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Gnomes, storks and smelly Munsters

Neil Sowerby samples spring in Alsace... and the odd glass of racy, aromatic white

Written by . Published on June 13th 2011.

Gnomes, storks and smelly Munsters

Img_2298Ideasl gnome exhibitionI’M staring into a gabled window lined with plastic gnomes. I can swear one just winked at me. It’s a refreshing alternative. Every other sill along this achingly picturesque street is populated with Easter bunnies and fertility offerings. Alsace takes this season to be silly very seriously.

We feel quite giddy ourselves because, after blithely embarking on the half-timbered and floral “circuit pittoresque”, we are back full circle to where we started. Near where the inevitable village stork broods in its rooftop nest.

The hamlet of Eguisheim claims to be where Alsace wine culture originated, its vineyards dating back to the Middle Ages. It’s certainly among the prettiest of the villages dotted along the 100 mile south to north Route du Vin that finally peters out above Strasbourg near the German border. Where Arsene Wenger comes from. Other famous Alsaciens include Albert Schweitzer and the man who created the Statue of Liberty. For me, the vignerons are its real heroes.

Img_2257Cherry blossom timeIn Eguisheim, we tasted at the prestigious cellars of Leon Beyer, established in 1580 and producing a range of aromatic austere, food-friendly white wines. But around every corner here there are opportunities to sample the products of humbler growers. The names on the German-style slim green bottles sound Teutonic, but you are definitely not in sickly-sweet  Liebfraumilch territory.

In high summer and around the grape harvest all the Wine Route villages are swamped with visitors. Easter was easier on the bustle front. The weather hovered in the early 20s. Thanks to the sheltering Vosges mountains, this is an enviable climate for attracting visitors as well as ripening grapes.

Wine’s the obvious draw, but there’s also fabulous hiking up in the mountain forests, where you can stop off at a country inn for a slice of smelly Munster cheese, a sprinkling of caraway seeds and a glass of spicy gewurztraminer. Advice even to the trenchermen among you, though: I’d save the gigantic pile of choucroute (sauerkraut) with assorted fatty pork products till the evening. It’s not a delicate local delicacy.

It was what we ordered as our restorative introduction to the region on a damp night in Mulhouse – gateway to the area, a half hour drive from the European Airport at Basle-Mulhouse and also on the high-speed train line from Paris.

Img_2250Easter in ColmarTwinned with Walsall, it bills itself as “Another Way of Enjoying Alsace”. So definitely not picturesque, even in the pedestrianised old town with its contemporary trompe l’oeil murals (think highbrow Banksy). There are some lovely buildings, especially the town hall but much of the architectural evidence of its rich history has been obliterated, particularly during the Second World War when Germany once again reclaimed this border region as its own.

What Mulhouse does offer is a range of outstanding museums. Stand-out is perhaps the world’s greatest vintage car collection, the Cite de l’Automobile. I can’t tell a carburetor from a car boot sale but I was gobsmacked by the gleaming contents of this former woollen mill, in easy tram reach of the city centre.

A pair of brothers called Schlumpf (which sounds like something under the bonnet) converted it to house their 437 cars from 97 brands, all in working order.  We were taken round in a mini-train, stopping to admire everything from the earliest-known motors to rarities such as a 1908 Panhard-Levassor two-seater racing car... to more Bugatis than you could shake a gold-plated spanner at.

Only 30km to the north lies Colmar, capital of middle Alsace, which we reached in our thoroughly mundane Citroen hire car. We were delighted our hotel lay in Petite Venise, which is just what it says on the chocolate box – a maze of canals and bridges, half timber and steep pantiled roofs. The 16th century Hostellerie Le Marechal fitted it perfectly, self-consciously romantic but staying on the classy side of kitsch.

The cobbled centre of Colmar, with its brightly washed merchant’s houses and soaring churches (the St Martin Collegiate the pick), beautiful guild signs and shady courtyards, remains a delight to walk around.

Img_2248Sign of the pretzelThe novelist George Duhamel called it the most beautiful city in the world, UNESCO gave it World Heritage Status, it is France’s driest place. We felt just privileged to turn a corner to find the most beautiful cherry blossom tree ever. Our guide told is it only blooms for a few short days each year.

Around the corner, in the Unterdenlinden Museum – it is German for under the lime trees –there’s a more evergreen masterpiece. Mathias Grunewald’s Issenheim Altar is appropriately housed in this former monastery. This Renaissance genius painted the panels, which have a searing spiritual and visceral intensity.

A more relaxed experience is the Bartholdi Museum inside the large ancestral home of the Statue of Liberty’s creator. The widow of the hyperactive Frederic Auguste of that ilk donated his busts, drafts and models to the city (www.museebartholdi.com). Nicely quirky and quiet.

Colmar is definitely a place to try the regional cuisine. There are Michelin starred places but it has to be a winstub if you fancy sampling baeckoffe (boiled meat and potatoes marinated in white wine), presskopf (parsleyed pork headcheese), Saumagen (stuffed pork stomach, for the less squeamish) le coq au riesling, the sweet pastry called kougelhopf and the ubiquitous choucroute.

The light option is to have your pickled cabbage with salmon and river fish. The canalside Caveau St Pierre on the Rue de la Herse does a lovely version. Accompany it with a Pinot Gris, less dry than a riesling, not as overwhelming as a Gewurz can be.

Img_2247Bakers' guildBack inevitably to wine. Kaysersberg, in the Vosges foothills to the north west of Colmar, is a tourist honeypot, not quite as Disneyfied Alsace as the gorgeous medieval gem, Riquewihr, but getting there.

We had a lovely lunch in La Vielle Forge, 1 Rue Ecole, a place frequented by the locals rather than German coach parties. It was asparagus season and everyone was studiously  dipping the spears in hollandaise. The wine didn’t match the food, but whatever was in the glass would have proved an anti-climax after our special tasting at Domaine Weinbach in neighbouring KIentzheim.

This is one of Alsace’s, one of the world’s, great white wine producers. Run biodynamically by Colette Faller and her two daughters, it sources grapes from Grand Cru sites including the Schlossberg, which runs up to Kaysersberg’s dominating castle ruin.
The family’s monumental farmhouse/winery overlooks the monastic walled vineyard of the Clos des Capucins. In the front parlour the dynamic Catherine Faller took us through a goodly selection of aromatic, opulent wines, heady in alcohol, culminating in late harvest rieslings and gewurztraminers. We spat religiously into porcelain jugs.

Img_2362Vineyards at KaysersbergIn the kitchen behind, on a vast table capable of hosting an entire team of grape pickers, one of the staff was plucking a chicken for lunch. I’d like to imagine it was going to be poached in riesling and served with spaetzle noodles.

It felt the essence of Alsace. A captivating borderland that marries French finesse to sturdy raw materials.Unlike elsewhere in France the wines are named after the varietals, even when they have a Grand Cru name attached. These are grapes that in German hands across the Rhine to the east would have made a quite different style of wine.

Rambling through Eguishem, Kaysersberg of Colmar visually you could be in the Black Forest or Bavaria. Spiritually, no way.


Neil Sowerby travelled to Alsace with the Alsace Tourist Board and to discover all that is happening in the region in 2011 visit www.tourism-alsace.com.

He flew with British Midland International from Manchester to the European Airport at Basle-Mulhouse. For details of bmi flights visit www.flybmi.com.

Cite de l’Automobile, 192 Ave de Colmar, 68051 Mulhouse, www.collection-schlumpf.com.

Unterdenlinden Museum, 1 Rue d’Unterlinden, Colmar, www.musee-unterdenlinden.com.

Hostellerie Le Marechal, 4-6 Place des Six Montagnes Noires, Colmar, www.lemarechal.com.

The best place to buy classic Alsace cheese Munster: Fromagerie Haxaire, 333a la Croix d’Arbey 68650 Lapoutroie (www.haxaire.com). A few minutes drive into the hills from Kaysersberg.

Alsace is also famous for its eaux de vie. Take a guided tour of the most acclaimed traditional distillery, G. MIclo, also at Lapoutroie. Their creme de cassis mure (blackcurrant liquor) is spectacular, too (www.distillerie-miclo.com).

My review of locally available Alsace wines: www.manchesterconfidential.co.uk/Food-and-Drink/French/Sowerbys-wine-tips-17-05-2011

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Clive SmithJune 14th 2011.

wonderful to read. I lived for 5 years in Colmar before moving (back, was there at university) to Manchester. 2 wonderful and very different places. Now in Brussels...

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