Alsace (and Lorraine) unlike the other French Regions, abound in both French and German influences. The region is situated in mid-eastern to north-eastern France. It is bound to the north by Germany and to the east by the Rhine River [with Germany across the Rhine], to the south by Switzerland and the region of Franche-Comté and to the west by the beautiful Vosges mountains and the region of Lorraine.
Much of Alsace is found on a fertile alluvial plain, between the Rhine River and the Vosges mountains in the west. The lower area, that rises from the Rhine, is checkered with vineyards. The higher slopes are forested and sprinkled with monasteries and old castles. The region of Alsace consists of the départements of Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin. Its principal cities are Colmar, Mulhouse and the regional capital Strasbourg.
Alsace [and Lorraine] is unique, among French regions, due to its dual Franco-Germanic cultures. The majority of the population speaks French with a decided German accent, the cuisine is an able blend of French and German cooking, many of the towns of the region have German names and the village architecture delights in a pronounced Germanic influence.
A visit to this area is always a delightful experience. It provides an enjoyable and relaxing escape from the hustle and bustle. One can drive, or ride a train, along the Rhine and watch the scenery unfold before your eyes. The word ‘Magnifique’ describes this beautiful region, with its peaceful and restful influence.
One can stay in B&Bs [a zimmer frei], on the slopes of the Haut-Rhin the local cuisine and people. Or, one can visit Strasbourg, the headquarters of the European Parliament, with all of its wonderful architecture, diverse culture and international cuisine. But in spite of its international flavor, Strasbourg is a somewhat laid back city compared to large cities in general.
The History of Alsace and Strasbourg
The history of Alsace, and Rhine River History, is well documented to as far back as 58 BC and the Celts. Through the centuries it has been the object of multiple invasions by a succession of Germanic tribes. During the 5th century, the Alemanni tribe successfully invaded the region. In 496, the Merovingien Franks, under Clovis I, conquered the Alemanni, making Alsace a Frankish duchy.
During the decline of the Merovingien Dynasty, the area that resembles that of today’s départements of Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin was taken.
In 842 AD the Strasbourg Oath, an accord written in Romance (a French language forerunner) and Teutonic (old German), created the Treaty of Verdun. This became the basis, some time after Charlemagne‘s death, for dividing his Holy Roman Empire among the three sons of Louis I [See: Holy Roman Empire Timeline, some of the Holy Roman Empire’s Emperors and the Map of the Holy Roman Empire.]
In 843, Alsace was integrated into Lothair’s kingdom of Lotharingia with other German territories belonging to the Carolingians and was Christianized. From the Treaty of Mersen, in 870, to the 17th century, it was ruled by Holy Roman Empire Emperors, becoming part of the duchy of Swabia [Alemannia] when Charles the Bald and Louis the German divided Lotharingia. The ten major cities of Alsace then flourished, under the sponsorship of the Holy Roman emperors, as free imperial cities.
In the medieval period, Colmar, Haguenau and Strasbourg took on greater importance and became free imperial cities. During the Reformation, Strasbourg became the center of Alsatian Protestantism. The attempts, by the Catholic Habsburgs to eradicate the heresy, only served to make the Protestants more resolute.
During the Wars of Religion, of the late 16th century, French influence in the region grew. With the Thirty Years’ War, Alsatian cities appealed to the French crown to aid against the Catholics. In 1648, the Peace of Westphalia made Alsace an informal French protectorate and then a French province. In 1681, under Louis XIV, the French occupied Strasbourg and took complete control of Alsace. By the beginning of the French Revolution, Alsace had been completely incorporated into France by its division into the two départements of Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin in 1789.
Between the years 1815 and 1870 the ties between Alsace and the rest of France were tightened through the establishment of universal suffrage in 1848 and the building of the railroads. But, France’s defeat, at the hands of the Germans in 1871, removed Alsace and part of Lorraine, from the French map, annexing it to Germany until 1918.
In 1940, the German Blitz outflanked the French fortifications along the Maginot Line. Under the armistice of 1940, Germany again occupied Alsace. France regained her lost provinces following the Allied victory in World War II.
Fully one-third of Alsace’s population lives in Colmar, Mulhouse and Strasbourg. In the country, the fertile rural areas are densely populated, resulting in land holding being small and fragmented. This is the region of thriving viticulture and the production of such wines as Auxerrois, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pino Gris, Muscat Ottonel, Riesling and Sylvaner. Alsace is also known for its beer. Hops, sugar beets and tobacco are also grown.
The region’s Grand Canal d’Alsace produces hydroelectric power at Kembs and Ottmarscheim and there is a nuclear power plant in Haut-Rhin at Fessenheim. The region constitutes one of the most important industrial areas in France.
Manufactured items include chemicals, electrical appliances and textiles. Potash is mined and processed.
Strasbourg is known as the crossroads of Europe, and the European Capital. In 1949 the Council of Europe and the Central Commission for the Navigation of the Rhine River were formed in Strasbourg. The city was also chosen to be the site for the European Parliament and for the headquarters of the European Court of Human Rights. The Parliament building opened in 1999. Strasbourg and Geneva are the only non-capital cities to have such important international institutions.
Strasbourg is on the north-south and east-west trade routes of central Europe. The town has a complete barge port that is located on the Rhine, east of the city, that has become one of France’s leading grain ports. For more detailed info on Strasbourg
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The Gastronomy of Alsace
The Wine of Alsace
Alsatian wines are ‘extraordinaire’ and very different from their German counterparts. In fact, the taste of Alsatian Rieslings differs greatly from Rieslings that are produced in other parts of the world. Futhermore, unlike all other French wines, Alsacian Riesling is known for its grape and not for the region it is grown in. The Gewurtzraminer is another favorite of Alsace and comes from a much fruitier and robust tasting grape.
The Cheese of Alsace
Alsace is known for its Munster Cheeses
The Cuisine – the traditional foods of Alsace consist of:
Charcuterie = Pork specialties
Choucroute = Sauerkraut
Foie Gras = Goose or duck liver pâtés
Tarte a l’oignon = Tarte aux Quetsches is among famous Alsacian recipes
It consists of a tart of plums in flan
The Economic Activity of Alsace
The Agriculture of Alsace
Fully one-third of Alsace’s population lives in Colmar, Mulhouse and Strasbourg. The fertile rural areas are densely populated. This results in land holding being small and fragmented. This is the region of thriving viticulture and the production of such wines as Auxerrois, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc and Riesling. Alsace is also known for its beer. Hops, sugar beets and tobacco are also grown.
Alsatian agricultural production includes: fois gras, vegetables, chocolate and, of course, wonderful wines and beers. Alsace also boasts its famous brandy, Eaux de vie.
The Industry of Alsace
The region’s Grand Canal d’Alsace produces hydroelectric power at Kembs and Ottmarscheim and there is a nuclear power plant in Haut-Rhin at Fessenheim. The region constitutes one of the most important industrial areas in France. Manufactured items include chemicals, electrical appliances and textiles. Potash is mined and processed.
Artisan manufactured goods include: pottery, glassworks, wood items, wood and stone sculptor, painting and more.
Alsace France Department Info
The Départements of Alsace
The département of Bas-Rhin constitutes the northern half of the Alsacian region. The département is bordered by Germany to the north and to the east, the départements of Haut-Rhin and Vosges to the south and by the départements of Moselle and Meurthe-et-Moselle to the west.
There are three geo-economic parts to the département. From the east, to the northwest, it is agricultural and spotted with densely populated villages. The Vosges Mountains, in the northeast are heavily forested. To the north, the département is primarily commercial due to its excellent communications system of canals, roads and railroads.
The département is divided into seven administrative arrondissements: Haguenau, Molsheim, Saverne, Sélestat-Erstein, Strasbourg, Strasbourg-Campagne and Wissembourg. Strasbourg is the capital of both the département and the region.
The département has fertile soil and cultivates corn, fodder, grapes, hops and sugar beets.
The Haut-Rhin département covers the southern half of the Alsace region. It is bounded by the département of Bas-Rhin to the north, the Rhine River to the east, Switzerland to the south, the region of Franche-Comté to the southwest and the region of Lorraine to the west.
The Grand Canal d’Alsace runs through the département, providing it access to the Rhine River, Basel Switzerland and the North Sea for barges of up to 1,350 metric tons. The Rhine-Rhône Canal enters the département from the southwest, cuts through Mulhouse and crosses the département. The Ill River also flows through the département from south to north. It flows through both Mulhouse and Colmar.
The Vosges Mountains cover the better part of the département’s western half. This part of the département is hidden by forests. Mount Guebwiller rises to 4,669 feet to provide a ‘bel view’ of the southern Vosges, the Black Forest, the Jura and the Alpes. Most of the département’s eastern half is constituted by a fertile alluvial plain.
Haute-Rhin has six arrondissements: Altkirch, Colmar, Guebwiller, Mulhouse, Ribeauville and Thann. Its départemental capital is Colmar.
The département’s industrial resources are well developed, especially in the Mulhouse vicinity which is rich in potash deposits. The département is well known for its foie gras and its asparagus. However, it is better known for its highly sought after white wines such as Riquewihr, Riesling, Sylvaner and Traminer.
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Alsace France -Town Information
The Towns & Cities of Alsace
Colmar is a transportation hub on the eastern edge of the region of Alsace, west of the Vosges Mountains foothills. It is a port, lying along the Lauch River, about 16 miles west of the German border. The town is linked to the Rhine River, that is 10 miles to the east, by the Logelbach Canal. Strasbourg is 42 miles to the north. Routes National 4 and 83 join the A35 Autoroute at Colmar, which is on the Basel, Mulhouse, Strasbourg rail line. The town is the capital of the northeastern French département of Haut-Rhin.
The earliest written reference to Colmar was in a 9th century chronicle of Charlemagne’s Saxon wars. In 1226, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II made it a free, imperial city. In 1632, Sweden occupied the town during the Thirty Years’ War. But, in 1635, the town was in the hands of Louis XIII of France. During the period, commencing in 1648, the town was gradually annexed by France. In 1673, Colmar became the capital of the French province of Alsace.
Following the Franco-Prussian War, in 1871, the town was annexed by Germany. It was returned to the French in 1919. The Germans occupied the town during WWII, from 1940 through early 1945.
Among Colmar’s many medieval buildings is the 13th century Dominican convent that has been converted into the Unterlinden Museum. It shelters the famous 16th century Isenheim alterpiece that is the masterwork panel painting by the religious painter Matthias Grünewald. Grünewald painted the alterpiece in Isenheim, 14 miles south of Colmar, for the chapel of the Antonites’ convent.
Scattered among Colmar’s Alsatian Renaissance houses, and its ancient churches, are many charming fountains. The essentially Gothic Church of Saint-Martin and the huge Church of the Dominicains are two such churches. The 13th through 15th century Church of Saint-Martin displays Martin Schongauer’s 15th century painting of the Madonna of the Rose Arbor.
The home of Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty, is now a museum. The nearby picturesque canal district, which is now known as Petite Venise, is a sightseer’s delight.
Colmar is considered to be the best-preserved city in Alsace. It is also an influential Rhine industrial port and a wine market. Its industries include machinery, metallurgy, food processing and textiles.
Mulhouse is situated on the Ill River, and the Rhône to Rhine Canal, in the Haut-Rhin département of southern Alsace. It is near the German border, with Strasbourg some 75 miles to the north, Basel 21 miles to the southeast and the Rhine River 12 miles to the east.
Like Colmar, Mulhouse was first noted in the 9th century, but didn’t become a free imperial city until 1308. From 1515 to 1648 Mulhouse, along with the Swiss Confederation, formed a mutual defense pact. It was during the 16th century that the town became a part of the Decapolis [the league of ten Alsacien towns]
Colmar voluntarily became a part of the French Republic in 1798. Along with the rest of Alsace, and the adjacent region of Lorraine, it was annexed by Germany, in 1871, following the Franco-Prussian War. The town wasn’t returned to France until 1918. During World War II, from 1940 to early 1945, the town was occupied by the Germans.
Mulhouse has conserved many beautiful, ancient buildings. The Hotel-de-Ville, which was built in the 16th century, is a marvel. It is covered with mural paintings and has a 25 pound replica of the Klapperstein stone hanging on its southwest façade. The original stone is in a nearby museum. Until 1781, it was hung around the necks of malicious gossips on fair days.
Saint-Jean’s Chapel, built by the Knights of Malta in the 13th century, is noted for its wall paintings. The 14th century Church of Saint-Étienne, which still retains its original stained-glass windows, was rebuilt as a Protestant church in the 19th century.
Mulhouse’s 18th century textile industry developed dyeing and printing techniques for calico cotton fabrics in 1746. This industry gave great impetus to the town and, in 1812, installed the first steam powered mill. In the early 20th century, it nurtured a chemical industry based upon its nearby potash deposits, taking the town into the export market.
The town has several interesting museums. Examples of textile fabric painting can be seen at the Musée de l’Impression sur Etoffes. The Musée Français du Chemin de Fer displays a wide range of steam and electric locomotives and other rolling stock used by French Railways between 1846 and 1955.
Mulhouse even has a world-class automobile museum, the Musée National de l’Automobile, with a collection of over a hundred Bugattis alone plus a rare sampling of other fine old cars. The collection provides an overview of changing styles and technical advancements [and stagnation] in the automobile industry.
Since 1960, Mulhouse’s automobile, electrical apparatus, fertilizer, machine tools, organic chemical, pharmaceutical and textile machinery industries have flourished.
Strasbourg is the Capital of Alsace, and is located at the northeastern corner of France, on the Franco-German frontier. It lies, on the Grande Île, at the confluence of the Bruche and Ill rivers, 2.5 miles west of the Rhine River. The canals, that link the Rhine with the Rhône and Marne rivers, begin where the Ill joins the Rhine. It is 288 miles east of Paris and 60 miles north of Mulhouse.
Originally, Strasbourg’s site was a Celtic settlement. In the 1st century BC, the Romans transformed the site into a fortified camp called Argentoratum, the stone of Argantos. The local Franks renamed it Strateburgum, city of roads.
Strasbourg is known as the crossroads of Europe. It is on the north-south and east-west trade routes of central Europe. The town has a complete barge port that is located on the Rhine, east of the city, that has become one of France’s leading grain ports. The port also handles beer, books, coal, fuel oil, machinery, metal goods, other food, industrial products, potash and textiles.
In 842, two sons of Louis the Pious, Charles and Louis, made an oath, called the Strasbourg Oath, to be loyal to each other against their brother Lothair. Each took his oath in the language most comprehensible to the other’s entourage. Louis’s text is thought to be the most ancient document in a Romance language and the first written example of Old French. The Treaty of Verdun, a year latter, formalized the Oath.
Gutenberg invented his printing process in Strasburg during 1436 and 1437. In 1537, the University of Strasbourg, where the likes of Goethe, Pasteur and Albert Schweitzer studied, was founded. Today, it has a 29,000 student body.
Until 1681, when it was united with France, Strasbourg was a German free town. In 1792, during the French Revolution, the mayor of Strasbourg asked Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle to write a marching song for the Army of the Rhine. Over night he wrote La Marseillaise, which was later adopted as the French National Anthem. By the mid 18th century, the city was renowned for its fine earthenware and porcelain.
During the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 to 1871, Strasbourg was annexed by Germany. The town was held, by the Germans, until 1918 when it was retaken by the Allies. In 1919, as the result of the Versailles Treaty, the city became French again. During World War II, the Germans reoccupied it from 1940 to 1945.
Strasbourg’s old city [Vieux Cité] was built on an island formed in the Ill river. The island, which connects with the newer parts of the city by fortified and covered bridges, is a sightseers paradise. Among its treasures are medieval houses with balconies that link them together to form a continuous walkway.
The Cathedral of Notre-Dame is in the Vieux Cité. It is a Gothic, red Vosges sandstone structure, that is a masterpiece of stone lacework. It was built over a period spanning the 12th through the 15th centuries, during an era when Strasbourg was continuously in German hands. It is one of the most French of the German High Gothic churches.
The cathedral, which was begun in 1175, is a harmonious transition of the Romanesque into the Gothic. Its apse and transept are in the Romanesque style. Its High Gothic style was adopted in 1235 when the nave was commenced. Its interior boasts a famous astronomical clock that dates from 1838. It provides a daily 2:30 allegorical display of mechanical figures. There is a striking kaleidoscope of the rose window that looks like stone lace. In 1277, the twin towers of the west side were begun. The north tower has an architectural masterpiece of a spire that is 466 feet high, the tallest of all medieval spires.
In addition to the cathedral, the Grande Île counts four ancient churches, the former Hôtel-de-Ville [now the Hôtel du Commerce], built in 1582, and the building housing the Museum of the Works of Notre-Dame [Musée de l’Oeuvre Notre-Dame]. The latter two edifices are of Renaissance vintage. The museum contains instances of medieval and Renaissance architecture, furniture, sculpture [many of the cathedrals original statues such as the Wise and Foolish Virgins] and stained glass, including the oldest existing stained glass.
The 18th century Rohan Palace of the Prince-Bishops of Strasbourg, the Military Government House, and the Prefecture are also found on the Grande Île. The Palace, designed in 1730 by the king’s architect, and built between 1732 and 1742, displays old ceramics, royal furnishings and fine paintings by the likes of El Greco, Goya, Monet, Rembrandt, Renoir, Rubens and van Dyck. Its state rooms are considered to be among the most elegant of 18th century French interiors.
A picturesque grouping of four canals cuts through the district known as La Petite France. The district was named after a former hospital, and the canals gave Rhine shipping access to the back doors of the district’s artisans. The quarter has preserved old streets and Alsatian styled houses with their grey tiled roofs and roughly carved cross beamed facades.
Although Strasbourg was badly damaged during World War II, UNESCO designated the island as a World Heritage Site in 1988. Contact he tourisme office for Strasbourg for more detailed events and happenings.
In 1949 the Council of Europe and the Central Commission for the Navigation of the Rhine River were formed in Strasbourg. The city was also chosen to be the site for the European Parliament and for the headquarters of the European Court of Human Rights. The Parliament building opened in 1999. Strasbourg and Geneva are the only non-capital cities to have such important international institutions.
Strasbourg boasts all the amenities of other big cities culturally, economically and intellectually. But life here is casual and laid back when compared to Paris and Geneva. Strasbourg is known as the ideal venue for international congresses and seminars.
Strasbourg’s manufacturing plants produce chemicals, leather, metals, paper, plastics and textiles. They also manufacture automobiles, electrical goods, foods and beverages and furniture.
Strasbourg’s Germanic gourmet specialties are pâté de foie gras [goose liver] and truffles.