France’s oldest wine route is a 170km stretch from Marlenheim east of Strasbourg south to Thann, through the foothills of the Vosges Mountains and along the Rhine plain.
Along the way are dozens of picture postcard towns, vineyards and wine houses to visit. Sitting almost on the French-German border, the region has ping-ponged back and forth between French and German control over centuries. The influence of both is clear – in the names of the towns, the architecture, the food and the wines grown here.
We hired a car in Strasbourg and headed south to Eguisheim, about half way along the route, where we’d rented an apartment as a base to explore the area.
On the way we visited the town of Gertwiller.
This ancient village is famous as the birthplace of gingerbread. Two local companies, Fortwenger and Lips, have been making gingerbread here for over 200 years. Competition is fierce, and both have a museum – really just a drawcard to get the kids in and the adults buying, but fun and visually very cute.
Gingerbread is big business now and both companies’ products are sold in all the local towns and further afield. They’ve got everything gingerbread related – cakes, biscuits, gingerbread men, sweets, ceramics, toys and chocolates.
We thought Fortwenger sounded more like a US army base than a baked goods shop but their gingerbread loaf and gingerbread biscuits were delicious.
Alsace is known for its aromatic, floral and spicy white wines and this specific area is renowned for its quality gerwurtztraminer. Gertwiller is home to several traditional cellar doors where you can drop in for a wine flight tasting. So we did.
Then on to Eguisheim.
A prettier Alsatian town would be hard to find. It’s one of France’s Plus Beaux Villages (Most Beautiful Villages). Full of flower boxes through spring and summer, it has been awarded a ‘4 flower’ rating (the highest) in the Villes et Villages Fleuris, a national competition whose criteria include floral beauty, sustainability, heritage preservation and general locality beautification.
The town is unique in design, enclosed by two parallel elliptical walls. It was a prosperous mercantile centre in the Middle Ages and the inner wall protected wealthy tithe courtyards. An outer wall provided further protection, with agricultural outbuildings between the two.
The agricultural buildings are gone, replaced centuries ago by townhouses built into the ramparts. Our apartment was on the second floor of one and it was a great place to stay.
The village has dozens of cafe and restaurant options but it seems like most visitors are day trippers as it’s really quiet at night. And there’s lots of wine houses with their own tasting rooms, perfect to while away an afternoon without worrying about a designated driver.
About half an hour south of Eguisheim is the National Automobile Museum in Mulhouse. It is the largest automobile museum in the world and is indeed massive. It was built to house the private Schlumpf Collection after it was transferred to a foundation to be made available for public viewing. The original owner was quite obsessed with Bugattis and the display includes the largest intact collection of them anywhere.
There’s also lots of interesting oddities, like this bicycle which looks guaranteed to shatter the best of friendships.
And this one – known as the Daughter of Helios, it is the world’s oldest known surviving solar electric car. It was built in 1984 by two ‘travel and tech enthusiasts’ who drove it more than 14,000km from Zinder in Niger to Dakar in Senegal and then raced it in several international solar car races before donating it to the museum.
And how could you not love this beauty. Aptly named La Baleine (the whale), this 1938 Arzens cabriolet must have been a nightmare to park.
Car fanatics could spend days here.
Eguisheim to close to Colmar which is famous for its intact renaissance town and is probably the Alsace’s most visited town.
The centre is packed with heritage buildings along impeccably maintained cobblestone lanes.
The House of Heads, built in 1609 for a local shopkeeper, is adorned with 106 heads.
It’s pretty enough but it’s also packed with tourists, and a lot of shops flogging generic tourist tat.
One of Colmar’s biggest drawcards, and what most distinguishes it from the many other picturesque towns in the region, is La Petit Venise (Little Venice), a narrow canal best seen by a trip in a battery powered flat bottomed canal boat.
The trip lasts about 30 minutes and ranges from a glimpse of genteel residential gardens downstream to picturesque half timbered houses and canal-side restaurants upstream.
A single canal, no gondoliers in boaters or musicians to serenade visitors, no lagoon. For that matter, no pong, no spruikers and no cruise ships! Venice it is not. Beautiful it is. The comparison is a bit silly and quite unnecessary. It’s a place to be admired and enjoyed for its own charms.
Not to be confused with the city of the same name in Germany with the world famous cathedral, this Munster is a small, local village.
It isn’t ‘chocolate box’ pretty like some of the other Alsatian towns, but it’s a centre for very good produce and there’s quite a few artisanal cheese, charcuterie, chocolate and other gourmet shops. The mid week market was on when we visited. Excellent local fruit and vegetables, especially white asparagus which was in season.
As lovers of stinky cheese, we’d come for the town’s namesake which was first concocted and matured in monks’ cellars in the region. There’s now a factory just outside town with tours and tastings but unfortunately it was closed on the day we came. There’s no shortage of the product in town though and we knew it would be part of the marcaire meal we were headed to.
Dotted around the hills and valleys surrounding Munster are many farms. Over centuries, auberges (farm inns) developed a traditional fixed menu served to travellers, known as a marcaire. Now many have lodgings and/or serve the marcaire to day visitors like us.
The meal is rustic, huge and immensely satisfying. It starts with tourte – a deep minced meat filled pie with a flaky crust accompanied by salad. It alone would have been a meal. But next is a huge plate of slow cooked sliced potatoes with delectable slabs of smoked pork neck on top. Then a serving of Munster cheese. We were bursting by this point, but it was impossible to resist the dessert – a fresh, local cheese with a consistency like curds topped with kirsch.
The inn we visited has been operated by the same family for 5 generations. You couldn’t eat such a meal every day, but together with the traditional mountainside inn atmosphere, its definitely a must-do if you are in this part of the world.
Durche die Weinberg – Trois Chateaux loop walk
Eguisheim is surrounded by vineyards which begin right from the edge of the village. We did a lovely 15km walk starting from our front door. We followed walking trails through the vines in beautiful Spring sunshine. There’s a tradition here of planting irises along the edges of the vines. Very pretty.
After about an hour we had clear views of Les Troix Chateaux, three ruined castles on a hill above the vineyards.
We reached the village of Husseren-les-Chateaux, a pretty town and the start point for a hike up the hill to the ruins.
The track up was green and leafy, and at the top was a panorama across the vines and villages.
The trail down circled back towards Eguisheim and from the base, more of those iris-lined vineyards.
A most pleasant way to spend a sunny Spring day.
Mont Saint Odile – Chateau d’Ottrott loop walk
The weather was getting warmer by the day. It’s a great time of year for a hike here, so we headed to the town of Ottrott which is the start point for a loop walk to Mont Saint Odile, Alsace’s most iconic pilgrimage site.
From Ottrot an ancient trail winds for 5km through the forest to Hohenburg Abbey on the peak of Mont Saint Odile. A monastery and convent was first established here in the 7th century by the then Duke of Alsace in honour of his daughter, Saint Odile, the patron saint of good eyesight and of the region of Alsace.
Along the path are various shrines and meditation spots.
According to Catholic tradition, Odile was born blind and her father rejected her because she was female and ‘damaged’. She was sent to Burgundy where she was raised by peasants. At the age of 12 she was transferred to a monastery where an itinerant bishop baptised her, whereupon she miraculously recovered her sight. Hearing of this, her brother brought her back home. This so enraged their father that he accidentally killed the brother. Odile revived him – another miracle – but had to flee to avoid their father. She hid from him in a cave which opened up to give her sanctuary – miracle number 3. Bad dad was injured by falling rocks and gave up chasing her. Despite his poor treatment of her, Odile later returned again, this time to nurse him when he became ill. Finally relenting of his prejudices, the Duke established the monastery, where she then lived as abbess until her death.
The current monastery dates from the 1700s and gets a lot of visitors, many arriving by road right to the door rather than via the traditional footpath.
In the courtyard there’s an interesting sundial designed and built by Cistercian monks in the 18th century which not only gives accurate local time according to the sun but also the equivalent time in Babylon, Italy and other parts of the ancient world.
From the peak, various other trails meander down and fan out across the hills and valleys. We followed one which led down past the Pagan Wall. Built by the Celts using around 300,000 large boulders, the original wall stretched for more than 10km and enclosed a surface area of about 10 hectares around Mont Saint Odile. Some sections are still their original 2 to 3 metres height.
Leaving the wall we branched onto a trail for the ‘sculpture en bois’ (forest sculptures), a series of naive-style wooden sculptures carved from tree stumps depicting local animals.
Climbing again we reached the Kiosque d’Elsberg, a peak with a small shelter and a great view over the Alsace plains.
Then down to the obligatory ruined castle, Ottrott Chateau.
Then back down to Ottrott to finish.
The Alsace plain and the Vosges Mountains which run alongside are packed with walking trails. It’s no wonder the area is so popular – good wine, good food, picturesque villages, great outdoor activities. What more could you want.