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Busy history, border identity flavor every Alsace aspect

By Susie Woodhams
Globe Correspondent / August 1, 2010

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ALSACE, France — I always feel like I have cheated the friends or family who visit me here, my home the last two years.

Never mind that their digital cameras overflow with images of medieval villages packed with colorful, half-timbered houses, often draped in geraniums and roses. Or that their bellies bulge from sampling golden tube cakes known as kugelhopf; oniony tarte flambée that resembles a thin, white cousin of pizza; or perhaps something grander from one of more than 20 Michelin-starred restaurants that dot this northeastern region of France.

Still, I fret that they haven’t experienced enough — perhaps a hike that follows an Alsatian fairy tale to Ferrette’s Cave of Dwarfs, or another that weaves through German and French World War I bunkers near a rocky spur above Cernay. Yet they assure me they have hit the high points of Alsace, including tasting stops along the 110-mile Route de Vin, or Wine Road, and a peek into a few castle ruins, of which there are about 100 relatively intact.

While short-stay tourists often leave feeling content, the people who live here tell me the rest of France still has trouble embracing the culture of Alsace, a 30-mile-wide ribbon of land bordered by the Vosges Mountains to the west, Germany and the Rhine to the east, and Switzerland along the southeastern edge. Laurence Winter, an Alsatian-born author, wrote a book, which was turned into a popular stage comedy, about surviving when your husband is transferred to Alsace — often stereotyped as a German outpost with heavy food and strange accents.

It is one of three French regions — along with Brittany and Corsica — that has preserved a strong, separate identity and language, in spite of its war-ravaged history. While my butcher in Hégehneim speaks French to me, he and older villagers instinctively lapse into a German dialect known as Alsatian — a version of what Alemannic tribes brought here around the fifth century. Although rarely formally written, it survived as France and what would become Germany fought for control of Alsace a half dozen times from the mid-1600s until the end of World War II. Just before Germany occupied this region in 1940, about a third of the Alsatian population was evacuated to southwest France, where most learned French for the first time.

“It’s true, over the years we have switched identities and been between two cultures, but there’s an attachment to our Alsatian roots, like the roots of the vineyard, that is profound,’’ said Christian Beyer, who represents his family’s 14th generation of winemakers in the tiny medieval town of Eguisheim.

Known as the berceau, or cradle, of Alsatian winemaking a little south of central Alsace, Eguisheim (pronounced eh-gee-SIME) is among my favorite stops for exploring those roots. While as charming as nearby wine-route towns such as Kaysersberg and Riquewihr, it’s cozier, packed with more history and fewer souvenir shops.

On a recent visit, I had a hard time not photographing every wrought-iron sign and flower box decorating 16th-century houses along Rue du Rempart Sud, one of three narrow, concentric cobbled streets that follow the same line as ramparts that once protected the town’s eighth-century castle, birthplace of Pope Leo IX (1002-54).

A large fountain bearing the pope’s statue, just a few steps below the castle’s multicolored, tiled turret and St. Leo’s Chapel, make the town square a picturesque and usually quiet outdoor lunch spot, except on the last weekend of August. That’s when the population of 1,500 is expected to expand to a crowd 10 times that during the town’s 50th annual wine festival, celebrating (with food, music, and dancing) the town’s fine riesling, pinot gris, and fruity gewürztraminer, as well as the four other Alsatian grape varieties.

While I love a good festival — and Alsace seems to host them weekly to celebrate everything from medieval fiddlers to the vast amount of chou, or cabbage, grown in the plains — I called in advance for a tour of Domaine Émile Beyer, where Beyer, 33, has taken the helm from his father, Luc. As we zigzagged through a patchwork of green, leafy vineyards outside the village, Beyer explained a viticulture believed to date more than 1,800 years to the Romans. That’s nearly twice as old as the remains of the Three Castles I had explored earlier that stand out on a hill like sentries guarding the town’s vineyards.

“That’s what we planted this spring,’’ Beyer said, pointing to a gentle slope, where young vines had barely begun to climb their wooden posts. “My objective here is to produce a really, really good riesling, the king of wine in Alsace.’’

It wouldn’t be the first fine vintage produced by the Beyer family, which has been making wine since 1580 yet didn’t launch the business until 1867. In cultivating this prized six-acre plot of Pfersigberg grand cru, Beyer hopes to honor his ancestor, Lucas, who bought it in 1792, during the sale of biens nationaux — the French term for properties the state seized from the church and nobility after the French Revolution and then sold to citizens.

Later in the village, Beyer showed me the original contract of the sale, as well as other weathered parchment documents, elaborately penned in old French, as well as in old German so that Alsatians could read it — yet another reminder of their tri-cultural circumstances.

Just five miles away, I’m always stunned by how large Colmar seems compared with Eguisheim, while remaining more intimate than Alsace’s other major cities, Strasbourg and Mulhouse.

The city still gives off the aura of wealth and prestige some Alsatians found after it gained free imperial status in the 13th century and established itself as the port of Alsace. Its canals transported wine and goods to the Rhine during the Middle Ages, and farmers used these waterways until the 1950s to get produce to Colmar’s covered market. They are now the attraction of the popular Petite Venise area, where cafe terraces extend over the water and tourists take small boat rides down the tree-lined Lauch River.

Although modern shops have been woven into streets of half-timbered houses, they do not detract from Colmar’s stunning architecture, such as the Maison des Têtes, or House of Heads, built in 1609 and now a hotel and restaurant. While my family and I stood back to admire the German Renaissance building, an elderly woman approached and tried to explain in German, English, and finally French that there are more than 100 faces sculpted on the facade, ranging from comical to menacing.

Down the street from the grand Pfister House, where ornate Renaissance frescoes are painted above oriel windows, you’ll find the birthplace and now museum of Auguste Bartholdi, who gained fame sculpting the Statue of Liberty. Don’t be surprised if you stumble upon a replica of the statue at a roundabout; the city erected it in 2004 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Bartholdi’s death.

While I usually prefer to linger outside, I reserved time to explore the 13th-century convent that now serves as the Unterlinden Museum, and was captivated by what is considered its most important work: the Isenheim Altarpiece. Four religious scenes, which range from hauntingly beautiful to dramatically torturous, were painted on large folding panels between 1512-16 by Matthias Grünewald, with late-15th-century wood carvings by Nicolas de Haguenau depicting another scene. Commissioned for the Antonite monastery in Isenheim (15 miles south of Colmar), where monks ministered to victims of the disfiguring disease ergotism, the altarpiece was spared destruction during the French Revolution when officials moved it to a basement in Colmar, and 60 years later, to the convent. Both German and French governments also went to great lengths to move it before and during both world wars.

Less than 11 miles north of Colmar, it’s almost obligatory to stop at Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle, constructed in the 12th century as a strategic fortress 2,300 feet above the plains — and now one of the most visited French monuments outside of Paris. Virtually destroyed in 1633 during the 30 Years War, it lay in ruins until 1899, when Kaiser Wilhelm II commissioned an elaborate and at times exaggerated renovation, presumably to underline that Alsace, annexed in 1871, was once again under German rule. We found the $9.75 entry fee (free for children), plus $5.20 for an English audio guide, a bargain for the in-depth commentary and spectacular views reaching the Black Forest and Swiss Alps.

You’ll get a similar view for free visiting Mount Saint Odile and its monastery, rebuilt several times since the seventh century atop rugged pink sandstone, high above the charming towns of Obernai and Ottrott (about 15 miles southwest of Strasbourg). In addition to learning about the legend of Odile — the original prioress of the convent who became patron saint of Alsace — you can explore the mysterious six-mile Pagan’s Wall in woods surrounding the mount, made of more than 300,000 rocks and believed to date to 1000 BC.

Susie Woodhams can be reached at susiewoodhams@gmail.com.

If You Go

Where to eat
Caveau d’Eguisheim
3 Place du Château Saint Léon
Eguisheim
www.jcp-gourmet.com
One-star Michelin restaurant specializes in Vosges-raised pork and other French dishes. The $28.60 three-course lunch ($22.75 for two courses) is a bargain. Prix fixe menus at $49.40 and $77.
Au Chasseur
4 Rue du Chasseur, Colmar
011-33-3-8941-4194
On the edge of old town, outdoor tables in spring and summer, cozy interior in winter. Traditional fare, from tarte flambée, choucroute, and other Alsatian specialties. $26-$39 for two courses.
Le Bistro des Saveurs
35 Rue de Sélestat, Obernai
011-33-3-8849-9041
In a 16th-century house two minutes by foot from town center, chef Thierry Schwartz earned a Michelin star with creative, gastronomical dishes (not Alsatian). Weekday three-course lunch for $41.60, $60 at night. The seven-course menu with wine is $125.
Where to stay
La Maison des Têtes
19 Rue des Têtes, Colmar
www.maisondestetes.com
One of Colmar’s most famous old town landmarks, this 17th-century house has a nice restaurant, courtyard, and private parking. Doubles $163-$252.20.
Hotel à la Cour d’Alsace
3 Rue de Gail, Obernai
www.cour-alsace.com
Former manor house and wine cellar of the Baron De Gail family. Doubles from $170.30.
L’Auberge Alsacienne
12 Grand Rue, Eguisheim
www.auberge-alsacienne.net
A 16th-century half-timbered building on main street has traditional restaurant; doubles from $81.90.
Residence Pierre & Vacances
Le Clos d’Eguisheim
www.pv-holidays.com
On outskirts of town, these modern apartments with kitchens and heated pool are a good alternative for longer stays, especially if you have a car. Mid-August rate for seven days starts at $1,027 (sleeps 3-4 adults). October weekly rates start at $533.
What to do
The Marriage of L’ami Fritz Festival
Aug. 14-15, Marlenheim town center. Celebrates the wedding of a bon-vivant character of a 19th-century novel, with parade, traditional Alsatian costumes, music, fireworks, and market.
Colmar 63rd Wine Fair
Aug. 6-25, Parc des Expositions, Colmar. More than 350 exhibitors featuring wine, gastronomy, and agriculture, plus nightly concerts (tickets required) in a 10,000-seat outdoor theater.
Eguisheim 50th Wine growers’ Festival
Aug. 28-29, town center. Tastings at all the wine cellars, music, folkloric costumes, children’s games, and traditional Alsatian food.
Festival of the Fiddlers
Sept. 4-5, Ribeauvillé. One of oldest traditions in Alsace, the festival pays tribute to the brotherhood of fiddlers from Middle Ages with music, costumes, and a parade.
Choucroute Festivals in Meistratzheim
September-October. Krauthergersheim, Hesingue. Celebrates traditional fall meal of sausages, ham, potatoes, and sauerkraut.
Colmar Jazz Festival
Sept. 6-11
Obernai Fall Wine Festival
Oct. 16-17
Chestnut Festival
Nov. 21, Pfaffenheim.
Christmas Markets
Nov. 27-31, Strasbourg, Colmar, Mulhouse, Kaysersberg.