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Rick Steves: Alsace - Europe's Cultural HybridAugust 14, 2012 By: Rick Steves
Alsace is France with a German accent. Its unique mix of cultures offers enchanting cobbled villages, scenic vineyards, gourmet cuisine and art that is as vibrant as the medieval day it was painted.
Standing like a flower-child referee between France and Germany, Alsace has weathered many invasions. Once a German-speaking part of the Holy Roman Empire, it became part of France in the 17th century. After France lost the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, Germany annexed it. It bounced back to France after World War I (though Hitler's army occupied it during World War II).
All these centuries as a political shuttlecock have given Alsace a hybrid culture. And the city of Colmar is a great home base to experience it. Long popular with French and German tourists, this well-pickled old town of 70,000 is often overlooked and underrated by overseas travelers.
During World War II the American and British military were careful not to bomb quaintly cobbled Colmar. So today Colmar not only survives, it thrives with 15th- and 16th-century buildings, distinctive cuisine, and rich art treasures.
Colmar's Unterlinden Museum gets my vote as the best small museum in Europe (www.musee-unterlinden.com). It fills a 750-year-old former convent with exhibits ranging from Roman artifacts to medieval winemaking, and from traditional wedding dresses to paintings that give vivid insight into the High Middle Ages.
Matthias Grunewald's gripping Isenheim Altarpiece, which shows a gruesome crucifixion, is the museum's most important work. Germans know this painting like Americans know the Mona Lisa. The altarpiece was commissioned 500 years ago by a monastery hospital filled with people suffering terrible skin diseases - a common cause of death back then. The hospital's goal, long before the age of painkillers, was to remind patients that Jesus understood their suffering. The many panels led patients through a series of Bible stories culminating with a reassuring Resurrection scene.
Colmar's replica of a more modern icon will surprise many Americans. Colmar is the hometown of Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, the great sculptor who designed the Statue of Liberty - which was a gift from France to the United States on its 100th birthday. Colmar's Bartholdi Museum describes the creation of Lady Liberty and displays many of Bartholdi's sculptures (www.musee-bartholdi.com). One room is dedicated to the evolution and completion of the Statue of Liberty; she was assembled in Paris, then taken apart and shipped to New York in 1886 ... 10 years late. If you come on the Fourth of July, the admission is free.
When you're ready for a break from museums, it's time to hit the road. The Route du Vin - the wine road of Alsace - is an asphalt ribbon tying 80 miles of vineyards, villages, and feudal fortresses into an understandably popular tourist package.
The dry and sunny climate here has produced good wine and happy tourists since Roman times, so vineyard-hopping is a great way to spend an afternoon. Roadside degustation signs mean wine-tasters are welcome, but be prepared for grape varieties that differ from what you might find elsewhere in France.
Riesling is the king of Alsatian grapes; it's robust but drier than the German style you're probably used to. Sylvaner - fresh and light, fruity and cheap - is a good Alsatian wine for a hot day. Pinot Gris wines are more full-bodied, spicier, and distinctly different from other Pinot Gris wines you may have tried. Gewurztraminer is "the lady's wine" - its bouquet is like a rosebush, its taste is fruity, and its aftertaste is spicy - as its name implies (gewurtz means "spice" in German). In case you really get "Alsauced," the French term for headache is mal a la tete.
Along with its wine, Alsatian cuisine is world-famous. Even vacationers traveling on a shoestring should spring for a fine meal in Alsace.
You can't mistake the German influence: sausages, potatoes, onions, and sauerkraut. Look for choucroute garnie (sauerkraut and sausage) - although it seems a shame to eat it in a fancy restaurant. Also try sampling Baeckeoffe (a meaty onion-and-potato casserole), Rosti (an oven-baked potato-and-cheese dish), Spatzle (soft egg noodles), fresh trout, and foie gras.
For lighter fare, try poulet au Riesling (chicken cooked ever-so-slowly in Riesling wine). At lunch, or for a lighter dinner, try a tarte a l'oignon (like an onion quiche, but better) or tarte flambee (like a thin-crust pizza with onion and bacon bits). Dessert specialties are tarte alsacienne (fruit tart) and Kuglehopf glace (a light cake mixed with raisins, almonds, dried fruit, and cherry liqueur).
For a pleasing taste of European culture, there's nothing quite like Alsace. Visitors enjoy a rich blend of two great societies: French and German, Catholic and Protestant - just enough Germanic discipline with a Latin joy of life.
IF YOU VISIT:
SLEEPING: Hotel Saint-Martin, ideally situated near the old Customs House, is a family-run place that began as a coaching inn (splurge, www.hotel-saint-martin.com). Hotel Balladins, near the Unterlinden Museum, is modern, efficient, clean, and cheap (budget, www.balladins.com).
EATING: Winstub Schwendi has fun, Alsatian pub energy (3 Grand Rue); Chez Hansi is where Colmarians go for a traditional meal (23 Rue des Marchands).
GETTING THERE: There are four, direct, high-speed trains from Paris that connect to Colmar daily in about three hours; see www.scnf.com.
TOURIST INFO: www.ot-colmar.fr.