Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - July 3, 2015

The delights of Alsace

Mid-May is the best time for us to plan a trip to Europe. Because the summer break for European schools begins in early July, the prices are lower and there are fewer tourists in the months before. As a bonus, the days are long and the temperatures are ideal for exploring in short sleeves.

Still, with the university's spring semester completing in early May, the first half of the month is one of the busiest times of the year for our girls and me. Consequently, most trip planning is done by husband Art.

But this year was a bit different. Daughter Katie had been doing some planning of her own and suggested we visit the Alsace region of eastern France. She and boyfriend Matt have been dabbling with wine tasting and she thought this world-famous region would be a good place to sample some white wines.

The continent was once home to many small countries. How people lived in any one was typically a blend of that of their neighbors. With the lands to the west being more French and those to the east more Germanic, Alsace is a blend of those cultures. A visitor is as likely to find village names ending with the Germanic heim (home), and burg (castle) as the French ville (town) or mont (mountain). After some study, Art decided that we would use Colmar in the south as our base for exploring this cultural mix.

We arrived about 3 p.m. After taking our luggage to our room, we set off walking the mile to the heart of the old town. It is called "Little Venice" and centered on the River Lauch, which is really more like a large stream. While small boats are available to rent, the low bridges mean the gondoliers use electric trolling motors rather than a pole to propel them. We chose instead to walk the adjoining cobblestone streets and look at the ancient half-timbered buildings. There was a distinct feeling of having stepped back into some previous century.

The combined effect of sightseeing on our trip to Colmar and the walk about the village soon had us looking for a place to eat. But businesses stay open until 6 p.m., so most restaurants adhere to the old ways of not opening for evening meals until 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. So Katie and I grabbed some sandwiches in the covered fruit, vegetable and fish market to keep us going.

With our hunger temporarily satisfied, we continued to investigate the various small shops and the church until a restaurant at the edge of the Lauch opened. While Katie opted for steak with potatoes, Art and I chose one of the region's specialties - choucroute garnie (garnished sauerkraut). It has five types of pork - a piece of ham, smoked bacon, salted bacon, a small sausage and another cut of pork that varies with the restaurant. The dish was served with the meat leaning against a mound of sauerkraut and potatoes. Art had not eaten since breakfast, yet it proved to be more than enough to satisfy his hunger. That meant I had way too much.

But the charm of Little Venice did not prepare us for what we were to see the next day. Colmar is a city of 65,000 and dwarfs tiny Riquewihr just 20 minutes to the north. This village of only a few more than 1,000 is situated in a sea of grapevines that extends in every direction. Almost all of the town is enclosed by a mediaeval wall.

We parked outside the wall to the east and entered through the arched opening in the village hall that straddles the principal street Rue du General de Gaulle. We had read that the village had won several awards as the most beautiful town in France and we could see why. It was as attractive as any Disney creation - with one important exception: it was real! Yes, it certainly was "tourist friendly," but not in the garish way that is seen so often.

As might be expected, vintners selling wines produced from Gewurztraminer, Sylvaner, Muscat, Riesling and other local grape varieties abound. The signs on the shops of most vendors indicated they were willing to ship a case or more to a buyer's home.

There were also many small shops selling local specialties such as bredele, which means "little bread." But they are really sweets shaped into small squares, many containing cloves and cinnamon. Storks - a symbol of the region - were everywhere. While the shops sell ones made from wood, metal or cloth, real ones roost on platforms above the village's buildings. Storks are mute and so clack the two halves of their bills together to vocalize. While walking about the village, we would occasionally hear them. It seemed to occur most often as a sort of greeting to a partner returning to the nest.

After walking across the village and venturing down some of the side streets, we returned to the center and selected an outside table at the Relais des Moines restaurant. While no monks stopped by while we were there - the name means the monks' meeting place - the smoked salmon with pasta caught Katie's and my attention. Art selected a sort of meat pot accompanied by fresh raw vegetables. We chose three different local wines so we could compare them.

Meals in France are traditionally a time to sit, relax and enjoy the company of others. This is one of the reasons that many shops close from noon until 2 p.m., thereby avoiding making their employees grab a bite to eat and then dash back to work. The bill never arrives until requested.

The plan for the following day was to visit Strasbourg, the largest city in Alsace. With its quarter of a million people, it would certainly be quite different from tiny Riquewihr. So, we lingered at the restaurant, listening to the storks greeting one another high above the village rooftops, watching people pass by, sipping wine and thinking how good Katie's suggestion was.

Top-left: River Lauch in the Little Venice section of Colmar; bottom-left: Katie checking out some of the sweet treats in the window of an Alsatian shop; top-middle: my choucroute garnie plate; bottom-middle: Katie and Art just outside the old Riquewihr village wall. Some of the surrounding vineyards are visible in the distance; right: looking westward from our table at the Relais des Moines restaurant.

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