The French region of Alsace sits neatly on the French, German and Swiss borders and has a history as one of the most hotly contested corners of Europe. It’s on the international radar again, but this time for its stunning wine, culture, food and scenery. Katie Roberts toured the region from the vantage point of a well-padded bicycle seat and was beguiled by the Gallic charm and hospitality.See all the photos above
Alsace’s capital Strasbourg is the starting point for our Wine Road Cycle trip. We arrived ignorant of the city’s charms, history and importance, having not so much as leafed through our guidebook. After setting down our bags in a pocket-sized room at the well-located Dragon Hotel, we met tour company Utracks representative Anne-Sophie, who gave us a briefing in heavily accented French, passed us a wad of maps and trip instructions, and handed over our bikes.
Built for ease rather than speed, the bikes had enormous padded seats which, combined with our padded cycling shorts, made for a comfortable and chafe-free three days of riding. They were equipped with panniers and a front pocket; our suitcases were transported from hotel to hotel by a faceless taxi angel, and were ready and waiting for us every evening.
We had a few hours that afternoon to stroll the cobblestone streets of Strasbourg’s Unesco-listed historic city centre, but took a sudden dive into the stunning gothic Notre Dame Cathedral as relief from driving rain. I’ll confess to lighting a candle inside the breathtaking 800-year-old cathedral in the hope that blue skies would reign over us [Eds-religious pun intended] for the coming three days. Because of the gloomy weather, we missed the full magnificence of the stained glass windows, but a fortuitous choir practice showed off the cathedral’s incredible acoustics.
A dinner reservation was made on our behalf each night of the trip and the meal was included in the tour price, which happily avoided the risk of making a bad choice in an unknown town. If you are happy to eat your own bodyweight in sauerkraut or choucroute, try the Strasbourg regional specialty I ordered on our first evening, at the charming Brasserie Flo. To my husband’s amusement (he chose the modestly portioned duck confit), my plate arrived with lashings of boiled cabbage and potato, and seven varieties of sausage and pork. Topped off with a warm molten chocolate pudding, this carbohydrate and protein overload proved useful for the next day’s exertion on the bike.
Overnight, we kept a very close eye on the unseasonably dismal weather forecast, but the morning brought a few hours of clear blue sky. So, after a quick buffet breakfast we loaded the panniers and hit the road, bound for Barr, 45km away. We quickly learnt to look for the orange arrow which marked our route. The sticker was fixed intermittently on road signs, buildings and posts along the roads, lanes, tracks and cycle paths.
Conscious of the distance and not too sure of what lay ahead, we set a cracking pace, knocking off the first 20km to Molsheim along the tree-lined Canal de la Bruche, a sixteenth-century canal used to transport wine barrels in flat-bottomed barges. Other than its beautiful town centre, Molsheim’s claim to fame is being the birthplace and manufacturing centre of luxury car brand Bugatti.
We stopped for lunch at Rosheim, a quiet village with three town gates and the half-timbered houses and quaint architecture the region is renowned for. Relying on my minimal French, we stepped into the quaint Altenburg Brasserie and successfully ordered what the locals were having: the plat du jour and half a carafe of local pinot noir, just to warm up. Even the locals commented that it was unseasonably cold for September. While temperatures had been in the mid-20s only the previous week, today it was 14 degrees Celsius, but with no rain so far.
We’d covered what we thought was over half our daily kilometres at this point, so leisurely pedalled through the vineyards taking in the scenery. The grape harvest was starting; people were busy preparing equipment in the numerous workshops and there were pickers in the vineyards.
While enjoying a long downhill cycle into Obernai I realised that we’d barely seen anyone other than locals all day. We found them, swarming all over this lovely city. With its stunning medieval and Renaissance streetscape, decorative buildings and window boxes overflowing with flowers, it’s impossible not to take photo after photo.
By now it was 3.30pm and, according to the maps, we were only a few kilometres from Barr and our bed for the night. After pushing our bikes up a long, slow hill passing paddocks of contentedly grazing cows, we soared down the other side, finding Les Hortensias Hotel easily. Our odometer read 53km. After locking the bikes away in the garage, we claimed our waiting bags and treated ourselves to a hot bath followed by tasty local fare in the hotel restaurant.
Unlike other regions of France, the wines in Alsace are labelled by grape variety, so tasting and buying here is easy. The most well-recognised varieties are gewürztraminer, pinot noir, riesling, pinot blanc and pinot gris. Locals say the vineyards are tightly held and passed down through the generations, so there’s a lot of knowledge and tradition. Do enter one of the many wine caves for a tasting; it’s also a cultural and historical experience as most of the buildings are very old and atmospheric.
We hadn’t checked the weather report; so, pulling open the curtains at 6am, the grey sky and drizzle were a disappointment. In the event of dreadful rain the company has options, but we chose to rug up and brave it, setting off in the hope that the rain would hold off until we reached Kaysersberg, about 40km away.
The day’s route wound through vineyards, quiet back roads and at least 15 quaint and pretty villages and towns. Each has a church, a hôtel de ville (town hall), a patisserie, a charcuterie, water fountains, and lots of wine tasting opportunities at doors labelled Vin d’Alsace.
After covering 25km, we stopped for lunch at a small café at quiet Kintzheim for the regional specialty of tartes flambées (don’t call them pizzas). And a half carafe of pinot blanc, which is the most widely planted varietal in the region after riesling.
It seems that only three or four towns in the entire region are overrun with tourists. After lunch we called into the very pretty Riquewihr and, finding that it was on the tour bus route, quickly headed off again. But we had the remaining dozen or so villages to ourselves.
In almost every village in Alsace, there’s a stork’s nest atop the town gate. These migrating bird were once endangered, but thanks to a concerted local campaign they are back. The stork is now an icon for regional souvenirs, and there’s a Reintroduction Centre (cigogne-loutre.com) on the wine route at Hunawihr.
We arrived in Kaysersberg about 5pm, with 52km on the odometer and a bottle of pinot noir, purchased en route, to enjoy in a hot bath at the comfortable Hotel Rempart.
Kaysersberg is picture perfect. A winding cobblestone street is lined with gorgeous historic buildings (not great for bike riding, so we walked), a stream rushing through it and an old chateau overlooking the valley. The morning heralded a clear blue sky so we got up early and climbed Kessler tower for a great view over the vineyards.
Eager to make the most of the clear weather, we rode among the vineyards, through yet more pretty villages, and pulled into Eguisheim (ot-eguisheim.fr/en/) which was an unexpected finale. Within the circa-1257 walls, the streets are built in concentric circles to create a labyrinthine effect: designed to confuse invaders, it’s now confusing visitors. We lost our way among the colourful half-timbered houses and ended up grabbing a baguette and an asparagus quiche for a simple lunch in the sun sitting against the back wall of the church dedicated to 10th-century Pope Leo IX. There’s an interesting walking tour of Eguisheim, voted favourite French village in 2013, with good signage in English that describes the town and its buildings in detail.
From here, we left the vineyards and villages for the east-bound flat ride into big city Colmar. We reached the final hotel, Beau Séjour, at about 3pm, having clocked an easy 35km for the day. Our bikes were locked up at the hotel to be collected the following morning. While there’s much to see in historic Colmar, we left that for the following day and instead gave our legs a well-earned rest.
Make it happen
The beauty of booking a Utracks self-guided cycling trip is the freedom to do your own thing, but with backup. Bikes, hotels, breakfast and dinner are included and suitcases are transported from hotel to hotel. It’s economical and flexible: just book the dates to suit your travel plans. Strasbourg (otstrasbourg.fr) and Colmar (ot-colmar.fr/en) are easily accessible by plane and train. utracks.com
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