Alsace in north-east France has a unique character, partially shaped by it passing back and forth between France and Germany. Its strategic location on the western bank of the Rhine river, one of the most important trading routes of Europe, has given Alsace more feudal castles than any other region of France. The German influence is strong and can been seen in the tradition of painting buildings according to the nature of their business – bakeries in one colour, butchers in another, etc. The resulting colourful streets of half-timbered buildings with geranium filled window boxes create picture-postcard villages.
The Vosges Mountains form the backbone of Alsace with the alluvial plain and the marshes of the Ill and Rhine rivers running along its eastern flank. The distinctive rounded summits, known as ballons, are bare of trees, but the rest of the mountains are blanketed in forest, from chestnuts above the vines, to beech, conifers, mountain ash and maple, creating a paradise for birds and other wildlife.
Storks are reputed to bring good luck and are a welcome and common sight in Alsace, migrating there from Africa to raise their young. Their large nests can be seen on roofs and trees in town and country, even in cities like Strasbourg. Strasbourg has a centre dedicated to the repopulation of the stork in Parc de l’Orangerie; north-east of the historic centre, next to the canal.
Strasbourg also has a remarkable Gothic cathedral, dating from the 11th century, notable museums and a picturesque historic centre encircled by the river Ill, while Colmar is almost as pretty and is the centre of the wine route, and the home of the famous Musée d’Unterlinden in a former 13th century convent. Alsace boasts a wide variety of museums, including an Eco-museum with over 50 ancient timber-framed houses. Around Mulhouse you’ll find the National Automobile Collection (including 120 Bugattis), a railway museum, a printed fabric museum, a wallpaper museum, a fire brigade museum and an electricity museum. Something for everyone.
Alsace is renowned for its food and wine and also produces 56% of France’s beer. Vineyards fill the warmer lower slopes of the Vosges Mountains and produce aromatic wines from Gewurztraminer, Reisling, Sylvaner, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Muscat grapes, plus a light, fruity Pinot Noir.
The Vosges Mountains are interspersed with walking and cycling trails and much of the canal towpath has been up-graded for cycling and walking, making Alsace a haven for active holidays. We have a selection of easy to moderate cycling holidays starting from Strasbourg, plus a new route from Basel, which is very convenient for the EuroAirport which has good connections throughout Europe and with Britain.
Our Basel to Strasbourg cycling holiday explores three countries along the Rhine Valley, featuring thermal springs, castles, the Black Forest, wine villages and vineyards and connects with another seven night itinerary from Strasbourg to Luxembourg. This route largely follows canals and rivers through France and Germany and then over gentle, rolling terrain to the city of Luxembourg. Electric assisted bikes are becoming more popular and they are available on these routes.
For non-cyclists we have walking holidays in Alsace, ranging from four to seven nights. The Medieval Trail is almost 300kms long, winding through the Vosges Mountains from Wissembourg in the north to the wine village of Kaysersberg in the south. It is divided into three itineraries, which can be enjoyed separately or combined into two or three week walking holidays – rest days can be added as required. The Northern Walk is through the Northern Vosges Regional Park, which is classed by UNESCO as a world biosphere reserve – a dramatic region of sandstone crags, castle ruins, forests, picture-postcard villages, the Maginot Line and great views.
The Middle Walk leads you south from Saverne, in the beautiful Zorn Valley, through the Vosges Mountains for forests and waterfalls, more castles and churches to the vineyards of Barr. The Southern Walk features picturesque wine villages and vineyards and the spectacular Chateau de Haut Koenigsbourg. The daily walks average about five hours and your luggage is transferred between hotels so you only need to carry your lunch, water and camera. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
Boating in Alsace is equally glorious as the Canal de la Marne au Rhin heads west from Strasbourg into the Zorn Valley and through the Vosges Mountains to the Lorraine Plateau and a regional park of lakes, ponds and marshes with wonderful birdlife.
Three hotel barges divide their season between Alsace and Champagne and of these we favour the 12 passenger Panache (above left) which cruises out of Strasbourg from 23 July until 28 October. This route is famous for the Arzviller boat lift – a sealed lock that goes sideways up a slope, rising 44.5m and replacing 17 locks. That is spectacular enough, but it is followed by two tunnels! If you want to cruise between April and June, then the deluxe 8 passenger Princess can supply the holiday of your dreams, which includes a dinner ashore at Le Cerf’s Michelin-starred restaurant in Marlenheim.
Rental boats are also available for independent exploration and three companies offer one way routes. Le Boat has the best from south of Strasbourg to the small village of Hesse above the Arzviller boat lift and they have a good range of boats. Nicols and Les Canalous have shorter routes from different bases, but you can always continue past the base and return later, as long as you return the boat on time.
Contact us for more information on your holiday options in Alsace and the rest of France; not forgetting our Taste France escorted tour (16-27 September), which has just two places available.