France’s Alsace

On the loose in France's countryside, we drive up Alsace's Route du Vin for miles of vineyards, half-timbered villages, and feudal fortresses. We head to Verdun to walk the trenches of World War I before visiting Reims Cathedral to marvel at Gothic splendor and Chagall's stained glass. Our final stop is Epernay, the bubbly birthplace of champagne.

Travel Details

Bartholdi Museum

This little museum recalls the life and work of the local boy who gained fame by sculpting America’s much-loved Statue of Liberty. Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi (1834–1904) was a dynamic painter/photographer/sculptor with a passion for the defense of liberty and freedom. Although Colmar was his home, he spent most of his career in Paris, refusing to move back here while Alsace was German. Bartholdi devoted years of his life to realizing the vision of a statue of liberty for America that would stand in New York City’s harbor. While Lady Liberty is his most famous work, you’ll see several Bartholdi statues gracing Colmar’s squares.

Unterlinden Museum

This museum is Colmar’s touristic claim to fame. Its extensive yet manageable collection ranges from Roman Colmar to medieval winemaking exhibits, and from traditional wedding dresses to paintings that give vivid insight into the High Middle Ages. The jewel of the collection is Matthias Grünewald’s grippingly realistic and exquisitely painted Isenheim Altarpiece (currently, however, construction has forced the Isenheim Altarpiece to be moved to the Dominican Church a block away; even without the altarpiece, this museum is worth a visit).

Hôtel-Restaurant Le Rapp

This restaurant is a traditional place to savor a slow, elegant meal served with grace and fine Alsatian wine. While busy with locals during the day, it may be quiet at dinner.

Maison Martin Jund

Maison Jund holds my favorite budget beds in Colmar. This ramshackle yet historic half-timbered house — the home of likeable winemakers André and Myriam — feels like a medieval tree house soaked in wine and filled with flowers.

Mémorial Musée de Fleury

This museum is being rebuilt until 2016. When it reopens it promises to offer the best historic exhibits on the Battle of Verdun anywhere.

L'Ossuaire de Douaumont

This is the tomb of countless French and German soldiers whose last homes were the muddy trenches of Verdun. In the years after the war, a local bishop wandered through the fields of bones — the bones of an estimated 100,000 French soldiers and even more German soldiers. Concluding there needed to be a decent final resting place, he began the ossuary project in 1920. It was finished in 1932. Over time, fewer visitors come as pilgrims and more as tourists. Yet even someone who’s given little thought to the human cost of this battle of attrition will be deeply moved by a thoughtful visit to this somber place.

Riems Cathedral

The cathedral of Reims is a glorious example of Gothic architecture, and one of Europe’s greatest churches. This cathedral is to France what Westminster Abbey is to England. Luckily World War II spared the church, and since then it has come to symbolize reconciliation. A French plaque set in the pavement just in front recalls the 1962 Mass of Reconciliation between France and Germany. A German version of the marker was added in 2012, commemorating 50 years of friendship and celebrating the fact that another war today between these two nations would be unthinkable.

Moët et Chandon

The granddaddy of Champagne companies offers one-hour tours with three pricey tasting possibilities.

Script

See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick’s guidebooks.

Hi, I’m Rick Steves, in the French region of Alsace. In this program we’ll sample a lush land of villages, vineyards, ruined castles, and memorable cuisine.

In this show we’ll experience the unique mix of Alsatian culture by visiting its enchanting cobbled villages, sipping a little wine, viewing art that’s still as vibrant as the medieval day it was painted, tasting gourmet Alsatian cuisine, pondering the bloodiest of all WWI battlefields, going gothic at a great vathedral, and finally visiting the bubbly birthplace of Champagne.

France is one of the largest countries in Western Europe. The region of Alsace along the German border is where two mighty nations meet. From our Alsatian home base in Colmar, we’ll drive to Verdun, Reims and finish in Épernay.

And once again, we’re traveling with the help of my Francophile partner Steve Smith.

Rick: Steve, thanks for joining us.
Steve: Bonjour Rick.

Alsace is France with a German accent.

Historically, the Germans thought the mountains were the logical border The French thought the Rhine River was. The Alsace — that’s the area in between. Standing like a flower-child referee between Germany and France, the Alsace has weathered many invasions.

The region’s many castles remind us that Alsace has been a long fought-over crossroads. And all these centuries as a political shuttlecock between Germany and France have given the Alsace a hybrid culture. Visitors enjoy a rich blending of two great societies: French and German, Catholic and Protestant — a Latin joy of life with just enough Germanic discipline.

Alsace has carefully coifed poodles and the best beer in France. The restaurants serve sauerkraut...with fine sauces. Signs are bilingual...so are many names. And with German popularity low after World War II, many families with German surnames gave their children French first names.

People: My name is Dominique Freyburger... Monique Freudenstadt... Maurice Kluft.

The rich mixing of cultures has done the Alsace well. Visitors delight in the region’s distinctive cuisine and superb wines. Centuries of successful wine production have built prosperous and colorful villages.

Wine continues to fuel the local economy. We’re exploring the wine road of Alsace — the Route du Vin. This asphalt ribbon ties 80 miles of vineyards, villages, and feudal fortresses into an understandably popular tourist package. The dry and sunny climate has produced good wine and happy tourists since Roman times.

Alsatian towns like Eguisheim are historic mosaics mixing flower-bedecked fountains, cheery old inns, and characteristic wineries colored in with half-timbered pastels.

The ever-present symbol of the Alsace, magnificent white storks, build nests on the town’s highest perches. Despite the seemingly precarious setting, they manage to raise their young while keeping an ever-watchful eye over the vineyards.

Kaysersberg is a colorful bundle of 15th-century houses. The town’s church features a centuries-old crucifix reminding us of the deep roots of Alsatian towns. The carving over the door of the church dates from 1235.

The great humanitarian Albert Schweitzer once lived in this peaceful village. His profound “reverence for life” led him to Africa, where he established a hospital in 1913. He spent the better part of his life expanding and supporting this effort, and in 1952 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Today, his Alsatian home town is a relaxing and enjoyable getaway.

Here in the Alsace, wine is the primary industry, topic of conversation, and perfect excuse for countless festivals. It’s a tradition upon which much of the local folk culture is built.

The devastation of World War II was a hit-or-miss affair in the Alsace. Some towns were spared, while others were destroyed. Bennwihr was flattened. But the recovery of this village is remarkable. The small family-run vineyards of many villages like Bennwihr sprang back as large, efficient and successful co-ops.

In the village of Bennwihr, over 200 families produce grapes, and most of those grapes come here. This production line handles 10,000 bottles an hour, and by the end of the day hundreds of tons of grapes are processed. Four million bottles are exported all over Europe each year.

Harvest time is in the fall. But we’re here in June. While we’re missing the crushing of the grapes, we can catch a glimpse of the modern production line as it bottles the popular white wines. And after a good tour of the wine making, visitors enjoy the refreshing finale of any visit — the tasting.

For less machinery but more personality, we’re visiting one of the countless Alsatian family wineries. In the Alsace, wineries are typically passed from generation to generation. Steve’s friend, Dominique, carries on his family’s wine-making tradition.

Dominique: This is my cellar. This is the oldest barrel in the cellar. It was made for my grand-grandfather. M is Mandrace and the other M is Mongold, so my grandfather and the grand-grandfather. So, two families. This is the Edelzwicker. It’s the only blended Alsatian white wine.
Steve: So all the other wines…
Dominique: All the other wines are made only with one grape, so.
Steve: And the wine is named after the grape.

Rieslings and the spicy Gewürztraminer are the fine wines of Alsace. The unique Gewürztraminer and the Alsatian cuisine are a perfect match. Apart from an opportunity to taste some great wine, a visit like this gains us a few Alsatian friends, and some help singing the French national anthem.

People: [Singing French national anthem]

Cellar-hopping and wine-shopping is a great way to spend an afternoon on the Route du Vin. Roadside degustation signs mean wine tasters welcome. With free tasting and inexpensive bottles, French wine tasting can be an affordable sport.

Colmar is a scenic home base for our Alsatian explorations. Long popular with French and German tourists, this well preserved old town of 70,000 is often overlooked and underrated by oversees travelers.

Historic beauty was rarely an excuse to be spared the ravages of World War II. But it worked for the most beautiful city in the Alsace. The American and British military were careful not to bomb quaintly cobbled Colmar.

Today, Colmar not only survives, it thrives — with 15th- and 16th-century buildings, rich art treasures, and popular cuisine. Colmar’s charms are rooted in a wealthy medieval past. Fifteenth-century Colmar was one of 10 cities that joined together to make the Decapolis, a league of trading cities.

As merchants met in this customs house, they were creating a new economic order. Trading leagues were reacting to the business problems that came with feudalism.

No uniform currency, different weights and measures, terrible duties every few miles. This was good for the nobility — medieval Europe’s rural landlords — but a chaotic nightmare for city merchants. To remove those barriers to free trade, many medieval European cities banded together to form trading leagues — like the Decapolis.

This proudly decorated 16th-century building was the home of a wealthy Colmar merchant. In those days, houses were taxed by square footage at street level, an incentive to build both up and out.

Originally, Colmar’s canals were busy transporting goods. Today this canal only adds to the ambience in a neighborhood locals call “La Petite Venise” — the little Venice.

Colmar’s knack for trade and its local industries, such as the leather business in this tanner’s quarter, added up to a strong economy.

Prosperity from trade meant money for art. And Colmar had more than its share. Three great artists — Bartholdi, Schongauer, and Grunewald — called Colmar home.

The Frédéric Bartholdi Museum honors the great sculptor who created the Statue of Liberty, a gift from France to the United States on its 100th birthday. The museum offers interesting historical detail describing the creation of Lady Liberty and displays many of Bartholdi’s sculptures.

He adorned his hometown with many statues — most, it seems with one arm held high.

Four hundred years before Bartholdi, Martin Schongauer was Colmar’s leading artist. His Virgin of the Rose Garden looks as fresh and crisp as the day it was painted in 1473. It’s magnificently set in a Gothic Dominican church, surrounded by fourteenth century stained glass. The Latin words on Mary’s halo read: “Pick me also for your child, o holy Virgin.”

And for Schongauer, nature is more than a backdrop. Mary and Jesus are encircled by it. The way Jesus holds his mother, the Latin message, and the prominence of nature all work to drive home the theological point. Mary is accessible.

A few blocks away, the Unterlinden Museum, my vote for the best small museum in Europe, fills a 750-year-old former convent. Matthias Grunewald’s gripping Isenheim Altarpiece is the museum’s most important work. A model shows how this is a series of paintings on hinges that pivot like shutters. To understand the purpose of this particularly gruesome crucifixion scene, it helps to know who paid for it.

The Isenheim Altarpiece was commissioned 500 years ago by a monastery hospital filled with people suffering terrible skin diseases — a common cause of death back then.

The hospital’s goal, long before the age of pain killers, was to remind patients that Jesus understood their suffering. The many panels led patients through a series of bible stories culminating with this reassuring resurrection scene.

The other great French art in the Alsace is edible art. Alsatian cuisine is world famous. Even vacationers traveling on a shoestring should spring for a fine meal in Alsace. In our France guidebook, Steve and I recommend a splurge at Restaurant Le Rapp.

Steve’s friend Bernard runs the restaurant, and he’s taking our taste buds on a tour through the culinary treats of Alsace.

Steve: What else do you recommend Bernard?
Bernard: Perhaps the escargot?
Steve: Now, I think of snails as Burgundian….
Bernard: It’s the same way, but in Burgundy they put only the butter and the herbs and the garlic and in Alsace they put also a bouillon with the butter.

The snails were excellent, and for the main course it’s quiche, lamb, and chicken; all prepared with an Alsatian flare. Pace yourself. The meals are served in courses (about five or six), and each one delicious.

And don’t miss the cheese course — it’s standard before dessert. While the French claim it helps the digestion, for us it’s simply an opportunity to sample some of the world’s best cheeses with great red wine.

Bernard: So you have Camembert, which comes from Normandy; Roquefort, a blue cheese; Comté, that comes from the Jura; that’s a goat cheese; this is Bleu d’Auvergne; and this is a local cheese, a muenster.
Steve: I’d like the muenster.

After the cheese, we top off the evening with a tasty light dessert.

Rick: Steve, what’s this called?
Steve: Hey, it’s called “mine.”

We’ve enjoyed our visit to Colmar and our stay at Maison Jund. Small family run hotels like this are one of the great accommodations values in Europe. Now it’s time to continue our travels. We’re on the way to three historical destinations: Reims, Épernay, and our first stop, Verdun.

Facing squarely towards Germany, Verdun has been France’s logical point of defense and its principal fortress since the late 1800s. Verdun offers a memorable chance to revisit World War I. Now even the survivors of that war have died and little remains to remind us of the carnage. But Europe still wears the scars of the “war that did not end all wars.” Verdun is a chilling reminder of one of the most costly battles of World War I. Seven hundred thousand died as waves of Germans and French fought to take and retake the miles of trenches and forts.

The Memorial Museum de Fleury shows reconstructed scenes and models of the trench warfare that raged along the western front for over four years. The casualty figures were numbing as day after day heroes of 19th-century wars waved their swords and thousands of troops climbed out of their trenches and ran into the bullets of 20th-century machine guns.

At the much-pummeled Fort Douaumont you can tour an underground bunker and tunnels and see the remnants of a World War I command center.

The Ossuaire de Douaumont is the thought-provoking culmination of any visit to Verdun. This huge tomb is the final resting place of 130,000 unidentified French and Germans who died in the muddy trenches of Verdun.

This was a “battle of attrition” — when two nations, or at least their leaders, decided to bash their heads against each other, calculating that the other would bleed white and drop first.

World War I left half of all the men in France between the ages of 15 and 30 dead or wounded. It’s a powerful, somber experience.

From a shocking lesson in 20th-century warfare we make our way next to the cathedral in Reims for a visit to one of Europe’s greatest gothic cathedrals. This autoroute zips us quickly and efficiently across France. The only reason to stop is to pay the modest tolls and to enjoy some of Europe’s slickest rest stops.

The thoughtful French decorate their freeways with modern art...and label the sights we’ll be passing by. We’ll be in Reims in 31 kilometers: that’s about 20 miles. For locals, Reims is “Rance.” It rhymes with “France.”

The cathedral of Reims is a glorious example of Gothic architecture. In a moment, we’ll tour the cathedral, but first let’s see how it’s built. Steve and I like to illustrate the structure of a Gothic church by building one out of tourists. It only takes 13 — six columns, six buttresses, and a spire.

Columns and ribs support the spire. Architecturally speaking, these are ribs...forget the elbows. Four ribs come together to make a pointed arch, which supports the spire. In Gothic you’ve got pointed arches, not round arches — this is a Gothic innovation — which sends the weight of the roof out rather than down therefore we need buttresses to support the walls. With our buttresses in place we’ve got a solid Gothic structure, more windows than ever, and a spire that will never fall. Let’s go to the church. Thanks, au revoir, merci.

Gothic architects organized buttresses, ribs, and pointed arches, sending walls soaring high above open and airy interiors. The sun pours through the upper windows, reminding us of the symbolic importance of light to medieval Christians.

And the church is filled with history as well as light. This great cathedral was the coronation site of 800 years of French kings and queens. In 1429, a young and charismatic Joan of Arc stood next to a reluctant Charles VII to ensure he accepted the crown of France.

In World War I the cathedral was badly damaged by heavy bombing. Most of the stained glass was destroyed. Today, the cathedral is restored and houses many old treasures, as well as a modern one... this 20th-century stained glass created by contemporary artist Marc Chagall.

To catch our sightseeing breath between blockbuster sites, we enjoy relaxing at French cafés. Throughout France, they are carefully positioned viewpoints from which to watch the river of local life. Cafés offer quick meals for nearly the same price as fast-food chains. Look for the plat du jour — that’s the blue-plate special. With a few key phrases you can get an egg on top of your grilled cheese sandwich, or just the right salad.

Bread and water are free. To get more, politely ask “encore, s’il vous plait.”

Next up — Épernay, in the region called Champagne. Vintners here insist their area is the only place entitled to call its bubbly by that name. Our visit begins at Moët and Chandon, one of the grand champagne houses of the region. They welcome visitors here with fascinating tours.

The story they tell is that around 1700, after lots of fiddling with double fermentation, one of the monks developed the first Champagne. The now-famous monk, Dom Pérignon, ran through the abbey shouting excitedly, “Brothers, come quickly! I am drinking stars!”

Since then, this bubbly sparkly white wine is synonymous with a first class celebration the world over.

Guide: You can see in our enoteca we keep our oldest bottles of Champagne. There are 4,000 of old Champagnes still aging in this enoteca. The oldest one dates back to 1869.

The vineyards overhead conceal a labyrinth of some 30 miles of wine caves meandering into the surrounding hills. Our tour concludes with one more salute to French culture.

Well...this glass is empty and our visit is over.

Steve: Vive la France!

Thanks, Steve, for all the travel tips. And thank you for traveling with us. I’m Rick Steves,

Steve: ...and I’m Steve Smith.

...wishing you happy travels. Bon voyage. Au revoir.

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