France has many regions that are well worth a visit. One that is perhaps a little less well-known is an area in the north-east of the country called Alsace. One of the smaller regions of France, it borders Germany to the north and east and Switzerland to the south, lying between the River Rhine and the Vosges mountains.
Wikimedia Commons Atlas of France
Alsace has a long and varied history. The Romans invaded the area in 58 BC and introduced viticulture. The 14th century hit the area hard with harsh winters affecting agriculture and the Black Death. Since the 17th century, the Alsace has flitted between French and German control many times: Louis XIII and Louis XIV annexed the area in the Thirty Years war and the Franco-Dutch wars respectively. The Franco-Prussian war caused French cession to the German Empire while the Treaty of Versailles caused cession back to France. Germany overtook Alsace in the Second World War, after which it was handed back to France.
This history has given Alsace a heritage and culture all of its own: the large wine industry, the Alsatian dialect and the very picturesque towns and villages with their steep roofed, brightly painted houses. This diversity makes it a very interesting place to visit.
Although a small region of France, there was too much to do in the week that we had in the area, so my wife and I based ourselves in the southern city of Mulhouse. We stayed in a Kyriad hotel (cheap but very good quality and right in the heart of the city), a 30 second walk from the main square pictured below. One of the larger towns of Alsace, Mulhouse is very picturesque, with many good quality cafés and restaurants.
The Cité de l'Automobile is one of the best car museums in Europe, gathering the largest collection of Bugattis from originals to the Veyron, as well as many other marques through the history of cars. Next door you will find a fun train museum, housing many engines and carriages from the history of train travel, with plenty to explore.
To start our exploration of the area, we drove up to the Vosges Mountains. This range stretches along most of the west of the Alsace, so there are many places to visit. The Vosges are more low rolling hills than the precipitous Alps, but are beautiful in themselves with many forests and rivers. It is a great place for walking and cycling, with plenty of beautiful vistas:
Since Roman times, the Alsatians have been growing grapes and producing fine wines on the lower eastern slopes of the Vosges. This has now grown into a major industry. The area is famous for its German influenced white wines, such as Riesling and Gewürztraminer. A great way of sampling these and exploring the area is to follow the wine route (Route des Vins).
At 170km long, from Thann just west of Mulhouse, to Marlenheim near Strasbourg in the north, this is a long route to take in, but shorter sections can be explored to appreciate the beauty of the country, the exquisitely picturesque towns and villages and as many vineyards as you need. The half-timbered houses and cobbled streets seem to take you back in time and a photo opportunity is around every corner.
One of the prettiest towns on the wine route is the town of Colmar, which is definitely worth a visit. It has a well-preserved old town, a number of canals running through, as well as the River Lauch. Again, totally photogenic, and you can easily spend a few hours ambling and revelling in the beauty of the town.
Being France, there are many places to stop to eat and watch the world go by. Alsatian cuisine has both French and German influences, such as choucroute (sauerkraut), a dish of finely shredded cabbage layered with salt and juniper, fermented in wooden barrels, and usually served with pork. This can be beautifully complemented by a chilled Alsatian wine or one of the many local beer; Alsace is the main beer-producing region in France, with many breweries located around Strasbourg. To finish, I would strongly recommend visiting one of the pâtisseries, which sell a wide choice of very large very yummy meringues, amongst other sweet delicacies.
Alsace is a beautiful region which has much to offer for every visitor. Beautiful countryside, towns and villages, fine food and wine, history and culture make this French region definitely worth a visit.