From Burgundy to Alsace, it’s a seamless drive along rolling fields, manicured vineyards and honey-coloured stone villages. But the 200-odd kilometres transport one into a whole different world in winemaking. After the dry Chardonnays of Burgundy, my landlady at a B&B in Le Hohwald—a picture-postcard village 50km west of Strasbourg—offered me a glass of fruity local Pinot Gris that transported me into a land of mature sun, crisp breezes, honeysuckle aromas and years of history. Alsace in glass, as it were.
Picture-perfect: Andlau village, set among Pinot Gris vineyards
A few hours earlier, I had witnessed all these elements at Andlau, a little village on Alsace’s wine route. Autumn was on its way, and my little scarlet car fit right in against a country that was going from green to gold, orange and red. Harvest was under way as Rémy Gresser, owner of an eponymous vineyard, drove me around little roads high above the village.
“Every single thing you see around you affects the quality and goodness of the wine,” he explained, “from the terrain to the time of harvest.” A little distance away, a group of men munched on grapes with a faraway look in their eyes: There’s obviously still no better way than the human palate to determine whether the fruit is ready for the picking.
Also See Trip Planner/ Alsace (PDF)
At vineyards where the grapes were ripe for harvest, entire families had rolled up their sleeves and got to work. “It’s usual for granny, grandpa, uncle, aunty, daddy, mummy, son and daughter, everybody to land up at the vineyards at the crack of dawn,” said Gresser. “Through the day, they will cut down bunches of grapes that go into a wheelbarrow, and are then transferred to a tractor. Then they will go to the winery, to be pressed to extract juice.”
One family at a vineyard— between their non-existent English and my broken French, I never got their name—insisted I join them if I were to really savour autumn in Alsace. It’s back-breaking work. Grandpa Michel showed me his calloused thumb and forefinger, the result of handling the pruning scissors over many decades. At the end of half an hour of cutting bunches of grapes, I too had the beginnings of some very promising blisters on my fingers.
As a reward for my labour, Michel let me ride the tractor to the winery, where I was handed a glass of freshly pressed juice. As I sipped the pleasant but innocuous liquid, I could only wonder at the alchemy that would transform the humble juice into a fine wine a few months into the future.
Like the local wine, Alsace, in north-eastern France, too changes character completely a few kilometres down the line. In Strasbourg, its capital—a city best explored on foot or on a bicycle—lies the charming quarter of Petite-France. A hub of tanners and fishermen in the 16th and 17th centuries, it is still lined by their half-timbered houses with steeply sloping roofs and open lofts, where their produce was once air-dried. The trades have long ceased to exist along the cobbled streets, giving way to cafés where tourists can kick back with a smooth espresso.
Watching them watching the open-topped sightseeing boats float by on the surrounding canals as little bridges swing open in a mechanical ballet, I wonder if the tourists would have been as comfortable in Petite-France if they were transported five centuries back. In the 16th century, mercenaries fighting for the king of France in the Great Italian Wars returned home with an alarmingly high number of cases of syphilis. Locals dubbed it the “little French disease”, and quarantined the patients in a hospital in this quarter, then part of the Holy Roman Empire. The disease has disappeared, but not the name.
A group of tourists rise from their chairs and head out. I join them and end up, as one inevitably does on a good day in Strasbourg, at the Cathédrale Notre-Dame. One of the architectural marvels of the Middle Ages—it took almost 200 years to complete—its 142m-high spire was the tallest in Europe until the 19th century.
In fact, it was such a tall statement of the power of the church that, during the French Revolution, it became a target for the masses. Its survival is credited to Jean-Michel Sultzer, a citizen who strategically placed a giant bonnet rouge, a revolutionary icon, on the cathedral to declare to France (and neighbouring Germany) that Strasbourg was under the people. If you walk around the cathedral, you can still spot a shell embedded in the wall of a building in front of it: This is from the 1871 war, when Strasbourg was besieged by the Prussian army.
Alsace, as a matter fact, has been quite the ping-pong ball between France and Germany: Ceded to Germany after 1871, it was returned to France after World War I and then annexed (not occupied—big difference since the men were forced to don German uniforms and fight for Germany on the Russian front) again by Nazi Germany in 1940. It rejoined France after the war, and Strasbourg was chosen as the seat of the Council of Europe in 1949 and later of the European Parliament as a symbol for future European peace.
Facing the cathedral and turning right, I arrive at the museum of Palais Rohan, where Marie Antoinette spent her first night in France en route to Versailles on 7 May 1770. Here also snored Napoleon Bonaparte in 1806 and 1809. A short distance away is the St Thomas Church, often called the Protestant Cathedral. It doesn’t see crowds like the Notre-Dame but there is a superb mausoleum around the tomb of Maurice de Saxe (Maurice of Saxony), Louis XV’s favourite general. Created by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle in 1777, it raised many an eyebrow for being an extravagant tribute to a Protestant general by a Catholic king—and for the depiction of France as a very curvaceous, scantily clad woman begging “Death” not to take the general away. It is a masterpiece worth seeing. As is the 1741 Silbermann organ inside the church. None other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart practised on it before a performance in Strasbourg in 1778.
Gems such as these are scattered around Strasbourg, yours to discover on foot, by boat or on bicycle. Or you could sip a glass of its Pinot Gris.
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