Discover Strasbourg and the Alsace Region

Pimsleur Approach • December 17, 2012 • GermanComments (0)
Discover Strasbourg and the Alsace Region

Strasbourg Cathedral towering above the Old Town

Between the Rhine, the Black Forest and the Vosges mountains, Alsace is situated at the northeast frontier of France, and has been subject to many changes of its official nationhood over the centuries. Part of the Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages, it was annexed by the French in the mid-seventeenth century.

The French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) saw the area returned to Germany, but the First World War resulted in the French reclaiming the area – a boundary change confirmed in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. By this time a highly politically charged region, Alsace became a target for the expansionist plans of the Nazis and was invaded early in the Second World War, but returned to French hands after the Allied victory.

The legacy of this mixed heritage is very apparent today, and Alsace is equally influenced by French and German culture, language and cuisine, resulting in its own unique identity. The Alsatian dialect is more German than French-influenced, but in many places, particularly the larger cities of the region, road signs appear in both French and Alsatian – a constant reminder of the area’s fraught history.

Strasbourg

Strasbourg (meaning ‘city of roads’) is the capital of the Alsace region and a European gem, with a Gothic cathedral, cobbled streets and picturesque canals. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it is also home to the European Court of Human Rights and a primary seat of the European Parliament, making it very much a living city, despite its historical riches.

Now accessible from Paris via the new TGV Est line (which runs trains with interiors designed by none other than Christian Lacroix), visitors arrive into a station which is itself a tourist attraction – a nineteenth-century building encased in a modern glass cocoon, which was added in 2007.

Visitors to Strasbourg will see the stork (cigogne) that is the emblem of the city everywhere – not least in souvenir shops, where they adorn everything. White storks are in fact native to the region and they can be seen nesting in the botanical gardens at Parc de L’Orangerie in the east of the city.

Strasbourg has culture galore, with everything from modern art at the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain, to medieval treasures at the Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame and fascinating artifacts of Alsatian history and culture at the Musée Alsacien.

Mulhouse and Colmar

Mulhouse is Alsace’s second city. Close to the Swiss border, it boasts traditional Swiss-style wine bars, museums and shopping, even if it lacks the beauty of Strasbourg. An industrial city, this is reflected in its museums, which include the French Railway Museum (Musée Français du Chemin de Fer) and the National Automobile Museum (Musée National de l’Automobile).

Just twenty-five miles away is Colmar – an altogether prettier proposition than Mulhouse, with sixteenth-century half-timbered houses and a fairytale feel. Even without its charming architecture, Colmar would be worth a visit for the Musée d’Unterlinden alone. The museum is home of the Isenheim Altarpiece by Mathias Grünewald (c. 1470 – 1528) – a huge work painted for the infirmary of the Monastery of Saint Anthony in nearby Isenheim, showing a wrenchingly gruesome crucifixion.

Colmar also has other artistic treasures, as it is the home town of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi – the designer of the Statue of Liberty. The house where he was born is now a museum dedicated to him.

Alsatian Food and Drink

Alsatian food is heavily influenced by its German neighbors, with sauerkraut (choucroute) being featured in many dishes. Flammekueche, from the Franconian word küe che (meaning ‘cake’), is another Alsatian specialty. Also known as tarte flambée, it is a pizza-like dish, with crispy dough topped with soft cheese (fromage blanc), lardons (thinly-sliced pieces of bacon) and onions.

While tarte flambée is a cheap, easily-found dish, the foie gras (‘fat liver’) that Alsace is also famous for is rather more expensive and is best enjoyed at slightly more exclusive restaurants. The area’s most famous wine is Gewürztraminer (‘spicy grape’, in German). Sweet and highly aromatic, the best Gewürztraminer is made with grapes with a higher sugar level, achieved by leaving them to dry slightly on the vine (a practice known as vendange tardive (‘late harvest’)).

Grains nobles (‘noble rot’) Gewürztraminer is a further step up from vendange tardive, where the grapes have been affected by botrytis, a type of fungus, which gives them even higher sugar levels. These wines, as well as the locally-brewed beers of Fischer and Kronenbourg (Alsace is the major beer-producing region of France), can be enjoyed in winstubs (‘wine cellars’) – cosy, affordable bar-restaurants found throughout the region.

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