Saturday, 21st September 2019 – Colmar, Turckheim, Eguisheim, Rouffach, Mulhouse
Saturday morning I got up early and then headed out before breakfast to buy some supplies from the market. We were moving on from our lovely hotel where everything arrived as if by magic, and would now be self catering for three nights. Thus we needed some food and probably some wine. The market was only partly in action with some stalls not yet open but I managed to rustle up some yogurts, some cheese, some bread, and a tourte, which seems to be an Alsace thing in that it’s basically a meat or cheese pie. It’s described as a wine growers’ pie comprising of marinated meat cooked in flaky pastry and often flavoured with Riesling, It looks really good and clearly people throw in all sorts of things these days – I got a Munster cheese, potato and bacon one. I didn’t buy any wine in the end because the stalls that could have sold me some appeared not to be open. Anyway, I knew we had enough for the next day or so and wouldn’t have to chase around the suburbs of a strange French city on a Sunday trying to find an open supermarket or restaurant. I was good with that.
After that I went back to the hotel and after breakfast we settled up, packed the car, and set off. The plan was to head north to the nearest town on the Alsace Wine Route and take it from there. That would mean we were heading in the wrong direction, but that was fine. When we were done, we could head towards the motorway and get to Mulhouse quite easily that way. As a result the first place we hit was Turckheim, which looked altogether intriguing from the outside. We parked and located the tourist office, because we’d now discovered that most of them had very useful maps setting out a walking route that would make sure you didn’t miss any of the main sights.
The earliest records suggest there have been people in Turkcheim since 27BC but it remains pretty quiet in terms of the historical record until around 896, when an act establishes (or possibly just confirms) the Abbey of Munster and its consistory court in Turckheim. In 1312 the Emperor Henry VII made the place an imperial city and in 1354 Turckheim became part of the Decapolis. The city prospered thanks to the wine trade and levies tolls on anyone wanting to trade there, and there are Renaissance houses in the city to prove it. It was badly impacted by the Thirty Years War though, and went from a population of 1200 in 1618 to a mere 18 families in 1648. It then, of course, went through the whole French – German – French – German and so on rigmarole of the next few hundred years. It didn’t prevent the from prospering through, due to the rise of the textile and paper industries, which saw the arrival of a significant immigrant population from Switzerland. A railway line also helped (the Colmar-Turckheim-Munster line inaugurated in 1868). Finally, since 1945, the city has experienced a real renaissance in trade, industry and viticulture and of course tourism.
It’s a really pretty small city with three medieval gates still in tact and dozens of half-timbered, painted houses. The cobbled streets are a bit of pain if you don’t have good shoes, but it’s worth the pain for what you can find. Round a corner from the 16th century building which houses the tourist office, and the old Watch House,is the Church of Saint Anne, a Romanesque structure at its foundations (the tower anyway) but that has been rebuilt more than once, leaving a building that in effect dates from 1837. Like a number of churches in Colmar and its environs, it also has a finely patterned roof, something I’ve only really seen in Austria before.
Inside it is bright and airy and the light was fabulous that morning.
There is also a rather pleasant garden that includes a replica of one of the gate towers that’s been set up as an insect hotel.
A few metres further on, we found an intriguing museum which was open free of charge because it was the first of two Journées Européennes du Patrimoine 2019 (Saturday and Sunday) when lots of places across Europe that are not normally open throw their doors open, and places that normally charge a fee let you in for nothing. The museum in question was the Musée Mémorial des Combats de la Poche de Colmar – Hiver 1944 / 45, a museum and memorial in the basement of a former presbytery.
It tells the story of two months of fierce fighting in the vicinity of Colmar in winter 1944-1945, and is dedicated to all the veterans (German, American and French). It aims to act as a symbol of freedom, to preserve an endangered heritage and to teach future generations. It certainly taught me a few things because I really didn’t know anything about the details of this period of history.
After we’d nosed around sufficiently we walked round to the various sights listed on the tourist information map, starting with the various gates (the Porte de Munster, Porte de Brand and Porte de France). The Porte de Munster is also a stop on one of the many pilgrim’s routes to Santiago de Compostela, which we keep stumbling across wherever we go. The gate dates from the 14th century and has windows decorated with scallop shells which pretty much give the game away. Apparently it was also the gate through which witches were taken for execution.
The Porte de France, through which we entered the town, faces towards the river and was intended to let traders in and out. The lower section dates from 1330 though changes were made more than once. It had at one point a drawbridge, a portcullis and doors that were closed at night and during mass on Sunday, and was further enhanced with turrets in 1871, which were removed in 1912.
You may note it also has a storks’ nest on top of it now. The stork is very much a local symbol and the town has at least six nests. We had been told on our tour of Strasbourg that the birds return to the same nest every year and they add to it each time. The result is often a massive structure and they can get up to 500 kgs in extreme cases (it seems you tend to find out that has happened when the chimney crashes through your roof). I’ve more to say about the storks of Alsace in another post so I’ll not say much about them here. There have been storks in Alsace at least since the Middle Ages, with the Dominicans of Colmar mentioning their return in the spring in a 13th century manuscript. There was still a large population in 1945 with 177 nests, but by 1974 there were just 9 pairs left. They have been brought back from the brink and steps have been made to stop them from migration (there seemed to be a very high rate of mortality when they migrated back and forth to Africa) so that the population has recovered. Of the nests in Turckheim, five were built for the birds on the Porte de France, on the school, on the Cave de Turckheim wine cellar building, at the camp site and on the rue de Lattre, and they’ve built one of their own, a “wild” nest, on another street.
The Porte de Brand was all about defense. It was massive and solid with a drawbridge spanning a ditch and two swinging doors that were kept carefully shut, except during the harvest. In 1843 it underwent a major reconstruction, and a weather vane was added, and then in 2006 it was fully renovated, inside and out. It now sports a large sundial as against the Porte de Munster’s small clock. It certainly still looks solid and capable of repelling invaders.
By now we were flagging a bit so a sit down and a coffee was in order. We took a table opposite the lovely fountain in Place Turenne (mentioned in the 1660s) and watched the multitude of cyclists navigating the cobblestones and fighting the urge to join us on the terrace for a short break.
Afterwards, we completed the historical circuit walk, finding it had taken somewhat longer than the 50 minutes the tourist information office suggested, probably because we kept being side-tracked into alleys and shops and anything else we could find. We also stepped into the tiny supermarket and grabbed a roll of kitchen towels and some sellotape. The wine we had already bought was packed in such a way that pretty much every single bottle rattled against every other bottle and it was driving me insane. A repack was needed and being in a self catering apartment would be the perfect opportunity to do that. And it was now the middle of the lunch hour so we headed back to the car, failing to buy any wine on the way because the woman who ran the shop had gone for lunch! I think the only thing we’d missed was the night-watchman who apparently does his rounds every day at 10pm from May to October, but we really weren’t going to hang about for that. We also missed the local hill climb but perhaps another time for that!
Our next destination was Husseren-les-Châteaux, not because we wanted to look around it, just because I wanted to try and get a photo of the ruins of the three fortifications, Dagsbourg, Wahlenbourg and Weckmund, erected from the 11th to the 13th century. It wasn’t easy and we drove around the village a couple of times before giving up and heading back out to stop on the edge of the vineyards. I found myself wishing I’d packed my 100-400m lens…
We moved on, heading for Eguisheim. All the literature suggested we really needed to stop there. We battled our way in and managed to find a parking space, though it wasn’t easy. It felt like the entire population of tourists in Alsace was trying to visit. Once we got inside we could see why. On a gloriously sunny Autumn afternoon, the place looked fabulous. If we’d thought Turckheim was attractive, it was knocked sideways by how utterly captivating Eguisheim is. It’s immediately apparent why it’s listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France (though I’d argue it’s a town not a village) and in 2013 it was voted the “Village préféré des Français” (Favorite French Village), an annual distinction that passes from town to town throughout France.
Once again, having discovered there were some really useful maps available in the local tourist information offices, we headed straight there and grabbed a guide. Needless to say there has been a settlement of sorts here for a very long time. Certainly the archaeological record places human ins the area as early as the Paleolithic. This became clear when two parts of a human skull were found in 1865, undisturbed between animal bones, which allowed for a relative dating at a time when the existence of prehistoric humans was still in doubt. The find became a topic of discussion in the debate over what would became Paleoanthropology. Much argument followed about the skull, but I’ll leave you to look that up for yourselves.
By early historic times the Senones, a Gallic tribe, occupied the site and then the Romans arrived. It’s highly likely that the cultivation of wine was already a major occupation, but even if it wasn’t (which seems unlikely), by the 11th century when the Dukes of Alsace built a castle, it was definitely a factor in the town that developed around the fortification. There is also a claim that Pope Leo IX was born in Eguisheim in June 1002, a connection that is still cited now in tourist literature and on shops, businesses and so on.
We set off on foot to explore first the outer circle of streets that has sprung up along the line of the old double city walls. The map shows most clearly the medieval street plan, something almost every one of the towns on the wine route seem to have. You can very clearly see how the town developed from it so I’ve nicked this one from the brochure we collected.
To be fair it’s also obvious from the ground with painted, half-timbered houses everywhere you look, and flower pots and hanging baskets and window boxes attached to everything!
And just now and again we came across a building where you could actually see the structure underlying all the glorious paint and half-timbering.
After we had walked around the ramparts, and found our way to the centre of the town, we decided we really needed a break, a sit down and a light lunch. There was a restaurant with a shaded terrace overlooking the place du Château, and they had space so we parked for a while and ordered a local speciality, a fleischschnaka, which is basically a relatively thick pasta dough, stuffed with meat, rolled, cut into slices, fried in butter to brown them, and served with pot-au-feu broth. Whatever they claimed on this menu, this is not a light snack. There is nothing light about it! This is the sort of thing you eat after a hard day’s physical labour in the vines, not a light afternoon’s effete sightseeing. We couldn’t finish it, tasty though it was.
After lunch we went and took a good look at the fountain in the centre of the square, which is apparently the Fontaine Saint-Léon, one of the largest fountains in the region, with a capacity of 80,000 litres. It began life in 1575 as the water source for the whole commune, and is topped by a statue of Saint Léon (as in Pope Leo) which is rather less venerable (1842). It’s ostentatiously pretty, surrounded as it is by so many photogenic buildings, although I have to say the water was more than a little green looking. With the sun shining on it, I was more than prepared to overlook that.
Above the square is the Chapel of Chapelle Saint-Leon, which is relatively recent (1894) but stands on the site of the castle that originally dominated the town. It’s meant to be beautifully decorated inside, but we couldn’t get in because there was a wedding in full swing. What we could see from outside looked gorgeous and I could see why you would want to marry somewhere like that. We could get into the attached presbytery where an exhibition of calligraphy and illumination by a local artist, Annie Bouyer, was underway, so we stopped to look at that in the hope the wedding party would be out of the way by the time we’d finished.
Sadly, it wasn’t but we did admire the wedding car, parked up by the old castle walls. We weren’t the only ones admiring it.
The car for the second wedding of the afternoon was nowhere near as much fun.
The chapel not being an option, we decided to go and take a look at the Eguisheim Virgins, on the church of Saints Peter and Paul. There has been a church here for a very long time, but the only surviving part of the original structure is the belfry which was rebuilt in Gothic style in 1220. The nave of the earlier church was demolished in 1807 and replaced by the present “barn”-style nave in 1809 and the interior, much like the exterior, is quite plain apart from a couple of very interesting features. One is the porch of the original church which has a splendid tympanum depicting Christ in Majesty, blessing the world, along with a scene showing the parable of the wise and foolish virgins.
In addition, below it, and on show as part of the Journées Européennes du Patrimoine 2019, was the “Opening Virgin”. Two side panels in the stomach of the carving of the Virgin open, each decorated with an angel. This work, dating from the 13th or 14th century is one of only two surviving examples in Alsace, the other being in Kaysersberg. It’s odd and quite a naive piece, but it’s also interesting.
We headed back to the car after that, stopping off at Pierre Henri Ginglinger to try some Pinot Noir, coming away with a couple of bottles for the evenings in our apartment (one of the Pinot Noir 2018 and one of the superb Pinot Noir Rubis 2017). We set off along the Wine Route again, planning to make Rouffach our next stop. In the 5th century, Rouffach was a walled village and home to the Merovingian kings. The chronicle of Ebersmunster state that the son of King Dagobert II gave the city to Arbogast, bishop of Strasbourg, in the 7th century, after the bishop had revived Dagobert’s son Sigebert from death. It is altogether more likely that it was one of the most ancient fiefs belonging to Strasbourg, and it became the main town of an episcopal fief which included Eguisheim which was when a wall was built around the city which quickly developed. During the Thirty Years’ War the Swedes severely damaged the city although it obviously recovered enough for Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria to hold court in the city. At the end of the war, when Alsace was conquered by France, the fief was abolished.
The future of the city came to depend on wine growing and the production of kirsch from the cherry orchards connected with the chateau, and was lucky enough to be spared any further war damage when the wars that followed passed it by. We found a parking space and a tourist information leaflet and were told that the museum, housed in the bailiff’s residence, was open and free to visit. It provides a good introduction to thethe town, with exhibits explaining the evolution of the town through the centuries. There are artefacts from archaeological excavations in Rouffach and the vicinity, covering the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages, the Roman era, the great migrations, the Merovingians under King Dagobert II, and the Middle Ages.
It was oddly quiet compared to the other places we’d been during the day, but perhaps that’s because it’s not a wildly pretty village. It’s full of interest though; we next went to take a look inside the church of Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, which combines Romanesque and Gothic styles. The transept is from the second half of the 11th century, the Gothic nave is from the 12th and 13th centuries, and there are Romanesque side portals. As with a number of churches we’d seen (Strasbourg Cathedral for example), although the building work went on for a long time (it was finished in 1508), the planned second steeple was never completed. The interior, post the French Revolution, is actually quite plain but there is a lovely 14th Century rose window.
It also has some intriguing side chapels.
We also took a look at the Witch Tower, built in the 13th to 15th centuries, which was used as a prison.
However, we were now running out of steam. There was more to see, but we didn’t have the energy to do it. It was time to move on to our next abode for three night, the Logis de Hansi on the outskirts of Mulhouse. It was a fabulously well-equipped apartment, clean, comfortable, with everything you could want for a successful stay, and unlike the place in Strasbourg, I would heartily recommend it to anyone. We unpacked the car completely, dragging all the wine boxes we were now in possession of into the hall, and stacking them up ready to re-pack them to stop the rattling, and then organised ourselves for the rest of the holiday, before heading out to find dinner for that night.