Many Americans are familiar with the spicy, minerally wines of Alsace. Any wine shop worthy of the name will carry at least a bottle or two from this département in far eastern France. But far fewer people realize that Alsace ranks among the world’s loveliest wine regions, with numerous unspoiled half-timbered towns punctuating tidy, rolling vineyards in the foothills of the Vosges Mountains. This strategic region passed between France and Germany for centuries, giving it its own unique culture, as well as more than its fair share of castles.
It’s surprising, considering Alsace’s location on the Rhine River, that it managed to weather World War I and World War II as well as it did. Admittedly, some towns such as Ammerschwihr ended up flattened, but neighboring Kaysersberg emerged unscathed, with its charming old center intact. Numerous other villages remain unspoiled; some, like Obernai and Riquewihr, even retain their defensive walls. Judging by the exuberant displays of flowers decorating windows and fountains, locals take great pride in maintaining their hometowns’ beauty. I loved driving from one to another and ambling down their main streets.
Perhaps most surprising is the little city of Colmar, just half an hour’s drive from the Rhine. In spite of its relatively large size, delightful Colmar escaped the wars with few physical scars. Its exquisite old center, enlivened by the occasional canal, is a joy to explore on foot. The city also contains one of the cultural jewels of Alsace, the Unterlinden Museum, which has a small but superlative collection of art treasures.