Walking in Alsace
A border region fought over for centuries is now a tranquil hideaway best explored on foot, as Judy Armstrong discovers during a walk along the Route des Vins
When is a French region not French? When it has been Celtic, Roman, German, French, German, French... back and forth, like a baton, for centuries. This is the conundrum of Alsace, a narrow wedge set against Germany and Switzerland in the north-eastern corner of France. It feels French, but it also feels German with its place names, food and Alsatian language.
The convoluted ownership of Alsace has contributed to it being metropolitan France’s smallest region: historical decisions, wars and strategic politics made it far too complex to integrate. The head-scratching has continued since it was first settled in Neolithic times; yet now, Alsace is one of the most important regions in the European Union, through its capital city of Strasbourg.
Although the history of Alsace is often a violent one, the good news is that things have settled down. Marauding invaders have given way to a gentle trickle of tourists who have heard whispers about fine wine, fabulous food and untouched villages.
Alsace has more Michelin-recommended restaurants than any other region in France (outside Paris); it is one of the republic’s most prized wine-growing areas, producing around 150 million bottles a year; it is dotted with villages comprised almost entirely of ancient, half-timbered houses; and Colmar claims to be the second-driest town in France.
I don’t think the last bit is true. I arrived in the rain and, apart from a brief respite of sunshine, it stayed the grey side of blue all week. It didn’t matter, though; the joy of Alsace is that there is always a restaurant, a wine cellar or an antiques shop in which to shelter. How hard can it be, staying dry in a beamed cave, with a glass of fruity gewürztraminer in one hand and a slice of kougelhopf cake in the other?
Let me back up for a minute. Many years ago, I visited Alsace on a motorbike. I zoomed through the mountains, admired the views from the crests and wondered what it would be like to stop, sip and sample. But I was in a hurry and after two days I roared off and scurried to the Alps.
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Over the years, Alsace gnawed at me. I saw pictures of Colmar with its half-timbered buildings, of vineyards wrapped around ruined castles, and read about wildlife reintroduction programmes, notably with storks. Finally, earlier this year, I packed a small rucksack and a ridiculously large bag, and headed for Colmar. I wanted to explore on foot – slow travel suits this kind of landscape – and an obvious solution was to walk part of the Route des Vins. The trip was organised through British company Headwater, which has 28 years’ experience of organising walking and cycling tours in France.
My walking buddy Wendy and I trundled to Alsace by car, over plump hills with woodland thrusting from rich-red earth. The further east we travelled, the more vineyards we passed until, on the final stretch to the tiny town of Turckheim, we were completely surrounded by them.
Turckheim makes an ideal base for walkers, just a few kilometres from touristic Colmar, on the fringe of the Vosges mountains and in the heart of the vines. Colmar is postcard-perfect with its canals and colourful houses, monuments and soaring architecture, but it’s busy, and bordered by modernity. In contrast, Turckheim is an oasis of traditional cuteness, a tight fist of narrow streets embraced by a fat wall, with a choice of three imposing gates through which to enter.
The Town Gates – Munster, France and Brand – date from the 14th century with embellishments added and removed over time. What with belfries, drawbridges and a spiky portcullis, plus pink sandstone houses, oriel windows, wisteria and half-timbers, it was hard to concentrate enough to find our accommodation.
The Hôtel des Deux Clefs was as chocolate-box as the village. A 15th-century auberge, it was festooned with flowers and intricate wooden carvings, and is a historic monument. Luckily it also had Wi-Fi, high-pressure showers and a baronial interior, with dark beams and thick carpets.
In the morning, over a table groaning with breakfast, we met Christopher, our Headwater rep. He followed his wife here three years ago when she was offered a job teaching in Mulhouse, and has fallen in love with Alsace. We laid out the maps and walking notes, and chatted about route detail, until breakfast settled and we headed for the vineyards.
The French are masters of waymarking footpaths, with different signs for long-distance, regional and local routes. In Alsace it goes a step further, with special links identified by blue crosses, yellow triangles and red dots, all shown on the IGN maps. Plus, a stretch of one of the pilgrims’ routes to Santiago de Compostela in Spain passes through here, marked with scallop shells.
Our route for the week was linear: we were working our way vaguely north to Châtenois, where we would be collected by Christopher and returned to Turckheim. It was a gentle wander through vineyards spread across the lower flank of the Vosges mountains, via famous wine villages, some so close together that we could see one from the other. The terrain was rolling, rather than flat, with daily distances of around 10 kilometres. There was an option on each leg for a longer walk, but that would have cut into the wine sampling and relaxation. The short distances meant we were never rushed and arrived each afternoon in plenty of time to explore the towns.
Walking through vineyards was soothing, with well-made paths and views across the broad Rhine Valley to the Black Forest and mountains of Germany. There was the occasional stretch through woodland, which we loved, with quiet paths and noisy birds, verdant growth and dappled light. We watched storks circling and buzzards hunting, and admired the wild flowers. But the real heroes were the villages, linked by their beauty and timelessness, but differentiated by detail – oriels, caves, covered balconies and earthy house colours.
First up, a small hill distant from Turckheim, was little Niedermorschwihr, with its 12th-century tower and houses with exquisite oriel windows. A short jaunt further on, we found Katzenthal, inhabited since pre-history, administered by Joan of Arc’s cousin and home to a jaunty 12th-century château tower.
Our lunchtime baguette was consumed in Ammerschwihr, a village quarrelled over by some of the major powers of Europe. Many of the old buildings were lost during the bombing of World War II, but it was hard to notice their absence, given the gems that remain. Stopping to admire one of the three towers, our attention was caught by a stork flapping past at head-height. It landed on the roof of a magnificent entrance gate; following its line of flight, we discovered a vineyard ‘garden’, with plaques identifying vines and fruit trees.
A glance to our left revealed an extraordinary artwork: a sculpture plastered on to the exterior wall of the Domaine du Sonnenberg wine estate. Made of glass, slate and ceramic by artist Laurent Hunzinger, it portrayed a dark forest. The next day, we would walk through a landscape that mirrored the art.
Stumbling through vineyards – sidetracked by the storks soaring overhead – we arrived in Kaysersberg, our halt for the night. An exquisite village, its streets are lined with Renaissance-style houses, with elaborate carvings and façades, and a river dashes through the centre. It was like landing in a full-colour fairy tale, with half-timbers, earthy colours, fountains, wells and fortified bridges. Rising above the town and vineyards was a medieval castle; after a dramatically priced coffee and cake, we climbed to the top of the tower for a view over the roofs.
To recover, we needed a dégustation and, following the recommendation of two women we had met while walking through the vineyards, chose the Kientzheim-Kaysersberg Winery. This cooperative dating from 1955 comprises 120 wine-growers who run 160 hectares “in a dignified and sustainable manner”. It includes four Grands Crus, including Schlossberg, the first created in Alsace in 1975, and Kaefferkopf, the most recent in 2007. Under the tutelage of an earnest young man, we sampled enthusiastically, running the gamut from sparkling rosé to tinder-dry Chasselas. By the close of play, we had taken full advantage of Christopher’s offer to collect any purchases with our luggage.
The next leg, to Riquewihr, was in startling contrast to the vineyards. With so many footpaths to choose from, we made our own route through misty woodland, past ancient chapels and broad-leafed trees, on a deserted wriggle of tracks. After three hours, following a stream banked with flowers, we emerged at the main gate of Riquewihr.
It was astonishing. The 13th-century outer gate, with a drawbridge and wooden, fang-like portcullis (one of the oldest in Europe), made of pink, time-eroded stone, led to the Dolder, or upper gate. This 25-metre-high tower acts as belfry and watch tower, with an austere outer face and an internal façade decorated with projecting timber framing.
We passed through the gates and wandered down the sloping main street, tripping over cobbles as we gaped at buildings and wells, fountains and carvings. Riquewihr sells itself as ‘The Gem of the Alsace Vineyards’; time evaporated as we explored the streets and alleys that criss-cross the fortifications, ate some of the best meals I have had in France and sipped wine in leafy courtyards. Riquewihr was magical in the evening, after the day-trippers had departed; in the early morning, with light slanting through the hillside vineyards embracing the town, it was even more so.
We left with reluctance and headed for Bergheim. Two vineyards away, in the bijou village of Hunawihr, we paused for coffee and a view of the majestic 14th-century fortified church, before heading out of town to the Stork and Otter Reintroduction Centre.
The white stork is an emblem of Alsace and star of countless legends, so the reintroduction is taken seriously. The centre was opened in 1976 to safeguard the declining population and there are now 600 nesting pairs in the region. Alongside the white stork are European otters, coypu, the grand hamster d’Alsace, plus various fish. We spent three hours watching otters being fed, enjoying a lecture on the habits of the hamster, blinking at tiny turtles and giggling at baby storks. Watching a stork egg hatch was a highlight that I had never anticipated when booking a walk on the wine trail.
After the animal antics, a short walk led to Ribeauvillé. Three ruined castles squatted on the pointed hills at its back, the pink stone in striking contrast to the dense woodland. These strongholds of the Counts of Ribeaupierre decorate, rather than dominate, the view; in any case it was hard to look up when there was so much to see at ground level. The cobbled street teased us downhill, through another massive gate, and we paused for coffee, ice cream and a seductive antiques shop before exiting into vineyards.
In contrast Bergheim, reached after a lovely walk over rolling countryside, felt understated. Passing through its 14th-century Haute Porte, with glazed roof tiles, we found pollarded lime trees, little waterways and half-timbers on a cosy scale. Bergheim, despite its peaceful appearance, was infamous for witch trials held in the 16th and 17th centuries. Sightseeing over, we could finally let our heads stop spinning as the day’s visual assault settled under a waning sun while we drank wine in our hotel’s fig-shaded courtyard.
The last day’s hike was dominated by châteaux and churches. Within striking distance of Bergheim is the fortress of Haut-Koenigsbourg. Perched high on the hillside above the town, this 12th-century castle was renovated by the German Emperor Wilhelm II at the turn of the 20th century and is now a popular stop on the Headwater walkers’ itinerary.
Back on the walking trail, our route traversed little Rodern, cradle of the pinot noir grape, and Saint-Hippolyte with its looming Gothic church. The village, surrounded by ramparts, was founded in the 8th century by Fulrad, chaplain to Charlemagne, King of the Franks and future Holy Roman Emperor. We found a coffee shop in the most modern style, which provided a delicious juxtaposition with the heritage around us.
Next came Château Kintzheim, a broad-chested, crenulated castle that holds falconry displays in its courtyard. But we were too early for the show and reluctant to hike up the hill, so continued on our journey to Châtenois. Again, the church was the first building in view, its steeple covered in green and gold tiles with four wood-shingled pepperpot turrets. Beside this beautiful creation was the entrance gate to the village, called the Tour des Sorcières, or Witches’ Tower. Built in 1402 in pretty pink stone, it has a high arch and is topped by a half-timbered house; a cute footnote from a violent era.
Châtenois, like so many Alsace villages, hides a heap of history within its thick stone walls. This little town has double fortifications, with an inner wall from the 12th century, a mint that closed in 1296, a castle and Romanesque church, noble houses and an almshouse first recorded in 1411.
We picnicked by a fountain in the village’s heart, and waited for Christopher. Our options for the afternoon were wine tasting at a Grand Cru vineyard, visiting Colmar or kicking back in Turckheim with more food and wine under a canopy of wisteria. As decisions go, it was a tough one – but then, no one said hedonism was easy.
By road/ferry: Judy travelled with P&O Ferries from Hull to Zeebrugge and then had a 5.5-hour toll-free drive through Belgium and France. From Calais or the French ports, allow 6.5 hours on toll roads via Reims.
Tel: 0871 664 2121
WALKING IN ALSACE
The Old School House
Chester Road, Northwich
Cheshire CW8 1LE
Tel: 0845 322 4672
Headwater’s Alsace Wine Trail comprises seven days of self-guided, easy-grade walking with quality food, wine and accommodation, The season runs May to September, with prices from £928 per person, based on two sharing. Headwater can also arrange self-drive, flights and rail journeys.
WHERE TO STAY
Hôtel des Deux Clefs
3 Rue du Conseil
Tel: (Fr) 3 89 27 06 01
10 Rue du Père Kohlmann
Tel: (Fr) 3 89 47 19 90
Hôtel à l’Oriel
3 Rue des Écuries Seigneuriales
Tel: (Fr) 3 89 49 03 13
WHERE TO EAT
Hôtel Chez Norbert
Tel: (Fr) 3 89 73 31 15
The La Bacchante restaurant attached to quirky Chez Norbert, where Headwater guests stay, is an enormous medieval hall with a fantastic atmosphere.
La Grappe d’Or
1 Rue des Écuries Seigneuriales
Tel: (Fr) 3 89 47 89 52
Exquisitely presented food at friendly prices. Menus from €21.
La Vieille Forge
1 Rue des Écoles
Tel: (Fr) 3 89 47 17 51
Petite restaurant offering Alsatian fare with a twist. Menu du jour €20.
WHERE TO VISIT
Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg
Tel: (Fr) 3 69 33 25 00
Immaculately restored and furnished, the château open all year, Entry €8.
Centre de Réintroduction
Route des Vins
Tel: (Fr) 3 89 73 72 62
Tickets to the stork and otter centre are valid all day for multiple entries. Entry €9.
Tourism in Alsace
Turckheim tourist office
Tel: (Fr) 3 89 27 38 44
Ribeauvillé-Riquewihr tourist office
Tel: (Fr) 3 89 73 23 23