The Complete Guide to Alsace-Lorraine ; the Fairy-Tale Region Which Straddles the Franco-German Border Boasts a Rich History, Rolling Mountains and Delightful Villages That Warmly Embrace Both Cultures. by Margaret Campbell

By Campbell, Margaret | The Independent (London, England), September 29, 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Complete Guide to Alsace-Lorraine ; the Fairy-Tale Region Which Straddles the Franco-German Border Boasts a Rich History, Rolling Mountains and Delightful Villages That Warmly Embrace Both Cultures. by Margaret Campbell


Campbell, Margaret, The Independent (London, England)


WHERE IS IT?

Where are they, you mean - Alsace and Lorraine are separate regions in France's north-eastern corner, and share borders with Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Switzerland. Alsace hugs the Rhine for 120 miles north from Basle, while Lorraine climbs from Champagne's plains to meet Alsace in the Vosges mountains. Thrown together geographically but differing in atmosphere, tradition and even language, their names have been inextricably linked by a dramatic and often tragic past.

LOTS OF HISTORY, THEN?

Yes. Most of Alsace, a largely Germanic-speaking region, was given to France in 1648, while the Duchy of Lorraine became officially French only in 1766. After France's humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, Germany annexed Alsace and the Moselle departement of Lorraine, and introduced a programme of forced Germanisation. Restored to France in 1918, locals found that reintegration was easier said than done. The area was then brutally re-occupied by Nazi Germany in 1940: in an effort to avoid further conflict, Strasbourg has since become a centre for European reconstruction and dialogue.

IS THERE MUCH EVIDENCE OF THE REGION'S WORLD WAR EXPERIENCE?

The town of Verdun and the surrounding area are dotted with memorials and military cemeteries. In Verdun itself, the most important of these include the Victory Monument and the World Peace Centre. The massive Underground Citadel was designed by Vauban, the 17th-century military architect whose work pops up all over France, and provides a chilling reminder of what a soldier's life was like. Outside town, the Douaumont Ossuary houses the remains of thousands of unidentified troops, and the stark rows of military crosses are intensely moving.

The Maginot Line, a network of underground fortifications, was built in the 1930s. Stretching through northern Alsace and Lorraine, it was intended to prevent further German invasion. The Nazis marched round Belgium instead, rendering the Maginot Line largely redundant, but it has been restored and is now a fascinating example of the best-laid plans going hopelessly wrong.

The Hackenberg Fort (00 33 3 82 82 30 08) 12 miles from Thionville, was the biggest on the Line, and is one of the most impressive sections to visit. It's open until the end of October. The only Nazi concentration camp in France was built near the Alsatian village of Natzwiller. Set in a beautiful valley, Le Struthof (00 33 3 88 97 04 49) has been preserved largely intact which adds to the atmosphere of horror generated by the museum.

SO WHERE SHOULD I START?

Each of the major towns - Nancy, Metz, Strasbourg and Colmar - has its own character, and any of them will be a good starting point for the surrounding area. Nancy is the most typically French: elegant, classical and home to a major Art Nouveau school. The beautiful square, Place Stanislas, has been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Metz's architecture is more varied, with Roman, medieval and German influences visible: the St Etienne cathedral is the main attraction.

Strasbourg is larger than either of these towns and much more cosmopolitan, but its half-timbered houses and numerous winstubs (wine bars) retain a traditional feel. Further south, Colmar houses the celebrated Issenheim Altarpiece and the canal district nicknamed, inevitably, Little Venice.

WHAT ABOUT THE COUNTRYSIDE?

Louis XIV described Alsace as a "beautiful garden", and three centuries later, the comment is still valid. Lorraine has three large nature reserves, the Ballons des Vosges Nature Park, the Lorraine Regional Nature Park and the Vosges du Nord Nature Park. The Ballons des Vosges is probably the most spectacular - rounded summits, dark-blue mountain lakes and summer pastures, with opportunities for winter sports and year-round walking trails. The rivers, salt marshes and lakes in the Lorraine Regional Nature Park make it a magnet for anglers and water-sports enthusiasts.

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The Complete Guide to Alsace-Lorraine ; the Fairy-Tale Region Which Straddles the Franco-German Border Boasts a Rich History, Rolling Mountains and Delightful Villages That Warmly Embrace Both Cultures. by Margaret Campbell
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