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Monday, 25 April 2011

Alsace’s Route du Vin and Unique Character - Page 2

Written by James Ullrich
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I converse with the friendly merchant in German for a few moments. With my limited linguistic ability, I ask her if she’s lived here long. “I was born here,” she replies. 

“Oh, you’ve lived here your whole life?” I ask.

She smiles. “Not yet,” she says.

Jean-Claude exchanges a few more pleasantries with Marie and we exit. Back on the street, now beginning to crowd with tourists in comfortable shoes, my friend points to a small café. Time for lunch.

I’d had Alsatian cuisine before. It’s hearty and tasty, and its German influence is dominant; sausages, onions and sauerkraut are the major elements. He suggests trying the Alsatian baeckeoffe, a stew of sausage, potato and garden vegetables. Once in the café, I opt for the rosti, a baked potato and cheese combination. It’s filling and delicious.

Afterward, we resume our drive along the Route du Vin and Jean-Claude explains to his puzzled American friend how such cultural hybridization developed. “History, politics and geography,” he says, “they are intertwined and defined the Alsatian identity.”

The region’s location, between the Vosges Mountains to the west and the Rhine River to the east, was the main point of contention. Germany had traditionally insisted that the natural border of the two nations should be the Vosges, thus entitling them to control of the river valley, while France believed that German territory should stop at the Rhine.

Consequently, French and German dukes struggled over ownership of the prosperous wine producing region throughout the Middle Ages, and Alsace changed hands several times over the centuries. Treaties, backroom deals and outright conquest decided which country the area was aligned with and the people who lived here had little voice in who would rule them.

In the seventeenth Century, Imperial France annexed the area, and the issue seemed settled at last. The empire eventually declined, and Alsace once again found itself a pawn in international politics. The Franco-Prussian war ended with Alsace in German hands, only to be returned to French control at the conclusion of World War I. The war-weary Alsatians did not know the hard-fought peace—and their freedom—would last only twenty years.

Travel Talk Photos 021Jean-Claude points out that, like so many other regions of the world whose borders often shift, the Alsatian people eventually developed their own identity and a fierce sense of independence. “The street signs and architecture are just outward examples of the Alsatian culture. We’re a resilient people and have our own uniqueness. No one was ever able to take that away.” The bucolic scenery bears little evidence of the regions tumultuous history.

We pull over near an older man on a tractor. The man is clad in overalls and tall, green rubber boots. His skin is leathery from a long life spent in the vineyards of this dry, sunny area. They obviously know each other and the pair converse for a moment in a language that sounds like German, but was not. Even my untrained ear was able to detect the difference. “What were you speaking?” I ask him when we pull back onto the road.

“Alsatian, of course!” he says with a smile. The pride is evident in his voice. “It’s similar to German, but it’s an independent dialect. It must be spoken to be kept alive.”

Stopping in another post-card pretty village, Eguisheim, he parks along the crooked street. A row of colorfully painted half-timbered buildings in the German tradition line the street. He points to the town’s World War I memorial, near the church. Many towns in Germany and France have one, listing the young men who left for the trenches and never came home. “Look at the names,” he says.

A long honor roll of young Alsatians, most with French first names and German surnames, or vice versa. We meander down a cobbled side street. “I’ve noticed that the area bears few scars from the last war,” I say.

Jean-Claude nods. “That is a subject the tourists and visiting wine enthusiasts are not interested in, but it’s a major part of our history,” he says, looking down at the uneven cobbles. “But there’s a place which bears scars. Come with me.”

A moment later we are in his minivan and heading out of the village. As we pass bicycle riders out for a pleasant ride along the Route du Vin, Jean-Claude begins telling me about Alsace’s traumatic World War II experience.

“We woke up to artillery on New Year’s Day, 1945. We did not know what was going on. It turns out the Germans had chosen the Vosges Mountains and the area around Colmar as their last offensive action of the war. They made a last stand against the Allied advance right here in our mountains.”

Just a few minutes after leaving Eguisheim, we approach an all together different community, shockingly out of place in the storybook splendor of Alsace: Bennwhir.

(Page 2 of 3)
Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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