An Alsatian rhapsody
A fascinating blend of Franco-German heritage, and an eco-friendly accent, is bound to attract visitors to Alsace in north-eastern France.
PHOTOS: KISHORE IYENGAR
ROLLING GREENS: The fairytale vineyards of Zellenberg-Alsace that produce the famed aromatic and light wines.
MY first taste of Alsace was the thrilling fruity flavours of a vintage Gewurtztramminer one of the splendid white wines on the non-stop Air France flight from Mumbai to Paris. Later, the breezy drive into multi-cultural Strasbourg, its capital, brought me to the edge of this small, but exciting, region in France just bordering Germany. Modern architecture and well preserved classical and medieval facades juxtapose harmoniously along the thoroughfares to present a heady mix of French articulation and German resilience, evident in the European Parliament headquarters' design, the Petit France area, the Basillica and numerous heritage edifices in the city centre. Within minutes of driving out into the countryside you are in the gentle Vosges range, home to the famed Alsatian wine region.
Famed for its aromatic and crisp light wines like Rieslings, Genteel and Rouge "F" de Zellenberg, Alsace magnetises you with its fairytale vineyards, picturesque villages and, most of all, its remarkably colourful eco-friendly architecture. You see it as a leitmotif in all Alsatian towns and villages, homes, cottages, villas and public buildings in bright shades and wooden structural designs, decked with flower blooms on window sills and doorsteps. Along delightfully quiet and cobbled lanes, these handsome homesteads of grace and charm light up the lush green environs of Alsace like no other place on earth.
Whether in Colmar in the heart of Alsace, or Mulhouse further south, or Selestat, Alsatians are warm and friendly, welcoming and cordial. This trait extends naturally into their homes and businesses and you get a whiff of that when Christine Ferber invites you to taste and savour her world famous jams, chocolates and delicacies at her quaint deli and Patisserie at the pretty, petite village of Niedermorchswihr in the Vosges hills. Or when Mon. Becker serves you his excellent Pinot Noir at his "Jean Becker Wineries" in Zellenberg, or when Chef J.Y. Schillinger's creative fare entices you during dinner at his signature restaurant in Petite Venise (Little Venice) in Colmar. Try Chef Eblin's fantastic desserts at his restaurant "St. Maximillien" in Zellenberg overlooking rolling vineyards around Riquewihr village. Or when you casually saunter into one of the many wayside cafes or boutiques in the countryside when people greet you with unpretentious grace.
The National Automobile Museum Collection Schlumpf in Mulhouse is what thrilled me most ... a rare display of the largest collection of vintage automobiles including the Jacquot 1878 (the world's oldest). The famous Bugatti Royale and the Porsche 936, was an unforgettable treat. High profile corporate fine dining events held amidst these dazzling beauties are a distinguished feature here. At the amazing Ecomusee D'Alsace at Ungersheim, the age-old architectural and rural design traditions of house-building are fastidiously preserved in the fine Alsatian homes with their earthy tints and bright facades. Hay, twigs, timber, clay and crushed stone are combined to build these environmentally sensitive and harmoniously erected buildings, surrounded by acres of verdant green and a profusion of flowering plants and rushes on streams and water mills.
To get a whiff of real Alsatian life, a leisurely drive took me to the unbelievably beautiful villages of Soufflenheim and Betschdorf where Potter Henri Siegfried and Schmitter create wonderful ceramic artefacts, then on to Haguenau village and its graceful church, and then a fine Alsatian lunch at Gundershoffen village. Later, it was further up the mountains to La Petite Pierre village to fashion designer Cleone's classy villa and innovative gardens. Charming bed and breakfast inns, village delis and bars are a window to quality Alsatian living and country life, favoured by most inhabitants of this enchanting region.
Closer than you think!
An unplanned agenda to explore the Alsatian outdoors is what one must also have in mind ... its fun and full of surprises! Cycling into the fields, through villages, town streets and along canals and streams is greatly enjoyable, while strolling into country fairs, flea markets and bazaars may offer you fine local products like cheeses, wines, herbs, handicrafts or artwork.
The region of Alsace is located in the north-eastern fringe of France touching Germany and is extremely well connected by air, rail and road to the rest of Europe. The capital, Strasbourg, has a Franco-German character in its populace, architectural design, monuments and cuisine. Other cities like Colmar and Mulhouse are just an hour and 11/2 hours away respectively. The Alsatian outdoors are great fun to experience at any time of the year including winter, with the slopes of the Vosges blanketed with snow. Quaint "Winstubes (or wine bars), cafes, boulangeries and patisseries offer local mouth-watering specialities and are the best places to mingle with the locals and ingest true Alsatian flavors.
To reach Alsace, fly to Paris and connect on to a domestic flight to Strasbourg. Or take Rail Europe's five-hour smooth CORAIL journey directly to Strasbourg. Travelling within Alsace is easy on SNCF trains or self-drive options, walking is recommended within towns and villages.
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COLOUR AND CHARACTER: Alsatian architecture in Colmar, France.
The traditional habitat of the Alsatian lowland is constituted of houses constructed with walls in half-timbering and cob and roofing in flat tiles. This type of construction can be seen in other areas of France, but their particular abundance in Alsace is owed to several reasons: The proximity to the Vosges where the wood can be found; Due to seismic risk, wood was more adapted than stone because it was more flexible, and resisted better; During periods of war and plague, villages were often burned down, so to eliminate the collapse of the upper-floors, stone ground floors were built and the upper-floors built in half-timberings once the fire passed.
However, the half-timberings increased the risk of fire, which is why from the 19th Century, they began covering them with rendering. In recent times, villagers started to paint the rendering white in accordance with Beaux-Arts movements. To discourage this, regional authorities gave financial grants to inhabitants, to paint the rendering in various colours, in order to return to the more ancient usage of the substance and which many inhabitants accepted (more for financial reasons than by firm belief).
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Alsatian cuisine, strongly influenced by the Germanic culinary traditions, is marked by the use of pork in various forms. Traditional dishes include baeckeoffe, tartes flambées (flammekueche), choucroute, and fleischnackas. The south of Alsace, also called Sundgau, is characterised by carpe frite.
The festivities of the year's end involve the production of a great variety of biscuits and small cakes called brédalas as well as pain d'épice (gingerbread), which are given to children starting on St. Nicholas Day.
A wine-producing region, Alsace wines are primarily white.
Additionally, Alsace is known for its fruit juices and its mineral and spring waters.
Source: The Internet
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