Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Village Hopping in Alsace

There are several problems with the Alsatian region of France.

First and foremost, Alsace is so close to Luxembourg – less than 3 hours – that it’s a perfect weekend destination; the problem is, when you get there, you’re going to want to stay longer than a weekend.

Second, once you do get there for a weekend or otherwise, you’re going to have to make some critical decisions. Should you follow la route des vins, la route de la choucroute, la route du chocolat, or la route du fromage? (I’m only listing half of the suggested routes here, but rest assured: all roads lead to your stomach.)

Then there’s the problem of where to stay. You see, there are scores of tiny timbered towns that make up Alsace and each and every one of them is charming and unique in its own way. Some towns sit beneath ruins of centuries old castles, others have been singled out by the Conseil National des Villes et Villages Fleuris for their town’s collectively dazzling, colorful displays of flowers and landscaping.

Finally, there’s the problem of what to eat. Alsatian cuisine is a perfect blend of German heartiness and French finesse. But with only a few precious meals to enjoy during a weekend stay, how does one choose between the choucroute garnie, the baeckeoffe, or anything that involves Muenster cheese (invented here)? And will there still be room for kugelhopf the next morning?

And most importantly: how many orders of tarte flambée are appropriate to share in one day?

Despite all of these critical, complex decisions, Nick and I still managed to have an incredible time in Alsace last weekend. It didn’t hurt, either, that the sun was shining and temperatures were soaring on both Saturday and Sunday…the perfect weather for enjoying a bit (or a lot) of cold Alsatian wine and several orders of tarte flambée, also known as flammenkuchen; a pizza-like concoction of lardons (bacon), onions and cream atop a cracker crust that is baked, preferably, in a wood-fired oven. We tried this for the first time in Strasbourg last spring and became fast fans. This stuff is insanely, addictively delicious.

The well of the six buckets.
We started our Alsatian adventure on Friday night, driving from Luxembourg Ville to Obernai, where we spent the night. Obernai is one of the larger small towns in Alsace, at the top of the route du vin, which we planned to follow the next day. Traffic heading south from Luxembourg is never a sure bet on a Friday night, so we opted for a larger town in hopes that there would still be restaurants open when we arrived. (There were…and yes, we ordered tarte flambée to share before we even began to peruse the dinner menu.) On Saturday morning, we took a stroll around the center of town and found what one of our guidebooks describes as “the most beautiful well in Alsace.” It was built in 1579 and is fitted with six buckets filled with flowers. Not so convenient for pulling up water, but it makes for a lovely monument.

Then we were off to climb (in our car, of course) 763 meters to the top of nearby Mont Sainte-Odile. Mont Sainte-Odile is a monastery that dates back to either 7 A.D or to 1000 B.C., when some believe the monastery’s Pagan Wall was constructed by druids; no matter what you read, this is an ancient site full of history. The monastery was a Merovingian fortress in the 7th century, and the birthplace of a girl named Odilia. Born blind, she was rejected by her father and was raised in Bourgogne. Here, legend has it that she recovered her sight during baptism and went on to perform a number of miracles during her lifetime, including making a spring flow forth that could cure the blind. She returned to the fortress and turned it into a monastery, where she died in 720. Her remains are there to this day.

Mont Sainte-Odile
Mosaic wall inside one of the chapels.
After we explored the several chapels that make up Mont Sainte-Odile, we were off to find the route du vin. It took a little while, but after a few (ahem…several) twists and turns (I was driving and when touring small towns, I am resolutely anti-GPS.), we arrived in Kintzheim. I can’t tell you anything exceptional about this town – other than that it’s quaint and charming, of course) – but the clock was ticking toward 1:30pm and we needed to stop for lunch. It is common in small towns in France (and in fact, common throughout Luxembourg, even in Luxembourg Ville) that restaurants only serve lunch between 12pm and 2pm. If you arrive too close to 2pm, you will not be seated and thus: no tarte flambée for you.

We settled on a table in the sunshine at Auberge Saint-Martin and tucked in for a long lunch in their garden and enjoyed a little wine, a little food, a lovely view of the ruins of Château de Kintzheim and our first awkward sunburns of the season.

Then we were off again, this time on the route du vin, driving through more towns full of colorful timbered houses with window boxes that overflowed with flowers. We stopped to taste some wine in St-Hippolyte and Ribeauvillé, though it’s amazing that we were even able to swallow, with our mouths so agape at the abundance of flowers, trees and shrubs in full spring bloom. Homes and businesses in all of the towns we drove through (especially in Ribeauvillé) were speckled with rabbits, birds and colored eggs, in preparation for Easter. It was so much fun to see! I can only imagine what these towns look like at Christmas (we’re already planning the next trip).

A quick note about wine tasting in Alsace: it’s easy. No appointments needed. Just look for a building that says “cave” on its door or on a chalkboard outside, look for the word “dégustation” (tasting) and wander in. You can try as many wines as you’d like, for free, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the prices. While Alsatian wines certainly are not the most prestigious or popular in France, they are great with food, perfectly refreshing under the spring and summer sunshine, and priced at a bargain rate. You’ll find mostly white wine in this region, but you’ll find a few reds on the tasting list (once you taste them, you’ll know why there are so few).

After adding a few more bottles to our growing stash, we continued south to our last stop of the day, Riquewihr, where we had booked a room for the night at the cozy Hôtel à l'Oriel (which I highly recommend!). The town was buzzing with day trippers, but as the sun began to set, they moved on to their own towns and hotels and left the rest of us tourists to enjoy the emptiness of Riquewihr at night; a virtual ghost town, comparatively. We enjoyed a lovely, long, leisurely dinner at a cozy winestub, La Grappe d’Or.

We let our dinner settle a bit as we enjoyed a nighttime stroll through town. The town itself is tiny and enclosed within the remains of an old city wall; outside the wall are vineyards as far as you can see. When dinner had settled enough for us to cram in one last nightcap before heading back to our hotel and ending this terrific day, we found that our options were limited. We could stop in our hotel bar or visit a bar called Le 1000'Sabords that had a secret buzzer around the corner. We opted for the secret buzzer.

To enter, you have to exit the village wall and round the corner, where you’ll get to a door with a buzzer and video camera. The bartender answered the door and led us down a long corridor and into the bar. And that’s really all it was. Just a bar that you can find anywhere…though this one did have a giant pirate flag hanging on the wall. (And why wouldn’t there be a giant pirate flag hanging on the wall?)

The next morning, the town was buzzing again. I imagine that Riquewihr – and for that matter, all of the charming towns of Alsace – gets quite busy and full of tourists in the summertime. If you can make it in the off season, go. If not, don’t let the prospect of tourists discourage you; there’s plenty of tarte flambée to go around!

And another great thing about Alsace? Wine tasting on Sunday. Usually, this part of the world shuts down on Sundays, which is a day for church, long lunches and for family. But they knew where their bread was buttered in Riquewihr; nearly all of the shops were open and the caves were open for dégustation and sales.

So, it was a pretty terrific weekend. And I highly suggest that sometime soon, you follow the Alsace Tourist Board’s advice and Alsacez-vous!

Additional Reading:
  • Alsace Tourist Board: Excellent tourism web site with all you need to know about Alsace history, gastronomy, sights to see and things to do. Incredibly comprehensive and honestly no need for a tour guidebook if you spend some quality time here. In English.
  • Tourist Guide Alsace Lorraine Champagne 2010 (Michelin Green Guides): If you do buy a guidebook, buy this one. Excellent resource for Alsace but also - truth in advertising - for Lorraine and Champagne. If you live in Luxembourg, you'll turn to this book often.


  1. Great stuff Jessica, thanks for some great reading and pictures. Looks like some awesome times! We hope to make it over someday soon!

  2. Sounds like you had a great trip in Alsace. We tend to get all the way down to Colmar - the old city is adorable.

    But now I'm inspired to stop in Riquewhir for more than a few hours... perhaps we'll have to stay there on our next trip.

  3. Jessica, im sure this was rhetorical, how many orders of tarte flambée are appropriate to share in one day? I would have to say the answer is one per meal plus one for good measure! Your trip to Ste Odile reminded me of my trip there in 08. My wife and I ended up there after touring Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp and enjoyed it (Mont Ste Odile) greatly. We ate plenty of Flammenkeuchen that day to, and continue to do so at home!

  4. Anita: Colmar is next on the list for sure, I can't wait to go back!
    Christian: Alsace is such an interesting area; Mont Ste Odile was a nice surprise to discover, and while we didn't stop on this trip, I hadn't realized before our trip that there was a concentration camp so far west. So much history and so many things to see and do in Alsace.