ALSACE, FRANCE: I saw road side signs of Alsace Region in France when we were driving to Belgium from Basel, Switzerland about more than a year ago. The whole region looked so gorgeous from my car window that I came home and googled that place. I was thrilled by its amazing countryside looks and vast vineyards. My husband and I were planning to go to Alsace since then. After failing few times with our plans, we finally went to this one of a kind place in Europe. And believe me this is a little wonderland where I would love to go back again and again to get me out of the reality of life.
Colmar and Strasbourg are two big cities of Alsace, located about an hour drive from each other (via highway). But villages here are very close to each other surrounded by miles after miles of vineyards. Each village is more elegant and scenic than the other one. People usually come here and hop from one village to another and from one wine maker to the other…that’s where you can get the taste of real Alsace. The whole region is a fairy-tale place…you can’t go wrong with any city/village you visit.
When we were coming back from Colmar to our hotel, we took the famous “Wine Route” of Alsace. This route is a crossroad at the heart of Europe and probably is the best way to discover this romantic region of France. Ruins of medieval castles, vast vineyards, and the Renaissance houses lined up by the flower decorated roads are just little things that make Alsace Wine Route the best known of its kind in France. The route is about 170km in length, running through a multitude of valleys and hills…making it a slower route than regular highways. But it offers a magnificent perspective of the region and its wine makers. Just follow the sign “Route des Vins d’Alsace” which indicates the Wine Route and all the winegrowing villages of Alsace. The route passes through more than 50 communes of Alsace from Marlenheim to Thann. It is much more than just a scenic journey for visitors to admire the countryside, the architecture, and the food: it also leads the way to the doors of many wine cellars and tasting rooms, most of which are open all year round.
Summer is the best time to visit Alsace when you can see all villages are vibrantly decorated with hundreds and thousands of flower bouquets and baskets. If you take the “Wine Route”, do look for flower-rating of villages upon entering them. I think, the region rates each village with flowers (the way hotels are rated) on the level of decoration.
Grapes harvest normally takes place between mid-September and late October and it’s the busiest of seasons. There are many wine-festivals during this time. These are essential parts of Alsace Wine Route. When we were visiting in July, we saw many posters that some small villages were holding their own wine related events/festivals.
TIME of TRAVELING: We visited Alsace during a weekend in mid-July of 2013. It was very hot those few days…about 90 degrees F. But to see the colors of this region, better to come in summer when everything comes alive in every village.
OUR HOTEL: We stayed in a budget hotel “Mr. Bed Strasbourg” in a small town, Ostwald, very close to Strasbourg. It’s probably the cheapest hotel in that area. The room was pretty small with a tiny bathroom. But the staff and workers were nice and helpful. There was a breakfast service for a minimal fee and free Wi-Fi in our room. But the main problem was that it was extremely hot that weekend and the hotel didn’t have AC. We could open our window only half way but no cross ventilation for the air to pass. Man oh man, four of us in that tiny room without air was a nightmare. I would recommend this place for anyone looking for a cheap place to stay but not in the summer time. There was a heater in our room, so winter shouldn’t be bad…but this place definitely is not for summer tourists.
EATING and SHOPPING: First day we had regional lunch in old town of Colmar. The restaurant had variety of salads from different villages of Alsace which was great for me. Also when you are in Alsace, you have to try “Tarte Flambe”. It’s a popular pizza-like desert here which comes with fruits and other toppings. Savory tarte flambe usually comes with ham and onion. We ordered one tarte flambe that came with apple and banana…very light and yummy.
Most of the villages have countless souvenir shops in the old towns. Alsatian potteries and ceramics are very popular. They are all handmade and hand-painted in this region. Although they can be a bit pricey they are unique of this place. Stork is a regional bird of Alsace and you can find many things with its picture. Look at the cute metal signs on top of many stores as it was the old way of telling which store is selling what.
PLACE WE’VE VISITED: We stayed three full days in Alsace visiting Colmar in one day, 2 villages on our 2nd day and Strasbourg for half a day before heading back home in Belgium. You can easily spend a month here exploring all the villages, castles, and wineries. We are planning to go there again probably in a cold winter season to see all the Christmas markets and decorations…let’s see. But it was surely hard for me to choose only couple villages this time out of some 40 or 50 picture perfect post-card looking villages. But as I mentioned above, the best way to get a quick glimpse of Alsace is to take “Wine Route”…then just sit back and enjoy the scenic views rolling by.
1) COLMAR: We visited Colmar on the 1st day of this journey. It’s the wine capital of Alsace. Old town is the main attraction and is very well-preserved where you can see countless half-timbered bright-colored houses with gorgeous summer blooms everywhere. Many shops, cafes, and old style decorations give this place its uniqueness.
This is also the home town of Frederic Auguste Bartholdi – the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty. You can actually see a miniature version of the Statue of Liberty when entering the city from north (from Strasbourg). Old town of Colmar still has the house where Bartholdi was born (now a Museum) in 1834. Although we didn’t go inside, it has the largest collection of works, models, and souvenirs of the designer of the Statue of Liberty that was unveiled in New York in 1886.
Our first stop in Colmar old town was Saint-Martin Cathedral. Built in 1235, this is the most imposing Gothic church in Middle Alsace. It is definitely worth a visit for its oversized old paintings, stained glass windows, and massive exteriors. It was free to enter and located in Place de la Cathedrale.
Another monumental church in Colmar is Eglise des Dominicains or Dominican Church. The construction of it started in 1283. The present superb stained glass windows survive from that period. It’s a small church but is famous for “Virgin of the Rose-Bush” painting from 14th century. The church is about 10 minutes of walk from St. Martin Cathedral and we needed 1.5 euros per adult to enter the church.
Maison des Tetes (House of the Heads) is a remarkable orange building in the old town of Colmar. It is a Renaissance building; exterior decorated with many heads and faces…very artistic.
Maison Pfister (opposite of Bertholdi Museum) is a jewel of the Renaissance and one of the oldest houses in Colmar. This wooden residence was built in 1537 for a wealthy hatter. The façade is beautifully decorated with paintings allegorical figures, biblical characters, and scenes.
The only museum that I visited in Colmar was Unterlinden. This is a former Dominican convent with Gothic cloister which was built in 1289. The collection here provides a window into the Colmar region’s past and present through numerous objects recovered from dwellings and burial sites. Along with a vast collection of German arts, the museum boasts a remarkable collection of gorgeous paintings, religious arts, sculptures, furniture, and decorative art objects from the late-Middle ages and the Renaissance. Unterlinden features many talented artists from Alsace on popular art, medieval art, and traditional art including the statue of Colmarian painter and engraver Martin made by Bartholdi in 1860. One of the masterpieces that the museum holds is the Isenheim Altarpiece from 1512…celebrated its 500th anniversary in 2012. It was under major renovation during my visit, that’s why I couldn’t see some sections. The museum is located in the beautiful historic city of Colmar and charges 8 euros per adult. The museum is open daily (except Tuesdays from November to April) from 9 am – 12 pm and 2 pm – 5 pm.
“Petit Venice” is a historic quarter that is perfectly preserved in a little corner of Colmar that reminisces Venice, Italy. This picturesque neighborhood has many old houses, cafes by canal, and a perfect place to walk and get lost. Colmar visit is incomplete without a stroll in Petit Venice. You can catch a boat ride from Petit Venice through its canals which charges 6 euros per person for a 30 minutes ride.
Most of the tourist spots of Colmar are within walking distance. Colmar is not a small village but a big city and needs at least one full day to stroll along its old streets. “Rapp” parking is the closest to old town.
2) KAYSERBERG: On our 2nd day in Alsace, we visited two villages: Kayserberg and Riquewihr. Choosing these two villages were the hardest part. All the villages that I saw online looked and sounded very charming. After many change of mind, finally narrowed down to these two villages.
Kayserberg is a popular tourist center with significant medieval and Renaissance influences. The village is famous for annual wine festival due to its typical Alsatian settings and charms. The village is very proud of its talented son Dr. Albert Schweitzer who was awarded Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. There is a museum (which was his birthplace) in the old town dedicated to Dr. Schweitzer’s work and life.
Rue du General de Gaulle is the most vibrant street of Kayserberg. It’s the main pedestrian path connects one end of old town to the other end. Many cafes, stores, old half-timbered houses can be seen here. Some of these houses are not just pretty…they look like picture perfect fairy-tale cottages from story books. Pont Fortifie on this small street dates back to 1514 and Town Hall in Kayserberg is also few centuries old from 1604 near the big church.
One of the remarkable architecture of Kayserberg is Church of St. Criox. It’s a Gothic church in the center of the village. Some of the remains of this Romanesque church still exist both within and outside the edifice such as remarkable carved doorway. It was constructed around 1235 and is very nicely decorated with eagles and mermaids. Fountain in front of the church is known as Fountain of Constantine which dates back to 1521.
Ruins of Castle of Kayserberg from 1220 AD is magnificently located on top of a small hill. It’s about 15 minutes of walk from the old town. You can see the small vineyards, a nearby village, and Kayserberg from top of this hill. Overall, view from here was simply marvelous.
3) RIQUEWIHR: Riquewihr was rated as one of the prettiest villages of France according to an independent organization. This is an admirably well-preserved medieval and Renaissance place. There are fortifications, houses, and courtyards from 13th, 15th, and 17th century. Many old fountains still exist here and there. Setting of this village looks like an enchanting place and every corner is vibrantly decorated. Everything here is within walking distance and I would highly recommend discovering the village on foot. There is a tourist train that starts near Hotel de Ville (Town Hall).
Riquewihr also has a street called Rue de General de Gaulle which is a lively street with many cafes and craft shops. At one end of this street is beautiful Dolder belfry watch tower from 1291. It’s an eye-catching half-timbered architecture. There is a museum inside the tower and outside looked very attractive with colorful flower baskets.
Thieves’ tower (with torture chamber) will amaze anyone. Original high gate to enter the courtyard of Thieves’ Tower and the well in front are very old, supposedly from the 16th century.
4) STRASBOURG: Strasbourg is a big metropolitan city, nothing like other Alsatian villages. Grand Ile area of Strasbourg was the first city center to be announced entirely as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Gutenberg parking is the closest parking near Strasbourg Cathedral.
Strasbourg Cathedral or Cathedral Notre Dame du Strasbourg was our first spot. You can see its 142 meter soaring tower from distance (the highest cathedral tower in France). The construction started in 1176 AD and took couple centuries to finish it. This got to be one of the major highlights of Strasbourg and a finest architecture. Church organ is something unique, decorated elegantly with golden molding and bright color lines. There are many beautiful stained glass windows and monstrous stone pillars. Don’t miss the 300 years old Astronomical Clock at the back of the cathedral. Unfortunately we missed the Astronomical Clock show that takes place every day at noon.
There is no charge to go inside the cathedral. It’s open from 7am – 11:15am and 12:45pm – 7pm. Daily at 12 pm (except Sundays and feast days), the cathedral offers visitors the chance to see a film lasting 22 minutes on the astrological clock. Anyone wishing to see the presentation of the astronomical clock (film + procession of the apostles) is able to purchase tickets from the clock ticket office at 2 euros for adults.
Right outside the cathedral on the left side (when you are facing it) is historic Maison Kammerzell. This is a residence of a wealthy family from the 15th century. We just saw it from outside…not sure if you can actually go in.
Protestant church St. Pierre Le Jeune is another marvelous historical monument of Strasbourg. Construction of the present church began in the second half of 13th century. Some of the old frescoes on the wall were revealed and restored in late 19th century. These medieval frescoes make this church worth a visit. There is a big fresco opposite of the organ depicting “Storm on the Sea of Galilea”. It’s free to enter and about 10 minutes of walk from Strasbourg Cathedral.
St. Thomas Church is another Protestant church and a landmark of this city. Its origins date back to the Scottish monks who arrived in this country in 6th century. The original church was built somewhere in 833 but the present front of the church is from 1250. It is simpler than St. Pierre but numerous monuments and interesting flagstones with obituary inscriptions decoration make it a nice place to see. It’s free to enter.
We took a boat tour in Strasbourg on River L’Ill as our last event here. “Batorama” organizes this tour for 1.10 hours (for 9.60 euros per adult and 5.20 euros for kids 3 -5 years of age) with audio commentaries of many languages. It departs from near Palais de Rohan by the promenade and is a great way to discover the city. Thanks to this tour, we saw Council of Europe, La Petit France (a picturesque neighborhood similar to Colmar), Palais des Rohan (now a museum), many of total 27 bridges on River L’Ill along with beautiful old buildings and other monuments by the waterfront.