ALSACE-LORRAINE 2006 - Weeks 5~6

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WEEKS 5~6 NEWS - Strasbourg and the Alsace Wine Road:

Crossing the sluggish Moselle river, which we should follow later when we return north through Lorraine, we at last entered Alsace, dropping steeply down into the wide Rhineland plain into the Département of Bas Rhin. And here we got our first glimpse of the distant misty Vosges mountains to the south.
                                                    Click on map for details 
Alsatian history:  Alsace, bordering on modern Germany along the Rhine valley, has a tumultuous history. Through the Middle Ages, these borderlands were disputed by independent dukes and bishops, whose allegiance was contested by the Kings of France and princes of the Holy Roman Empire. Louis XIV finally secured the prosperous towns and province of Alsace for France in 1678 along with Strasbourg 3 years later. The French Emperor Napoleon III's ill-conceived military adventure against the expansionist power of Bismarck's Prussia ended in disastrous defeat in the 1870~1 Franco-Prussian War, and Alsace's annexation by imperial Germany. And so things remained until the Armistice which ended WW1 in 1918 when France re-asserted control of Alsace. Hitler's jack-booted German invasion of France in 1940 re-annexed Alsace-Lorraine into the Third Reich; Alsatian males were enforcedly conscripted into the German military, and Alsace was only recovered by France after German defeat in 1945.

Alsace regional identity:  the most obviously distinctive feature of the region's evident German culture is the preponderance of German-sounding place names, ending in -heim or -willer. The Hansel-and-Gretel fairy tale architecture, with wood-framed buildings festooned with flowers is reminiscent of the Black Forest (which is after all, just across the Rhine); even the wine glasses and bottles are Germanic in style. So how do the Alsatians feel about this schizophrenic culture? Local people seem quite sanguine about their chequered history, and remain fiercely and proudly Alsatian, European and French in that order. As one lady put it to us, they feel themselves "Different from French of the Interior". Like so many across Europe, they have suffered unduly from their aggressive neighbours across the Rhine, who now continue in droves to invade Alsace as tourists; the Alsatians cannily relieve them of their euros. Even more distinctive is the language you hear spoken in village shops: it sounds German ... almost, until you realise that what you are hearing is the Alsatian language, Elsässisch, a High German dialect known to philologists as Alemannic. Although not taught on the school curriculum or used on dual-language road-signs as Breton is in Brittany, it is certainly a living language, not just spoken by a minority of old people. We heard it used regularly; one lady showed obvious appreciation when we asked (in French) if she was speaking Alsatian to her colleague, and in Eguisheim, a vigneron we met spoke no French, just Alsatian and a little German. Historically, it is surprising that the language has survived, since both the French and Germans in turn have tried to suppress it along with the Alsace regional identity. Despite French being the language of officialdom, Alsatian flourishes today as the language of the people; you hear it everywhere, and hopefully this renaissance of Alsace regional identity will continue to develop as with other minority languages like Breton, Welsh and Gaelic.

The Alsace Wine Road:  the vineyards of Alsace extend for more than 100 miles north-south along the eastern slopes of the Vosges foothills overlooking the broad plain of the Rhine valley. The Wine Route threads its way on minor roads through the vines, passing delightful florally bedecked villages with their overhanging half-timbered gabled houses. This was our reason for being here: to visit the towns and villages along the Wine Road and to taste and buy the distinctive wines of Alsace. The region is so picturesque that to avoid difficult choices of which photos to exclude, we have included in this bumper edition 2 sets of photos, 1 from Strasbourg and the other from our progression southwards along the length of the Wine Road.

Strasbourg is both a business-like and a beautiful city, culturally the 'Crossroads of Europe', closer to Frankfurt, Zurich and even Milan than to Paris. The city owes much of its attractiveness to its historical past with the Vauban fortifications, the Petite France district and the area around the huge Cathedral. But, reflecting today's prosperity, Strasbourg expresses its European identity as the seat of the Council of Europe, European Court of Human Rights and European Parliament, whose modernistic buildings are in the suburbs and accessible by the ultra modern tram network. Our Strasbourg selection of photos reflects both the city's historical inheritance (Photos 1~6) and its contemporary European role (Photos 7 & 8).

Our journey down the Wine Road, illustrated by the 2nd set of photos, began at Obernai, an archetypal Alsace wine town overlooked by its Schenkenberg vineyards and the memorial cross to the 140,000 Alsatians forcibly drafted into the German forces in WW2 (hence their title, the Malgré Nous). The beautiful buildings of Obernai, decked with red geraniums, glowed warmly in the autumn sunshine (Photo 1). Here we enjoyed generous hospitality at the caves of Domaine Seilly and Robert Blanck, independent vignerons; both their Rieslings had a wonderfully refreshing fruitiness and set the tone for the whole period. At nearby Ottrott, we tasted and bought the excellent Pinot Noir Rouge for which the village is renowned, from another independent vigneron, Jean-Charles Vonville.

From Obernai, we drove up into the thickly wooded Vosges, where the heath-land gave magnificent views over the blue haze of the distant hills, and generous pickings of bilberries to accompany our morning yoghurt. Or goal was an isolated spot called Struthof, notorious as being the site of the only German concentration camp built in France. Here slave-labour from all across Europe extracted pink granite from nearby quarries to adorn Speer's Third Reich monstrosities, eminent German physicians conducted barbaric pseudo-medical experiments on inmate guinea-pigs, and those considered 'undesirables' were exterminated in gas-chambers. The camp, surrounded by its electrified barbed-wire fences and watch-towers stands as a memorial to the 1000s who were brutalised, starved and worked to death here. Our fuming anger was fermented further by the fact that many of those responsible escaped justice, and resumed normal life in post-war Germany. Perhaps the corpulent elderly German tourist sat next to us in a restaurant was one of them.

Back on the Wine Road, we camped at Dambach-la-Ville, another beautiful medieval village set among its vines (Photos 2 & 3). This section of the route was, we felt, the most enjoyable: a series of delightfully floral villages, with endless opportunities for tasting and conversing with vignerons about their excellent produce, villages with typical Alsatian names like Andlau, Mittelbergheim, Eichhoffen, Itterswiller (Photo 4), Nothalten, Blienschwilleer - were we really in France? We travelled by train into the local town of Sélestat to visit the 1452 Bibliothèque Humaniste, which contains countless manuscripts, incunabula (pre-1500 printed works) and 16th century books. The Reformist movement flourished around Strasbourg in the 15/16th centuries, and Sélestat became the intellectual centre of Humanist thinking and teaching. The library-collection's most renowned work is a 1507 printed book, Cosmographiae Introductio, whose text includes the first reference to the newly discovered continent being named America after its discoverer, Amerigo Vespucci. Just south, set on a 750m high red sandstone spur in the wooded Vosges, is the medieval castle of Haut Koenigsbourg. There are many ruined castles along the length of the Vosges, but this one is different: Germany had occupied Alsace since 1870, and in 1900, Kaiser Wilhelm II, with his overbearing Hohenzollen sense of self-aggrandisement, had the castle restored as a symbol of German imperial power. It may resemble a film-set, but Haut Koenigsbourg gives a noteworthy impression of medieval Rhineland castles, especially when mist swirls gloomily around the wooded Vosges as on the day of our visit.

We now entered the Disneyland stretch of the Wine Road: the much-publicised villages of Ribeauville and Riquewir are horridly sordid tourist traps, with contrived medieval streets lined with gift shops and over-priced wine outlets, and crowded with jostling tourists. All best avoided; continue another 3 kms to Hunawirh, a village set among the vines, whose fortified 12th century church and graveyard betray the region's troubled past. Nearby also is the Centre for the Reintroduction of Storks (cigognes): deaths during migration had reduced the stork population, but the Centre's efforts have successfully increased resident storks numbers again; it became almost commonplace seeing storks pacing daintily around campsites and taking bread almost from your hand.

Our next camp was at Turckheim, a delightfully quiet village which has retained its medieval ramparts, gate-towers, timber-framed buildings, and a long-standing Alsatian tradition which again reflects a troubled past: at 10-00 each evening, the village Night Watchman (Veilleur de Nuit) walks the narrow streets, wrapped in his great-coat and carrying his halberd, lantern and horn; at each corner, he pauses and chants (in Alsatian of course) words to the effect "The clock has struck 10-00; God is with us and all is safe; and I wish you a Good Night" (Photo 5). From Turckheim, we caught the train into Colmar, a jewel of a town with much to see, including the unprecedented collection of medieval art, both ecclesiastical and secular, in the Unterlinden Museum housed in the 13th century buildings of a former convent with its beautiful cloisters. The lofty Gothic chapel houses works by the 15th century Rhineland artist, Martin Schongauer, but the highlight is the multi-panelled retable (altar-piece) painted by Matthias Grünwald for the monastery at Issenheim; completed in 1515, the work shows influences of the emerging Renaissance combined with the medieval spirit on which the style was based (Photo 6) - not to be missed. We spent Sheila's birthday wandering through the byways of Colmar's Petite Venise district (Photo 7), past florally decorated medieval houses, fountains and churches. And did you know that the designer of NY's Statue of Liberty was born in Colmar: who was he? Auguste Bartholdi of course.

Our next stop was at Eguisheim, the most florally decorated of Alsace's attractive villages, whose municipal campsite was set up on the slopes amid the vines. By now the grape harvest (vendange) was beginning, with tractors queuing at the cooperatives bringing plastic bins full of hand-picked grapes for pressing (see left). Producers were seen hosing down the bins ready for the next round of picking (see right). Most of the villages had Sentiers Viticoles (vineyard footpaths) where visitors could walk around the terraced slopes between the vines (Photo 8). Information panels described the various grape varieties (cépages) and the viticulturalist's tasks over the year. The grapes had ripened significantly over the last 2 weeks, but the main Alsace vendange was still 2~3 weeks away. This was a delightfully instructive way to spend an afternoon, and across the Rhine valley, we could just make out the distant Black Forest Hills and Swiss Alps.

Alsace grapes and wines:  the wines of Alsace generally take their names from 1 of the 7 grape varieties (cépages) specific to the Alsace AOC. This was to be our first significant experience of Alsace wines; previous sampling had suggested they were characteristically aromatic, so we were uncertain. Experience however from the last 2 weeks of tasting has removed any doubts and confirmed that the wines of Alsace rank with others of our favourites. No other wine region has such an initially bewildering range of wines; but the experience of tastings, and enjoying characteristic Alsatian hospitality of vignerons who were always delighted to discuss the nature of their produce, hastened the learning process:

                               Click here for a description of Alsace Grapes and Wines
We completed our happy progression along the Alsace Wine Road at the small town of Cernay near to Mulhouse. Our plan now was to cross the Vosges back into Lorraine via the WW1 munitions road appropriately named the Routes des Crêtes along the crest of the Vosges ridge. But the rain which had bogged us down earlier returned; it has been pouring for 36 hours, certainly not conditions to leave the valley for exposed wild camps up in the Vosges. We'll report further in our next edition - stay tuned.

Sheila and Paul                                                                          Published: Thursday 28 September

Music this week:  Edith Piaf
La Vie en Rose

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