As far as I know, there are no travel posters urging Americans to spend Christmas in Alsace. Certainly there aren't very many tourists who do, which is one of the charms of traveling out of season. Another lure, a bit of unnecessary romanticism considering the winter we've had here, was the possibility of snow. A third was that fall and early winter, the season for game, is an exciting time to visit French restaurants.
We found it all: an absence of tourists, a delightful sprinkling of snow and an abundance of food and wine.
To appreciate Alsace a car is almost essential. The province (now the departments of Bas Rhin and Haut Rhin ) stretches along the plain that forms the west bank of the Rhine and climbs up to the crest of the Vosges Mountains. It is possible to visit Strasbourg by train, but that city - a real charmer - is only one aspect of Alsace. A visit is incomplete without seeing the historic section of Colmar and, especially, without touring the Route des Vins , the path through the vineyards. Wine is the most important agricultural endeavor in Alsace and the vineyards that run south from below Strasbourg cluster about some of the most scenic and historic villages in France.
The distance between villages is not great. In summer, when there are flowers in bloom everywhere and storks to view, a tour by bicycle is feasible. (The stork, the tall, flute green wine bottle used only in this region and flowers are symbols of Alsace.) In winter, the storks and flowers are gone, but there are compensations - not the least of which is the wine.
We arrived from the sister province of Lorraine after visiting the exquisite Place Stanislas in Nancy and the fascinating museum of history there. There had been a delay in a small town called Baccarattyes, there are factory outlets for the crystal and prices are attractive), so it was dark as we climbed the Vosges. The fog that slowed us turned out to be a cloud. After a brief period climbing toward a clear sky, with snow-covered forests on either side and silence all about, we descended through another cloud into Alsace on Christmas Eve.
Lighted windows were visible here and there. But in the towns, including Andlau, our destination, no one was in the streets. We wandered about as much as one can in a town of 1,500 before finding our hotel, the Kastelberg. It was modern and clean and, at $16-a-night double, reasonable. While something antique would have suited us better, any room is welcome at Christmas as many hotels close. Prior reservations mean peace of mind.
The same is true of restaurants, it turned out. It took a series of phone calls before we secured reservations at the Hotel du Parc in Obernai, a town known of making France's best beer, Kronenbourg, and as the birthplace of Francois Hearinger, the owner of Washington's Chez Francois and Auberge Chez Francois. Christmas Eve is a night for feasting and a sumptuous buffet table greeted us. It was filled with whole fish, selections of pates and hams, foie gras - one of the gastronomic specialities of Alsace - and cold vegetables. It was more than enough for a meal, but three courses followed.
Marc Woltner, an accomplished restaurateur though still in his 20s, capped the meal by presenting a tasting of several alcools blancs , the clear white brandies made from various fruits. They are strong but of very high quality as fruits are another of the region's premier products. Don't bypass them, but drink with caution. For some sniffing the fragrant bouquet suffices.
Courtesy and consideration appear to be part of the way of life in Alsace. With one exception (a waitress who tried to turn us away from a restaurant in Colmar), we were treated well throughout our stay. We lingered, but managed to reach the handsome Catholic church for a portion of the Christmas Eve service. Because Alsace has been French and German at various times through the centuries, one finds Protestant as well as Catholic churches. At times during the service, Latin and German - as well as French - were heard, aural testimony to the dramatic history of this region.
There is visual testimony as well, we discovered Christmas morning as our exploration began. A land so rich is an obvious target for invasion, and from the era when the Romans set up shop along the Rhine, and probably before, conflict and devastation have arrived from time to time. Ruined castles from centuries past can be viewed on the slopes of the Vosges at several points and not all the villages are picturesque. Some are old, but others are new and rather ugly. Then you realize the new villages aren't really new, only the buildings are. Fierce fighting during World War II wiped out centuries of history. Even today there are aspects to the look and life of Alsace that are decidely German, which isn't surprising since it was under German domination from 1870 through World War II and again during World War II.
It was cold in Strasbourg that day and the streets were almost deserted - a perfect situation for someone in a car trying to read street signs and a map at the same moment. Following the always precise directions in the green Guide Michelin (available in French only), we investigated the large Place Kleber and a tiny cul-de-sac containing the shell of a 16th-century inn, looked at the River Ill and antique buildings along it, toured the huge cathedral and drove to the Rhine to look across to Germany and paused at a monument fashioned from an Allied tank.
Appetities awakened during this activity, so we paused at the unassuming and inexpensive brasserie in the old Customs House for a fine choucroute garni . (Choucroute garni is an Alsatian culinary triumph in which the hot dog and other meats play a supporting role to sauerkraut made succulent by slow cooking in wine with seasonings.) Unlike other regions of France, here beer is as acceptable as beverage as wine.
Dark comes early at this time of year, which tempts one to plan a leisurely dinner - the most logical form of evening entertainment in Alsace at any time. Driving into the chilled and darkened town of Mittlebergheim, we sensed the warmth a glow of light through a window can generate. The window was our goal, the Winstub Gilg. Inside there was more warmth, a fire in a large fireplace. The restaurant was rustic and informal, Gilg family wines were on the card and a multicourse Christmas night dinner (for $14 per person) featured roast turkey. For Americans away from home, it seemed a perfect Franco-American inspiration.
The next morning a drive to the south, past wine fields and some of the hillside castles, led us to the scenic valley of Munster, from whence comes a superb cheese that is much more forceful than its American namesake. We drove over the Vosges, pausing at a ski station to watch the sport.In a simple ski lodge restaurant I found a tank filled with live trout awaiting luncheon orders for truite au bleu . In France, it seems, gastronomy is inescapable.
We drove into Lorraine for a visit to the famed chapel at Ronchamps designed by Le Corbusier, motored back over the highest Vosges peak - the Baloon de Alsace - passing more skiers enroute. We reached Colmar for a late lunch at the historic Maison des Tetes. The restaurant is so charming in appearance that it might be a movie set, but snails and choucroute were excellent. Only the wines were indifferent, a rarity in Alsace.
Colmar is a town of unexected treats. The Musee d'Unterlinden , located in a 13th-century Dominican cloister, houses a celebrated work of religious art, the Issenheim Altar of Mathias Gruenwald. The old Tanners' Quarter and streets nearby contain buildings of the 16th and even 15th centuries. That night we ate at the Auberge de I'Ill in Illhaeusern. This modern, riverside restaurant has three-stars, the Guide Michelin's top rating (there are only 17 in France). Its chef, Paul Haeberlin, does wonderous feats with foie gras, fish and fruits.
Incidently, a useful supplement to the Michelin or the Guide Gault-Millau is a small folder called Guide Gastronomique Alsace , a listing of maisons de qualite compiled by the prestigious Club Prosper Montagne. Bakeries and food shops, as well as restaurants, are among the 60 establishments listed. The guide is distributed free, but there is a catch. To find it, you must go to one of the places listed or contact the club itself in Paris. Most restaurants listed in this article are included.
Our last day, appropriately, was devoted to wine. The route de Vin twists and turns its way through fields and villages where growing grapes and producing wines is virtually the sole industry. One can go much faster on Route N83, which runs north and south on the plain, but it avoids the most picturesque towns: Obernai, Mittlebergheim, Ribeauville, kaysersberg (the birthplace of Albert Schweitzer), Ammerschwihr and Riqueswihr.
Many feel Riquewihr, a walled town virtually intact from the 16th century, is the loveliest of all and to there we drove. A heavy fog had come in the night before. When it rolled back, every tree, grape arbor and bush was left with a delicate coating of ice crystals. The sky was clear. Clean snow coated the ground. Alsace had become a beautiful Christmas card.
In Riquewihr Jean F. Hugel, who makes the wines for his well-known family firm, took us in hand. We ate luncheon with his family, toured the cellars and the town and tasted some very promising 1976 wines from the casks where they are aging. These activities filled the day, leaving us only a dinner at another of the finest restaurants in the region, Alux Armes de France in Amerschwihr. At the end of the meal we drank a toast with a final alcool blanc .
The next day we left Alsace, and France, by another memorial to World War II, a pontoon bridge the Allies threw across the Rhine at Marklosheim. These days the German border presents no barrier, which is comforting because I intend to cross into Alsace again sometime soon.