A Tale of Two Countries: Alsace

July 22, 2016

From the oompah band to the Michelin two star dinner (side note, as we’re writing this, we’re drinking Wolfberger, sparkling rose, Cremant d’ Alsace. HIGHLY recommended while reading, writing, or just enjoying everyday happy hour).

Our quest for what’s new in everyday champagne led us to Alsace, home of Cremant D’Alsace and thousands of other, most notably, white wines.

Alsace is the border where France and Germany confusingly meet. Are we in Germany? Are we in France? Croissants or brotchen? Visiting the area doesn’t clear up the confusion. Language-wise, it was actually pretty easy for us. We cobbled together our “menu French” with my high school German.

After a train to Mulhouse, we started in the Black Forest and the beautiful countryside around Breisbach and Badenweiler, just stepping our toe into Germany. To step your toe into Germany means after a long bike ride, we were greeted with an oompah band and beer and wine festival in the parking lot of the hotel in Badenweiler. And, yes, the oompah band wore lederhosen. They wore them proud and pleased, without any sense of irony.

So, over the Rhine (Rhein) river we went to the land of towns that either end in “bach” or “ach” or “scheim.”

Fittingly, we made our way to Rouffach (Chateau Isenbourg) at the foothills of the Vosges mountains. Now, we’re in France. Maybe. The bread was different, but the language was still muddled between the ages and countries. There was wine planted everywhere, so we’re feeling a bit more at home. We’re now on the Alsatian wine trail, and we’ve left the smell of stale beer and lederhosen behind. The beauty of this area is you can climb into the mountains from small town to small town, via car (really?) or bike (yes, please.) It’s just beautiful, plain and simple. The towns are all clean, well-kept, and charming. That’s the German influence, where they wake in the morning to clean their streets.

Now it’s time for some serious wine drinking and research, so off to Illhaeusern for the next few nights (famous for the Auberge de l’Ill, still one of the oldest 3-star establishments in France).

This eclectic little hotel, Les Berges, is just plain special, and we whiled away the first afternoon watching the storks land on the next door rooftop (drinking wine, of course), and watching the locals fish from their punt boats on the small river. If we were anywhere in this area permanently, we would have a house here. It’s picture-perfect peaceful. And, oh yeah, the whole area screams fine wine and fine food. A few highlights of the next few days is the tarte flambee (Pizza? Are you kidding? That’s for novices. Tarte flambee is soooo much better) in Kientzheim after a climb to the castle.

The 2-km rides between tiny town to tiny town (including Equisheim, home of Wolfberger). There is seriously no better way to spend your day than walking, biking (if you’re in car, GET OUT enough) between these little beauties. We were there at grape harvest time, so we also got to bicycle past the fields with big groups of family and friends hand picking and having these spectacular picnics of wine, cheese and bread during their breaks. A true sense of village.

The Old City of Colmar is just what you’d expect when you imagine what Alsace would be. These fairy tale villages really do exist.

Before we headed to Strasbourg for a few days, we had to have the Michelin three-star dinner. Was it good? Yes. Was it long? OMG yes. The verdict? I’d rather repeat the tarte flambee. Michelin-star restaurants are an exceptional experience, no question. But let me belly up to the bar instead, chat up the bartender, and order two or three things instead of 10 courses any day. Well, we got some great food photography from it, and the cheese cart truly was legendary. Ohh, and the kitchen. Well, let’s just say it costs three times the budget of most of the restaurants we design. Serenity and tranquility of the area also has remnants of WWII throughout the countryside, adding a great history component to the trip. It is also the home of the Maginot Line, which was built between 1929 and 1938 to stop the German invasion of France. No, it wasn’t successful for France, but the evidence is everywhere if you’re looking.

But, now the pillboxes (bunkers) are masked by beautiful flower growth all over them.   The rivers, once guarded by troops, are now guarded by storks, ducks, and flowers.

Off to Strasbourg.

This city clearly doesn’t get enough love from international tourist press. It’s easy to get to by train (not easy to leave by air….see below) and walkable, with a center square hosting an unbelievable Notre Dame cathedral, and home to tons of great restaurants with both German and French cuisine.

They built canals connecting to the rivers through the heart of the city, making for great restaurant patios along their banks.

There are two recommended hotels in Strasbourg. Les Haras, hands-down the first choice, and Cour de Corbeau, a distant second. Les Haras also a restaurant that’s amazing in both design and food. The hotel and restaurant are both a complete surprise in the midst of all the traditional architecture.

The tripped was capped, unfortunately, with the return. After an insanely early up to catch a 7:00 a.m. flight to Amsterdam, we arrived at the airport to find the flight was cancelled. And, no, there was not another available flight that day. Instead, the young French woman announced, it will be very difficult to get to Amsterdam. “It will be best if you try later in the week,” she said, addressing an entire plane full of 120 people. Yes, I’m sure it would. What a nice and completely unrealistic idea. Oh, the French.

This is when you truly appreciate the beauty of the European train stations. After bailing on the airport for cab to the train station (not far from our hotel, incidentally), we got on phone with Delta to see our options of ANY European city that would connect to Amsterdam to connect to the 3:00 flight home (which we had to change). Stuttgart it is, thankfully. The German trains are always on time, so that will balance out the French inefficiencies, strikes, and unions. Train to Stuttgart, flight to Amsterdam in just enough time to grab the 3:00 p.m.

The glory of travel. But the introduction to Cremant was worth it.

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