Alsace: An Alsatian Christmas
Published 21/12/2015 | 02:30
Jamie Blake-Knox reawakens his enthusiasm for Christmas on a trip to Alsace, France.
In recent years, my enthusiasm for Christmas has waned markedly.
I can remember when I was a child, I used to wake up at 5am for days before the Big Day. Nowadays I tend to associate the festivities with frantic last-minute shopping and forced participation in our family swim in the icy Forty Foot. So this year I felt that I needed to revive my enjoyment of the season. And, as I was about to discover, there is one place that is sure to restore any flagging Christmas spirit: Alsace.
Situated right on the French border with Germany, its forests of pine cover the rolling Vosges Mountains, before giving way to some of the most beautiful vineyards in France. The ownership of this region has changed hands many times over the centuries. But this chequered history seems only to have served to strengthen its unique and independent character. The local dialect remains widely spoken, and there is an equally distinct Alsatian cuisine.
I flew into the Swiss city of Basel, which is a short train ride to Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace. The city is now well-known - or infamous - as the seat of several European institutions. But there is much more to Strasbourg than hordes of well-fed Eurocrats.
It was late evening when I arrived in the city, and I felt ravenous, so I headed off in search of something to eat. As I wandered through its streets, it soon became clear that Strasbourg is one of France's great gastronomic centres. Two of its restaurants have three Michelin stars and two have one. No doubt these are the ones frequented by some of the resident Eurocrats, but you don't have to visit a Michelin-starred restaurant to enjoy the food. Alsatian cooking has both French and German influences, and specialities include not just escargots and foie gras, but also succulent ham hock with steaming choucroute and sauerkraut.
In 1988, Strasbourg's historic district, known as the Grande Île, was classified as a world heritage site by UNESCO - this was the first time such an honour was bestowed on an entire city centre. Maison des Tanneurs is located right in the heart of the district. This traditional Alsatian restaurant is set in a medieval townhouse, complete with wooden beams and a steeply pitched roof. It is so picturesque that it's easy to understand why it has become one the most-photographed sites in the city. The portions are generous, and the menu is unpretentious. I ordered the Coq au Riesling - the local version of Coq au Vin. It arrived in a small cast iron pot, and was almost obscenely rich. I chose a few glasses of crisp foaming beer to accompany my meal - and I am pleased to report that Alsace is a region where beer is as popular and as highly regarded as wine.
By THE end of the meal, I felt sated - to say the least - and decided that I should take a stroll to view the Palais Rohan, an imposing Baroque building that looked magnificent against the evening sky. Louis XV and Marie-Antoinette stayed there in 1770, and following the Revolution the palace became the residence of Napoleon Bonaparte and his empress Josephine.
My hotel, the Cour Du Corbeau, just a short stumble away, was only slightly less grand. Located in a 16th-century building, this elegant hotel combined much original charm with all the modern comforts you could need.
The next morning, I couldn't resist exploring the interlocking waterways and brightly painted half-timbered houses in the historic leather-tanning district. This is a warren of narrow, winding medieval streets, which are lined with inviting bistros and biscuit shops selling spicy gingerbread. There are surprises around nearly every corner: I suddenly came across an ornately carved majestic Gothic spire that soared to more than 450 feet. For over 200 years, this was the tallest man-made structure in the world. It is part of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasbourg, which is itself an exhilarating assortment of different styles from the Gothic to the Baroque.
Although the cathedral was bombed during the Second World War, when Alsace was still part of the German Reich, much of its beautiful stained glass was stored in a saltmine, and was only reinstated in 1956. The glass panels are now fully restored to their former resplendent glory, and illuminate the cathedral like a giant jewellery box. Constructed out of local red sandstone, the cathedral has a warm cinnamon glow - the perfect backdrop to the nearby Christmas markets.
Given the ferocious fighting that took place around this building in the last few desperate months of the Second World War, it is incredible that so much of the nearby town of Colmar has survived untouched. It is known as 'little Venice', and walking around its canals and narrow streets, with their bright pastel-coloured, timber-framed buildings, you are struck by the incredible juxtaposition of architectural styles. It is thrilling, if a little overwhelming, to see such fine examples of French Gothic, French Baroque, French Classicism, French Neo-Baroque, French Neoclassicism intermingled side by side with German Gothic, German Renaissance, German Baroque and German Neo-Baroque.
THE 13th-century Dominican convent on the edge of the town is now home to the Musée Unterlinden. This museum contains some of the finest examples of medieval paintings and sculpted altarpieces I have ever seen. Many of them come from the former churches, abbeys and monasteries of the Rhine; the undoubted star is the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthais Grünewald. This is widely acknowledged as Grünewald's greatest and most significant work, and was painted for the Monastery of St Anthony in Isenheim, near Colmar.
The monastery specialised in hospital work and its monks were famed for their care of plague sufferers. The Crucifixion is sombre and unusually gruesome: Christ is depicted with dreadful plague sores - to show contemporary patients that Jesus understood and shared their afflictions. Grünewald was able to capture an extraordinary emotional intensity and a terrible sense of realism. He balanced this composition on another panel with the Resurrection - Christ's emergence from the tomb and ascent into Heaven is presented in a fantastic display of brilliant colour and light.
In certain parts of Alsace you get the sense that time has almost stood still. Riquewihr is one of these places: it has remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years despite the turmoil of two world wars on its doorstep. The town is enclosed by its medieval fortifications and you enter through the highly unusual 13th-century Dolder gate.
Its inhabitants seem particularly proud of two things. The first is the crisp Riesling produced in the surrounding vineyards, which I can confirm is extremely palatable. The second is the Riquewihr's proud status as one of "Les plus beaux villages de France," making it officially one of the most picturesque villages in France.
It was only a short drive away to the charming little town of Ribeauvillé to meet an old schoolfriend, Laurent Cartier, and his wife, the celebrated jewellery designer, Anais Clement Cartier. Part of Ribeauvillé is still surrounded by its ancient walls, and it is full of picturesque and intact medieval houses, along with two Gothic churches. The town sits at the base of the Vosges surrounded by vineyards, and in the foothills directly above it there are the imposing ruins of three castles: Girsberg, Haut-Ribeaupierre and Saint-Ulrich.
From November 20 to 31, Alsace celebrates what is known as 'Pays des Etoiles de Noel', or the land of Christmas stars. Each village has its own individual market, with its own theme, and specialises in different handcrafted gifts.
In Munster, you can buy delicious Bredala, special spiced Christmas biscuits, while Ribeauvillé specialises in Christmas decorations. They are illuminated at night with the first drifts of light snow, and, with plenty of Vin Chaud or Glühwein to keep you warm, it seemed as if the whole town had been crafted by teams of elves. Lapland may have Santa Claus, but Christmas in this medieval wonderland will make even the most sceptical of adults believe again.
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