Travel: France - One land, two cultures, three cuisines

The Alsace's troubled history of occupation by both France and Germany has produced a distinctive culture to match its mountain scenery
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The Independent Culture
I first arrived in Alsace on a cold January morning many years ago, en route from the winter sun of Nice to the joy of a friend's new baby in Stuttgart. Stumbling from the stuffiness of the night train into the frosty streets of Strasbourg, I headed for the cathedral and began to think I had missed the stop and was already in Germany. With the city's medieval, half-timbered buildings and bilingual street names, this was not the way France was meant to look.

Since then, I have got to know the area better and, as always, the reality is more complex. Geographical location and a troubled history combine to give Alsace and its people (some of whom have had to change nationality three times this century) a character all their own: France's third most important wine-growing region is where the "Marseillaise", that most Gallic of tunes, was composed in 1792, but it is also where the French government has transferred part of the prestigious ENA, Alma Mater of many a senior politician, from Paris. It has the highest number of gourmet restaurants of any French region but a Germanic reputation for hard work; most confusing of all, you regularly hear people start a sentence in Alsatian (the local Germanic dialect) then finish the thought in French.

Stretching south in a narrow strip from Germany to Switzerland, Alsace's natural borders are formed by the Vosges mountains and the Rhine. If you're travelling without a car, seeing the sights will take a little planning, but there are regular rail services to many of the small villages. Bikes can be rented in Strasbourg, and Alsace has more than 750 miles of cycle tracks.

A good place to start is Saverne, a small town just south of the Hagenau Forest and the North Vosges natural park. The centre boasts one of Alsace's prettiest houses, the restaurant Katz on Grande Rue. From there, you can cycle along a canal to Strasbourg. The city is home to a Gothic cathedral dating back to the 13th century, a host of museums (including a major new Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art), and a picturesque district known as "La Petite France". Take a boat along the canals, try rowing or stork-watching in the Park de l'Orangerie, or stand on the Barage Vauban for a superb view of the city, then turn your back and head for the countryside again.

The village of Obernai serves as a gateway to the Vosges mountains. Once the home of the dukes of Alsace, it has preserved a large part of its ancient ramparts with their semicircular tours, and the distinctive Corn Market. The tourist office provides details of well-signposted mountain walks nearby, graded for length and difficulty. One of the most popular leads to Mont St Odile, named after the daughter of a ninth-century duke of Alsace who built a convent for her here. It eventually became an abbey and place of pilgrimage. You'll find excellent views and a modestly priced hostellerie, run by a group of nuns.

Alsace has a strong ecology movement, and attempts are made to limit the effects of mass tourism on the mountains, particularly through its two nature parks, the Regional Nature Park in the north (recognised as a World Biosphere Reserve by Unesco) and the Ballons des Vosges Nature Park. However, both downhill and cross-country skiing are possible, particularly around Champ du Feu. If the snow has melted by the time you get here, there are ample opportunities for riding, rambling and other out-of-doors activities.

Back on the plain, the Route des Vins runs from Marlenheim, just west of Strasbourg, to Thann in the south - miles of fortified towns, beautifully kept villages, wine-tasting in small caves, and row upon row of vines. Seven types of wine are produced in Alsace's vineyards, including riesling, gewurzraminer and Tokay pinot gris, as well as sparkling cremant, and highlights of the route include Molsheim (where Bugatti cars were once crafted), the brightly coloured villages of Ribeauville and Riquewihr (to be avoided at weekends, but too beautiful to miss), and the Chateau of Haut Koenigsbourg, which sits perched almost 750 metres above the plain.

Alsace's second city is Colmar, less imposing than Strasbourg but perhaps more accessible. Some of the cobbled medieval streets are divided up into neighbourhoods named after the professional guilds that once ran them. Birthplace of Frederic Bartholdi, who designed the Statue of Liberty, Colmar's "must see" is in the Unterlinden Museum, housed in a 13th-century Dominican monastery. I had seen pictures of the Issenheim Altarpiece, but its violent details are even more striking at close range.

Light relief awaits in France's largest open-air museum, the Eco-musee d'Alsace (Ungersheim). More than 50 structures from all over Alsace, including a fairground merry-go-round, have been dismantled piece by piece, moved from their original sites (where many of them were threatened with destruction) and carefully reconstructed here. Regular workshops demonstrate traditional crafts and skills of the countryside, and the museum has proved to be especially popular with children.

Further south, Mulhouse is a more industrial town than Colmar, and is dubbed the French Manchester owing to its textile factories. The model housing and pioneering welfare system are more reminiscent of New Lanark. Nowadays the town is worth visiting for its museums (printed textiles, the Musee National de l'Automobile, fire-fighting, railways, wallpaper...).

No description of France would be complete without mentioning the local cuisine. Here traditional fare tends to be hearty and filling: baeckeoffe is a marinated stew with vegetables and three kinds of meat, or choucroute. Tarte flambee is a lighter snack, and kougloff a sweet cake. All best washed down with a chill glass of Riesling from the Route des Vins, of course. Perhaps Alsace isn't so different after all...

Spring is celebrated in Strasbourg on 14 March, with floats, music and merry-making. Many other towns have carnivals too. For information on Alsace contact the Comite Regionale du Tourisme at 6 avenue de la Marseillaise, BP 219, 67005 Strasbourg (00 33 3 88 25 01 66) or www.tourismealsace.com

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