France without the Brits? It's Called Alsace

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), July 23, 2000 | Go to article overview

France without the Brits? It's Called Alsace


Byline: GILES MILTON

ENGLAND'S annual invasion of France has begun.

Every day from now until September thousands will cross the Channel, point their cars southwards and bomb down to Provence, the Dordogne and the Cote d'Azur.

They'll find villages crowded with fellow tourists; they'll find English families sharing their gite and although they'll certainly enjoy the sun and the food, they might find themselves wondering if there are any French people still living there.

Yet there is another France which is equally enchanting, but sees virtually no English visitors. In the week that I spent touring this little-known region (in peak holiday season), I encountered only one other English holidaymaker, and he was married to a French woman. It can match the Dordogne, offering pastoral scenery, quaint villages, hearty food, and some of the finest wine in France. It is called Alsace and it stretches along the country's eastern border with Germany.

Alsace. Most people dismiss it, for it puts them in mind of large dogs, soggy cabbage and ruddy-faced Germans. To the French, however, Alsace conjures up another image. It is a bucolic region of rolling vineyards and magical, golden wines - the perfumed Tokay, the spicy riesling and the oak-scented muscat, redolent of sun-ripe plums.

The eastern foothills of the Vosges that form the bulk of Alsace are lined with perfectly manicured vineyards, their tidy rows stretching upwards from the fertile Rhine Valley.

There are castles on craggy peaks and romanesque church towers butting out of hollows in the land. The French are so enamoured of this region that they have created their own Route Des Vins d'Alsace - an 80-mile wine route that weaves its way through the most picturesque villages of the region.

It starts at Marlenheim, about 12 miles west of Strasbourg, and stretches southwards towards the market town of Thann, less than 20 minutes from the Swiss border. Between these two points lie half-timbered villages so colourful that you have to check you're not in a heritage theme park.

Selestat's ancient centre is a hotchpotch of creaking, leaning dwellings with ornate gables, oriel windows and timberwork carved with grotesque animals and chubby-cheeked peasants.

At the town's heart is the solid sandstone church of Ste Foy, painstakingly built over centuries by monks.

Turckheim is even more picturesque.

One of its oldest buildings, the Deux Clefs, was built in 1540 as a hostelry-cum-palace. It is still a hotel and is well worth the [pounds sterling]60 a night.

The facade looks like the hull of an Elizabethan galleon, its timbers leaning into the wind. In its darkened interior you'll find sculpted wood, ancient rugs, stone columns and a dining room that is straight out of a Rembrandt painting.

Alsace's market towns are a delight but the real pleasure of the region is to be found in the villages where the wine is produced. Every community has a house/farm/cellar where you can sip the various nectars on offer. You're under no obligation to buy, although it is hard to resist the temptation of sticking a few bottles in the boot.

Hunawihr, sitting upon a hilltop in a sea of vineyards, is one of the best places to taste wine.

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