France - Alsace Region
I was initially attracted to the quaint little towns and villages of the Alsace region of France because of their medieval, colourful houses which looked like a scene from a Disney film. I was besotted, not only because I had never really heard much about this region of France, but also because of it's geographic location.
The entire region rests along the French-German border, with Switzerland lying to the south. Imagine my excitement when I realised I could access this region easily from Basel-Mulhouse airport with easyJet. The low fares and one hour thirty flight time (from Manchester) meant that it was an affordable holiday and I would arrive at my destination in no time at all. The whole region is fairly compact, you can reach Strasbourg, the capital of the Alsace, which lies in the north from Basel in less than an hour and a half by car. (One word of advice if you hire a car in Basel airport: Make sure you remember if you hired the car from the French or Swiss side of the airport, as it's split into two sides. We realised our sat-nav was taking us to the wrong car hire place and it resulted us driving around for over an hour, crossing the border several times and almost missing our flight home!).
So, apart from discovering the region harboured an array of colourful attractive villages, on further investigation, I grew slightly more excited when I discovered the region has a rich history in wine growing. In fact the Alsace region is one of the most famous wine growing regions in France (after years of drinking poor quality wine, it's no surprise that I knew very little. if anything about French wine and the history of wine in the country). Wine lovers from all over the globe visit the Alsace region to explore the 'Alsace wine route'. The most famous of the Alsace wines is the white Riesling wine, but as I discovered on my trip, they also cater for red wine lovers, like myself, in the form of a delightful Pinot Noir.
After doing a little further research into the trip. We decided to incorporate seven destinations into our trip. Some smaller villages, including Riquewihr, Eguisheim, Kayersbeg and Ribeauville and the larger towns of Colmar, Strasbourg and Basel. We hired a car to get around but you can also access the smaller villages on bus excursions from Strasbourg and Basel. Unlike bigger, more popular tourist hotspots, these small villages felt very safe and secure from the usual tourist dangers.
EguisheimOur first destination on the Alsace wine route was the magical village of Eguisheim, about half an hour by car from Basel-Mulhouse airport. Eguisheim, is listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France and with its colourful, half timbered houses each one adorned with beautiful pink and red flowers, it's not difficult to see why.
|Square surrounded by little cafes|
|House that inspired Beauty & The Beast|
Maison WolfbergerA highlight of this village, which we stumbled across on our journey returning to the car park, was the Maison Wolfberger wine cellar. (I think we were a little bit excited as this was our first destination and in the midst of our excitement and taking dozens of photos, we completely failed to spot the entrance). I'm so glad we spotted it on the way back as it was a little gem of a winery. This is where I had my first ever taste of Alsace Pinot Noir i might add and I've been struggling to find a red wine I like more than this ever since! The staff here were extremely knowledgeable and there was no pressure to buy any of the wines, just lots of free samples! The building seemed reminiscent of an old church with big colourful stained glass windows with a museum area where you could see the fermenting barrels in the basement through a glass floor and there was lots of information on the different aspects of wine making.
RiquewihrAfter initially intending to stay in Colmar, we took the decision to stay in the quieter, more remote village of Riquewihr for two nights. I'm pleased to say we made the right decision. Like, Eguisheim it retains most of it's medieval Alsace charm. The array of colourful buildings is a feast for the eyes. From bold yellows, royal blues and aqua-marine greens, it's every instagrammer and Disney addict's dream. It really is like a picture out of a fairy tale.
The selection of bars and restaurants for such a small village was astounding. It has four Michelin star restaurants, which is fairly impressive for a village with a population of 1,300 inhabitants. In contrast, my home town of Manchester has a population of over half a million people and has none! Although we would have loved to try all of them. Unfortunately, we were only there for two nights and on discovering the second night that one of the restaurants, Au Trothus, was closed, we returned to the outstanding L'Grappe Dor which we had dined at on our first night.
L'Grappe DorAfter reading several excellent reviews about this restaurant, we were sceptical as to whether we would even get a table as we didn't get chance to book in advance. The staff there were extremely accommodating and found us a table, despite the restaurant being extremely busy on both nights. Unlike in the UK where you feel like you're restricted to a time slot (oh we better rush our food, at they told us someone else has booked the table for 8 pm). The atmosphere is very relaxed and you are never made to feel like you are part of a conveyor belt of customers and only have a limited amount of time to order and consume your meal before you are pushed out of the door when the next customers (who booked their table two weeks in advance) enter the restaurant.
|The steak at L'Grappe Dor|
Be warned that there is no English version of the menu (nor should they be) however the staff speak good English and I'm sure they would be happy to help those who are struggling using Google translate. I think the screen shot version where it translates the text directly from the menu definitely still has some teething problems. I won't share with you what it translated part of the menu as when we tried to use it, it was to say the least, slightly offensive! We tried some of the quintessential dishes such as escargot (OK, so my partner did, I was only brave enough to try the sauce!) and the local Munster cheese. A slightly smelly, strong soft cheese. I must admit I was reluctant to try this at first, as I am not a fan of strong smelling cheeses. However, upon trying the cheese with the accompanying Pinot Noir it was actually quite delightful, it made the cheese seem almost sweet tasting. Would definitely recommended to any sceptics out there, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.
|Rabbit stuffed with Apricot|
|Black Forest Cake|
For mains we both chose the steak on the first night (rare of course, which I also used to be sceptical of, but also highly recommend if your afraid of it tasting 'bloody' don't be, it's melt-in-the-mouth divine!) on the second night I chose wild rabbit stuffed with apricot. An usual combination but it really worked! Would definitely recommend if you want to try something slightly different. For dessert we indulged in the traditional Black Forest cake which hails from the Black Forest region of Germany, lying just to east of the Alsace. We spotted this dish on the menu in several cafes and restaurants on our trip, a salute the their German neighbour despite the history conflict between the two regions spanning back for hundreds of years (and the age old debate of who does desserts better....the Germans or the French...I really can't decide!).
Un Petit VinWhist in Riquewihr we also became a fan of 'un petit vin', (which translates as a small wine) which came in the cutest little wine glass with a green base and stem. It was very typical of the Alsace region and held the perfect amount of wine for me. It has to be said that I am not a big fan of these giant fish bowl type wine glasses that holds half a bottle of wine. They are heavy and drinking wine should not be a chore. Plus I'm all about quality and not quantity! We couldn't resist and bought a couple of these glasses. In hindsight I wish we had bought six, as we recently moved house and one smashed in transit. So we now have one, lonely Alsace wine glass. We will have to go back and buy another one to keep it company!
|un petit vin|
KayersbergAfter several hours scouring Instagram (me) and google maps (him) we decided to add the village of Kayersberg to the trip. Located just a twenty minute driver from Riquewihr, the drive takes you along part of the scenic Alsace wine route. Field after field of beautiful vineyards as far of as the eye could see. Every now and then we would stop as we would see the ruins of an old castle (testament to the rich history of conflict in the region over the centuries) After several pit stops for photo ops we finally made it to the town of Kayesrberg, and what a wonderful town it was. Another village voted 'Le Village Prefere' Des France 2017' (favourite village of France). We were slightly taken aback that there weren't more, particularly English tourists here.
|Castle ruins on the hillside, surround by vineyards|
Kayersberg is easily accessible by bus from Colmar and takes around 40 minutes. However if you visit by car (mush easier) it takes about 25 minutes. Like the previous two villagers, Kayerberg was awash with colours. I felt more of a purple and green hue in this village, but still equally as pretty. Also we were enticed by a couple of the village cats. A ginger one (like me) and an adorable black cat that seemed very friendly with the tourists. Cats boosting tourism yet again! Maybe I'm just thinking this because I love cats so much but I always think a town with cats is always full of friendly, welcoming people. I almost wanted wanted to burst into song while I was there. The sound track from Beauty and the Beast was playing in my head the whole time. "Bonjour! Bonjour! There goes the baker with his tray like always....."if you are a fan of the film you should definitely visit, one if not all of these villages as they certainly have the same feel and look of the village which inspired the film.
|Houses of Kayersberg|
RibeauvilleA ten minute drive north of Riquewihr lies Ribeauville. The one thing that stands out in memory most for me in Ribeauville were the pretty wooden shutters on the windows of the house that had little love heart shapes carved out into the wood. Flowers adorned the window sills and the combination of the two created a vision of a charming and romantic fairly tale village. It would be the kind of place you could only dream that your other half would take you to on Valentine's Day! I also remember purple and yellow buildings side by sides and thinking how contrasting the colours were but how amazing they looked next to each other, like yin and yang. They complicated each other perfectly.
|Love heart shapes carved out of the wooden shutters|
|Yellow and purple houses of Ribeauville|
|Pretty buildings of Ribeauville|
We finally sampled some of the regions locally crafted beers at one of the local cafes in Ribeauville. (The beer was actually brewed in Riquewihr but we didn't realise this until afterwards) If you are a beer fan (beer and wine even better) then a visit to the Brasserie du Vignoble store or BRA'V in Riquewihr is a must! I for one didn't realise the Alsace region brewed it's own beer too as it's often over shadowed by the fact it is more well known as a wine growing region. Apparently the Alsace is the only region in France where both wine and beer are produced and it produces over half the beer consumed in France! I guess it makes sense as it lies along the French and German border which are famous for wine and beer respectively.
|BRA'V La Blanche du Vignoble|
ColmarOne of the largest towns of the Alsace region and probably the most well known after Strasbourg. There's probably a little less to say about this town, as beautiful as it is. The little Venice area is popular with tourists and its easy to see why. Pretty pastel coloured shops and houses (the pink house in particular i liked. I think it's the sort of house that Barbie would live in) and flowers in hanging baskets adorn the waterway, while tourist capture the pretty scenes from boats sailing up and down the canal.
|La Petite Venise|
After trying to capture that perfect picture (like the hundreds of other tourists there) we gave up and headed for some good old Alsace food. This time in the form of the popular Alsatian dish, Tarte Flambee (or Flammkuchen in German). This dish could be found almost everywhere in Colmar, it's quick and easy to make. It simply consists of thinly rolled out bread dough, covered in creme fraiche, slice onions and bacon lardons. It is delicious and filling and is kind of like an Alsace take on a pizza. Tarte flambée translates as flame cake and historically it was not invented as a dish, but as a means for bakers to test the heat of the oven before they used it to bake bread. I think it was a lucky coincidence that this 'temperature tester' turned into such a popular local dish!
As we departed the city, on our return to Riqwihr I thought I was seeing things, was it? Could it be? But we weren't in NYC what was going on? As we approached her from behind....yes it was really her, complete with torch in one hand and tablet in the other...it was the Statue of Liberty! I knew she was French but I had no idea why she was perched at the end of a busy main road that led in to Colmar. Upon further research I discovered that the statue's sculptor, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi was born in Colmar and it was a tribute to him, on the 100th anniversary of his death, all makes sense now, and I learnt something new and interesting along the way!
|Colmar's Statue of Liberty|
StrasbourgThe capital of the Alsace and if I'm honest the only town I had actually heard of in the Alsace region before researching this trip. (I still got an A in Geography though, how did that happen?!) Strasbourg's most famous landmark is it's stunning cathedral. It's the sixth tallest church in the world and it's a monster (i mean that in the nicest possible way!) you'll find it in the centre of a busy square, much like a lot of other European cathedrals. Lot's of pretty little tourist shops where you can buy little statues and fridge magnets of the cathedral. I won't bore you with the history and other random facts about the cathedral because that's what we have Wikipedia for nowadays.
There's also a 'Little France' (an area, similar to Colmar's 'Little Venice' with quaint little half timbered building running along the river. In my opinion, not as visually appeasing as Colmar, but still worth a visit. I think this area of Strasbourg gives visitors a feel for what the smaller towns and villages of the Alsace region are like. The smaller locations tend to retain more of their historical charm. It's also worth mentioning how bike-friendly the city is. There were so many bikes it almost felt like Amsterdam. The best thing about it though was there were lots of designated bike paths, the motorists respected the cyclists (unlike in some countries) tending to give them right of way and, along with the cities extensive metro system, it gave the city a very clean and eco-friendly vibe.
|La Petite France|
On a final note, it has to be said that while Strasbourg and Colmar retain some of their historical Alsace charm. I would make sure you incorporate a visit to the smaller Alsace towns and villages into any trip to the Alsace to get an authentic feel for the region.
We rounded the trip off with a cold beer on the banks of the River Rhine in Basel on the final day before heading home. Cheers!
I hope that you've enjoyed reading about my experience of the Alsace region. Please feel free to share your thoughts and opinions in the comments box below.