Le Flaneur de la Photographie en Alsace (The Wandering Photographer in Alsace)
On the Friday after Thanksgiving an American friend, who now lives in London, was visiting for the holiday. He and I headed out of Strasbourg, Alsace's capital, to visit the nearby wine country. One of our destinations was Riquewihr, a walled town virtually untouched since the 16th century and set amidst vine covered hills. We parked outside the walls, entered through a small side gate and headed toward the town's main street. At the end of November Strasbourg and all of Alsace is consumed with preparation for the annual Marché de Noël (Christmas Market), one of the largest and best in Europe. Riquewihr's population was completely engaged in feverish decorating for Christmas.
Upon reaching the main street my very well traveled friend suddenly stopped and stood with her mouth open. "Are you all right?" I asked.
"This is the most beautiful place I have ever seen", she exclaimed. "It's just like Disneyland, except it's real!"
Alsace is in eastern France on the Rhine River border with Germany. It is unquestionably spectacularly beautiful. A very special combination of history, culture, scenery, and especially food and wine makes it one of the most delightful places to visit in all of Europe. One UK photo tour company's catalog states: "The wine-growing region of Alsace might well be the most beautiful in France - and that's saying something".
The Alsatian "Route du Vin" (Wine Route) journeys 112 miles through vineyards and one stunning medieval village after another along the eastern slopes of the Vosges mountain range. Many Vosges mountaintops are capped by the romantic ruins of medieval castles standing testament to the impact of the armies that have crisscrossed Alsace over the centuries.
Alsace is at the very heart of Europe. Strasbourg is called the crossroads of Europe and today it is home to the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights. Control of Alsace has changed often as power in Europe ebbed and flowed over the centuries. At various times Strasbourg has been Celtic, Roman, Vandal, part of the Holy Roman Empire, French, German, French, German, and now French again". This extraordinary mix of influences has created architecture, language, culture, and cuisine that are unique to this region.
But one cannot talk about Alsace without talking about wine. Alsatian white wines are among the most varied and best in the world. Red wines are produced, but even the Alsatians will admit they are not very good. One has to journey to other parts of France for superb reds, but that is the subject of another article.
The wines, like many things in Alsace, carry German sounding names like Riesling and Gewürztraminer and come in tall, thin bottles like their cousins across the Rhine. But they are generally not as sweet and have more body and character. You'll find a nice dry Alsatian Riesling goes exceptionally well with fine Alsatian cooking - which is another of the areas pleasures. You really must work hard to find a bad meal in Alsace. There are more Michelin starred restaurants here than in any other region in France, except Paris.
But this is an article about photography, so let's focus on taking pictures in Strasbourg and along the Route du Vin. We start at Strasbourg's cathedral, a building that you cannot miss. Taking pictures of Strasbourg's massive, red sandstone, gothic cathedral with its 466 foot single steeple dominating the skyline is extremely difficult. It is just so massive and surrounded by other buildings that it is difficult to find an angle that shows its magnificence.
I have contented myself with detailed images of the exceptional statuary that adorns the building and a very special view, capturing just part of the cathedral's west front and the façade of the Maison Kammerzell. The Maison Kammerzell is a rich merchant's home dating to the 1500s. Today it is a restaurant. The best place to capture this view is from a small street leading off the Place de la Cathedrale. The classic view of the cathedral's west front is looking back along the Rue de la Cathedrale that exits the Place directly across from the cathedral's main door. You can capture the old buildings with the cathedral as the backdrop.
Return to the Place de la Cathédrale, turn right and head down the quaint Rue Maroquin lined with 16th century buildings. It leads into a pretty square called the Place du Marché aux Cochons-de-Lait, or the Suckling Pig Market Square. It does sound much better in French!
Continuing along you will reach the river and the landing from which tour boats depart. The boat tour gives a good overview of Strasbourg, its history and some excellent photo opportunities and is well worth taking.
Up the river is "Petite France", one of Strasbourg's most picturesque areas. Half timbered buildings, once "guild halls" for tanners and other craftsmen, dominate the scene. A bit further on is the Ponts Couverts with its 14th century towers that were once part of the city's defenses and yet further again you reach the entrance to the Barrage Vauban, which offers a magnificent view of the river and city from its upper level.
Strasbourg is a UNESCO world heritage site and there are many more places than I can suggest in a single article. It is a town best explored on foot. Look for the small, special images that show its character such as scenes in parks, outdoor markets, or just window boxes overflowing with flowers. Relax with a glass of wine or a coffee at any of the numerous cafés whose tables spill out into the cobblestone squares.
Later, head north of the old city to see neo-Gothic Renaissance buildings from the era when the Germans controlled Strasbourg (1870 to 1919). Across from the pretty Place de la République is a palace built for the Kaiser and just down the river is the picturesque Lycée International, a former mansion now an international high school. A bit further north are the European institutions. The architecture here is mostly modern, but the view of the European Parliament taken when the sunrise reflects on its glass façade is stunning!
Only a half hour's drive or so south of Strasbourg you will be deep in the beauty of the Route du Vin. Following the route with photography in mind is sure to be rewarding. Whether it is the striking crucifix outside the 12th century Romanesque church in Rosheim caught in perfect morning light, or the town gates, squares and houses in Barr, Bergheim, Dambach-la-Ville, or my favorite town, Mittelbergheim, which holds the rare honor (along with Riquewihr) of having won the distinction of being named one of the "Most Beautiful Villages in France", the scenes here are spectacular.
If you are looking for wine as well as pictures, I should point out that the wineries here are not like Napa. Most of the producers are very small and work out of buildings in the villages. In fact, as you drive though the villages you might think that every other building is a winery, a restaurant, or a hotel, and you would not be far from wrong.
A bit further south, high on a mountaintop, is the picturesque Haut-Koenigsbourg castle. The ruin was restored when Alsace was German as a gift for the Kaiser. An excellent, but windy and steep, road off the Route du Vin leads to the castle. If you decide to visit, watch out for the cyclists doing their version of a mountain stage of the Tour de France.
Further on is the larger town of Ribeauvillé set in a deep Vosges' valley overlooked by the remains of the Château de St-Ulrich. The morning view along the Grand Rue (Main Street) lined with 16th century buildings toward the castle poses a tricky lighting challenge, but is a classic shot. A trail leading to the ruin starts in a parking lot behind the village on the north side. It's a strenuous climb, but the views of the ruin and the village below are excellent. Riquewihr, which is an absolute must, is a short distance further along the route.
After Riquewihr comes Kayserberg, like Ribeauvillé set in a valley and overlooked by a castle ruin, it is the home of a classic Alsatian image. Follow the street that goes along the bank of the River Weiss as it flows through the town and just before the end of the village there is a bridge on your left leading to the Rue du Géneral Rieder. You will have to stand on a low part of the bridge wall on its right to get a proper view of a beautiful Alsatian house sitting next to the rapidly flowing river with mountain greenery as a backdrop.
You can continue along the Route du Vin for a considerable distance visiting this string of village pearls connected by vine covered hills, but I am sure you have the idea by now. If you rush, though I do not recommend this, you can get to Kayserberg along the wine route by car from Strasbourg in a day and then take the motorway (A-35) back to Strasbourg an hour and a half. But if you want to explore and capture your favorite scenes in varying light a longer stay is essential. Websites to help you find one of the abundant charming hotels are below.
Let me close with some practical observations and suggestions: