“For breakfast, they have a massive bowl of coffee, like a cereal bowl, and they dip in pieces of a huge, bell-shaped cake, called Kugelhopf!”
These were the awed observations of cultural differences, relayed to my parents, following my first ever trip abroad. Aged 14, I had been on a school exchange to Alsace to learn French.
As if cake for breakfast were not enough! Alsace is a magical place of wine, castles and culture tucked next to the Rhine in north-east France, right on the German border.
Quite what the students from this beautiful region made of Blackburn, an ugly, industrial town in the north of England, where they ate Cornflakes and Sugar Puffs for breakfast, I don’t know, but Alsace is a shimmering piece of paradise. Not only has it retained a special place in my heart; it has helped immeasurably in solving the Practical French Challenges involving vets, dentists and mechanics, which have characterised our road trip so far.
My immersion into French family life during two, two-week exchange visits gained me an ‘A’ grade at ‘O’ Level and returned me to England with an inner dialogue that ran in French. Those forty-year-old linguistic skills have lain dormant, but somehow, never left.
Our drive to Alsace from Bourgogne was spectacular. Castles galore peppered our route and as we drew closer, I was thrilled to see black-and-white storks in the fields and on the roofs. Cigognes are a symbol of Alsace. They always look so incongruous that I think they are plastic replicas – and then they move!
We have visited many wine areas, but the landscape of Alsace is incredible. Nestled beneath the Vosges mountains is a bright green sea of vines; unbroken and uninterrupted by any other crops, it stretches to the horizon in every direction.
“I’ve found a campsite in Roof-something,” Mark said.
“Rouffach?” I guessed correctly, to Mark’s surprise. “Big Bruv’s first exchange was in Rouffach,” I explained. “I was in Colmar on the Route de Rouffach, although I’ve never actually been to Rouffach!”
The satnav seemed less familiar with Rouffach than even Mark or I. It took us, seven-metre caravan and all, on a magical mystery tour through the winding, cobbled streets of the medieval town. To say we got some looks is an understatement. The municipal campsite was definitely in the less glamorous part of town. It didn’t look remotely appealing, and that’s how we ended up at Camping des Trois Châteaux in Éguisheim – via a route we chose ourselves, which cunningly ignored the satnav to avoid a re-run of Rouffach’s historic centre!
Even by Alsatian standards, which set a high bar, Éguisheim is something special. In 2013, this enchanting, medieval village was voted Village préféré des Français – Favourite Village of the French People. Obviously, it made the cut for the list of ‘Most Beautiful Villages in France‘ a long time ago.
Éguisheim’s streets are arranged in three concentric circles. These follow the lines of successive fortifications, although Éguisheim’s importance was economic, not military. The walls were built to protect the sixteen cours dîmières – the tithe courtyards, where deals were struck and taxes collected by wealthy nobility. Éguisheim also has five colongères courts, where a Germanic system of justice was dispensed. The colongères system applied a common law to a group of farmers ruled by the same lord. However, Éguisheim was not just an important centre for commerce and law, it claims its own pope. In June 1002, Pope Leon IX was born in Éguisheim’s castle.
Within the walls, you will find a higgledy-piggledy mass of brightly coloured, half-timbered houses, with geraniums tumbling from window sills and storks nesting on the chimney pots. It’s pure fairy-tale.
I was fascinated to learn that the interlacing patterns of beams on the timbered houses have significance. The diamond represents fertility; the saltire (an X-shaped cross) protection; and the slanting posts represent the silhouette of a man. Inscriptions, such as tulips and stars with five or six points also protected the house from evil or lightning. The steeply-sloping gables are designed to shed snow and the long roof tiles with rounded ends are known as Biberschwantz, because they are shaped like a beaver’s tail.
The bright colours are a more modern innovation. Traditionally, timbers were protected by rubbing with soot or red iron oxide, while the wattle and daub was coated with lime whitewash. Wealthier owners might have ventured bravely towards a pale, pastel hue, but with the advent of modern paints, the lure of risqué shades such as Dulux ‘Mango Crush’ seemingly proved irresistible.
For more information on Alsatian architecture, check out the ASMA website.
My younger brother exchanged with the Bayers, a family of winemakers in Éguisheim. Their winery, Au Cheval Blanc is on the main square, and is a great place to try Éguisheim’s Grand Crus.
My parents visited some years later when they were invited to attend one of the exchange students, Dominique’s, wedding. This was a real coup for Dominique’s family. Mum and Dad were paraded around Alsace, fêted as English aristocracy; perhaps even minor royalty. My Mum had a mischievous sense of humour and would have played up to her rôle with more ham than Denmark. Grudgingly forcced into a suit, Dad would have bourne it with stoicism. I would lay odds that his ensemble involved sandals with socks and that when Mum noticed, he earned a, “Bloody hell, Jim!”
I can certainly testify to “Bloody hell, Jim!” appearing at a friend’s wedding in Blackburn one hot, July day. I’m afraid that I was responsible for blowing his cover. Waiting for photographs outside the church, I spotted his choice of footwear. I tried to withdraw to a safe distance, but completely failed to conceal my guffaw.
He told me it was a protest. Attending a wedding; wearing a suit; AND to top it all, it was his birthday!
While Mark set up camp, I took the The Fab Four for a walk in the vineyards. Le Sentier Viticole des Grands Crus D’Éguisheim is a marked route through the vines which starts just outside the campsite, although I can’t say that it is well marked. The trail takes in Éguisheim’s two Grands Crus, Pfersigberg and Eichberg, which are essentially parts of the vineyard which produce exceptional wines. “What have the Romans ever done for us?” Well, they came, they saw and they planted. It was they who spotted the potential of the gentle, sunny slopes of the Schlossberg (Castle Hill) – and created the first vineyard in Alsace.
It was a picturesque stroll beneath the Trois Châteaux, which give the campsite its name. Named after the families who ruled them, the three ruined castles of Dabsbourg, Wahlenbourg and Weckmund,, dominate the wooded hills above Éguisheim.
I enjoyed the walk, mostly. On the positive side, the castles gave me a point of reference to avoid a repetition of my Trauma in the Terroir – when I got lost in the vineyards of Barolo. On the negative side, I caught Rosie crunching on something. When I asked her to drop it, I was horrified to find it was the remains of a long-dead mouse! I kicked it into a bush, from where she retrieved it on our walk the following day.
Then, when I got back, I had to ask Mark,
“Is my sun dress too revealing?”
“It is low cut, like a bikini, but it’s fine. Why?”
“A Frenchman in the car park offered to be my fifth dog!” I wailed.
I raced around Éguisheim’s shops like a junkie, seeking to score my favourite Alsatian delicacies.
“I need Kugelhopf, Munster cheese and Choucroute” – the Alsatian version of Sauerkraut.
I was really looking forward to telling Dad where we were, since, suit aside, he has fond memories of Alsace and Éguisheim. Unfortunately, a poor telephone connection thwarted my attempt at surprise.
“Bonsoir! Guess where we are. We had Kugelhopf for breakfast!”
“YOU’VE HAD TWO STOPS?” he bellowed down the phone, to compensate for the seven-hundred miles that our bad line failed to bridge.
“WELL YOU WERE IN AVIGNON, SO…”
“No,” I tried to interrupt. “I said, ‘We had Kugelhopf...’”
“TWO STOPS… LET ME THINK… I KNOW! YOU’RE IN NICE!”
Then, Mark accused me of being a chip of the old block. Not just for being my father’s daughter, but after Chip Cobb, the audibly challenged stunt man featured in the comedy, The Fast Show.
That very morning, as I popped my head out of the door of the Traiteur to offer Mark the choice of duck- or rabbit-and-nut pie for lunch, he made a suggestion based on Rosie’s earlier misdemeanour.
“GET A MOUNTAIN BIKE FOR ROSIE?” I was completely thrown.
“No,” he replied patiently. “I said, ‘Get a mouse pie for Rosie’.”
The walk to the Trois Châteaux starts near the campsite and forms part of the 14km ‘Five Castles Road’, which includes Hohlandsbourg and Pflixbourg.
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