A Weekend in Alsace
With the Alsace and Lorraine regions only a few-hour drive from our home base in Lausanne, Switzerland, it seemed a given that we would make a trip of it on a long weekend in the right weather.
Although I’ve had the opportunity to see more of France than most Americans, who seem to pop into Paris and rarely venture beyond it, even Arnaud hadn’t yet visited Alsace. In fact, he couldn’t figure out why we would want to visit Alsace when I recommended it as a destination for his birthday weekend. (He had some unflattering preconceived notions, I learned.)
Though I had a more gung-go attitude than he did at the outset of the trip, Alsace surprised us both.
Neuf-Brisach, a Fortified City
On our drive from Lausanne to our hotel in Colmar, from which base point we planned our Alsatian exploration, we stopped in the fortified city of Neuf-Brisach.
The town—in the thick of the August holiday—could have had tumbleweeds rolling through it, High Noon–style. The citadel’s museum had its doors open, yet everything else had signs claiming closure due vacation. We saw one open grocery store.
So I can’t tell you whether you should visit Neuf-Brisach for more than a quick visit to the Musée Vauban, with its historical review of the fortified town’s planning and a platform on which you can see a section of the citadel’s multilayered walls (and an imposing straw lion, for some reason).
You’ll only understand the reason for the town’s Unesco World Heritage Site status if you pop into the museum (which has only two rooms and the viewing area at back) to get a feel for how Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, the mastermind hired by King Louis XIV to build it, put it together.
Without a tour of the museum, you’d need a helicopter tour to grasp the city’s layout, fortifications, and function. (We did see a helicopter circling above a few times, which made us wonder if they offered such a tour. Turns out, they do. However, I’d venture that a quick tour of the museum has a much lower price tag.)
However, the museum has a lot of opportunities for improvement; its dusty two rooms have outdated exhibits with minimal explanation (all in French, but English-only folks will still get the gist). The museum could far better show off the town—and charge a lot more—if it had more exhibits and enhancements to existing exhibits that more fully explained the innovation behind its star-shaped fortifications.
Château du Haut Koenigsbourg
I don’t think I’ll have too many detractors if I write that the Château du Haut Koenigsbourg takes the crown (pun intended!) as Alsace’s star attraction—and that even the wine lovers who come to this area to tour the wineries will agree with me on this point.
Since the 12th century, the Château du Haut Koenigsbourg has watched over the valleys below it from a perch on a Vosges peak. Made from the area’s red sandstone, it looks like a fairy-tale castle and has even appeared in numerous comics, children’s books, and works of art written and visual. You can tour it with a live guide for free, with an audio guide for a nominal amount, and on your own for a surprisingly reasonable rate. (We did the latter.) From the top, you can get an incredible panoramic view of the Vosges, Black Forest, and the Alps.
The tour spends a little too much time on the painstaking details of the castle’s restoration by the German Kaiser Wilhelm II in the early 1900s, yet I’ll pay homage: His teams did a magnificent job of it.
Parc Naturel Regional des Ballons des Vosges
The border between the Alsace and Lorraine regions runs vertically almost at the halfway point of the Parc Naturel Régional des Ballons des Vosges. (No, I can’t pronounce it, either). We drove through a portion of the Alsace side of the park—what views!—and then up to the start of the ninety-minute hike to the top of the Grand Ballon, where the park offers parking, picnic spots, and three restaurants (and bathrooms).
The paved route to the trailhead looked popular to cyclists as well, as we passed several valiantly struggling their way up the mountain. (One woman, riding alone, had a jersey that read “Will ride for cake.” We saw her at the top, congratulated her, and told her she deserved a mighty huge cake for making that climb.) If you love cycling, want to punish yourself, and desire a reward of a nice meal in a gorgeous setting after you do, the route up to the Grand Ballon makes for the perfect spot.
To ensure we tasted a traditional regional dish while in Alsace, we stopped in one of the restaurants at the trailhead and had a tarte flambée, which I could best describe as a pizza built on a buttery pie crust. Mine had Munster cheese as a topping, so I checked two regional foods off the list in one dish.
Munster and the Valée de Munster
Speaking of Munster cheese, Alsace hosts the town from which the stinky fromage gets its name, nestled in a valley in the Vosges mountains also dubbed Munster.
You’d get bored staying more than a few hours to walk through the town and see its shops, yet you should make a quick stop in Munster on your way through Alsace. Not only can you buy some of the famous (or infamous) cheese, you can get a good view of the Alsace storks in the late spring through the late summer. We saw more storks in Munster than we had anywhere else in Alsace!
The Storks of Alsace
News to me, yet verified as true through experience (and subsequent research): Alsace has a famous stork population. In fact, the myths about storks bringing babies and luck come from Alsace. The local lore has it that if a stork picks a house for its nest, the family will have good fortune (and, yes, babies).
The stork population plummeted due to environmental factors, which prompted a huge conservation campaign starting in the late 1970s. Today, the area hosts hundreds of storks and has more than one wildlife reserve to protect them, including one in Hunawihr and another in Munster.
We didn’t need to visit a wildlife reserve to see storks (though you can for a nominal fee): We just looked up.
And because the stork has such iconic status in the area, the towns in Alsace have decorated the city with stork imagery—and offer numerous gift options for tourists who want to take a representation of the storks of Alsace home.
This makes the entirety of Alsace look completely stork-raving mad. (Another pun!)
The Route des Vins d’Alsace
If you love wine, you’ll think I saved the best for last. (If you love castles or storks, you won’t.)
Alsace has a high reputation for its wineries, which weave through the undulating landscape of hills and valleys. The well-marked Route des Vins d’Alsace has become a choice destination for road trips by car, bike (so many cyclists!), and motorcycle. Wineries across the region, located in miniscule medieval towns, offer wine tastings and food.
Though Arnaud and I don’t come anywhere close to wine-connoisseur status, our trips through Alsace took us through several of the route’s hotspots, from our base in Colmar through Bergheim, Riquewihr, Hunawihr, and Ribeauville. Each little town has a charming, walkable center—often with a picture-perfect medieval church. Hunawihr even has a surprising little church that has served the Catholic and Protestant populations simultaneously since 1687—an incredible rarity. Called a “simultaneum,” it appears the world has only a few dozen such churches. (Religions prefer to fight, don’cha know.)
Alsace: A Fairy-Tale Setting
Alsace looks like a movie set, with its perfectly preserved, walkable medieval town centers snuggling into rolling hills, all overlooked by hilltop fortresses.
Though many people skip most of France and stick to Paris, if you have an itch to see more of this astoundingly beautiful country, I’d recommend you add Alsace to your plan.