The Allure Of Alsace

Traditional ways are still a part of life today in this French province known for its wines and simple foods

April 16, 2006|By STEPHEN G. HENDERSON | STEPHEN G. HENDERSON,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MOO! MOO! MOO -- OOO -- OOO!"

The cow's plaintive cry kept getting louder and louder. I began to wonder whether there was a problem, but then my guide flipped open his phone and said, "Oui?" What I had thought was an actual animal, was a bovine bell tone.

That's a first, I thought, as we got into a car and sped off through Alsace, France. My driver wore a snazzy pair of sunglasses, a Gianni Versace suit, and had the sassy swagger of a twentysomething man with sufficient time and money to care about style. Yet, for his cell phone, he hadn't selected a hip-hop beat or some other 21st-century tune, but a sound from nature.

Alsace is like this, I learned in a week spent there late last year. It's a blend of modern and medieval, urban and agrarian. Groovy, in other words, mixed with moo-ey.

Located in France's northeast corner, about 300 miles from Paris, Alsace is flanked on the west by the Vosges Mountains and on the east by Germany's Rhine River and Black Forest. Once part of the German empire, Alsace came under French sovereignty during Louis XIV's reign in the 17th century. As a spoil of war, it has switched French and German nationality four times in the past 100 years alone.

While the region's complex culture is fascinating -- particularly in the city of Strasbourg -- most visitors go for more sybaritic pursuits such as visiting vineyards that produce Alsatian wines such as Gewurztraminer, Reisling and Tokay Pinot Gris. Any of these dry, crisp whites are the perfect accompaniment to the area's favorite dish: choucroute, a serving of fluffy fresh sauerkraut topped with sausage, pork chops and thick slabs of ham.

Nouvelle cuisine it is not, nor is it particularly chic. Yet, that's exactly the point: Alsace's allure is somehow outside of time. It's a Gallic Brigadoon where travelers can stay in romantically retro hotels such as Colmar's Le Marechal, Thionville's L'Horizon, or Hotel Beaucour Baumann in Strasbourg. These and dozens of similar establishments are built from centuries-old houses in half-timbered style, with gabled roofs, dormered windows with brimming flower boxes, and chimneys that are sometimes topped with storks' nests. Given the strife and wars that have beset Alsace, the preservation of such venerable and, well, adorable architecture is nearly a miracle.

'Silence is good'

I began my stay in Colmar, where narrow streets date to the 13th century. Different neighborhoods are still named for the type of tradesmen who once lived and worked there: fishermen, tanners, sellers of fruits and vegetables.

The city's most famous son is sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi. His name may not immediately ring a bell, but you well know Bartholdi's most famous work -- the Statue of Liberty in New York City's harbor.

Visiting the Bartholdi Museum, once the sculptor's house, I learned he was a freemason who admired the United States because it is a republic -- one of the world's earliest, after, of course, Greece and Rome. His statue's name is actually "Liberty Enlightening the World" and various models, drawings and blueprints show the varying ways Lady Liberty might have carried a torch before Bartholdi settled on her actual pose.

Colmar is in a river valley and, leaving the museum, a cold gray fog curls in wisps about my feet. Shivering, I decided I needed the breakfast of champions: pizza! Actually, I ordered the Alsatian version, called tarte flambee, which is a wafer-thin crust topped with fromage blanc (a tastier cream cheese), then a few shavings of onion and bacon. Cooked on a stone over an open fire, the flames crisp the top and edge. It's delicious, yet not overly filling. Think of it as spa pizza.

The Route des Vins (wine route) of Alsace is 75 miles of winding road along the Vosges Mountains. Leaving Colmar, one of the most delightful vineyards I saw was Materne Haegelin et Ses Filles, which is near Orschwihr and owned by an affable couple named Pat and Regine Garnier-Haegelin. Their soil is chalky and dry -- perfect for growing grapes -- and because the mountains are at their tallest point, the area is protected from wind and excessive climate changes.

My visit coincided with Les Vendanges Tardives, or the late harvest. A grape's sugar is what turns into alcohol, and the longer it stays on the vine, the sweeter the grape gets. Deep into autumn, grapes can even develop a moldy covering called "noble rot," which makes the sweetest wine of all.

The Garnier-Haegelins were picking gewurztraminer grapes and so I sampled wine that's just two days old. That early on, the white grape juice was cloudy and slightly effervescent; only at the end of fermentation is wine clear in color. As we stood in the cellar, alongside huge wooden casks many decades old and carved with the names of various ancestors, Regine pointed out a cast-iron candleholder hanging from the ceiling. Carbon dioxide is released as the sugar turns to alcohol and this same gas escapes casks into the immediate environment.

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