Something very strange happens when you make the journey from Nancy, through the rolling hills of the Vosges national park, and into the glorious Alsace wine region. To all intents and purposes, you leave French France behind and enter German France. This is perhaps the most disorienting place I’ve ever visited in France. On a holiday weekend when lots of visitors from Germany and Switzerland are in the region, you could be forgiven for thinking you were actually in Germany.
The architecture, food, village names, wines and even the landscape all feel ‘not quite French’, and with good reason. Over the centuries, this region has had a very unhappy history exchanging hands between these two European powers. The area was largely under Germanic influence until the 17th century. France only came to control Alsace during the reign of Louis XIV in 1681. For the next two centuries Alsace was a model French province, then came the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
The war, ironically started by France, didn’t last long and resulted in a resounding and humiliating defeat for French forces. The French Emperor, Napoleon III, was captured and a French army of 140,000 men surrendered at Metz. Paris, under siege for four months, surrendered in January 1871. The new German Empire extracted a terrible price, the annexation of Alsace and half of Lorraine. Almost as bad, King William I of Prussia was crowned German Emperor in Versailles.
The loss of Alsace-Lorraine would be a major driver towards war in 1914, and defeat of Germany in the First World War saw Alsace returned to France in 1919. By which time 75% of the population spoke and read German as a first language – German and French are still taught in schools. Alsatian, a German dialect, is considered the main language of the region. It briefly, and brutally, returned to German control in the Second World War, when the Nazi’s outlawed the French language and conscripted 130,000 men into the German army.
Today the picturesque towns, and picture-postcard perfect villages, of Alsace dotted amongst rolling vineyards and nestled amongst hills and forests, give little sense of that violent history. This is a serene place, even over the Easter weekend when coach loads of Italian tourists join the many Germans and Swiss, who come here to spend a few days sampling famous Alsace wines. Even in early spring when the vines are no more than brown stumps in the ground, this is glorious countryside.
We arrived from Nancy taking the 7km-long Tunnel de Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, which was originally burrowed through the heart of the mountain as a rail tunnel in 1937. It costs €6 to drive through the tunnel, but it’s quite an exciting thing to do. We arrived on the other side of the mountains and headed up through the wooded hills past the imposing Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg, the medieval castle that was ruined before being rebuilt in 1908 by German Emperor, Wilhelm II, during the German occupation.
Coming down the other side we picked up the Alsace Wine Route trail at the village of Saint-Hippolyte, before wandering through the lovely streets of Kintzheim, streets lined with half-timbered houses. The village is surrounded by vineyards and backed by a ruined 12th century castle. We were headed to Obernai, an attractive medieval town that is also large enough to have a decent selection of restaurants and nightlife, but first stopped off in a couple of other small villages to explore their narrow lanes and admire the ‘gingerbread houses’.
We arrived in Obernai just as the weather turned from sun to rain, and walked through one of the town’s medieval gates to find our apartment. The town was busy despite the drizzle, but quickly cleared out as nightfall fell. A friend had recommended a traditional Alsace restaurant to us, so we booked a table before finding a cosy bar to sample some of the local wines. These were too sweet and too flowery for my tastes, and only served to emphasise the difference between this region and others we’d visited in France.