Tuesday, 24th September 2019 – Mulhouse, Riquewihr, Glottertal
And so, on the Tuesday, we got up, repacked the car, and set off away from Mulhouse, aiming at Riquewihr based on two things, the guidebook to the Alsace Wine Route that we’d bought and the direction we wanted to head in later on. Riquewihr had been sold to me as one of the prettiest places on the wine route (aren’t they all?) and had a couple of wine producers I was interested in visiting based in the town. We motored away from the Logis de Hansi into something of a grey day compared to what we’d got used to and spent some time fighting the SatNav’s urge to send us down a closed road before we found our way to our target destination. On arriving in Riquewihr we found a parking space and then spent ages waiting to pay for our parking because the people in front of me in the queue at the machine seemed incapable of using common sense and actually successfully paying for their stay. I have no idea what their problem was because it took me about ten seconds…
The entrance to the town is very attractive and the place is clearly well cared for as a whole. We consulted the map in the gardens in front of the city wall and established that the tourist information office was dead ahead. As with all the Alsacien towns we’d visited, there was a free tour map that would navigate you past all the main sights in the town. We sat down with a coffee and studied it to figure out where we were and where we wanted to go first. As we sat there it became clear that this would be a town full of Japanese tourists taking selfies, and Chinese tourists doing much the same and elbowing the rest of us out of the way to do just that.
There were also a lot of guided tours going on, but we opted out and decided we’d go at our own pace and stop off to look at whatever we wanted to see. It was quickly clear that the place does not look very different to how it would have looked in its heydey, and it’s no surprise to find out that it is another of the “most beautiful villages of France”. It was doing its best to live up to that reputation when we visited. It has a population of just 1,250, so I suppose it’s more of a village than a town but I really don’t know quite where the dividing line is in this part of the world, but it’s beautiful out of all proportion to its size. It lies at the bottom of the Schoenenberg hills, at the foot of the Vosges mountains and the terroir makes it perfect for growing Riesling wine.
Wine has been grown here since at least Roman times, when there was an observation tower there. The village started to grow in the 6th Century, during the Frankish period, the name evolving over time to Richovilare (1049), and eventually Riquewihr, or Reichenweier. It was under the protection of Reichenstein Castle, which was the property of the Dukes of Alsace, then of the Counts of Eguisheim-Dabo, the bunch of bandits who caused all the trouble over at Rheinfels as well. They were sorted out by Rudolph of Habsburg, future King of Germany, who in 1269 destroyed the castle and executed the bandits. Legend has it that the future king was impressed by the local wine and thus raised the village to the rank of town, before passing it on to the Dukes of Horburg. They rebuilt the castle and set up ramparts to protect the village, enabling the locals to build up against the walls.
The Horburgs didn’t keep the place long and soon sold it off to Ulrich X of Württemberg, whose descendant Count Eberhard IV of Württemberg got engaged to the Henriette d’Orbe-Montfaucon, Countess of Montbéliard in 1397. When they married, and unified their two counties, they chose Reichenweier as their capital, which gave the place a massive boost. The golden age, which saw the town’s wine exported throughout the Holy Roman Empire and the cities of the Hanseatic League, lasted right through to the Thirty Years War. In that conflict Riquewihr was besieged and plundered twice, in 1635 and 1652, by the Duke of Lorraine. Epidemics of plague, typhus and cholera followed and did even more damage to the local population than the war had.
It was annexed to France in 1680 by Louis XIV, but continued to be governed using the laws and customs of the Holy Roman Empire until the French Revolution, and the time seems to have forgotten it, and in WWII, because it was on a dead end road, it avoided the destruction that occurred in other places. As with Colmar every time we turned a corner there was something new to see, the streets lined with 16th and 17th Century painted half-timbered houses. As ever, being us, we didn’t start at the beginning though we did at least go round in the suggested order for once, starting with the Place des Trois Églises, which houses what was the 12th Century parish church, dedicated to Saint Margaret, that has been superseded by a mid-19th Century protestant church…
The pilgrimage Church of Our Lady founded in 1337 and now a presbytery…
And the Church of Saint Erhard which was attached to the former hospital and dates from the 14th Century. It became a boy’s school in 1539.
Next we nosed our way out through the gate of the original fortifications, built in 1291. The north gate and its walls were not doubled up in 1500, unlike the rest of the defences, probably because beyond the gate is quite a steep vineyard, and anyone trying to get in that way would be knackered before they ever got to the walls. Unfortunately, your chances of getting a good photo are somewhat hampered by the presence of a parking ticket machine right in the line of sight.
The Cour des nobles de Berckheim was next on the list and unlike most of the tourists who just looked at it from the street, we went into the courtyard to get a better view, having scrambled along a tight medieval alley first!
The courtyard is surrounded by an attractive looking building that now provides accommodation for tourists rather than just the nobility. We were increasingly thinking that a December weekend for the Christmas markets might be something to consider. It was built in 1523, and seems unchanged on the outside though I would suspect the inside has been modernised somewhat.
We were directed next to look at a number of houses including the House of the Gourmet which was interesting both for its decoration, and the fact that the title was that of the person who acted as a sworn intermediary between the wine makers, finding them customers and arranging tastings for the wine merchants, and that dates from 1686 in its current incarnation. We got slightly sidetracked after that as we tried to avoid a bunch of guided tours, but then poked around in the court of the winemakers, a series of stone buildings rather than the more traditional – and much cheaper – wattle and daub. The winemakers were clearly doing very nicely at the time, because only the wealthy could afford to build in stone, and Riquewihr apparently has the largest number of stone houses in Alsace.
The nail-maker’s house is also an interesting one with corner posts carved into statues of various men including a nail-maker. It dates from 1686 and is really rather wonderful.
We moved on to the Fontaine de la Sinne (the Fountain of Gauging), a fountain built in 1560. It was used as an essential tool of winemaking because it was a device for checking the capacity of wine barrels. There is a coat of arms carried by an heraldic lion with a star that represents the Horburgs and the coat of arms of the town, in the shape of antlers and another star.
It’s next to the Dolder tower which served as a watch tower. a belfry and the upper gate of the town. Like the North Gate it dates from 1291 and is solid and menacing on the outside and highly decorated on the inside. It’s also covered in window boxes but then I think if you stood still for more than 10 minutes in Riquewihr they’d probably attach a window box to you.
It was time for some history so we headed to la Tour des Voleurs (the Thieves Tower) which also dates from the original fortification of the town in 1291. The structure was reworked in the 15th Century and became the seat of the seignurial court all the way through to the 18th Century. It contains both the courtroom and the torture chamber and cells where the accused would be held prior to trial. The museum takes in both the gristly history of the prison and a lot more besides, as it also includes what is called the Wine Grower’s house. The house is from 1563 and is a typical house of the area, complete with kitchen, bedroom and a cellar full of wine producers’ and coopers’ tools. The lovely lady selling tickets gave us a brief history before we went in, and also checked that we were able-bodied enough to cope with the very medieval stairs that you have to navigate to the to the exhibits.
If you are at all wobbly on your feet, this is not a museum for you. From the top of the tower the views were well worth it, and the history was well related with a recording available in several languages telling you all about the jail and its history.
There was also a fascinating temporary exhibition about the First World War, “1914-18: Riquewihr to the Rear of the Front Line – Local History in the Context of History”. This covered the period of Alsace being part of Germany from 1870 through to 1914 as well, and was intriguing. As the woman in the ticket office pointed out, not everyone was happy to suddenly become French and it did divide the population in all sorts of ways. History is never simple and this museum made that point very well.
And then we needed lunch! We looked up and down the street and decided that we liked the look of Au Vieux Riquewihr, a lovely looking building.
The weather was still holding but we didn’t fancy the terrace in case the rain that was threatening showed up. We went upstairs and were shown to a table in a cosy room. A quick study of the menu and we decided that we would go for one of their rösti dishes and a glass of local wine each.
Lynne opted for the Rösti “Au Vieux Riquewihr” which was served with bacon, “smocked” sausage and creamed leeks. The sausage was disappointingly not patterned into little diamonds, and was just smoked, but it tasted fine!
The Rösti Munster was a very fine thing, all cheesy and served with bacon and tomato garnish.
Service was a bit stressed but friendly and we were well pleased with what we had. It was starting to rain when we stepped back outside, but it remained a light drizzle that didn’t really impede us in any way. Next we went to check out the High Gate, which is part of the second wave of fortification, reinforced around 1500 when the town became more important and thus felt itself in need of extra protection.
We hunted down some of the other houses but it was getting increasingly grey and we needed to move on if we were going to do everything else we had planned and still get to the hotel in good time. By the lower gate was the town hall, a modern (1808) structure that was built near the now demolished low gate, and that was right next to one of the two wine makers I wanted to visit, Dopff & Irion. They have been making wine since the 16th Century and I was keen to buy from them. It helped that we realised there was a free car park right on the edge of the town hall square which would mean we wouldn’t have to drag any purchases too far!
I moved the car and we went in, emerging a little later with another two boxes of Pinot Noir, a free crémant the guy serving us thought we should try, and a bottle of gingerbread liquer which will be used at Christmas for aperitifs. They don’t explain how they have come to be in possession of the original chateau, constructed in 1549, of the Princes of Wurtemberg but it seems a good use for it! On our walk round we also stumbled across a couple of other likely looking gîtes, in historic buildings, including Les Remparts de Riquewihr and Laterale Residences, both of which look like good choices should we get the chance to go back.
And then we moved on. The local wildlife reserve was calling us and we were keen to make sure we got there, rain or no rain. We were on our way to Naturoparc, also known as the Centre de Reintroduction des Cigognes et des Loutres (Centre for the Reintroduction of Storks and Otters), just outside Riquewihr. Established in 1976, it offers you the opportunity to explore the local natural environment in area of 5 hectares where they work to protect and preserve various wildlife species threatened with extinction, including the white stork, – the European otter and the European Hamster (also known as the Grand Hamster, or as the Marmotte de Strasbourg).
It’s fair to say from what we had seen already they have been remarkably successful as regards the storks, which at one point were down to a handful of breeding pairs in the region, and which now are thriving once again. By “domesticating” a number of pairs so they wouldn’t migrate, the storks have thus avoided being trapped and killed during migration and there are now around 200 of them living permanently in the park, and breeding each year.
In addition to the breeding programmes, the centre goes out of its way to educate the visitors, with feeding time “shows” that are actually far more serious than just showing off the animals. Two of the otters were being fed at the same time as the keeper was checking their general health, weighing them and ensuring they were thriving.
They were pretty keen to join in, chasing him around the enclosure if there was the slightest chance of fish! The smaller of the two got bored with doing as she was told, knocked the bucket over and helped herself though.
The otter was pretty much extinct in Alsace prior to the work done by the centre. Between 1998 and 2000 they started their programme and now otters are doing well in the region and “can be observed indulging in its favourite activities: swimming, playing, eating and sleeping”.
They also have a few European hamsters, which look just like your pet hamster scaled up significantly! When we first reached their enclosure there was no sign of them, probably because there was quite a crowd gathered around it and a lot of noise. We went back later and there was one. It’s not the clearest photo because I really didn’t want to use flash, but you can get the general idea.
Its described as “a cute-faced little rodent living exclusively in Alsace” which is not entirely true as the name suggests, though is is true that within France it is only indigenous to the Alsace region. It may have something to do with the 2011 ruling by the Court of Justice in Luxembourg that France had failed to protect the European hamster and needed to up its game or face fines of up to €24.6 million. Either way the hamster is now back, and very cute it is too.
It’s also known as the Grand Hamster, the Marmotte de Strasbourg, or in Alsacien as the “Kornfarel” which means “wheat piglet”! They grow to around 20 to 30 centimetres, and can weigh up to half a kilo, which means they could probably eat an awful lot of grains. They’re not out of the woods yet in survival terms, though, and there is a long way to go to re-establish them in Alsace.
As if that wasn’t enough the park is also home to a colourful collection of coypu, known to the French as ragondins. I had not realised they came in so many different shades, and I wonder if this is as a result of them being introduced to Europe to be bred for their fur originally. I’ve always assumed they were pretty much universally grey – turns out they’re not.
There is a small colony of raccoons as well, though they really weren’t interested in meeting the public. One was sleeping up a tree, well hidden in the branches…
Some more of them were sleeping in a tree, though they were just beginning to stir.
We passed by the Grand Cormorants which were mostly sitting on branches waiting for something to move in the water, and flapping those powerful wings madly in the hope of disturbing something edible…
And a black swan that was in a different pond to the one it was listed as living on.
There are a couple of daily events that are worth a look too, include what they describe as the Spectacle d’Animaux-Pecheurs where a selection of birds and beasts are fed in a large clear sided pool so people can see their fishing skills on display.
The show started with a cormorant which caught numerous fish no matter how far or fast they were flung by the keeper, who also provided a factual commentary (French only) while the bird fed. The sheer speed is incredible; the fish never stood a chance.
Otters came next and they seemed just as hungry for fish as they had been earlier. It was interesting to be able to watch them both above and below the water.
Next up was another cormorant proving just how easily it could catch an eel, and despatch it.
A Patagonian Sea Lion came on next and was not quite as efficient as say the otter, because the odd fish got away. Not many, but one. The sea lion was quite vocal about it.
The fish lived to fight another day, although I’m not sure it survived the mob of Humboldt penguins that came in after the sea lion.
I’m not sure quite why they have penguins but, smelly though they are, they are good value in these sorts of situation, diving down…
And then launching themselves out of the water as if they have some trace memory of once being able to fly!
The half hour show finished with a white egret, which was basically not having any of it, seemingly taking a “What do you think I am? A performing seal?” line! It sat on the edge of the pool, watched the fish being thrown, and mostly ignored them.
It really did not want to know. It did eventually fly across the pool a couple of times to snag a fish or two…
Then it decided it really had had enough and it flew off to sulk on top of one of the enclosures.
Maybe it had been inspired by the low flying stork that shot over the pool while we were all watching the penguins, which I just caught sight of in time.
On the way out we stopped to look at the stork nursery, where you could look at an example of a nest and get an idea of the size of the eggs.
The only things being raised in the incubators at this time of the year were a pair of Alsacienne hens, or Poule d’Alsace, a breed of domestic chicken that has existed since the 1880s. They seemed to be thriving.
In the children’s zoo, a couple of goats were after trying to eat my camera strap but I was able to escape uneaten. They were cute but over-enthusiastic!
And so, stopping to look at the Florida turtles, which were mostly lurking below the surface, we were on our way to Germany and three nights in the Black Forest, at the Hotel Schlossmühle in Glottertal, just outside Freiburg im Breisgau.