At the end of June a party of Marketors from three flights met up at the airport in Basle and were soon travelling on together to our destination Rouffach by coach. It was surprising to find that few of us had any knowledge of Alsace as a region, let alone a tourist destination.
Lying on the west bank of the river Rhine, Alsace is the Germanic area of France between the Rhine and the Vosges mountains. Over the last two centuries Alsace has passed between Germany and France like a shuttlecock. So while now once again part of France, it has institutional differences. A large proportion of its population of all ages speak Alsacian – a dialectal form of German. Alsace therefore stands slightly apart from any other region of France. In economic terms, it is part of the Rhine valley corridor, one of the most important trading routes since the Middle Ages. With very fertile soil and with close links to Germany, the rest of France and to Switzerland, it has long been one of the most prosperous areas in Europe – hence its obvious attraction to acquisitive neighbours.
The Master Andrew Cross gained knowledge of Alsace about 13 years ago when his wife Carol started to visit the annual Patchwork & Quilting Expo at St Marie aux Mines near Colmar. Patchwork and quilting is Carol’s passion. With yearly visits thereafter it became the natural choice for a Master’s Trip in his year of office.
Our accommodation was at the beautiful Château d’Isenbourg. Situated on high ground overlooking the medieval town of Rouffach, it is the site of an ancient castle and royal residence. It was later given to the prince bishops of Strasbourg and a larger fortress was built in the 14th-Century as part of the town’s defences. Demolished around 1822, the current château was built over the remaining cellars with a tall circular tower being added in 1894. Our eyes were constantly drawn to the top of this tower as it was topped with a large stork’s nest in which there was constant activity.
With its excellent location in the heart of the vineyard region on the Alsace wine route, the château has been a luxury hotel since 1974. Its elevated position above Rouffach also provides panoramic views of the Vosges Hills, the Rhine Plain and the Black Forest. The internal decoration and bedrooms are elegant and the hotel has a uniquely relaxed style, providing an ideal base for our visit.
Welcomed by the Master and Carol, we enjoyed a welcoming glass of local Alsace Crémant and a light lunch on the lawn. But with such a high summer temperature the outdoor pool and sun-loungers soon beckoned for most after our early morning start. When we met for dinner later at the local Brasserie Julien, our party had expanded to 26 with others travelling by car or train having joined us.
The following day we headed off on a coach to the ancient walled town of Obernai where there was a street market in full swing. Obernai is typical of an area famed for its pretty towns and villages, all with brightly coloured half-timbered houses.
During the morning there had been some amusement when our guide Veronique had assumed that being Marketors implied that our Company specialised in marquetry – for our next visit was to Marqueterie d’Art Spindler. This was a family business that had been passed from father to son for generations; creating furniture and pictures in truly exquisite marquetry. This was a fascinating centre promoting a little understood craft with an impressive quality of work produced. Jean-Paul Spindler our host described the skills and techniques involved.
Lunch was taken at the 16th century Domaine Seltz in Mittelbergheim. It comprised local speciality Tartes Flambée baked alongside us washed down with generous quantities of local wine. This was followed by a cellar tour and wine tasting. Albert, the bearded young owner was energetic and passionate about his wines, highly informative in describing the nature of wine making in Alsace. Most Alsace wines are white in the German tradition using the traditional flute-shaped bottle; The vineyards are particularly famous for their Sylvaners, Rieslings and Gewurtzraminers, wines that are not produced anywhere else in France. Additionally, the area produces much Pinot and a really excellent dry Muscat which particularly met with favour in our group. Wine production is one of the region's main activities with vineyards located along the lower eastern slopes of the Vosges. Collectively they comprise the Wine Route, a series of very attractive small farming villages obviously economically dependent on wine. For our second evening we dined together at another Rouffach restaurant La Poterne.
We were off again on Friday 28 June, this time to Eguisheim where our first activity comprised a wine quiz at Oenological Park with questions to answer as we followed a trail in bright sunshine around the vineyards. The quiz format certainly had us taking a closer interest in learning the various skills and hazards of wine production.
A further cellar tour and tasting followed at Domaine Zinck given by another young and enthusiastic proprietor Philippe Zinck. It was good to see the important wine industry in Alsace the subject of so much passion.
Eguishelm is an exquisite village, the best and most visited in France and its circular streets were quite Disneyesque in character. A black tie gala dinner took place that evening in our château complete with rhyming grace, loyal toasts and speeches, but not before an interesting pre-dinner briefing on tourism in Alsace. Clearly this attractive and picturesque region has been a well-kept secret as surprisingly the British hardly register as part of their annual intake of visitors. Some might argue to keep it that way.
On our last day, we enjoyed lunch in Berrwiler at the l’Arbre Vert restaurant and afterwards we were given a choice of museums – the fabulous Schlumpf collection of cars at the Citè de l’automobile or the Museum of Printed Textiles, both in Mulhouse. Both museums were impressive and much enjoyed. And then it was back to the airport and home.
The organisation of this three-day visit was immaculate, the Master being ably assisted by a local French/German/English speaking friend Nadine. Of course, the blue skies throughout was always going to be a bonus, enhancing the great natural beauty of the region.