Croatia, Slovakia, Poland, Belgium and Luxembourg are not much further!
Amazing, right? I kind of couldn't believe it just now when I looked at Google Maps and worked out the distances. I remember drives from DC to New York that lasted longer than a drive halfway across Europe… of course, traffic can significantly change the picture. On a long weekend, if everyone else has the same bright idea to drive from Munich south to Italy (Lake Garda is a popular destination for Germans), for example, that 4.5 hour drive can become a 10 hour drive.
We didn’t have to contend with any heavy traffic on a recent roadtrip to the Alsace. Two of my best girlfriends, Emily and Melissa, and Melissa’s dog Lucy, piled into my car on a sunny Friday evening after work, and we took off, hurtling westward toward the French border. We had arbitrarily decided to visit the Alsace, based mostly on the fact that none of us had been there and we wanted to go somewhere new. In retrospect, I’m a bit stunned that we were all ignorant of the ample charms of the region. It probably has something to do with the fact that we three are a bunch of mountain girls, and as such we tend to head southward into the Alps at any given opportunity. Although the Alsace does not have mountains, it does have rolling green hills, forests, vineyards, and romantic medieval towns in abundance. It is, by my estimation, one of Europe’s most charming, most romantic, most picturesque regions. Again, having spent so many years in Europe and having roamed at least half the continent, how did this little pocket of bucolic heaven keep itself hidden from me for so long? Moreover, I had actually visited Strasbourg more than a decade ago… and yet, I never managed to find my way to the lesser-known towns to its south. It’s just another example of the many wonders of the world that remain to be explored, even by a prolific traveler such as myself.
I would recommend a long weekend to a week spent exploring the Alsatian wine route, which meanders from Strasbourg south to Thann. In fact, scratch that, a long weekend is not enough! All three of us decided that the proper way to explore the Alsace would be a cycle trip through the vineyards, stopping off at the innumerable tiny villages dotted throughout; such a trip could probably be done in a week.
Some highlights to be considered:
The capital city of the Alsace region, it is a beautiful place, with a stunning cathedral and narrow cobblestone streets. Home to the European Parliament and the European Court for Human Rights, it is also a politically important city in Europe, with a diverse population. This is the place to start exploring the local cuisine: Flammkuchen, Choucroute, Bäcköffe, Foie Gras, and of course wine!
Flammkuchen, by the way, is probably the most famous Alsatian food that can also be found throughout Germany. It is a very thin, crispy flatbread/pizza, baked in a wood-fire oven, and traditionally topped with creme fraiche, bacon, and onions. Other traditional versions are topped with gruyere or munster cheese, or wild mushrooms. Munster cheese, by the way, is originally from the Alsace town of Munster, where the cheese was conserved and matured in monks' cellars.
The second biggest city in the Alsace, and right in the heart of the wine region, Colmar is often considered one of Europe’s most attractive cities. If you don’t have your own transportation, it’s a good base for exploring the region. Bicycles can be rented from the train station, and there are regular train and bus connections from Strasbourg and Brussels. It's also just a short distance from Freiburg, Germany.
Colmar is an exquisite example of medieval architecture, with winding streets filled with boutiques and restaurants. It's a great town to cruise around on bicycle, with large, open parks in which to relax and people-watch, and street-side cafes in which to enjoy a coffee, or a glass of Riesling.
This town is almost a suburb of Colmar, and is easily reached by bicycle. When you arrive here, you might wonder why you even bothered to be based in Colmar, as Turckheim is a smaller, cuter (though much sleepier) version of neighboring Colmar. We had our best meal of the weekend at the Caveau du Vigneron. It was a very simple green salad with roasted vegetables and a superb pesto sauce, a cheese plate accompanied by crusty bread, and, of course, white wine. Later that night we returned to Turckheim on our way back to Colmar to catch the night watchman's rounds. Turckheim still practices the medieval tradition of a night watchman making his rounds through town in order to check for fire risks. Now, at 10pm nightly from May 1 to October 31, one of the watchmen strolls the streets of Turckheim, dressed in traditional clothing, carrying a staff and lantern, re-creating the old practice and adding a bit of merriment to the night through song and friendly banter.
This is a walled city with an old fortress (mostly just the remains of one, beautiful round tower), and another super quaint Alsatian town. It just keeps getting better and better? In Kaysersberg, we wandered the streets and stumbled upon an excellent gelato shop that made fresh-pressed waffle cones on the spot... ummm amazing. I wish I could give you the name of the place, but you'll just have to look for the cafe where people are lined up for ice cream.
This town (probably my favorite of the bunch) is also still protected by its ancient walls and has a centuries-old fairytale feel to it. Riquewihr is built into the hillside, and the cobblestone street gently slopes upwards until at the highest point of the village, the Dolder tower rises above the rooftops, providing a lookout over the vineyards and rolling Vosges mountains.
Riquewihr is a foodie paradise, and it’s a really great place for sampling the wines of the region. The streets are filled with lots and lots of little shops selling macarons, spice bread, pate, wine, and all manner of delicacies to take home from your trip to the Alsace. We went to a fantastic wine cave where we were able to sample multiple wines from the region (wish I could remember the name of it! It was off the main pedestrian street, underground (obviously)). It was a cool respite from the hot, afternoon sun, and Lucy very much enjoyed resting on the cool pebbles and snoozing while we all got a little tipsy.
What we didn’t do was explore any of the actual vineyards, or venture south from Colmar. There is so much more to see! Next time, I would spend more time exploring the region on cycle, and visit some of the actual vineyard tasting rooms. I'll update you on how that goes.