Sometimes you just want to escape to a place reminiscent of a childhood fantasy. One that is filled with romantic castles, fairy tale villages, breathtaking scenery and heartwarming moments. A place to feast your eyes, free your mind and flâner (wander/stroll). Maybe, with a bottle of wine.
Picture “France” beyond Paris and visions of châteaux amidst lush vineyards fill the mind. Then, the stomach might rumble and images of Michelin Star eateries that serve difficult-to-pronounce dishes swirl along with visions of freshly-baked crusty baguettes, sinful creamy desserts and fabulous stinky cheese. Picture: Alsace.
Bordering Germany and Switzerland, the neighbours’ influence is evident in the region’s architecture and cuisine. With routes to suit most travel interests, Alsace is a great option for an open-ended trip.
- For adventure enthusiasts and active travellers, the route des Crêtes with its national parks and Alps provides ample options.
- For gastronomes or oenophiles, the route des vins with its outstanding restaurants is unmissable.
For the indiscriminate traveller, Alsace is the France of our dreams and the cherry on its green cake is colourful Colmar. Despite being one of the most romantic places in France, it also happens to be the perfect place to explore with family. So, we did. All nine of us…aged from 9 months to 60+ yrs.
When fiction becomes fact…
Frequently spotted on the list of France’s “Les plus beaux villages” or most beautiful places to visit, old town Colmar is a living fantasy. Little wonder then, that Colmar supposedly inspired the village setting for Disney’s “Beauty and the beast”.
Flowers spill out of potted plants, colourful houses, shops and restaurants line canals of an area aptly named “Little Venice”. Ducks happily quack away as the tourist train (yes, we sat in one of those!) ambles along. The tourist train, though unsurprisingly touristy, is a great way to get a lay of the land. Utterly enchanted by the scene before us, we sat, commentary forgotten…until I accidentally dropped the baby’s milk bottle, spewing milk everywhere. Baby wipes to the rescue, I am happy to report that the train was spotlessly clean when we disembarked.
With no agenda, no cause for hurry and no pressure to sightsee, we simply set off and wandered as we pleased: beside the canal, over a bridge and onto hidden lanes. We stopped to pick juicy berries from the covered market, follow a Raclette cheese-like aroma to find a terrific restaurant called La Pergola, gorge on treats from numerous biscuiteries and pâtisseries, taste freshly baked bread in Bisch de Bruche, pop into scores of shops or boutiques and light candles in the glorious Saint Martin’s Church.
Our meandering ended with a visit to a park, Champ de Mars. The kids ran free, rode funky trikes and hopped on a carousel, while we contemplated the blessed life with some delicious wine. It was pretty much a perfect day.
While there are a host of options, check the restaurant operating schedule before you go.
For the regional specialty, tartes flammées, at Flamme & Co in Kaysersberg (Vegetarians: request a veggie version of their Flammée Tacos and top it off by the Petite flammée pomme). Caution: those with hearty appetites may need a more substantial meal afterward.
For arguably the best roësti west of the Swiss border, dine at eclectic La Pergola. Run by the same folks as Wolfberger, the French onion soup, pasta, pizza and tiramisu are fabulous as well. Watch out for the witches on broomsticks lining the ceiling for good luck.
A few of our favourite things…
We chose to embrace the “simple” life. No fancy restaurants, no complicated itineraries and no frenzied shopping = great family trip.
Though we were utterly besotted by Colmar, beauty and charm abound everywhere in Alsace. Here are some of our favourite experiences:
Village-hopping: Riquewihr, Kaysersberg, Ribeauvillé…Alsace is filled with gorgeous and exotic-sounding towns/villages/cities of all sizes. Pick a name from the map and head over to explore.
…We picked Éguisheim, a flower-bedecked town on the route des vins that has a flea market on Sundays. Not for the shopping, but for the experience of stepping into a storybook and because the “plus beaux villages de France” really are incredible.
Travel tip: If choosing a destination is a challenge, Google images can certainly be very helpful!
Picnicking: Armed with fresh cherry tomatoes, gruyère cheese, bread, potato salad from the Éguisheim market and candied fruit from Le Comptoir du Fruit, we picked our spot and settled for a picnic lunch with a view.
Wine-tasting: Alsace is known for its fabulous wines. If in Eguisheim, try the elixir(s) of your choice at a wonderful cellar and tasting room by the 100+ year old winemaker Wolfberger. The modern cavernous room offers a stylish experience. The wine – especially the Belle Saison Muscat – is a revelation. For a toddler-controlled group like ours, it was the perfect way to sip a bit of Alsace.
Driving: The roads of Alsace are blessed with spell-binding views around every bend, but for a fabulous drive that ends with the best bird’s eye view of Alsace, head to Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg in Orschwiller.
Reportedly, the château inspired a bit of the set for Lord of the Rings. While parking can be a pain, the drive is fantastic and chateau itself is an impressive structure with stunning views overlooking the region.
Luxurious living: When in France, stay in a luxurious château at least once. No better base to discover the dreamer’s France than from Château d’Isenbourg in Rouffach, a lovely town on the route des vins. A Small Luxury Hotels (SLH) property, the boutique château hotel is designed as a countryside retreat.
Quaint rooms, flavourful food and friendly service are accompanied by uninterrupted views of verdant vineyards on one side and the medieval city of Rouffach on the other. Think: long, lazy breakfasts and gorgeous sunsets. Did I mention the indoor Jacuzzi that overlooks seemingly endless vineyards?
Travel tip: If requested a day in advance, the hotel is happy to provide Rösti (a delectable Swiss dish consisting of potatoes smothered in cheese) for breakfast. Also, those travelling with infants or toddlers receive special gift bags with a soft toy and yummy treats.
Sometimes, it’s not about what to do or where to go next, but about staying where you are. Alsace is a place which inspires you to write your own travel story. There is no right or wrong story, just your unique travel story. One that might have an uncanny resemblance to all the beauty sans the beast.