GIANT CASTLES & TINY CANALS OF ALSACE
Strasbourg was great fun to explore yesterday, and keen to see more of Alsace we went for a day trip to one of the region’s grandest castles, Haut-Koenigsbourg, and one of the cutest little towns in the heart of the regions wine country: Colmar. Public transport in this area is pretty good so we had no trouble training and bussing our way through some of the prettiest scenery we’ve seen in a while. Alsace really is beautiful!
Alsace lies in a valley formed by the River Rhine, between the Rhine and the Vosges mountain ranges. This rich river valley was historically been a very prosperous one, due in part to its agricultural wealth, but also due to its location along one of Medieval Europe’s most important East-to-West trade routes. The regions central location* and wealth also made it a heavily fought after prize during times of war. Travelling from Strasbourg down through the Rhine valley this morning, we got to see first hand how beautiful the area is.
*To the North and East it shares a border with Germany; to the south is Switzerland, and to the West is the rest of France.
Our first stop was the village of Selestat, not a particularly scenic stop in and of itself, but an important stop because this is where the buses for Haut Koenigsbourg castle leave from! We wanted to see the castle because we’d heard how majestic it was, and we weren’t disappointed! The castle is huge and dominates the landscape as it sits high on a hill in the Vosages Mountains. We could it from miles away, and the further up the mountain the bus climbed, the better the views got – not just of the castle but of the views across the Rhine valley as well.
Getting there just as the castle opened meant we were lucky enough to have it almost to ourselves. The current fortress is a 19th century reconstruction of the original Medieval castle which was destroyed in the 17th century. Even knowing it was rebuilt didn’t stifle our enthusiasm however; the castle is not only immense, it’s awesomely impressive in its fortifications. Carved out of the rocks it sits on, the entire edifice is slightly rose coloured, thanks to the Vosages sandstone used to build it.
The castle is divided into two parts – the upper and the lower courtyard. The lower part of the castle was the home of craftsmen, servants and their families, and also a place where accidental travellers could find a warm refuge to spend a night in. The most memorable sight was the huge wine barrel in the storeroom – it was huge!
The upper part of the castle was reserved for the owners of the castle and their highly ranked guests. Some of these rooms have been reconstructed and made for great viewing. The best of these was without a doubt the grand hall, with its intricately carved decorative wooden panelling and painted ceiling.
One of the most breath-taking parts of the castle were the ramparts, if nothing else because of the views we got there across the Alsace wine region and the Vosages Mountains.
Haut Koenigsbourg was built in 1147 by Frédéric le Borgne, a member of the Hohenstaufens family, who wanted to reinforce his power in Alsace by building a defence line made of castles placed all over the region. Its strategic position above the Rhine valley allowed its occupants to watch the main roads of the region and easily defend the area against invaders.
The castle was overrun and burnt in 1462 by an army conquering the towns of Colmar, Strasbourg and Basel. It was rebuilt not long after, only to to be ransacked and burnt down by the Swedish army in 1663, during the Thirty Years War. The Haut Koenigsbourg was then left abandoned for 2 centuries, only to be rebuilt in 1899 by the Germans, who had just annexed Alsace and chose to reconstruct the castle as a symbol of the might and power of Germanic rule. Their efforts produced what is Alsace’s most popular tourist destination.
After a couple of hours wandering through the castle and its grounds we decided it was time to move on to our second stop for the day: the village of Colmar. Situated along the Alsatian Wine Route, Colmar is often referred to as the “capital of Alsatian wine” and many people use it as a base from which to explore the regions wineries (famous for their white wines). For us the appeal was not so much the wines as the town’s lovely old town.
Like Petite France in Strasbourg the centre of Colmar is criss-crossed by canals and narrow cobbled lanes, both of which are lined with ancient half-timbered houses. Each house is painted a different colour and the overall effect is so pretty it’s almost surreal.
Called “Little Venice” for its canals, Colmar’s old town is immaculately preserved with many of the houses dating as far back as the 1300’s. Anime fans might recognise the multicoloured timber-frame houses and the streets of Colmar as being the inspiration for the village featured in Miyazaki Hayao’s animated movie “Howl’s Moving Castle”.
We stopped for a late lunch in Colmar in a wonderful little water-front restaurant that specialised in Alsatian dishes. The food was great – tasty, well prepared, with a good balance of flavours and textures, without being overly rich. Best of all both meals came with a generous serving of spätzle*! We’re loving the food here in Alsace in case you missed it!
*A kind of soft pasta or dumpling we learned to love whilst in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.
For the next hour or so we just wandered around in Colmar, enjoying the views and learning a bit about the town’s history (e.g. turns out Colmar is the birthplace of the sculptor Bartholdi, father of the famous Statue of Liberty). Unfortunately our afternoon was somewhat curtailed when the clouds that had been building all day finally gave vent to their suppressed violence in a massive deluge of rain and howling wind. Keen to escape the worst of the summer storm we raced back to the train station and headed back to Strasbourg (where it was also raining) for our final evening in Alsace.
It’s still raining here now, which seems fitting as we’re pretty sad to be leaving Alsace. This region is a fascinating blend of German and French that deserves more time than we’ve given it to be properly enjoyed. Best add this one to the list of places to return to then…