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.
Restaurant Le Rapp
1 rue Berthe Molly
tel. 03 89 41 62 10
12 rue de l'Ange
Tel. 03 89 41 58 72
Fax 03 89 23 15 83
L'Ossuaire de Douaumont
L'Ossuaire de Douaumont is the tomb of 130,000 French and Germans whose last homes were the muddy trenches of Verdun. The artillery shell-shaped tower and cross design of this building symbolizes war and peace. Park at the rear, look through the low windows for a bony memorial to those whose political and military leaders asked them to make the "ultimate sacrifice" for their countries. Enter down the steps and start with the thought-provoking 20-minute film that seems particularly relevant today (ask for English headphones — you can adjust volume). The little picture boxes in the gift shop are worth a look if you don't visit Mémorial-Musée de Fleury. Climb upstairs and experience a humbling and moving tribute to the soldiers who were convinced that this war would end all wars and that their children would grow up in a world at peace. The red lettering on the walls lists a soldier's name, rank ("Lt" is lieutenant, " Cal " is corporal, "St" is sergeant), regiment, and dates of birth and of death. Skip the 204 steps up the tower unless you need the exercise and a decent view (tel. 03 29 84 54 81).
Moët et Chandon offers tours with three tasting possibilities. From the Epernay train station, walk five minutes straight up rue Gambetta to place de la République, and take a left on avenue de Champagne (how fitting). According to the story, it was near here in about 1700 that the monk Dom Perignon, after much fiddling with double fermentation, stumbled onto this bubbly treat. On that happy day, he ran through the abbey shouting, "Brothers, come quickly...I'm drinking stars!" (20 avenue de Champagne, tel. 03 26 51 20 20).
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 Cathedral, 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 Epernay.
And once again, we're traveling with the help of my Francophile friend and fellow guidebook writer Steve Smith.
Rick: Thanks for joining us Steve...
Steve: Bonjour Rick.
Alsace is France with a German accent.
Historically, the Germans thought the mountains were the logical border and while the French thought the Rhine River was. The Alsace — the area in between. Standing like a flower-child referee between France and Germany, the Alsace has weathered many invasions.
The regions' 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 bi-lingual. . . and so are many names. 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... Celene Spitz.
The rich mixing of cultures has done the Alsace well. Visitors delight in the region's distinctive cuisine and superb wines. And centuries of successful wine production here 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 towns highest perches. Despite the seemingly precarious setting, they manage to raise their young while they keeping an ever watchful eye over the vineyards.
Kaisersberg 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 many years to expand and support 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 cooperatives.
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.
Rieslings and the spicy Gewurztraminer 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.
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 a excuse to be spared the ravages of World War II. But it worked for Colmar. But it worked for Alsace's most beautiful city. 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, and terrible duties every few miles. This was good for the nobility — medieval Europe's rural land owners — but a chaotic nightmare for city merchants. To remove those barriers to free trade, many medieval European cities banded together to create trading leagues — like the Decaplois.
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 tanners quarter, added up to a strong economy
Prosperity from trade means money from art. And Colmar has more than its share. Three great artists — Grunewald, Schongauer, and Bartholdi — called Colmar home.
The Frederic 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 set magnificently in a Gothic Dominican church, surrounded by fourteenth century stained glass. The Latin words on Mary's halo reads: "Pick me also for your child, oh holy Virgin."
And for Shoenguer, 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 750yea rold former convent. Mathias 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 hospitals 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 French 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 of 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 the put only the butter and the herbs and the garlic and the Alsace they put also a bouillon with 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 is 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.
After the cheese, we top off the evening with 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, Epernay, 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 WWI. 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. 700,000 died as waves of Germans and French fought to take and retake the miles of trenches and forts.
The Mémorial Musée 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 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, decide to bash their heads against each other, calculating that the other would bleed white and drop first.
WWI left half of all the men in France between 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 — a Gothic innovation — the weight of the spire pushes 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...lets go to the church... thanks, merci.
Gothic architects organized buttresses, ribs and pointed arches sending walls and windows soar 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 plays as well as light. This great cathedral was the coronation site of 800 years of French kings and queens. In 1429, the charismatic Joan of Ark stood next to a reluctant Charles VII to ensure he accepted the crown of France.
In WWI the cathedral's interior 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 we enjoy relaxing at French cafes. Throughout France, they are carefully positioned viewpoints from which to watch the river of local life. Cafes 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 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 — Epernay, 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 Moet and Chandon, one of the grand champagne houses of the region. They welcome visitors here with interesting 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, Don Perignon, 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 four thousand 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! Thank you Steve for the travel tips. And thank you for traveling with us. I'm Rick Steves,
Steve: ...and I'm Steve Smith wishing you happy travels. Au revoir.