Firmly in France but forever looking East to Germany, Alsace is not only incredibly pretty, but also a fascinating place to explore for its culture.
Already in the Vosges, I could feel its cultural influence. Red and pink geraniums on every balcony and windowsills. The culture of turning fruits into delicious liqueurs and eaux-de-vie. Pretzels and kougelhopf in the boulangeries. More striking even, the conversations at terrasses, flowing from French to Alsatian (it sounds like German to me) and back again.
When I emerged from the forested mountains of the Vosges onto the plain of Alsace, the change in landscape was sudden and stark. Suddenly the views opened up all around me, and I was surrounded by vine fields. Rows upon rows of vines. I love the way they underline the bumps and folds of the land, how their different orientations catch the sun at different times in the day, like shading in a pencil drawing.
At this time of year, the vines were heavy with grapes, green, red or black. The “vendanges”, the grape harvest, hadn’t started yet, but farmers were going around, in quads or on foot, tense, focused, presumably assessing when the time was exactly right to harvest. Others were busy lining up the tall plastic buckets, the size of a man’s back, in preparation.
Dotted around the vine fields are fruit trees; it was too late for the cherries, and too early for walnuts; but, as nobody seems interested in them, I took advantage of the apples and plums that were left to fall and rot on the ground.
The villages in Alsace bear names I can’t pronounce with confidence, with only my smattering of German. They are tightly packed together, as if doing their best not to encroach on the vines. Tall medieval houses, with colombages and overhangs, carved wooden balconies and lintels, rounded-edged tiles, like scales, on their steep roofs. They are chocolate-box charming.
The village main square, or Colmar historic centre, are where to enjoy Alsacian beer culture (here, pints are the norm, as opposed to “demi”, half-pints, in the rest of France) and their unpronounceable wines. Here the specialty is what the rest of France calls “flammekuche” (pronounced with a “sh”), which they call “tartes flambées” in an ironic reversal. A thin dough base, cream, lard and onions, cooked in the oven; a northern version of pizza, hearty but very moreish.
As I looked back to the high hills to the West, castles seem to mark every summit – Haut-Koenigsbourg being the most dramatic one. They overlook the lower hills and their vines, the wide Alsace plain of more trivial corn fields and motorways, and the Black Forest beyond. For on the other side of the mighty Rhine, there is the mirror image of Alsace, corn fields, then vines, then hills and forests. But not as pretty.
I loved my time in Alsace. I just wished I had seen less stork cuddly toys and more real life ones… The chocolate box was missing a black and white chocolate.