The nice thing about taking a cruise is that it gives you a chance to visit a lot of different places in a short time. That's why I'm writing this series: So you can get a taste of the region. Maybe you're dreaming of Germany or France, maybe even taking a river cruise … but you're wondering: Is this how I'd like to spend my holiday? I hope our posts will give you a taste and help you decide if it's for you.
This sunny afternoon a bus took us through some very pretty countryside and quaint villages, and we learned a lot of interesting things about the region. I have to confess that it was a little hard to focus on what our tour guide was saying because of all the eye candy outside the window.
Because of its strategic location, Alsace has changed hands time and time again. Although it's now French politically, Alsatian heritage and culture are German. Just as in Germany, the region's homes are often steep-roofed and half-timbered, and most locals speak or understand Alsatian, which is related to the German spoken in Switzerland.
First stop on our Alsace tour: a wine tasting
Kronenbourg beer is brewed in Alsace but it's even better known for its white wines, so our first stop was at a local winery. Our host, Robert Blanck, was the owner. He welcomed us and took us down to the barrel room, a huge basement chock full of ancient-looking wooden casks. He showed us one that had been in his family ever since they first owned the winery, back in the early 1700s.
After so many years in the business, his family has learned all the techniques, even the latest ones. Yes, some wineries use stainless steel tanks these days, but he still prefers to use these aged oak casks. They give his whites a more complex character.
As we walked down the main aisle with wooden barrels towering overhead, Robert told us that Alsatian soil has a high mineral content, which contributes to the wine's distinctive flavor. These minerals accumulate on the inside of the tanks to create a “wine stone,” which has to be scraped out of every cask at the end of each season. The barrels are so large that they have to actually climb inside to clean them!
Of course our tour ended in the tasting room. Robert offered us quite a few white wines to try, including a Muscat, Gewurtztraminer, and a Riesling. (Notice that some of the wines even have German names?) We could actually detect a hint of the minerals that had flavored the grapes and that's not a bad thing. We learned that Alsace has very strict rules about its grapes: Every vintner has to grow his own. There's no buying grapes or mash from anyone else in Alsace, not even from your next-door neighbor.
As tempting as it was to buy a few of these delicious bottles to bring home, we resisted the urge. With another couple of weeks yet to go on our whirlwind European adventure, how could we carry them?
Next stop: gingerbread
Yes, Virginia, the gingerbread that's traditional in many homes at Christmas is still made the old-fashioned way in Alsace, and we visited the only bakery that does it. Here's a good one: This German bakery has a French name!
Here in Gertwiller, halfway between Colmar and Strasbourg, the Fortwenger workshops have been baking gingerbread the same way for 200 years. They are so very proud of their work, they've painted the building like a whimsical gingerbread house. And look: Isn't that Hansel and Gretel in the corner, snacking on the building, right under the witch's nose?
Scents of honey, ginger and cinnamon wafted through the air as we entered the bakery. The baker was hard at work with his assistants, mixing up a batch of dough. As he stood behind the steel table he let our tour guide translate as he explained that Alsace was important to the spice trade and that gingerbread developed as a result. Although there were a few bakeries specializing in gingerbread 200 years ago, Maison Fortwenger is now the sole repository of the Alsatian gingerbread tradition, and it's sold in a handful of Alsatian shops under the Fortwenger label.
The baker passed around a tray with a few samples of the different types of gingerbread he was preparing, each flavored completely differently. We could detect star anise, chocolate, nutmeg, or clove in them. He then invited us to visit the gingerbread museum, which shows the history of gingerbread production and some curious objects of rural life. While I visited the gingerbread shop (pricey but beautiful gift packages), Dan wandered around the museum; he was especially impressed with their collection of beer steins.
All too soon it was time to return to the ship. We got there just in time to try Flammkuchen, a delicious local dish that reminded us of a thin crust pizza, but with créme fraiche instead of the usual tomato sauce. It looked easy to make and they promised that it is. Might try making it one of these days.