The allure of Alsace
What culture vultures can expect
For centuries Alsace has been the subject of geo-political tussling and big name invaders have included the Romans, the Ottomans, the Germans and the French.
Today things are calmer, with the European Parliament based in Strasbourg, famously one of only three cities to host international institutions without being a national capital city. Geneva and New York are the others.
As a holiday destination it packs a big punch for a relatively small region. It offers a heady mix of unique gastronomy, world class wines, fascinating history and a rich cultural heritage.
What to expect on holiday
If anywhere has ‘rolling hills’, to use the perennial travel cliché, it’s Alsace. The undulating slopes, cloaked in lush vines or leafy forests, seem in places to resemble gentle waves on a moderately turbulent sea. The hills link picture postcard villages that seem to come straight off the tin of a quaint Christmas biscuit tin and encompass vineyards, dark forests and slow moving rivers.
Along the way there are countless treasures of national importance. Medieval castles and Vauban fortifications - some UNESCO World Heritage listed - fascinating museums and monuments, moving memorials to wars long-past and more recent. There’s even what many people hold up as the world’s best motor museum. The Schlumpf Collection in Mulhouse is home to the most powerful car on the planet, the Bugatti Veron.
Culturally the vibe is part French and part German, and the cuisine, language and traditions reflect that. Many grape varieties alone (Riesling, Gewürtztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Muscat, Pinot Gris, Sylvaner, Pinot Noir) have a Germanic ring but in fact have a character and style unique to Alsace.
Schoenenbourg fort One of Alsace’s most important monuments, this was a vital fortification on the Maginot Line and was constructed in the 1930s to defend against German invasion. Extensive tunnels and underground chambers remain in remarkably good condition. Today you can tour the barracks, kitchens and gun emplacements and get a real, eerie sense of past fears.
Location: North of Strasbourg on the border
Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp This is the only World War 2 concentration camp in France and dates from 1941. 50,000 prisoners toiled here in the nearby quarry, over 20,000 perishing in the process, either through exhaustion and starvation or murdered in the proto-type gas chamber. This has become a moving place of remembrance.
Location: West of Strasbourg
Hartmannswillerkopf National Monument Opened in summer 2017 this is a fascinating memorial to events of World War One, with guided tours, a moving cemetery and informative displays for visitors.
Location: North-west of Mulhouse
Oeuvre Notre-Dame museum Set in Strasbourg and set beside the venerable cathedral, this ancient building houses one of France’s most important collections of medieval art. There’s also the elegant courtyards and a Gothic herb garden to add a unique flavour of past centuries.
The Covered Bridges Despite losing their roofs back in 1784 the bridges have retained their name. Dominated by the four massive towers that since the 14th century have stood guarded against intruders, the three bridges span the river in the Petite France quarter.
This is a region of countless hills. And where there is a hill there is a pinnacle. And where there is a pinnacle you’re likely to find a castle. It seems the notion of building a castle on any available hill was irresistible to wannabe medieval power brokers.
And where there are castles there are legends, ancient forests and obscure traditions. The Alsace Castle Route is a great way to explore the heritage of this colourful region.
Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg One of the great castles of France, dating from the 12th century and with an important role defending trading routes.
Château de du Hohlandsbourg Built in the 13th century, this castle provides superb wraparound vistas over the Alsace plains and the Vosges, even extending to the Alps on a clear day.
Château de l'Ortenbourg An unusual castle, accessible only by foot, it is impressively preserved and was one of Alsace’s most strategically important defensive locations. Surrounded by dense woods, the views from its tower are truly dramatic.
Château de Kintzheim Dating from 1270, this castle is imposing with a vast tower and defensive walls. The bird of prey sanctuary is fascinating.
Château de Landskron On the Swiss border in the Jura, this 13th century castle has commanding views over the valley, as well as atmospheric remains of the dungeon and the chapel.