|Sunset drive into Alsace and the infamous Route des Vins|
"Mmmm...the Muscat" I crooned as I took my first sip of this beautiful full bodied and very floral Alsatian white wine made from the pinot blanc grape. "Yes, this one is my favorite..."
We were visiting our first "Winstub",or wine tasting stop, on our journey along the renowned "Route des Vins" in Alsace, France. After leaving the wonderfully cosmopolitan and attractive Luxembourg, we drove the easy two hour route south, along the Rhine River, into the eastern region of France, known as Alsace.
|Delicious, heady, floral Muscat grapes...my very favorite|
Whereas we rolled into Alsace in time to capture its beautiful sunset, slowly slipping down behind the softly folded layers of varied purple-hued Vosges Mountains, once it turned dark, we were quite at a loss for how to maneuver on the tiny narrow roads.
Used to being in the bright lights of Houston, Texas, we peered through the inky blackness as we rolled around one round-about after another on a series of slender two-lane country roads, meandering through several tiny villages, before finally quietly rolling up to our "home away from home", L'Hotel L'Ami Fritz in Ottrott, France.
We could feel the quaintness oozing all around us, even in the dark, as we carefully made our way through the tiny village of Ottrott where a few carefully placed little signs led us to the large iron gates of our little abode.
It wouldn't be until morning before we could fully take in our surroundings...kind of like having a wrapped gift in front of you but you have to wait until morning before you get to open the layers and see its beautiful contents.
|A market basket, but for me...filled with memories of Alsace|
I knew, no matter how tired we were from our journey, that I would be up at dawn with the roosters, yearning to slip on a heavy sweater and wander the quiet pre-dawn streets in order to soak in our location before the day becomes brisk and lively.
And, oh was I in for a treat that early morning. The air continued to be crisp requiring a warm sweater and comfy scarf that would later need to be peeled off midday. I woke up, quietly cranked open the window, peered up and down the quiet cobblestoned streets, and then slipped out the room while Patrick was slumbering away. He would know where I was...this was my pattern...He would also know that when I returned, rosy cheeked and bright eyed from my fill of early morning beauty, I would be ravenous for a delicious breakfast accompanied by a hot strong french latté.
Hotel L'Ami Fritz is one of the "off the beaten path" little boutique hotels offered in my favorite go-to travel guide, Karen Brown Travels.
The Inn is located in a tiny village called Ottrott at the foot of Mount St. Odile, which is neatly tucked right into the Vosges Mountains an easy meandering 30 minute drive from lovely and stately city of Strasbourg.
|Hotel L'Ami Fritz...boutique inn in Ottrott, France|
Living in busy and fast paced Houston,Texas, the fourth largest city in the U.S., I was struck by the quiet in the village. The surreal quiet took me by surprise for a few minutes until I quickly acclimated and enjoyed wandering up and down the bumpy little paths. Thank goodness no one was out and about. I would certainly have screamed "tourist" with my disheveled mis-matched attire and curious eyes. I noticed many homes seemed to have little back gardens that were in various states of spring cleaning and sprucing.
Little wide-mouthed crocuses, tiny petite lilly-of-the-valley, and spindly yellow forsythia bushes were popping open everywhere. I knew Ottrott was not a tourist village and I was thrilled to wander the village paths of an authentic Alsatian community.
|Heeeere kitty, kitty. Nice kitty? Mean Kitty? REALLY mean kitty??|
I followed the sound of the melodious church bells, clanging louder as I neared the church in the center of town. Climbing to the top of the steps as the pigeons fluttered from one little crevice to another, I could see out over the entire village...out over the valley to the east towards the Black Forest of Germany and over rolling landscapes of endless vineyards.
There are moments in life where I stop in my tracks, drink in life's beautiful scenes, try hard to be fully present in the moment, and absorb the loveliness of this world into my memory, all the while earnestly being thankful for the opportunities that I have had available.
This was one of those moments. A tiny cute-as-a-button village. Surrounded by the Vosges Mountains. Tiny vineyard hills below. A crisp cool glorious morning.
...And the day had only yet begun.
Soon my stomach rumbled. After wandering up and down the country lanes for an hour, I had hopefully earned a delicious breakfast. As I returned to the buttercup yellow inn with its powder blue wooden shutters, I could smell the coffee brewing from the warm breakfast room as I went up to my room. Breakfast...the most important meal of the day, right?
|Ottrott, France...completely non-touristy but, oh so authentic|
Our little inn did not skimp on breakfast at all. A curious little egg boiling contraption could be set to cook a morning egg exactly to one's liking. Cheese, meats, sausages, breads, yogurts, fruits were all quaintly arranged in a generous spread. The breakfast room was cozy with its dark paneled walls and red checkered
tablecloths...quintessentially Alsatian. Since it was off-season, our breakfast was quiet and unhurried. So we settled in, sipped slowly on hot coffee and planned out our day of hopping from village to village.
|Ottrott, France; in the morning, it's all about getting "la baguette"|
There are so many jewel-box villages along the Route des Vins in Alsace, it was hard to decide which to choose for our trip. Based on our reading, we decided to begin by exploring a tiny village called Eguisheim and then spend the latter half and evening in the larger more bustling village of Colmar.
|Below right: Patrick sitting in the early morning light at breakfast|
We started our journey and were soon rolling up and down over the gentle hills filled with neatly trimmed vineyards to the left and right of us. What looked like tiny little toys, tractors were carefully riding up and down each row of vines cutting the grass in the middle.
As we meandered along, thrilled that not only were there plenty of "Route des Vins" signs, there were also, on the larger I-35 highway, beautiful large signs with sketches of each village announcing the approach of the next town's exit. How very lovely, indeed!
Even though there were no lush clumps of juicy grapes dangling beautifully from the vines, off season traveling is still worth it for us because we do like the quiet. The wine route is narrow, rolling, and curvy. At times I had to scoot the car over in order to let locals swish by to get where they were going. But most of the time, we had an entire stretch of road ahead of us without a car in sight.
I tried to imagine during high season the number of tourists on this road mixed in with local farmers who are trying to get their grapes from the vines to the processing facilities. It must be quite a busy scene. We remained grateful that we could enjoy the tranquility of the off season quiet and drive unhurried along the tiny narrow roads.
There were plenty of cyclists. What a perfect biking holiday this would be for enthusiasts. Not only were there cyclists, but in the distance, one could see small groups of hikers with their tall walking sticks, moving between one village to another. Story book images! It was like the pages of the most enchanting story book were being drawn out before our eyes.
|Chateau Haut Koenigsbourg...yes, this is the view from our favorite REST STOP!|
On our way to Eguisheim, we passed the imposing and majestic Chateau Haut Koenigsbourg high up on the hill overlooking the charming village of Saint Hippolyte. So grand and interesting, in fact, I'm going to write an article dedicated to the hours we spent touring this spectacular castle. A must-see, must-do stop along the wine route, most certainly.
We pulled onto the tiny little road leading to Eguisheim, swiveled around several fun roundabouts (such a fun novelty for Americans), and arrived at our first petite wine village.
I'm struggling to find enough quaint, sweet, picturesque words to pull together images of this little village, Eguisheim, without sounding ridiculously hyperbolic.
Finding parking at the beginning of each town was easy and inexpensive (NOTE: keep euro coins handy at all times for parking. Or, as we experienced, you might have to continuously run into bakeries to buy something, of course, 'edible' in order to get change!).
As we began walking up the cobblestone path leading to the city centre, my eyes flew up to the very top of the church steeple. Something abnormal caught my eye and flapping motions could be seen at the very top of the church.
"Unbelievable," I breathed. "I didn't think we would see any." The migrating storks (les cigoynes) that make their huge scraggily nests on the rooftops of homes and church steeples in this part of Alsace in the springtime were right before our eyes!
|Our first sighting of the migrating storks: the village Eguisheim|
We stood rooted to the spot, gaping upwards at the arresting scene above us. High above...at the very top of the church steeple was a beautiful sight. At home, we had watched a documentary, called Winged Migration about these majestic birds. The documentary was beautifully filmed and we felt so privileged to see this sight and these birds in person.
|Top Left: the Kougelhopf traditional cake of Alsace|
We watched as one stork would fly off to the vineyards to snag a piece of vine. Then, with loud clucking noises it would swoop back to the nest and begin weaving the ropy vine into its nest. Finally, after getting our fill of this splendid sighting of "Les cigoynes d'Alsace" we were lured down the picture book narrow cobblestone streets of the charming Eguisheim.
It is here that we bought our first "Kougelhopf" at Eguisheim's Biscuiterie du Château, which is the yeasty brioche-like cake cooked in a round mold, studded with raisins and topped with sugared almonds. We tucked it away, all wrapped up and decided to enjoy it later that afternoon for a mid-day snack.
I was in one little shop buying a cookbook of Alsatian foods when the shopkeeper pointed us towards a stork rehabilitation area just on the edges of Eguisheim that was within walkable distance. It took us a bit of wandering through the narrow lanes, through a few off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods and school yards filled with schoolchildren running about, but we eventually found the area.
In the upper western side of town there is an area filled with storks that the town "helps" to rehabilitate after their long journey. Some of the storks were injured and the town aids in nursing them back to health. There was no formal entrance, no fee...just a pretty path that led one directly up to where we saw about 15 storks nesting, mating, and going about their traditional life.
This was truly a highlight of the trip to see these majestic birds so close up and in such a natural setting. How wonderful that shopkeeper happened to mention this site to us because there really weren't any other signs directing us to the spot.
We spent a couple of hours in Eguisheim and realized that at this unhurried pace, we would be visiting only a maximum of 2 villages a day, more than likely.
"Which one of these is your favorite Alsatian wine?" I queried Patrick after deciding on the Muscat as my favorite. Yes, it was in Eguisheim where we visited our first Winstub and I discovered the wonderful Muscat white wine made from Pinot Blanc grapes.
"I think it's the Guwurtztraminer" Patrick responded, surprising me. The Guwurtztraminer is a very sweet wine and while it is delicious, he usually prefers drier wines. We were at the Jean-Paul Haefflin & Fils Winstub. We referenced these wines as the best we tasted during the rest of the trip. We managed to get home intact a bottle of their Gerwurtztraminer that we are saving for our Easter dinner.
The Riesling was also excellent and we even enjoyed several bottles of the less talked about Pinot Noir, a rhubarb colored red wine with a beautiful jewel-like hue.
Getting used to french dining habits required that we change our pattern of eating after the first couple of days. Being big breakfast eaters, we can easily skip right over lunch and then sit down for an early but hearty dinner.
Ha! This was not going to work in France. It became very apparent that if we didn't claim a lunch spot by noon, all would be lost, closed, curtained, shuttered...in terms of finding a meal until about 8:00-ish in the evening.
We decided to begin our little Alsatian village-wandering earlier, work up a good appetite and then find a cozy Winstub at the noon hour to enjoy a hefty repas and then opt for a light dinner.
One day, we were rolling up and down hills near Itterswiller,watching the vineyard workers tie down the vine shoots to the wires, when we realized we had better stake out our lunch spot soon.
We came across a charming, very quintessential little restaurant called Arnold. It is sunk below ground in what used to be an old wine cellar. The dining area looked so charming and cozy, with the original grape press right in the middle, so we sat wearily down and each ordered a glass of something refreshing...Muscat for me and a special "bière primtemps" or springtime beer for Patrick.
|Colmar, France...in Alsace Region|
After a filling lunch of Croque Monsieur and a plate of Le Filet de Boeuf à la Strasbourgeoise, we decided to spend the afternoon and evening in the bustling and lively town of Colmar, the largest village along the wine route.
Colmar is considered the very heart of Alsace. Dripping with charm the town is full of architecture from every style, whether Romanesque or Gothic, Baroque, Rococo, or Jugendstil.
The old section of town is pedestrian only and countless narrow little alleys beckoned us to explore tiny shops, bakeries, as well as marvel at the beautiful medieval church St. Martin Collegiate Church. It seemed like we couldn't exit Colmar without a parcel filled with newly acquired and carefully wrapped tea cups. Colmar is also where those bars of liqueur filled Swiss chocolate entered our bags as well.
Many of the shop windows displayed beautiful plates of sweets as well as cheeses and meats. I couldn't help wonder what items would create memories that I would end up trying to recreate in my Houston kitchen. Perhaps meringues, like the ones above? I've never even eaten a meringue treat like that. Does one eat it by itself or with ice cream or cake? So many foodie questions were constantly popping up as my curious mind "just had to know..."
So I decided my menu would contain dishes that represent the mixture of french classics and German hearty fare. I found a recipe for a nice little hand pie called "Bierocks". Many of the shops in the villages had little hand pies that could be heated up right on the spot and carried away for lunch.
Bierocks are meat and cabbage stuffed bread rolls that are flavored with mustard inside. They are cute little "rounds" of thick dough that are easy to pick up and bring to a picnic or have as an option for an easy lunch on the go.
Since there were signs of spring all around us, the markets had piles of artichokes that were just coming into season. I day dreamed about making something seasonal with all of the fresh produce we were seeing. Something with artichokes...mint...lemons, and spring peas sounded delicious and seasonal.
We were hardly spending any time at our quaint cozy inn in the tiny village of Ottrott. We decided that we would get "home" early one night and have a full course menu in their cozy, but handsome dining room.
|High in the Vosge Mountains overlooking the village of Saint Hippolyte|
We took our sweet time meandering through the vineyards, slowly making our way back to the northern part of the wine route, through the bustling town of Obernai and into the quiet enclave of Ottrott.
We had saved up plenty of room for the four course dinner that awaited us. We had read that Patrick Fritz was an excellent chef so we anticipated more glasses of Alsatian wine, creamy foie gras appetizers, and of course the mix of German and French cuisine main courses.
|Dinner at Hotel L'Ami Fritz in Ottrott, France|
And the restaurant did not disappoint. The seared St. Jacques scallop salad was delicious, warm and drizzled with a fragrant seasoned citrus butter.
The foie gras was a rare treat for me and quite the guilty pleasure. At this point we had sampled the white wines from the region from the Sylvaner to the Riesling to the Pinot Noir. I settled in on a glass of Muscat to start and during our meal we enjoyed a bottle of Pinot Noir produced locally in the town of Ottrott.
|Dinner at Hotel L'Ami Fritz in Ottrott, France|
For the main course, the duck filets were succulently prepared with a light honey sauce and a side of potatoes au gratin dauphinois. It was all classic and wonderfully prepared. A creative medley of diced vegetables were cleverly formed into a rectangle with a little bed of puff pastry as an adornment on top to give a little crunch.
It was a beautiful evening. From the softly lit valley drive back to Ottrott at sunset to the tucked away dark paneled and handsomely dressed restaurant run by Chef Patrick Fritz, we knew this vacation had been a long time in coming and it did not disappoint at all.
|Saint Hippolyte in the distance|
Because we realized that spending maximum time in each village was important, we decided to use the I-35 highway route a bit more often. The wine route is as lovely as can be, but the time it can take getting from one village to the next can eat into the day's time allotment.
|Rest Stop food! We could easily get used to this fare...|
It was on one morning that we found the tank near empty so we slipped into the Haut Koenigsburg exit at a gas station. We realized that this exit was a gorgeous spot to view the huge Haut Koenigsburg Castle high up above the valley floor. In fact, it was one of the most beautiful viewing spots to see the castle that we came upon during the entire trip!
|Overlooking the Vosges Mountains from Haut Koenigsbourg|
Families were relaxing in the field of picnic tables. Inside, the station, a little restaurant served lattes and cappucinos with an array of wonderful looking croissants and pastries.
To our surprise, we ended up having the most deliciously brewed lattes and most wonderfully crunchy flaky croissants...at the gas station! Oh, la, la...vive la France!
Does it get any better than this while filling up the tank, gazing upon castles up above and sipping on deliciously brewed french coffee? We chuckled...marveled really, and decided to keep this spot as our number one rest stop choice while trundling home to Ottrott each day.
It wasn't until the latter part of our trip that we stumbled upon what would become our most favorite Alsatian village of the entire route.
|Street Scenes in Kayserberg, France|
Kaysersbourg enchanted us at every turn. From the sweet woman smiling broadly and settling pretzels to the school children, to the old workman organizing new cobblestones in the road while a huge pipe dangled precariously from his mouth...we were delighted by this village through and through from corner to corner.
We spent several hours wandering the tiny back streets, watching the daily life go by, petting the town goat that had been born just a few days before, buying a few springerle moulds to take home and make future Easter cookies, and sampling the moist rounds of macaroons that were being handed out.
|Market days in the villages along the Alsatian Route des Vins|
Sausages, sausages, are everywhere at the markets. The meat hand pies looked so deliciously filling. Several had cute duck or pig design patterns made with extra dough in order to decorate the top of the hand pie. For an easy picnic lunch, we picked up either mini quiches or these hefty meat pies in order to have a little picnic. There are many picnic areas all along the wine route just so people can sit outside and enjoy the surroundings.
|The seemingly endless cozy nooks and narrow streets of Kaysersbourg|
|Market Days in the little wine route villages. |
Completely natural, non touristy and the perfect people-watching experience
|German Bierocks with Stuffed Artichokes with fresh peas, mint, and lemon|
Meat and spiced Cabbage stuffed Bierocks, steamed artichokes with spring green peas and a lovely leek, lemon, and mint drizzle on top. This was a splendid spring lunch back at home that was accompanied by a bottle of cold white wine.
|The whimsical street signs in Kayersbourg...our favorite Alsatian village|
|German Bierocks...Dense bread dough stuffed with spiced meat and cabbage|
There was a relaxed spirit about Kaysersberg that captivated us. People moved about their day leisurely and chatted while hanging out windows and on street corners. There had been some sort of Spring Parade the day before so the cobblestone streets were filled with little pieces of pink, blue, and yellow confetti.
This adorable goat had just finished being debuted in one of the shops by his proud owner. He was only four days old. We gushed over his floppy ears, big innocent eyes, and soft chestnut colored fur.
We laughed and commented...when, WHEN, would one ever encounter a baby goat being debuted on the town where we live in the U.S.? Never, I say...this fun sweet experience, I can't imagine happening where we live.
|Steamed Artichokes with a Leek, Spring Pea, and Lemon Drizzle|
|The lunch hour(s) in Kaysersbourg, France...Route des Vins|
In Kaysersberg, we slipped into a beautiful crystal shop because the wine glasses caught our attention from the shop window.
The artisan, or atelier, who etches the beautiful designs in the glasses was at work in the back of the shop.
We had a wonderful time chatting with this artisan. He was passionate about his craft, silly, and so curious about our world. We fell in love not only with his work, the beautiful Alsatian white wine glasses, but his quirky and artistic personality.
He refused to allow tourists to photograph his shop or his work space in the back where he carefully etches each glass. After awhile, however, he softened his stance, led me by the elbow to the low lit back corner of his shop where his etching wheel hummed away, told me exactly where to stand, and etched the very wine glasses that we had selected to buy. What an honor, I thought, that I was getting to watch such artistry.
Ha! However, Patrick was not welcome! He had to stand on the perimeter merely peering into the back of the shop. It seemed only I could huddle down with him and watch as he made the tiniest of vine swirls, delicate leaf patterns, and perfectly round grape orbs. I was permitted to take just a few photos and then... "c'est tout!" (that is it!) as he carefully mastered the wine glass, explaining to me every step he was taking until he proudly held up our finished work. "Marvellous!" I exclaimed giving him the biggest bear hug I could manage, and I meant it with such heartfelt sincerity.
These white wine glasses will be carefully brought out each year for Easter and be lovingly placed at our holiday table. They are a true work of art for us because of the very special moments and fond memories that were created.
The laughter and smiles that crinkled this old artisan's face, his humble demeanor, made this idyllic trip seem complete that day. When the glasses were all wrapped up and neatly stowed away for us, we not only carried away beautiful artisanal work but lovely memories of an afternoon well spent.