Alsace & Lorraine
The region that has changed from being German to French on more than one occasion is now firmly part of France, albeit retaining a distinctly Germanic feel in many places.
The best known and noticeably most Arian city is the diplomatic centre of Strasbourg, home of the European Parliament Building and the European Court of Human Rights.
The city is actually a great treat, from its enormous Gothic cathedral to its Bruges-like canals, its colourful half-timbered buildings and its old town cobbled streets bedecked in vivid flowers. On the speedy TGV network, so making it easily accessible from many points by rail, it is also first stop on the recently recommenced Paris-Moscow Express (other stops being Berlin, Warsaw and Minsk on the 35-hour route to the Russian capital).
As nice as Strasbourg is (stodgy meat dominated cuisine apart) the real highlight of the area is the Wine Route taking you via some delightful villages to the equally picturesque Alsatian town of Colmar. The whole route actually starts north of Strasbourg in Marlenheim 119km south to Thann.
The only realistic way to do the route is by car. Hire a Citroen 2CV convertible for added pleasure.
We only had time to do part of the journey, but saw plenty of wonderful things and purchased some delicious wine en route. Our day trip went as follows……
It didn’t take long to leave the city behind and swap the main road for the backwaters of the Wine Route.
First stop was Molsheim, the home of the Bugatti motor car. It was a pleasant village with large square, where we sat for morning coffee, flanked by typical Alsace half-timbered buildings of many colours.
Next stop was Obernai, where we stopped for a slab of quiche and a little rocket. Another picturesque little place, alive with flowers and houses draped in vines.
After lunch, we headed along the scenic route to the red roofs of Mittelbergheim. It was here that we purchased some sweet Alsace white at Domaine Gilg. The vintner was very friendly there and allowed us to taste several varieties, before we purchased our horde of three bottles.
Nearby Dambach-la-Ville, also made for a delightful stop off, the colours and floral tributes seemingly getting more bold and vivid the further we traversed the route.
We then detoured off the main route and up to Haut Koeningsbourg to visit the 900 year-old turreted chateau, built castle style high up above the vineyards. The view from on high of Vosges River and the Black Forest was well worth the effort.
We strolled around the non-paying part of the chateau – basically the path to the entrance and the cafe, but it was the views that were easily the best reason to pay a call there.
Time was running now so we scooted through the striking villages of Bergheim, Ribeauville and Hunawihr, getting our first glimpses of storks in flight as we ourselves glided by.
Our final stop of the day was definitely a case of saving the best until last. The village of Riquewihr has the kind of buildings that you are tempted to lick to taste their candy exteriors. The place looked like something that Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka, the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson had dreamt up.
We were Hansel and Gretel, but happily no wicked witches were flying around, their place taken by the far more pleasant storks that frequent the whole area.
We entered the the cobbled main pedestrianised thoroughfare through the arch at the centre of the hotel de ville building. Once inside we feasted upon the delightful looking shops, wineries and eateries, each of whom displayed their wares in a creative & colourful way.
We grazed upon a new kind of calorific quiche, justifying our over-indulgence by the fact that at least it contained some greenery. The carafe of red and sugary crepe that we also consumed had no redeeming features however in the dietary stakes!
As we ate we spied a huge stork’s nest right above us. Empty when we first sat, mother and sibling soon arrived to fill the huge pile of twigs and straw. My part-time need to ‘twitch’ was satisfied once more.
We continued our window shopping, avoiding any temptation to buy a life-size cuddly stork, before heading back along the scenic Wine Route as the sun was setting. A picture perfect ending to a picture perfect day.
The one highlight we missed was Colmar, a tad further south, however we had our fill of lovely places all the same.
Having explored the Alsace region over a few days, you could head the three and a half hours south by TGV to France’s gastronomic capital and second city Lyon (check out the brilliant St Jean Cathedral, the wonderful Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière plus take a side trip to nearby laid back St Etienne if you do), or you could head east as we did into neighbouring Lorraine.
Here you have plenty to choose from with the splendid cities of Metz & Nancy and the battlefields, war memorials and fortifications of the Verdun area.
Metz is the capital of the region, situated on the River Moselle. It has a lovely feel with honey`coloured buildings, traffic free squares and another immense cathedral. All in all well worth a couple of hours of your time.
Renaissance university city Nancy is also a very pleasant stop off, actually eclipsing the regional capital for photo opportunities. It has three picturesque squares in Place Stanislas, Place de la Carrière and Place d’Alliance, which are all UNESCO listed. It also has some fabulous gates, including one known as Arc de Triomphe.
Having had your full of cities continue east to Verdun, an area of massive strategic importance fought over viciously between Germany and the allies in WWI.
The main battle of Verdun was actually one of the longest of the whole war – these are my recollections from a year ago……
We opted to visit a French cemetery with its Thunderbird like memorial building.
Row upon row of white crosses, each with its own lovingly tended red rose bush, stood proudly, a tribute to the brave soldiers who had faced horrendous conditions before paying the highest price of all. The French flag billowed in the light breeze, standing over its fallen menfolk, who had perished in their fight with the enemy.
The ten month Battle of Verdun was one of the longest and hardest fought battles of the first Great War and also accounted for the biggest number of casualties – over seven hundred thousand casualties, roughly split 50/50
The area was of great strategic importance, being so close to the then German border and therefore a main frontier to be defended to try and keep the storm troopers out of French soil.
I have spoken to many people who have visited the British war graves in Ypres and the Somme in Belgium and to a person they have said how poignant, but at the same time uplifting the experience had been. There lay fallen heroes, each one of whom had given their lives to secure freedom for their compatriots back home.
Although the 15,000 brave knights that lay here were not our kin, the feeling was no less soulful for us. They represented our friends and defenders of democracy, free-speech and of what we all believe in. They had paid the ultimate sacrifice to ensure these ideals were upheld for future generations and they continue to deserve our unrelenting respect for this.
Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité
As we climbed the steps to the space-age memorial, the deafening roar of fighter jets on a training exercise reminded us all that war was still very much part of our modern world, as we continue to refuse to learn from the painful past of never to be forgotten conflicts.
France and Germany are now of course great allies, along with the UK the powerhouses of Western Europe. This was symbolised by the plaque in French and German commemorating the 1984 unveiling of the memorial by then French President Francois Mitterand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
The purposely plain interior displayed the names of the fallen as an eternal flame symbolised the fact that we shall never forget.
We stayed for an hour and realised that we had not uttered a word to each other until it was time to leave. The sombre necropolis had a profound affect, exactly it’s purpose.
We then drove to the nearby ruins of a fort. The route was noticeable for the undulating grassy banks that flanked the road. These were not however glacial features but the result of thousands of tonnes of bombardment. Another lasting reminder of the damages of war.
We scampered amongst the fortification remnants. From the crown of the hill on which the stronghold had stood, you could see for miles around, right into the heart of Lorraine and across into Germany. The area is once again a forest of pine as far as the eye can see. Seventy years later, nature had once again healed the wounds inflicted by its human enemies.
The only thing to do to shake the sombre reflection from your system is to continue eastwards to Champagne – more of that to come…………