Some friends and I had planned a magical voyage to celebrate the holidays: Christmas in Alsace, followed by New Year’s in Paris. As the departure day approached, I felt like a giddy child, squirming with anticipation at the delights to come.
Part One: Alsace
It would be my first visit to Alsace, and I was eager to experience the world-renowned Christmas markets of Strasbourg, the wines of Alsace, the colorful half-timber buildings dotted throughout the region. Yummy things to eat and drink included pastries (namely kugelhopf), sauerkraut (choucroûte), onion tarte (flammekueche), pretzels (bretzels), hot spiced wine and gewürztraminer, gingerbread, munster cheese, anything with potatoes.
Like Santa in his sleigh, our flight took us over the all-white landscape of the Alps. We landed in Strasbourg on a rainy afternoon, picked up our rental car, and headed south to Wintzenheim and the apartment we’d call home for the next five days.
Our first full day was Christmas Eve Day, and we decided that it was the day to visit the Christmas market in Strasbourg. We drove to the outskirts of the city and took a tram into the ancient center.
Strasbourg is a remarkable city, and it helps to understand a little of its history and geography. It is thought of as the crossroads of Europe, thanks to its location on the western bank of the Rhine River, which is the border between France and Germany. Humans have lived here for millennia, although the first permanent settlers were Celts in around 1300 BC. The Romans arrived in 12 BC, then later the Merovingians (early French dynasty), followed by the Holy Roman Empire (primarily Germanic). From 1681 to 1945, the region changed hands between Germany and France many times.
With all that history, as well as its location across the river from Germany, Strasbourg (and by extension, the region of Alsace) is very much a blend of the two cultures. This is clearly seen in food and wine, religious customs, literature, architecture and business. The Alsatian language is still spoken by many.
With the founding of the European Union, Strasbourg was an obvious choice to be one of the seats of power, and today it is home to the European parliament.
After leaving Strasbourg, we decided to fit in one more visit; we arrived in Kaysersberg just as dark was falling, which gave us a delightful view of the Christmas lights and decorations in this lovely town.
Our selection for Christmas Day was the city of Colmar. We arrived on a quiet morning, and we were among very few people out and about. We saw glimpses of the canals that the city is known for, and a few of the colorful half-timber structures of the region.
Half-timber is a kind of construction that was used in parts of Europe starting in the mid-1400s. The styles vary from region to region, but what is consistent is the exposure of the wooden framework. The spaces between pieces of wood were filled with brick, stones or cob. Originally, the entire exterior was covered with plaster or shingles, to protect and unify the structure. Today, the wooden frames of these historic buildings have proven so popular that the outer layer is gone, and great care is taken with the preservation of the wood, as well as the spaces between. In some regions, the wood has been carved with faces or decorative patterns. And especially in Alsace, the plaster is usually painted in vivid colors.
As we continued to walk in the city, we found more and more interesting buildings and more people, too. I expected it to be smaller than it is; just when it seemed that we must be near the edge of town, we’d turn the corner to a whole new scene. Colmar is beautiful, lovingly cared for, and full of fascinating discoveries.
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Colmar, but the day was not done. We decided on a stop in Riquewihr, a charming village that’s much smaller than Colmar.
The day after Christmas we drove to Neuf-Brisach, a fortified town that was built in the 17th century to protect the French border from Germany. The design was by Vauban, an extraordinarily gifted and prolific engineer of late 17th-century France. Seen from above, the intact octagonal design includes several layers of walls and huge star-shaped earthworks.
The town itself is flat and laid out in a perfect military grid of streets, with a large central square. On this very quiet and very grey Saint Stephen’s Day, we walked around the town a bit, and then turned our attention to a museum, one that seems a bit out of character for a military town.
It’s the MAUSA Vauban, a museum of street and urban art, and it is found inside some of the bunkers of the fort. All of us are fans of street art, and we happily spent a chilly hour or so exploring the many installations inside this old structure.
It turns out that one of the people who lent his support to the founding of this museum is Jérôme Mesnager, a Parisian street artist who was born in nearby Colmar. We all met Jérôme last June in his Paris studio.
From Neuf-Brisach, we drove to Eguisheim, another quaint and colorful town full of half-timber architecture.
Our adventures continued on Monday, as we had reservations for a wine tasting tour at Zeyssolff Winery in Gertwiller. The great wines of Alsace have a long history. There is evidence of vines growing in this region long before the arrival of the Romans, who cultivated grapes wherever they could. The history continues through the Middle Ages, when Alsatian wines were among the most prized of Europe. Unfortunately, wars and plagues took their toll, followed by zealous over-production, and wine production in this region nearly died out.
After World War II, there was a determination to revive wine production in the region by focusing more on quality than on quantity. Today Alsatian vines grow in a long, narrow swath in the foothills of the Vosges mountains, where the climate and the soil form a perfect combination for the vines.
During the recent covid lockdowns, the Zeyssolff family took advantage of the opportunity to create a whole new visitor experience, and it’s wonderful. Our tour began in the shop, but we quickly moved to the cave. It was pitch black except for spotlights illuminating the ends of wooden barrels, which had been painted with information about the grape varietals and wines of Alsace. There was also a short film about the history of the Zeyssolff family and how they came to be vintners. Since its founding in 1778, the vineyard has remained in the family for 11 generations.
On our last day in Alsace, our train to Paris didn’t depart until the afternoon, so we decided to return to Kaysersberg to see it in daylight. We strolled about the town, seeing things we’d missed in the dark. Olivier and I walked up to the 13th-century castle on the hill overlooking the town. I think we all felt like we’d had a great visit to Alsace, and we were now ready to turn our attention toward Paris.
Part two: Paris
We had lots of plans for Paris, including museums, restaurants, and a New Year’s Eve jazz dinner (the dinner was canceled shortly before our trip, due to covid restrictions). Alas, the night of our arrival, I woke up with a sore throat, and I spent most of the time in Paris installed in our lovely apartment. I’m happy to say, though, that my friends had all kinds of adventures!
I did manage to do a couple of fun things: an excellent exhibit of the work of photographer Steve McCurry, and a light show at the Atelier des Lumières. Despite not feeling well, it was still a terrific vacation! I’m eager to see Alsace in a different season, perhaps spring when it’s full of flowers. And Paris always beckons.
Thanks for sticking with me through this extra-long post. I hope you’ve enjoyed your armchair tour!