The Unique Culture and History of Alsace
How’s your European geography? You know Milan is in Italy, Madrid is in Spain and Liverpool is in England. But what about Bergen? Or Strasbourg, seat of the EU parliament?
The location of the famous parliament is often cause for confusion. The name seems pretty Germanic, but Strasbourg is actually in France’s easternmost region, the beautiful Alsace.
Territorial disputes have meant that the Alsatian border has fluctuated a lot over the centuries. Even now, many people aren’t immediately sure whether the region belongs to France or Germany. One thing is for sure though, this fluid historical border has crafted this region into a singular mix of French and German cultural highlights. Join us on a tour of what Alsace has to offer, through European metropoles, picturesque landscapes, and along the fabled route du vin.
History and Identity in Alsace
Think back to high school history class. Amidst memories of foolish class clowns and chewing gum stuck under tables, you might remember discussing Alsace Lorraine. The region was returned to France after the First World War, under the Treaty of Versailles. It did not stay this way, however, when German troops invaded the region during the Second World War. Nowadays, this varied history means that a whole generation of young French people have German grandparents, though the families have never left their own hometowns.
This diverse cultural past has shaped the region into something totally unique. Though few younger people speak the Alsatian dialect fluently these days, regional pride and identity take precedent over French-ness for many citizens. Indeed, a trip here will convince you that this cultural blend is neither French nor German, but perfectly Alsatian.
The capital of Alsace is the captivating city of Strasbourg. A simple 10-minute bus ride from Kehl, Germany, Strasbourg holds a particular European charm. With its rich, bicultural architectural heritage and bilingual street signs, Strasbourg is a cultural bridge between two European giants. A busy day-trip agenda will allow you to see all the main sights of this compact, international city. But be warned – the magnetic charm of Strasbourg might leave you wishing you were staying here for longer…
Strasbourg City Centre
Strasbourg’s beating heart, the Grande Île, was the first city centre in the world to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The winding medieval streets of this urban island are truly something to behold. Here, you can climb the steps up the grand Strasbourg Cathedral, tuck into some traditional Spätzli, and of course do a spot of shopping. It may have a medieval feel, but this is still a modern city centre!
Often referred to as the capital of Europe, Strasbourg is known for being the seat of the European Parliament. As such, it is a main hub of the European Union, alongside Brussels, The Hague, and Luxembourg. Entrance to the impressive Parliament building is free, making it an informative and budget-friendly addition to a France trip.
When to Visit Strasbourg
Strasbourg is a perfect destination year-round. In spring and summer, the rainbow flowers decorating the city wow tourists. For a festive trip, you can’t go wrong with a visit to the Strasbourg Christmas market, or Christkindelsmärik. This world-renowned market has that typical Gemütlichkeit of German markets, with stalls selling mouth-watering food and ornate trinkets. The Grande Île market, consisting of over 300 stalls, begins at the end of November and runs all through December, finishing on Christmas Eve. A perfect trip for last-minute present shopping!
If you’re looking for a smaller city vibe, check out Colmar, just an hour’s drive south of Strasbourg. Considered one of the most beautiful cities not only in Alsace, but all of France, Colmar invites you to relax and appreciate the beauty all around you. The Little Venice neighbourhood is typical of the city’s charm. The soft pastel shades of the half-timbered houses contribute to the picture-perfect quaintness of the city.
The designer of the legendary Statue of Liberty, Auguste Bartholdi, was a Colmar native. A replica stands in the town and is worth passing by, despite the rather un-glamorous location smack bang in the middle of a roundabout.
The cultural blend of French and German is perhaps at its most evident – and fruitful –in Alsatian cuisine. Hearty German soul food collides with the French culinary je ne sais quoi in dishes such as flammkueche, choucroute and spätzli. Though Alsatian dishes mirror the typical German penchant for pork, vegetarians will also be able to find an appetising meal in most restaurants here.
What’s more, Alsace is famed as wine-making region per excellence, with its range of delectable white wines often touting traditionally German names. Pull up a chair as we dish up some of the region’s best treats…
Wine in Alsace
Alsatian wines are considered among the best in France. Indeed, a trip down the so-called Route du Vin, or wine road, is essential for making the most of your Alsace holiday. Indeed, this sun-drenched valley road is recognised as one of the best wine tours in Europe. It’s unlikely you’ll road trip the entire 180-kilometre stretch. However, if you are a keen hiker or cyclist, journeying through the seemingly endless fields of ripe grapes is not to be missed. While it’s easiest to hop between the beautiful towns and vineyards by car, a meander along the tucked away paths is an equally awesome way to navigate the route.
Many wineries will allow you to sample a selection of wines. The art of wine producing (and consuming!) is revered here – it’s serious business. Find the perfect tipple to suit your taste by sampling, but remember it’s polite to buy something if you have accepted their hospitality and samples. Will your palate be tantalised by a crisp glass of Riesling or Gewürztraminer? Or perhaps a fizzy flute of crémant d’Alsace will take your fancy. The crémant is like champagne in everything but name. Strict rules mean that no beverage produced outside the Champagne region can carry the sacred name. But Alsatians are happy for their bubbly to sport the name of their beloved region.
Arguably the most typically Alsatian dish of all is the humble Flammkueche, or tarte flambée (you’ll hear locals call it both!). A crispy dough topped with bacon, onion, crème fraiche, and cheese, Flammkueche is the perfect satisfying meal.
Just a few kilometres south of Colmar, the [tiny village] of Hattstatt deserves a special shout out for its world-class flammkueche. Stop by this town brimming with authentic charm and tuck into one of the most delicious flammkueche of the region. Restaurant Caveau des Seigneurs offers a variety of options, alongside other tempting Alsatian dishes and a list of exceptional local wines – including extra special violet wine.
You will see the pretzel all around Alsace. This baked snack is so symbolic of the region that it is incorporated in the logo for Alsatian tourism and heritage. A satisfyingly chewy and salty knot of golden dough baked to perfection, a pretzel is the perfect snack to keep you going throughout your day trips – and did we mention it of course goes perfectly with Alsatian beer?!
If nothing else, Alsace honours the German passion for nourishing soul food. Halfway between pasta and dumplings, spätzli egg noodles are a staple in Alsace. In this region, the spätzli are often sautéed in butter and served as a side for meat dishes and vegetables.
Though the word choucroute itself is French for sauerkraut, in Alsace it has a slightly different meaning. Sauerkraut is braised in white wine (from the region!) and served alongside an assortment of sausages and pork, potatoes, and mustard. Altogether this makes up the famous choucroute of the region, a hearty and comforting dish which you have to try if you visit here!
So, you’ve visited France and ticked Germany off your travel bucket list too, why not try a combination of the two? More than the sum of its parts, the charming, bicultural region of Alsace offers Franco-German, but perhaps more importantly European, culture to everyone who visits. Be spellbound by the international Strasbourg or retreat into the splendour of countryside landscape, sampling a few delicious wines along the way. Alsatians know how to live well, combining Gemütlichkeit with joie de vivre.