the Cambridge punts but with a small electric outboard motor which we considered to be cheating. If you were lucky enough to get a front row seat then there were some opportunities for good photography. I wasn't that lucky and had two ladies with wide rim hats in front of me who instinctively put their heads together for a chat every time I wanted to take a photo. I thought that having a large telephoto lens shoved in their ears might have given them a hint that they were blocking the view but they were either oblivious or being deliberately obstructive.
None the less I managed to get a couple of photographs and quite like the reflections (below).
Wherever I go food is never far from my mind and in this respect Colmar certainly did not disappoint. At an outdoor créperie we had a galette complete and a bolée of cider.
The old part of Colmar also had some attractive streets away from the canals and, being a larger town, there was more opportunity for shopping, but we decided that we had easily made the right choice staying in Riquewihr. With this in mind we happily returned and found that there was an evening food market on the edge of the village.
Each of the market stalls specialised in different things, so while Gilly queued to get a mixed salad each and then went to another stall for a glass of wine, I stuck to my gender stereotype and joined the other men grilling our own sausages on an open grill. (No double entendre intended). We supplemented this minor feast with bread from another stall and contemplated the cake stall for afters.
While eating I ruefully thought that this would not be allowed in the UK. Members of the public actually allowed near an open charcoal grill with children running around; the 'health and safety' executive would have seven fits! Yet we saw no serious injuries, no children were cooked alive, people were drinking responsibly and families were all having a good time without so much as a burnt sausage!
The next stop on our agenda was Strasbourg (above), and this was a town that exceeded my expectations.
I was expecting Strasbourg to be a historic city with some old buildings and great architecture but I was also expecting it to be mainly modern. This is however a much prettier city than I had anticipated and has the feel of a medium sized town rather than a major city.
The cathedral is particularly impressive.
It would be rude to visit Alsace without trying out the local specialities and one such dish is 'tarte flambée'. The only way I can describe this is to say that its mother was a pancake and its father was a pizza!
We visited Barr which was an unremarkable town and if you are in the area you could certainly improve your stay by giving it a miss and visiting somewhere else instead.
We stopped for a coffee here and then quickly moved on.
Now I am of the opinion, and I am certain that I am not alone in this, that there are only so many Nazi concentration camps that you need to visit. Gilly, on the other hand, is an archaeologist with a professional interest in the subject so has a slightly different viewpoint. I dropped her off at Natzweiler Struthof and went off with my camera to explore Obernai.
Now this town was well worth the visit and after a pleasant hour wandering around I found a great spot to have a coffee and watch the world go by.
Obernai is a beautiful town with cobbled streets and unspoiled buildings. There are plenty of shops, restaurants and cafés and I was happy to pass some time here.
On the way back to collect Gilly I spotted this lonely cabin and stopped to take a photo.
Of course we couldn't visit this part of the world without taking a trip out to Verdun.
In the first World War Verdun was the most heavily fortified region in France and the German army launched a savage attack on the area in an attempt to break the stalemate of trench warfare. The Battle of Verdun began in February 1916 with an opening German barrage that lasted 10 hours and comprised two million shells. This was supposed to be a decisive blow to French morale but was ultimately unsuccessful. The German army got within 5km of the town before the French started to regain ground and by the time the Americans arrived on the scene in 1918 hundreds of thousands of men had died on both sides.
You can still clearly see the bullet holes in the wall of this church.
In Verdun the war memorial stands proud over the town as a permanent reminder.
Given the pounding that it took in WWI and the bomb damage of WWII the town of Verdun is not as grim as you might expect but it is almost entirely made up of relatively modern buildings and is certainly not picturesque.
The town is surrounded by the battlefields where farmers still uncover bombs and other battle scrap with their ploughs on an alarmingly regular basis. The Victory V at the entrance to the town (pictured above) is made up of scrap metal found in the battlefields.
The trip to Verdun very educational with a fabulous museum, a number of memorials from various conflicts and lots of interesting battle field sites including the village of Fleury. (below)
Fleury was completely obliterated in the conflict and all that remains among the bomb craters are posts saying what each building was.
Overall Verdun was well worth the 3.5hr drive in each direction which passed through some beautiful winding mountain roads. On the way back I drove nearly 30 miles on these roads without seeing another car - bliss!
On our final day we drove to Freiburg in Germany.
The best thing about Freiburg was the extensive market. The town was a pleasant mix of old and new but nothing special.
A final word of advice if you are flying from Basel-Mulhouse: buy some food on your way to the airport. We treated ourselves to a meal in a Michelin Star restaurant for our last night and this was cheaper than a sandwich, pastry and orange juice at the airport!
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