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This is a great holiday area, it has wonderful scenery with mountains and vineyards, picturesque villages, a very pronounced character mixing French and German cultures, and a host of outdoor activities from skiing to snow boarding and boating, walking and cycling to hang-gliding. And, it is compact, so you can discover it all with relative ease.
The region of Alsace is long and thin – no more than 190 km in length and 50 km wide. But what a lot gets packed into this area framed by the Vosges mountains to the west, the river Rhine forming the German border to the east and Switzerland to the south. (See Regions map of France for location.) In the middle of Alsace, the vineyards produce excellent white wines, there is hearty food and the pretty villages are the stuff of picture-postcards. The region’s pronounced character combines French and German traits, brought about not only by its location, but also by its tormented history. In fact the place names sound more German than French.
The whole area is compact and you can get to grips with it in a week, strolling through the geranium clad villages with their half timbered houses such as Colmar, shown right, visiting the wine cellars to taste the local Riesling and Gewürtztraminer and stopping off at the magnificent castles such as Haut Koenigsbourg, shown above, visited by 600,000 people a year. End the day at the ‘winstubs’ or winebar to eat and drink the delicious local offerings such as blue trout or baeckeoffe, a vegetable and meat stew. Apart from wine, there are the white brandies such as Kirsch made from cherries, not to forget beer which is manufactured at the Krononbourg and Heineken breweries outside Strasbourg where a two hour tour can be made. Krononbourg produce an astounding one billion litres of beer a year in France.
Strasbourg in the north of the region is the capital of Bas-Rhin. This gracious, cosmopolitan city is a major European player, home to the Council of Europe and the European Parliament. Many other illustrious bodies reside here too such as the European Court of Human Rights. As a result, travel connections to the city are excellent with the TGV Est train service connecting to Paris in two and a quarter hours, and it is served by two airports: Basel-Mulhouse and Strasbourg. Make a note that hotel accommodation is hard to come by when the parliament is sitting so plan this ahead. Choose from the four star Hotel Régent Petite France and Régent Contades the three star Hannong, or the less expensive but heavily booked Gutenberg.
Boasting one of the oldest universities in France, this is a sophisticated, cultured city with a large choice of restaurants of all descriptions, good museums and plenty of activities. At its hub is the Cathedral of Notre Dame one of finest Gothic examples in France with its pink filigree sandstone spire towering over the town. This central area is known as the Grand Ile, a designated Unesco Heritage Site, with the river Ill running along the south side and the canal to the north. Narrow streets, half-timbered houses typify the area and Petite France to the south-west of the Ile offers more narrow lanes, canals and locks and here you can take a relaxing trip on a waterbus.
This is a city offering all year round tourism. Join the music festival in June; watch the light show at the cathedral running from mid July to the end of August; the beer festival is at the end of October and the Jazzdor runs for a fortnight in November. At the end of the year, the famous Christmas market lights up the town, decked out in sparkling splendour. A great place for shopping and to really get you in the spirit of the season, there’s mulled wine, chestnuts and ice skating.
Colmar and the Route du Vin d’Alsace
Where Strasbourg is firmly business orientated, Colmar, the capital of Haut-Rhin is a tourist centre. From here, head up the Route du Vin, taking in the picturesque villages such as Obernai, Mont Ste-Odile, Dambach-la-Ville, Bergheim, Riquewihr, and Kaysersberg. Vineyards with a mountain backdrop, delightful shops and bars, all beckon you whether you are touring by car, on a bike, or on a walking trip. There are vineyard trails mapped out by the tourist office for guidance.
Christmas is big in this area with markets and entertainment from the end of November to the end of each year.
Munster and Mulhouse
Other towns in the region include Munster in the beautiful Fecht valley, just west of Colmar, which is famous for its smelly cheese. Le Petit Ballon and Le Hohneck reign down on it. Mulhouse is further south towards the Swiss border on the river Rhine. This is an industrial town but it has some fine museums featuring classic cars, trains, electricity and printed fabrics. There's a three day automobile event each July; a Jazz Festival at the end of August and the middle of February is Carnival time.
The Maginot Line
Visiting this region, history cannot be put to one side. Alsace was annexed by Germany from 1871 to the end of WWI and again from 1940-1944, rather like a game of ping-pong, only of course, it wasn’t a game. After WWI the French thought they needed more fortification along the German border and built the Maginot Line between 1930 to 1940 from Basle through Alsace and along the top of Lorraine region. These fortifications proved to be the biggest white elephant ever. Germany came around the top and attacked the region from behind. There are war memorials, war cemeteries, a concentration camp, fortifications and battle grounds to remind us of the torrid past. Visiting a war cemetery is an unforgettable experience – go out of your way to do it.
Holidays on the Go
Alsace has two Regional Nature Parks which offer spectacular scenery and a wealth of fauna and flora. These are the Ballons des Vosges Regional Nature Park and the Northern Vosges Regional Nature Park.
The Northern Vosges is less spectacular than its southern neighbour but it is less crowded than in the south. Hiking is popular and Saverne and Wissembourg are attractive towns.
The Southern Vosges offers hikers, cyclists and hang-gliders gently rounded mountains, forests, pastures and glacial lakes during the summer months, and winter sports enthusiasts a chance to go skiing and snowboarding, cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing and sledging over the colder months. Gérardmer, Markstein, Lac Blanc and La Bresse are the resort names to look out for; they are less well known than their Alpine counterparts and so you can get good value for money.
Here in the Ballons des Vosges there are six GR (Grande Randonnée) walking routes. The Route des Crêtes above Munster is particularly spectacular with views over the Black Forest, across the Rhine, and on clear days to the Swiss Alps and Mont Blanc. The Grand Ballon is the highest point at 1424m. Names to look out for include the Champ du Feu, the Niceck Falls, the Hohneck and Lac Blanc.
Alsace Vineyard Trails 7 day self-guided tour by Sherpa Expeditions through the Vosges, visiting the picturesque villages such as Riquewihr and Obernai.
The Cosmopolitan Cruise, round trip from Hesse to Strasbourg with Le Boat. You will encounter beautiful scenery as you ascend the Arzviller boat lift and cruise on to Saverne, with its beautiful rose gardens.
Best Western Monopole Métropole, *** Strasbourg
Car Hire at Colmar, Mulhouse and Strasbourg with Auto Europe