The “Alsace Wine Route” refers to a small but remarkably picturesque B-road that winds its way from Strasbourg to Mulhouse on the eastern slopes of the Vosges passing through a succession of Hansel und Gretel villages (in the case of Dambach-la-ville, through both village gates) and below a succession of wildly picturesque castles. And if you think that I’m joking regards the Brothers Grimm metaphor: the village of Gertwiller calls itself the capital of gingerbread making. Almost every village has wine tasting cellars and some even boast Michelin-starred restaurants. Why Illhaeusern has a three-starred Michelin establishment the Auberge de L’Ill.
I drove a Fiat Bravo (keep your comments to yourselves, I agree) in three days from Strasbourg to Colmar. this is the most popular part of thw wine route, and here’s what I did.
Strasbourg. Before I started I visited the old cellars of the Strasbourg Hospital (storing wine since 1395) where you can find bargains: bubbly bottles for €6. The local fizz is called Cremant d’Alsace (only neighbouring Champagne has the honour of calling it as such) and frankly it’s champagne without the appellation.
Obernai. The first place people dash to after Strasbourg is the painfully pretty village of Obernai. It is worth remembering that in this part of the world, half-timbered houses were treated as furniture, not as a fixed asset. They were dismantled, taken down and moved if the family left a village.
Barr. A smaller and less touristy version of Obernai. In case you are wondering why: Obernai is as flat as a tarte flambeé whereas Barr is on a steep slope. And the ‘less touristy’ means you can’t eat unless you get hungry between the seemingly God-set hours of noon-2pm and 7-9pm when the French restaurants deign to open.
Mont St Odile. Above Obernai/Barr is the nunnery which was founded around 700 by Sainte Odile, the patron of Alsace. Yes, it has fantastic views over the Lower Rhine valley but typifies the worst in Catholic Religious Tourism. It has two restaurants (a self-service for the ‘pilgrims’ and a higher-class establishment), a hotel and a lift – the only nunnery I have seen with a lift.
Itterswiller. That’s where I stayed – at Hotel Arnold which, being on a slope, it has some of the “best views out of my hotel window” I’ve ever experienced.
Haut Koenigsbourg. This is a castle fortified by the Germans when they annexed Alsace in 1871-1918. Superb views, great sightseeing and worth the endless streams of tourists. Among the stuffed animals inside, there is also a stuffed dragon. (No, really!) It is here that I saw a German child not more than seven years old riding a 1914 cannon, making boom-boom noises and shouting “Hier, Franzosen!”
[Incidentally there is a castle called Ramstein (for the fans of the group) and villages called Frankstein and Bitsch for those who like taking pictures under signs.]
Bergheim. Maybe the prettiest village all-round: small but perfectly formed and so brightly painted it could be the backdrop of a Terry Gilliam film.
It is the HQ of the Lorentz cellars, one of the best known Grand Crus of Alsace. They have a wide range of Riesling, Sylvaner, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, Muscat and Gewurtztraminer.It is here I allowed myself a tasting and left with seven bottles.
Selestat. The largest village between Strasbourg and Colmar and a sleepier version of Barr. Nothing was open after 12, not even a bakery to buy a sandwich from. But then again, in France, even when shops are open, they look closed. They don’t want you to enter and upset them. But I jest in the spirit if friendship. I eventually found a cafe that was just about to close and bought myself a baguette.
And so off to Colmar which deserves a write-up of its own..