Thursday, 11 April 2013

An introduction to Alsace

Strasbourg - from a photo by F Antunes

 Alsace is the Germanic region of France. It is a region lying on the west bank of the river Rhine, between the Rhine and the Vosges mountains. To the north and east it shares a border with Germany; to the south with German-speaking Switzerland, and to the west with Lorraine and Franche Comté
     Historically speaking, Alsace was part of the German-speaking area of central Europe, and to this day a large proportion of the population, of all generations, speak or understand Alsacian, a dialectal form of German closely resembling the German spoken in Switzerland.
       In the last two centuries, Alsace has passed from Germany to France and back , and back again; consequently, it is a region that was not part of France at the time of the makings of the modern-day nation, and has held on to a number of institutional differences, particularly concerning religious affairs. For example, Good Friday is a public holiday in Alsace, but not in the rest of France; and in Alsace, priests are paid by the state.
      In terms of heritage and culture, Alsace is definitely germanic. With its villages of brightly-painted steep-roofed half-timbered houses, Alsace stands apart from any other region of France. The region's capital, Strasbourg, has all the feel of a central European city.   In economic terms, Alsace is part of the Rhine valley corridor, historically the most important trading route in Europe; consequently its economic activity has always depended as much on its germanic neighbours as on links with other parts of France, and as a result the region has long been one of the most propserous in France

       Alsace is made up of just two departments, the Lower Rhine, or Bas Rhin (67), capital Strasbourg, and the Upper Rhine, or Haut Rhin (68), capital Colmar.  The biggest city in the Haut Rhin department is however Mulhouse,. Both of these departments are comprised of a rich fertile plain in the east - the flat lands of the Rhine valley - and the Vosges mountains in the west.

      Strasbourg itself is one of the many fine cities of France; its historic centre, with its magnificent gothic cathedral, is among the most visited in France, and the Petit France quarter, on the banks of the river Ill, is particularly worth a visit. Among the highlights of the city's year is the annual Christmas Market, held around the cathedral, an event that attracts visitors from all over France and neighbouring countries. Generally speaking, Strasbourg attracts a large number of international visitors, being the one of the two seats of the European parliament.
      Mulhouse is a major manufacturing centre; but with the French national railway museum and the Cité de l'Automobile, an impressive car museum with the world's largest collection of Bugattis, and also the large Ecomusée d'Alsace open-air museum, this part of southern Alsace has plenty to offer the tourist.
    Regional specialities: Alsace is famous for its beer (for example, Kronenbourg), its sauerkraut (choucroute in French), and its white wines, which belong to the German wine tradition, Riesling, Sylvaner or Gewurtztraminer being the most popular varieties.

Access: By TGV train from Paris gare de l'Est or from Lyon. By motorway from UK / Holland via Nancy and/or Luxembourg, from Germany via Kehl. The region's main international airport is Basel-Mulhouse Euroairport served by several airlines including BA, Swiss, Lufthansa and Easyjet. Strasbourg airport is smaller.

Main tourist attractions in Alsace

Alsace village. Photo by Maurice

A typical traditional Alsace village.
Below: Alsace vineyard in winter
photo licenced CC - by Dittmeyer

Strasbourg. Site, historic centre, cathedral, Petit France, riverboat tours, the European Parliament.
Colmar: the best preserved historic city centre in Alsace, with its half timbered houses. The Isenheim altar, a remarkable mediaeval paining.
Mulhouse: The French national railway museum; the car museum.
La Route des Vins: the Alsace wine trail, discovering the vineyards and wine villages such as Riquewihr.
Alsace Open-Air Museum - Ecomusée d'Alsace, near Colmar. France's biggest open-air museum, on a par with the best.
Haut-Koenigsburg castle. Legendary hilltop castle in the Vosges, near Strasbourg.
Kintzheim - the Eagle Park (Volerie des aigles), a centre for the conservation of eagles and birds of prey.
Chemin de Fer du Dollar: Dollar valley historic railway, with steam engines - southern Vosges.
Neuf Brisach: seventeenth-century city, fortified by Vauban.
Vosges mountains; hiking, mountain-bike trails, nature trails, skiing in winter.

And just outside the region:
Germany; the Black forest (Schwarzwald), and city of Freiburg
Switzerland: the historic city of Basel (Bâle), with its world-class art gallery.