A supersaver ticket that, when combined with our annual half price passes, let us travel for a quarter of the price of normal tickets on the Swiss rail systems, inspired another weekend trip. This time we headed north almost to the German border, then northwest into the Alsace wine region of France. The train took the familiar track towards Lausanne, which sits at the bend in the half-opened Swiss-knife shaped lake.
Passing Lausanne, we saw the familiar fish-scaled roofs matching the beautiful backdrop of a clear blue lake, but our train diverged from our trip last weekend and climbed steeply behind the city. We went through rolling hills and past patches of dense evergreen forests towards Bern, then onto Basel in a comfortable double-decker train, gliding through the Swiss interior.
Young troops — no doubt serving their obligated military service — were sitting a few seats up, wearing their green-colored military uniforms carrying their rifles like it’s a piece of luggage they’re eager to leave or haven’t figured out the best way to carry yet. A group of them hop off at one brief stop, light cigarettes, take several frantic drags, put out the cigarettes and hop back on before the train departs. We could have only been at the station for a few minutes.
As we approach France, the patches of evergreens gave way to hardwoods and the tallest structures are no longer peaks of mountains but church steeples with the outline of distant mountains marking the direction from which we traveled.
Cornfields appear and stretch for acres around Colmar, separated by patches of hardwood trees. One could mistaken this area for Iowa if they had suddenly awoken on this leg of the trip. But Iowa does not make world-class wine, and that’s what we’ve come for: wine tasting and biking through wine country on the Alsace Wine Route.
We arrived at a small train station in Colmar to explore for the night. Colmar is the largest city in the general area on the train line, so makes for a convenient home-base. It’s been called Little Venice because of the canals lined with old homes, but cobble stone walkways serve as the main transportation — not water buses and cabs.
This weekend coincided with the local wine festivals, so we tried some of the local Grand Crus for 2.50 euros a glass and wandered the streets for the evening. After an early night, we woke up and filled up on baked goods and coffee along the walk to the train station. Bikes can be easily rented from the train station, and the office provided maps and directions for bike routes. After a few detours because of poorly-marked routes,we consulted the two different maps that we had and finally found the Rue de Vigne and took it until we were biking through vineyards. Colmar is approximately the half-way point in the Alsace region wine appellation that stretches 100 miles. Alsace is the Germanic region of France, lying between the Rhine river and the Vosges mountains. To the north and east it shares a border with Germany; to the south with German-speaking Switzerland, and to the west with Lorraine and Franche Comté. The whole area is connected by the wonderful bike paths that run parallel to each other and visit most of the cities in the area.
We headed to the first town on our trip, Ammerschwihr, which sits in the foothills to the west. We biked around the old town a bit and had a couple tastings, one of which was in the living room of a winemaker’s historic home. The other tasting felt like a more standard small American winery experience, but with incredible wines. All of them. And, the best part of living in a small French village outside of Geneva is that shipping wine within France is cheap (10 euro total) and a lot easier than carrying it with us on our bikes. Our next stop was the beautiful city of Kayersberg. We entered the city on our bikes riding down a cobble stone street with houses built as far back as the 1500s carved into the keystones over their doors. Today, the houses have bent and bowed with time, as though some form of scoliosis has taken effect. Walking along the old houses in the small towns of Alsace, it never occurred to me that I’d see someone’s home that is nearly a half a millennium old.
The walls and fortresses of the town were constructed as far back as the 12th century. Several walls and fortresses and churches like Notre Dame that are nearly a millennium old are still standing all over Europe, but I am finding something oddly fascinating about seeing a person’s home that is older than Newton’s theory of gravity and the landing of Columbus on a small island in the Caribbean. Filling up our water bottles at the fountain I think about the people of this town many centuries ago. And how hard life must have been. Do you think it ever occurred to them that several hundred years later crowds of people would pile off tour buses and walk along their streets on a hot August Saturday? If told that, I wonder how would they respond?
We’ve come to see a town with beautifully built half-timbered old homes, protected by strong walls, and nested in the foothills above Alsace and the Rhine valley. But this town feels like an outpost. What’s it like to live in a town with a guard tower and tall walls always casting a shadow over the town, I wonder? Does it feel safe or like the world is closing in? If they felt endangered, why respond by building such homes that require so much effort? Maybe it’s a way to fight how temporary life must have felt. Maybe it’s just simply to show off their wealth. Although the old walls of the city have largely been brought down by the wrecking ball that is time, the houses still stand. These are strong structures. Even bombs couldn’t knock them down.
I guess for an area that has such a blurry history, it makes a lot of sense. Towns along any border always must have a precarious history I suppose. Charlemagne is buried a half day north from here by car. Napoleon no doubt marched through a few times going to and retreating from his conquests. More recently, this area switched between France and Germany four times between 1870 and 1945. The names of this area, sounding oddly German for being in France: Turckheim, Ingershiem and streets with “Weg”, all stand out like a faded tattoo. A permanent reminder of some phase of childhood.
We hop back on the bikes and head to the next town. The ride is easy at first but then we’re confronted with a tall, tall hill under the midday sun. We inched up it stopping a few times on the way up for shade under a pear tree bursting with fruit.
Coming down the hill on the other side feels like we’re on a rocket shooting towards the next city of Riquewihr. I think about driving through the streets back home with the window down and how I felt this same way: free. We make it into the largest of these old fortified cities. Riquewihr is filled with tourists. Or maybe they are the true invaders, holding the city for ransom. We explore for a few hours and continue on to Hunawihr, going up another tall hill that seems easier somehow. We’re occasionally passed by a car or motorcycle on the bike route but it still feels largely empty and is an odd juxtaposition with the crowded small medieval cities.
Biking along these back roads it feels like we’ve come to see a show and now it’s past time to go. Show’s over and everyone else is gone but we linger. We pass through Hunawihr, the last city on our bike ride through the foothills, and descend from the hills towards the wide-open flood plane, meandering our way back to Colmar with the sun setting over the modest mountains to our right.
We’ve spent all day biking almost 40 miles going up and down hills and mountains in 100 degree weather and now we settle into a nice French dinner and an early bedtime. Another morning bike ride the next day along the canals this time leads us past a u-pick-it strawberry patch that will pair well later covered in chocolate with a nice Cremant we think.
We head back then to the train station, with a dark sky that is threatening to storm as we climb on the train heading to Basel – no doubt a welcomed sight for Colmar, the driest city in France. The best thing about train travel is there are no security lines to delay travel, so a 1.5 hour layover can be an opportunity to explore another city, in this case Basel, where our layover allowed us to grab a coffee and almond-cinnamon cookies at a nice little coffee bar in the corner of a baroque church, and then walk to another cathedral overlooking the Rhine, catch a few songs from a band that just decided to play for the hell of it (no tip jar), and then hike it back to the train for a ride home along the Jura mountains and western edge of Lake Neuchatel.
Travel tips: Alsace Region, France
How to get there: Colmar is just over 3 hours by train and car from Geneva, 30 minutes by train from Strasbourg, and 30 minutes from Freiberg. The Alsace region is perhaps most easily traveled by car, but is very doable by train, especially if you prefer to bike between towns rather than drive. The Swiss train system will get you to Basel for as little as $25 – $50 from most major Swiss cities if you buy an SBB supersaver ticket, and from there you can catch a 45 minute, $15 French train to Colmar that departs every 30-45 minutes.
How to tour once you’re there: Once you have reached Alsace, if you have a car, the roads are small and empty, though towns are crowded, but driving between them is easy. If you came by train, there are busses connecting the small towns that depart every hour. You can also rent a bike (as we did) for $12/day for a nice hybrid from the convenient shop in the train station (note: they are open 9am-7pm 7 days a week despite their website saying otherwise), or bring your own on the train for $18/day.
Where to stay: Colmar is a good base because of its central location and big size, but the smaller towns offer a much prettier setting. The nice, affordable places book up early in the summer so be sure to look in advance depending when you go. However, we booked a day ahead of time and still found a decent spot. For convenience and comfort, Best Western offers some good deals ($150-175/night), though our preference is usually the small B&Bs, which we find to generally be more personable and affordable.
Where to eat and drink: Sezanne is a great cheese and wine shop with attached restaurant right in the heart of Colmar’s old town serving traditional Alsacian fare (entrees from $10-15). L’un des sens is reputed as the best wine bar in Colmar, serving up some great charcutterie as well. If you don’t mind spending a bit more, Alsace has the most Michelin-starred restaurants in France, some of which are certainly worth a trip.