We hoped our attempt at visiting Strasbourg and the Alsace Wine Country would be successful. We had booked a trip last December to see the Christmas Market, which is very popular. Sadly, we had to reschedule because it coincided with the tragic shooting there. This time we were determined to make our Strasbourg visit count.
You will love visiting Strasbourg, as we did, and Alsace Wine Country will change your mind about Riesling!
Here are our BEST memories of Alsace and Strasbourg:
If you want a jaw-dropping experience, visit the Strasbourg Cathedral.
You can get all "churched-out" when you've seen so many churches, especially in Europe. Strasbourg Cathedral is just stunning. Walk on Rue Hallerbarders or Rue Mercier to get your first sight, and you will see what I mean.
You won't miss the Cathedral because its steeple can be seen from miles away. As you turn to Rue Mercier, all you will see is an IMMENSE, pink sandstone edifice with a steeple reaching up to the sky. My husband and I went around dazed with that "OMG" look in our eyes.
We took a walking tour of Strasbourg, and our tour guide said that he still gets that awe-struck feeling even if he has seen the sight countless of times.
Four million tourists visit the Cathedral each year, second only to the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It's gigantic. It's larger than a football field, and its steeple is taller than a 45 story building. But, it is also beautiful, ranking in the most stunning churches in France.
It is not clear when the Cathedral started construction, but officially, it started in 1277 and completed in 1439. Master builders from all over the world at that time brought designs and influences in the architecture, sculpture, and stained glass. This Gothic-style church was the tallest structure in the world from 1674 to 1874.
Don't miss the astronomical clock with the rotating figures in the Cathedral.
It dates back to 1570, built by the Strasbourg mathematician, Dasypodius. The mechanics stopped working in 1780 and was restored between 1838 and 1842 by Jean Baptiste Schwilgue. He was a former watchmaker apprentice turned professor of mathematics and auditor of weights and measures. His goal in life, since childhood, was to repair the clock.
A demonstration of the clock working, with the the18-inch figure of Christ and the 12 Apostles rotating, mid-day daily. Sometimes it's at noon, sometimes at 12:30. We were there at noon for the demonstration but were disappointed that the rotation did not work. I did not learn about the 12:30 start later.
When you arrive in Strasbourg, you'll think the train made a detour into Germany.
It looks distinctly German with the half-timbered or striped houses. Buildings look austere, unlike the more lavish Baroque style preferred by the French.
It sits at the border between the two countries separated by the Rhine River and the Les Vosges mountains. This border changed five times since 1681. Each time one country took over, they tried to best the other by undertaking a massive construction program to impress their new citizens.
Wherever you thought you landed, you will notice how beautiful and lively Strasbourg is. I've always loved the French square or "les places" in French. They are places to congregate, to people watch, to leisurely walk around, or to enjoy the sun and the beautiful architecture. There are no shortages of sidewalk cafes, coffee shops, or shops. Rivers snake in and around the city with bridges connecting the river banks.
It's part of that French lifestyle I've enjoyed living for the last eight months!
I ask myself if I would enjoy living in a city judging by its "livability." No question, the French lifestyle is alive and well in Strasbourg, with a dash of German culture.
It's also international.
You will hear more people speak English than either French or German. Strasbourg is the capital of Europe or the European Union. It is the sixth-largest city in France but one of the most visited by foreign tourists. Strasbourg was a natural choice to become the capital of the European Union because of its strategic location at the border of two of the largest economies in Europe. Today, it hosts the European Parliament and the European Court of Human Rights.
You can take a 20-minute tram ride from Strasbourg across the Rhine River to the first German town of Kehl. Can two cities only 20 minutes apart be so different?
Our tour-guide jokingly said that Strasbourg combines the efficiency of the Germans and the laziness of the French! He called it "laziness," but I'm sure he meant "the French lifestyle."
Did you know that Christmas Markets are a German tradition?
Christmas markets are mostly unknown in the U. S but are a Christmas tradition in Europe. Millions visit Strasbourg each year to experience the largest, oldest, and most traditional Christmas market in Europe.
It started as a Protestant tradition in 1570 to put an end to the "extravagant" Catholic tradition of St. Nicholas Day. They began Christkindermarkt (Christ Jesus Market) to replace the St. Nicholas Market.
In Strasbourg, the Christmas tradition starts on St.Andrew's Day on November 30, culminates on Christmas Eve and Day and continues to January 6, on the feast of the Three Wise Men.
Christmas Day is a time to share a great feast with family, usually consisting of foie gras, stuffed goose, and yuletide log. Traditionally, New Year's Day was a day to visit and wish one's Godparents good tidings. In exchange, they would receive a sweet Bretzel (pretzel).
The final event is the arrival of the Three Wise Men on January 6. On the day of the Epiphany, they celebrate with the "galette des Rois" or king cake. The person who finds the charm in his slice of cake is king.
Have you heard of Hans Trapp?
The practice of gift-giving at Christmas goes back to the 19th-century. The Christkindel, dressed in white and wearing a crown of candles, was shown to be bringing presents to children who have behaved. Next to her was Hans Trapp, the evil assistant of St. Nicholas, to remind kids to be good. The Hans Trapp folklore is not familiar to most Americans, but he is a legendary figure in the Alsace and Lorraine regions. Hans Trapp is the real anti-Christmas character whose parents use to remind children to behave!
I did not have an original photo of the Christmas Market. However, I included a shot of a "biscuiterie" in Colmar, which had the most delightful traditional biscuits fresh from the oven, La Maison Alsacienne Biscuiterie.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
This neighborhood in Strasbourg is known for the Ponts Couverts or covered bridges over the River Île. It owes its name to a hospital that treated venereal disease back in the 16th century. Venereal disease, at that time, was called a "French Disease," thus the reference to France.
During the Middle Ages, this area was home to the town's tanners, millers, and fishers, and is now one of Strasbourg's main tourist attractions. La Petite France forms part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Grande Île designated in 1988.
The Grand Île is an island on the River Île. You can take a river cruise or a Batorama to see various sights upstream and downstream. The river splits into four channels at the Canal du Faux-Ramparts, where it flows through La Petite France before reuniting with the main river.
Quick Alsace Wine Lesson
Alsace is the third-largest producing wine region in France after Bourguignon and Bordeaux. Don't miss the opportunity to taste the best wines in Alsace. At a reasonable price, I might add!
In Alsace, everything is about wine, mostly Riesling wines. Most Americans associate German or Alsatian wines by the elongated shaped bottle and the sweet Riesling wines sold in neighborhood supermarkets. The truth is, Riesling wines can be both dry or sweet. When you buy Riesling wine in Alsace or Germany, they will ask you your preference, dry, fruity, or something in between.
Alsatian vineyards dot the slopes of Les Vosges, where the best vines grow in higher elevations. The Germans, on the other side of Les Vosges, produce the same variety of grapes and make similar wines. The mountains create a rain shadow area, which is why Colmar is one of the driest towns in France. Climate, soil, and slope combine to produce some of France's most aromatic and full-bodied white wine from the Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Muscat grape varieties.
You won't recognize Riesling here. I like light wines, and Riesling is light, dry, and tasty.and
There are two wine regions, the Bas-Rhin (north) and Haut-Rhin (south). The better wines are associated with the Haut-Rhin, where many of the prestigious Alsace Grand-Cru vineyards are. There are a total of 51 grand cru plots that are only allowed to use a single variety or a blend of the four official grape varieties.
Our first wine tasting took us to the Bas-Rhin region in the little town of Obernai. We visited Robert Blanck Wines. Many, if not all, of the vintners are independent grape growers and winemakers. They are all family-run enterprises going back decades if not centuries. The vignerons or the winegrowers own specific plots of land on one slope or several slopes depending on the grape variety. Most grow for local consumption, a few exports to EU countries, and some export to the U.S.
We also tried another vigneron called Achillee. They are only about ten years old, but they specialize in organic wines. Jean and Pierre Yves Dietrich, two brothers, own the winery. In Riquewihr, we visited the Dopff store. Dopff started in 1574, and the family still operates it. They were pioneers in the Cremants (champagne version) and several Grand Crus.
We tried new wines on this trip, and there is something for every palate. They were impressively inexpensive and delightful, so you can afford to buy bottles of your favorite wines.
Now, if you want to see a story-book town, Colmar is it. You will be walking down the streets of half-timbered houses that are hundreds of years old, but well preserved. There will be lovely canals, houses with colorful flowers in window boxes down. Active town centers and the waft of fresh cookies baking coming from local bakeries. Only Disney can dream this up!
Many other villages like Riquewihr and Eguisheim are similarly quaint. If you are lucky, you will spot stork or two or their stork nests high up in rooftops or chimneys. Storks have been part of Alsace's history for hundreds of years, and they are a symbol of happiness, faithfulness, good luck, and of course, fertility. They migrate to Africa in the winter and to Alsace in the summer. You will spot a concentration of them in Eguisheim.
Colmar is the third-largest city in Alsace and the capital of the Alsace Wine Country. There are vineyards everywhere you go, up mountain slopes, your backyard, sidewalks, even a traffic roundabout.
Colmar hosts the annual Wine Fair of Alsace in August. This 15-day event has been a draw for thousands of visitors for decades.
You will be surprised to find a Statue of Liberty on a street roundabout. Colmar is the hometown of Bartholdi, the artist who created the iconic statue in New York. He made three replicas of the iconic figure, and one of them is in Colmar.
In visiting the little villages of Eguisheim and Riquewihr, we had the chance to enjoy the traditional cuisine. Alsatian cuisine is hardier than the typical French fare due to the German influence. Potatoes, sauerkraut or choucroute, sausages, and beer!
A favorite was the Alsatian Pizza or the Flammkuchen. The pizza had a cracker-thin crust topped with ham and delightful cheeses.
April happened to be a white asparagus season in France. It is usually served with thin slices of smoked ham and paired with a summer beer or a refreshing glass of muscat wine.
French people are very proud that despite the fantastic rich food, they have been able to maintain their slim profile. Judging from what I saw, they failed in Strasbourg!
I hope you enjoyed the stories and photos of our trip to Strasbourg and Alsace. We loved it, and we encourage everyone to add Alsace and Strasbourg to their bucket list of places to visit in France.
We continue to traipse France and Europe. Check us out in traipsing the globe to see where we are and how we are doing in our one year vacation. I would love to hear your impressions of Strasbourg, the wines, and cuisine. Have you tried to make the flammkuchen? How did it go? Let me hear from you.
I leave you with a favorite photo of a swan in the middle of a bike lane in Strasbourg, wondering whether he or she is French or German?