There seems to be no shortage of beautiful villages in the world and that’s certainly true for the Alsatian region of France. Snuggled between the Rhine River and the Vosges Mountains, Alsace is replete with vineyards and flecked with fairy-tale villages that are sure to leave your mind blown and send you to a time filled with knights, princesses, goblin kings, and dancing magic babies.
The Vosges themselves are a series of low lying mountains that are something of a spur off of the Alps, offering Southern France something of a defense line against Germany. They're lined with villages, vinyards, and castles and are one of the leading rivals in the most-romantic-places in the world category. They were of huge strategic importance, with France always pushing to the Rhine for its border control and Germany always pushing to the mountains, making the region a beautiful and unique mix of German and French culture, with Colmar and Strasbourg as the two main regional capitals.
Every bit of land in the hillsides are filled with vineyards as far as the eye can see. For any wine lover, this place is a kind of heaven, the home of some of the best Rieslings, Muscats, and Gewurztraminers the world over. If you like your wine white and sweet, and your villages plucked from Disney tales and medieval chansons, then the Rhine is for you.
There are many ways to see Alsace. The best and most highly recommended would be by foot – this would give you the best and most satisfactory effect seeing the villages and walking through the timeless series of grape plantations. We wanted still another half-day to see Strasbourg, so driving was our method – for the short on time, this is the only real way to see all those places.
For those who have a full day to spare though, I’d start with the earliest train to Colmar and first a trek to Ribeauville, the furthest one to the north (about a 3-hour hike, according to Google). Then to Riquewihr, Kaysersberg, Eguisheim, and back up to Colmar. This whole trek would be 9 hours long, but mostly level, as you’d follow the base of the range. I would even suggest an overnight in one or two of the villages (depending on how much you like your wine), to be fully experienced as a medieval wandering bard. However, as I said, we didn’t get the magic of walking, but followed relatively the same route via car.
Colorful buildings lined the street
First on our plate was Ribeauville. We started out pulling the short end of the stick regarding weather. It was cold, with overcast clouds hanging low, threatening to break apart into showers all day long. It left the mountains mostly in a miserable, grey mist and affected us the most at Ribeauville, where, due to time and weather, we opted not to see the castle overlooking the village. The town comes from before the 8th century, when overseeing it passed from the Bishops of Basel to a local noble family, the Rappolsteins. The Lord Rappolstein was the King of the Minstrels of Alsace and received protection money from the wandering bards - a kind of musical mafia for the winelands.
The village serves as the perfect gateway into Alsatian culture. It has a touristic street, but one gets the feel that the town doesn’t singularly exist for the touristic draw. Which is true, as it’s got both a healthy trade from viticulture and also from a nearby Sony manufacturing plant. Which means, people are actually living in those amazing little Goldilocks houses!
In the immediate vicinity, and seen everywhere from the village, is the Chateau de Saint-Ulrich, sitting up on top of the closest hill. This was the main fortification of the regional lord was even used by the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V, as he sought to flex his might on the other domains. On another nearby hill, there’s the Chateau du Giersberg, which is said to be an arrow shot away.
This village can’t be missed and is the true jewel of Alsace. It has the most consistent historical architecture of all the towns in the area, as it was also the least damaged from World War II. A high wall surrounds it and the interior – both the touristic and residential areas – is crammed full of beautiful half-timbered houses. With the most limited time for a hike, one could easily do a Colmar-Riquewihr loop, as it’s also one of the closest villages.
the main street of Riquewihr
The tourist train seemed to have landed when we were at Riquewihr. Though Ribeauville had been pretty sleepy and most shops closed even at 10 am, Riquewihr was already alive and buzzing by around 11. It seems their primary focus is on tourism, so they’re quite the readiest to handle the crowds.
Riquewihr town walls
Then we rolled into Eguisheim, which was as empty as a ghost town – all the shops were closed and seemed even to be boarded up. What horrible mishap did this town have to seem to have fallen off the tourist trek, even while being perhaps the most beautiful of the three?
Eguisheim town square
Like Riquewihr, it was incredibly well-preserved – a true circular wall wrapped all the way around the town, and instead of the focus being on just one main street, all the streets were beautiful, winding and carving in random directions like a labyrinth or spider web, all ending in the main town square with an old fountain that, at the time we were there, was silent and not running, and a castle tied into a medieval knot with a church. We really wanted to stay longer here, but everything was literally closed at noon! And being that it was too cold to linger around the main square and perhaps just buy a bottle of wine and do some street drinking, the chill got the better of us and sent us on our way.
A side street in Eguisheim
Our drive ended in Colmar, the queen city of Alsace, which I'll leave for next week as it's plenty rich in sites and wonder for its own blog.