Readers may disabuse me but I think this is a first: the Winstub in the small Alsace wine village of Itterswiller was offering an “Age d’Or” prix fixe menu – for over 60s. Three courses, two glasses of wine and coffee for around £25.
Don’t tell our GP but we wanted a little more than two glasses of wine each, so we went for the midweek “formule” – three courses for €21.80 including a bavette (skirt) of beef in a delicious wine reduction with Pommes Dauphinoises and a dessert of fromage blanc with strawberries. It was, we agreed, stunning value.
But whether it was a half litre of very decent Riesling for €15 or a huge ham omelette with salad for lunch at an outside table in Colmar for €6, that was our overall impression of prices in Alsace. Perhaps, we speculated, it is the nearness of Germany, now arguably western Europe’s best value destination, which rubs off on this region of eastern France.
Germany lies across a flat alluvial plain where the Rhone forms the border. The jostling vineyards of Alsace sit at the foot of the Vosges mountains. The uplands of the Black Forest darken the horizon to the east. You are probably familiar with broad brush of the region’s recent history: it was fought over during three wars in under 80 years, changing hands four times. But it still grimly fascinating to see memorials which, along with the usual lists of the dead, honour Alsatians forcibly conscripted by the Nazis to fight – as the inscription in Riquewihr notes – for a cause universally objected to.
Hitler made Alsatians speak German, even change their names so it should be no surprise that French is the first language, but there remains plenty of cross border influence: the ubiquitous choucroute garni, for example is Sauerkraut with sausages, ham and perhaps pork ribs; a winstub is a Wein Stube across the Rhine; grape names may be pinot or Gewürztraminer and the aforementioned Riesling; the region’s greatest treasure, the 16th century Isenheim Altarpiece, was painted and sculpted by two Germans, respectively Matthias Grunewald and Niclaus of Hagenau.
The altarpiece can be seen temporarily in Colmar’s Dominican church while its permanent home, the city’s excellent Unterlinden Museum, undergoes a major expansion. It was created originally for the church of St Anthony in nearby Isenheim. Whatever else you do in Alsace, spare time to linger over it and ponder the impact it made when it first appeared, some five centuries ago.
Colmar, the region’s capital, is a lovely city. Park on the fringes of the old centre and walk in through Petite Venise (Little Venice), where motorized punts glide, laden with tourists and steered by guides commentating on the buildings which crowd the narrow waterways. Wander through the Place de l’Ancienne Douane – the old customs building – with its elegant fountain by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, who also designed the Statue of Liberty. Keep looking up at the richness of its architecture, not least the striking Pfister House, built in 1537, with its corner oriel window and murals.
Many of Colmar’s buildings have half timbered walls, which are characteristic of the region. Chimney puts are crowned with storks’ nests. There is such a plethora of photogenic small town villages, mostly set among a sea of vineyards which seems to lap at their doorsteps, that you soon begin to feel sated: Kaysersberg, birthplace of Albert Schweitzer, with its fortified bridge and overbearing castle; Riquewihr – brave the tourist hordes to stroll along its wonderful Grand’Rue; the gorgeous little town of Barr with its ancient houses and fine town hall square; Andlau, whose abbey crypt contains a remarkable 13th century pieta; Itterswiller, where we began, with so many wine “caves” I gave up counting, where vines were trained in arches across the main street; and Eguisheim, where we finished, so atmospheric after dark you could imagine yourself back in the Renaissance.
On a hot night in Eguisheim, at Le Pavillon Gourmand, another top value prix fixe dinner included two dishes with a German accent white asparagus with ham ( for this was the tail end of the asparagus season, which is celebrated in Alsace much as it is across the border) and rum soaked Kougelhopf – the cake with the hole in the middle. It would have been delicious at any price but at around £50 for two the aftertaste seemed all the more satisfying.
The Brays drove to Alsace, crossing from Dover to Calais with P&O Ferries (the Club Lounge supplement is always worth it for the comfort and light meal menu – plus a free glass of champagne, coffee and biscuits and newspapers). The drive takes around 6hrs. We stayed at the Hotel Arnold in Itterswiller – the Winstub is its separate restaurant, and the Hotel St. Hubert (B&B only) in Eguisheim. Both were excellent, offering substantial buffet breakfasts.