Let’s discover Alsatian heritage – Meanderings through France no 50
Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
If we all have heard about Strasbourg, European Capital City and about the famous and delicious white Alsatian wines such as Riesling, Gewurtztraminer or Sylvaner, Alsace has much more to offer: its beautiful landscapes combining valleys, forests and low mountains, its inimitable gastronomy and its rich architectural heritage.
This year Strasbourg celebrates the 1,000th anniversary of its cathedral. With its 155 yards high it remained the highest building of France until 1874. You will have to lift up your gaze to watch its magnificent façade cut into pink granite and realise the amount of work needed to achieve this lace-like stone wonder. Its stained-glass windows, its organs and its astronomical clock are quite unique but most of all you should climb the 330 steps that will take you up to the 70 yards high platform from where you’ll get on a clear day, a spectacular view over the city, the Vosges Mountains, the plains planted with vineyards and even in the distance the Alps and Black Forest.
At the foot of the cathedral the old town spreads its narrow streets lined with beautiful half-timbered houses typical of all Alsatian towns and villages and their inevitable colourful geraniums. Close to the cathedral the “Maison Kammerzell” is one of these most beautiful half-timbered houses. This house built in 1467 has been turned into a hotel and restaurant. It’s one of the best places to eat a “choucroute”, a “coq au vin” cooked with Riesling or a “baeckeofe” in one of the dinning room adorned with huge frescoes painted in 1904 by Leo Schnug famous painter of his time.
“La Maison des Tanneurs” in the “Petite France” district is another temple of gastronomy in Strasbourg. Its owner will warmly welcome you in this house built on the bank of one of the many canals of Strasbourg in 1572. Whether in the typical Alsatian dinning room or in the shade of the trees of the terrace overlooking the canal you can have one of the tastiest meal in town: “Alsatian snails”, home made foie gras, three fishes choucroute, stuffed Guinea fowl. On a warm summer evening, looking at the slow boats sailing on the canal, you will quietly relax and take time to enjoy your food and a glass of Alsatian wine!
In 1870 when German seized control of Alsace they created Bierstubs where they used to drink beer and as an act of resistance Alsatians created Winstubs where they drank Alsatian wines. Ever since Winstubs are part of Alsatian traditions. “Chez Yvonne” was opened in 1873 and is still a gastronomic institution of Strasbourg. Countless celebrities have had dinner here and their signed photos cover the walls. A newly open shop next to the restaurant will allow you to bring back home jars of choucroute, baeckeofe, foie gras and many other dishes made by the chef.
At first sight the restaurant “Le Tire Bouchon”(the Corkscrew) located in a touristic and crowded street of Strasbourg might look like a place made for undemanding hungry tourists, but it is much more than that. Behind its beautiful painted façade you will get a tasty and entirely homemade meal concocted with passion by its chef. Awarded best “fish choucroute” of the year in 2015 this restaurant that opened only 10 years ago already is a “must” for every gourmet visiting Alsace for an amazingly good value for money!
With a menu changing almost every day depending on local seasonal produce the “Table de Christophe” is the perfect place for a quick yet elaborate meal. Angele will always be there with a smile to welcome you and serve you an incredibly cheap two-dishes menu considering the quality of the food but you can also select the 3 courses meal and take your time to enjoy.
Depending on how much time you spend in Alsace try to get out of Strasbourg and visit its historical heritage. No less than 500 fortified castles were built in Alsace during the Middle Ages. Through the centuries many of them were abandoned due to high maintenance costs and discomfort. Many of them were destroyed and their stones used by local people to built their own houses. Nowadays only 80 remain erected, most of them in ruins, and they have a powerful and romantic mood of loss. A “Castle Road” has recently been created to promote this forgotten heritage and several volunteer associations are working hard to make them accessible to all. Several years ago the “Castle Watchmen” decided to protect and prevent from total destruction these endangered castles.
Today you can easily visit these castles following the itinerary called the “Route des Chateaux et Cités Fortifiées d’Alsace”(you can easily get a map at a local tourist office). From north to south, going through beautiful undulating landscapes and vineyards you will discover an unknown Alsace. By car, riding a horse or a bike or simply walking you can stop in Wissembourg where the biggest fresco in France was painted on a wall of the abbey-church during the 14th century and see its ramparts and its House of Salt. Don’t miss the Lichtenberg castle built on top of a hill surrounded by dense woods during the 13th century, an impressive fortress and an interesting visit!
Dambach-la-Ville is a small town surrounded by vineyards hidden behind its granite ramparts. From there you can get to one of the oldest fortified castle in Alsace, the Bernstein castle, a star of the 11th century! It is open to the public everyday and especially on July the 26th and August 15th when a guided tour will tell you every thing about its story and renovation, a great opportunity to meet its friendly watchman.
The Castles road end at the most famous castle in Alsace: the “Haut-Koenigsbourg castle”. Perched on a 900 yards high hill, this impressive fortress overlooks the Alsatian plains. In early 20th century it was entirely and costly rebuilt by William II emperor of Germany and now is a living testimony of the medieval way of life with its drawbridges, armouries, dungeons and canons. Not to forget its garden of culinary and medicinal herbs. These are only a few examples of the castles and villages that are worth a visit on this castle road where all year-round gastronomic, musical and cultural entertainments will make you discover this mysterious and unknown Alsace.
For more information:
Strasbourg Tourism Office: (close to the cathedral) www.otstrasbourg.fr
Alsatian tourist offices:
Restaurants in Strasbourg:
La Maison des Tanneurs: 42, rue du Bain aux Plantes www.maison-des-tanneurs.com
Chez Yvonne: 10, rue du Sanglier www.restaurant-chez-yvonne.net
Le Tire Bouchon: 5, rue des Tailleurs de Pierre www.letirebouchon.fr
La Maison Kammerzell: 16, Place de la Cathedrale www.maison-kammerzell.com
La Table de Christophe: 28, rue des Juifs www.tabledechristophe.com
Route des Chateaux: the Castle Road:
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny