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October 1999

French Lessons

The Alsace region of France offers romance and culture.

France — in books and movies it is depicted as a land for romantics — a place where people take the time to linger over a bottle of wine and a gourmet meal. It’s a place where a drive in the country offers magnificently lush, landscape and the chance to pull over, uncork a bottle of fragrant Bordeaux, break apart a crusty baguette and sample some deliciously rich cheeses. Locals speak little if any English, but gesture excitedly when offering directions. It is not the wine, but the ambiance that leaves you feeling giddy. The first time I traveled to France, I was amazed to find that those romantic images in films are quite accurate. Roadside tables are, in fact, ubiquitous fixtures of the French countryside — not just of movie sets. A tour of the wine road in the Alsace region is an ideal way to spend a long autumn weekend. Perhaps best known as the seat of the European Parliament, Strasbourg is certainly rich in much more than modern political history. Upon arriving, one is immediately drawn to the Gothic cathedral of Notre Dame Cathedrale (1176–1439). A 66-meter climb up the 142-meter edifice will bring you to a platform, which affords stunning views of the city. But it is by wandering through neighborhoods or taking a peaceful nighttime cruise on the Ill Canal that one truly discovers Strasbourg. The quaint quarter dubbed Petit France is not to be missed. One of the oldest in Strasbourg, this quarter is replete with crooked streets lined with half-timbered houses and is dotted with sidewalk cafés. Along the canal are small public parks, where young and old spend leisurely hours together. For those who have a weakness for French delicacies, Strasbourg is graced with a wonderful gourmet supermarket. Located in a large shopping center, Kirn is a paradise of fine foods. Prepackaged patés of every variety tempt shoppers, while the cheese counter beckons with a wide assortment of fromage. Kirn is equipped with a convenient parking garage, making it a great place to stop and load up on provisions before heading down the wine route. The tourist board has clearly marked the wine road, so it is nearly impossible to lose your way. The tiny village of Bergheim provides a welcome escape from tourist-oriented towns along the route. As you turn off the main road and drive through the narrow arch of the old fortress gate to the village, a transformation begins. High, vine and moss covered walls hug the narrow cobblestone streets, shielding all accommodations from the visitor’s view. Beyond the walls, however, lies Chez Norbert, a small guest house. The well-kept, half-timbered cottage, covered with flowers and creeping vines, offers an excellent restaurant with regional specialties, French farmhouse décor and, in the evening, a romantic, candlelit dining room. Not only is the food outstanding, but the prices (especially when compared to other restaurants in the area) are very reasonable. Another advantage of taking up temporary residence in Bergheim is its proximity to the Gustave Lorentz winery. Located just a short walk from the old town gate, the winery sports a large tasting room and a multilingual (French, German and some English) staff. To experience Alsace as it was during the Renaissance, take a day trip to Riquewihr — a cluster of buildings that date back to the 13th century — which is often referred to as the “museum town” as it houses many collections within its bounds. One of the most popular destinations in northern France, Riquewihr also has its share of souvenir shops. But don’t let that discourage you. There are plenty of side streets and alleys to be explored — a quiet winstub provides a much needed retreat from the buzz of commercialism. If you begin to catch sight of long-beaked aviators nesting in church belfries, atop telephone poles and under the eaves of the highest houses, you must be nearing the town of Hunawihr, where the local stork population seems to have taken over. Here, the main attraction is an aquatic animal park, which encompasses a small arena and a pool surrounded by bleachers, where trainers host daily performances given by the resident otters, penguins and seals. Owing to the efforts of park founders, the stork, which was endangered in the area just 20 years ago, now flourishes. All French regions are characterized in large part by their food and wine, and Alsace is certainly no exception. Highlights of the Alsatian kitchen are creamy, fragrant sauces and rich dishes. One local specialty might be more at home in Germany than in France — Choucrote. The enormous, steaming dish consists of boiled ham hocks, potatoes and a variety of pork sausages piled high upon a huge mound of sauerkraut. Don’t make the mistake of ordering this dish for one. There is plenty for two or three diners and it is acceptable, in fact common, to share. Traditional Flammekuechen is a wise and popular choice at lunchtime. A pizza-like sourdough is rolled paper thin and spread with a mixture of quark and cream. Topped off with thinly sliced onions and diced bacon, the bread is then baked in a wood-burning oven at a high temperature. All that good food must be accompanied by wine. The Alsace region produces seven varieties of grapes almost exclusively for white wine: Riesling, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Muscat d’Alsace, Tokay and Pinot Noir. The Riesling, unlike the sweet German variety, is crisp, medium dry and has a very grape-like taste. Muscat d’Alsace is very dry and smooth, a good choice to serve with appetizers. Tokay, with its sweet and sometimes smoky tones, is full-bodied and oilier than the others. Sweet Gewurztraminer is perhaps the wine that the Alsace region is best known for. The Pinot Noir grape is the only rosé or red wine variety grown in the area. It is worth venturing into the hills, where smaller vineyards and wineries are located. A knock on a door where the sign dégustation (wine tasting) is posted will most likely reward you with some wonderful wine and a fond memory — both of which can be relished once you’re back at home. <<< Addresses mentioned: Kirn Gourmet Supermarket, 19, Rue de 22 Novembre, Strasbourg Chez Norbert, 9, Grand’rue, Bergheim, Tel. 03 89 73 31 15. Gustave Lorentz winery, 1, Rue des Vignerons, Bergheim, Tel. 03 89 73 88 07

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