The complete guide to Alsace-Lorraine

The fairy-tale region which straddles the Franco-German border boasts a rich history, rolling mountains and delightful villages that warmly embrace both cultures.

Where is it?

Where are they, you mean – Alsace and Lorraine are separate regions in France's north-eastern corner, and share borders with Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Switzerland. Alsace hugs the Rhine for 120 miles north from Basle, while Lorraine climbs from Champagne's plains to meet Alsace in the Vosges mountains. Thrown together geographically but differing in atmosphere, tradition and even language, their names have been inextricably linked by a dramatic and often tragic past.

Lots of history, then?

Yes. Most of Alsace, a largely Germanic-speaking region, was given to France in 1648, while the Duchy of Lorraine became officially French only in 1766. After France's humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, Germany annexed Alsace and the Moselle département of Lorraine, and introduced a programme of forced Germanisation. Restored to France in 1918, locals found that reintegration was easier said than done. The area was then brutally re-occupied by Nazi Germany in 1940: in an effort to avoid further conflict, Strasbourg has since become a centre for European reconstruction and dialogue.

Is there much evidence of the region's world war experience?

The town of Verdun and the surrounding area are dotted with memorials and military cemeteries. In Verdun itself, the most important of these include the Victory Monument and the World Peace Centre. The massive Underground Citadel was designed by Vauban, the 17th-century military architect whose work pops up all over France, and provides a chilling reminder of what a soldier's life was like. Outside town, the Douaumont Ossuary houses the remains of thousands of unidentified troops, and the stark rows of military crosses are intensely moving.

The Maginot Line, a network of underground fortifications, was built in the 1930s. Stretching through northern Alsace and Lorraine, it was intended to prevent further German invasion. The Nazis marched round Belgium instead, rendering the Maginot Line largely redundant, but it has been restored and is now a fascinating example of the best-laid plans going hopelessly wrong.

The Hackenberg Fort (00 33 3 82 82 30 08) 12 miles from Thionville, was the biggest on the Line, and is one of the most impressive sections to visit. It's open until the end of October. The only Nazi concentration camp in France was built near the Alsatian village of Natzwiller. Set in a beautiful valley, Le Struthof (00 33 3 88 97 04 49) has been preserved largely intact which adds to the atmosphere of horror generated by the museum.

So where should i start?

Each of the major towns – Nancy, Metz, Strasbourg and Colmar – has its own character, and any of them will be a good starting point for the surrounding area. Nancy is the most typically French: elegant, classical and home to a major Art Nouveau school. The beautiful square, Place Stanislas, has been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Metz's architecture is more varied, with Roman, medieval and German influences visible: the St Etienne cathedral is the main attraction.

Strasbourg is larger than either of these towns and much more cosmopolitan, but its half-timbered houses and numerous winstubs (wine bars) retain a traditional feel. Further south, Colmar houses the celebrated Issenheim Altarpiece and the canal district nicknamed, inevitably, Little Venice.

What about the countryside?

Louis XIV described Alsace as a "beautiful garden", and three centuries later, the comment is still valid. Lorraine has three large nature reserves, the Ballons des Vosges Nature Park, the Lorraine Regional Nature Park and the Vosges du Nord Nature Park. The Ballons des Vosges is probably the most spectacular – rounded summits, dark-blue mountain lakes and summer pastures, with opportunities for winter sports and year-round walking trails. The rivers, salt marshes and lakes in the Lorraine Regional Nature Park make it a magnet for anglers and water-sports enthusiasts. A voluntary organisation, the Club Vosgien, maintains a network of 10,000 miles of sign-posted walking routes, organises guided excursions and publishes maps (Le Club Vosgien, 16 rue Sainte-Hélène, Strasbourg – 00 33 3 88 32 57 96, www.club-vosgien.com).

What's the best way to see the region?

There can be few pleasanter ways of exploring the lesser-known parts of this area than navigating along one of the seven main canal routes in a rented boat. Join the Canal de la Marne in Bar-le-Duc and keep going until you come to Strasbourg, visit Verdun while heading up the Meuse on Canal de l'Est, or experience the Saint Louis-Arzviller inclined plane, which replaces 17 traditional locks with a "cable-car for boats" on a 41-degree slope. There are plenty of opportunities to stop off and visit the nearest town, but the absorption and peace of river life might dissuade you. Information from Voies Navigables de France, 28 bvd Albert I, 54000 Nancy (00 33 3 83 95 30 01) or 25 rue de la Nuée Bleue, 67000 Strasbourg (00 33 3 88 21 74 74).

I'm not much of a sailor

All these canals also mean excellent cycling territory. There are miles and miles of cycle tracks, numerous places to rent bikes and all the tourist offices have booklets on manageable day trips or longer ventures. Several companies organise biking holidays – the regional offices of the French cyclo-tourism federation are good sources of addresses; Alsace – 00 33 3 88 26 94 45, Lorraine – 00 33 3 83 21 35 12. If that all sounds a little too active there's an extensive rail network in both regions. In Alsace, the SNCF's "Evasion Pass" offers special rates for individual or group day trips and reductions to certain museums. Information from railway stations or visit www.region-alsace.fr. Some tourist trains exist in corners that the SNCF doesn't cover.

What about some culture?

Both regions are positively bursting with museums to suit every taste. Epinal's Museum of Ancient and Contemporary Art is worth a detour just for the innovative glass-dominated architecture, built around the 17th-century ruins of a hospital; at another glass-fronted building, the Modern and Contemporary Art Museum in Strasbourg, a gold-headed horse stands watch over the town. But the real museum capital of Alsace is Mulhouse, the 19th-century "French Manchester", where past industrial glory is commemorated in the Historical Museum, Railway Museum, Textiles Museum, Wallpaper Museum and the fabulous National Automobile Museum which has more than 500 vintage cars, including the impossibly expensive Bugatti Royale, manufactured up the road in Molsheim.

Much for the children?

If none of the traditional museums take their fancy, try the Ecomusée, a vast open-air museum in Ungersheim, not far from Mulhouse (00 33 3 89 74 44 74). More than 70 farms, rural houses and other buildings, originally due for demolition, have been dismantled, transported here and reconstructed brick by brick. Goats, geese and sheep wander around the farm, workshops demonstrate traditional skills such as pottery and ironwork, and there are opportunities for children to try their hand at cheese-making, hand crafts and cooking.

Animal lovers should head for Hunawihr (a butterfly garden, a stork-rearing centre and an aquarium with otters and penguins) or neighbouring Kinzheim (where Barbary monkeys wander freely, and bird-handling demonstrations take place in the medieval castle). In Lorraine, Fraispertuis Attractions Park in Jeanménil (00 33 3 29 65 27 06) features water rides, dippers and gold-panning.

This all sounds very active

It doesn't have to be: there's a long history of "taking the waters" at various hot and cold springs in the Vosges and along the Rhine valley. The therapeutic properties of Vittel, Contrexéville or Bains-les-Bains are even recognised by the French health service, which pays for people to take week-long "cures" in mountain resorts, but these spa towns offer rest-and-relaxation, special weight-loss programmes and anti-stress weekends for anyone needing to get away from it all. For a Vosges Thermales brochure, write to PO Box 332, 88008 Epinal.

When's the best time to go?

Autumn and winter might not seem the ideal time to visit northern Europe, but Colmar, for example, has a lower annual rainfall than Antibes. The wine harvest is currently in full swing, and autumn's mellow fruitfulness is fêted in numerous wine and harvest festivals throughout September and October. In Alsace, Barr's fête des vendages will draw crowds from 5-7 October, but almost every village will have a wine, pumpkin or chestnut festival at some point. Innovative theatre, dance, opera – all are thriving. Nancy hosts its annual "Jazz Pulsions" festival from 6-20 October, and Strasbourg is currently enjoying the "Musica" international festival of modern classical music (till 6 October). The Metz Opera is gearing up for its 250th anniversary celebrations in early 2002, Alsatian-language theatre is holding its ground, and there's something different on every night.

Once winter sets in, more festivities start, and Strasbourg turns on the magic as "Christmas Capital of Europe". The open-air Christmas market is open daily from the end of November, when artists and gift-sellers set up stall around the cathedral and pine trees are laid out for sale next to gluhwein in Place Broglie. But smaller towns and villages have less commercialised markets at weekends. Lorraine focuses on St Nicholas' Day, with a torch-lit procession in St-Nicholas-de-Port and a parade of decorated floats through Nancy.

There are also winter sports to enjoy. Admittedly, the Vosges don't boast Alpine altitudes, but prices are much more reasonable and there's decent skiing to be had in La Bresse, Gérardmer, Lac Blanc and other stations. Almost 800 miles of cross-country ski tracks twist through pine-covered woods, and there are opportunities for dog-sledging, snow-shoeing and snow-boarding. Take a ski lift to Schnepfenried for some of the best views across the Vosges, or simply enjoy the après-ski. Information from the regional tourist offices or Ski France in Paris (00 33 1 47 42 23 32) or visit www.skifrance.fr.

Maybe something for the soul now, please

Alsace's patron saint is Sainte-Odile, the blind daughter of a tyrannical duke who was eventually sufficiently moved by her piety to allocate land and a castle for her convent. At the summit of Mont Sainte-Odile, the convent and Ste-Odile Chapel are the centre for a pilgrimage on 13 December. The hill is surrounded by a mysterious "pagan wall" – archaeologists have long disputed its age and origins. In Lorraine, the superb basilica of St-Nicholas-de-Port rises from the salt marshes like a beacon, its creamy stonework in sharp contrast to Strasbourg cathedral's pink sandstone. The child-friendly St Nicholas is celebrated in Lorraine on 6 December, almost three weeks before Santa Claus arrives elsewhere.

Any souvenirs?

If Alsace prides itself on its wines, Lorraine specialises in eaux-de-vie, flavoured with cherry, mirabelle or quetsche plums. Bar-le-Duc produces a unique redcurrant jam beloved of Alfred Hitchcock – the pips are individually removed from each berry before cooking. They've also been making crystal in Lorraine for centuries, and companies such as Baccarat and Daum still produce wonderful pieces. More durable (and affordable) gifts include blue-and-grey pottery from Betschdorf in northern Alsace or round kougelhopf dishes from Soufflenheim. Hand-made Christmas decorations and Gérardmer linen should last for years.

Quiche Lorraine for dinner? You can if you want, but there's a lot more to local cuisine than that. Alsace is renowned throughout Europe for its food, with visitors coming on gastronomy tours especially to enjoy the ubiquitous choucroute, bäeckeoffe (three-meat stew) and kougelhopf (a round almond and raisin sweet bread). Pretzels and tarte flambée are good for snacks. Fresh-water fish, especially carp and trout, are also a speciality, and fresh Munster cheese is best bought in one of the farms around the town of the same name. Apart from quiche, Lorraine's best known dish is tarte à la mirabelle, made with the distinctive plums currently in season.

The Romans introduced viticulture to this region, and there are seven official grape-varieties: riesling; gewürztraminer, sylvaner, pinot blanc, tokay pinot gris, muscat d'Alsace and pinot noir. Often scorned by wine connoisseurs, Alsatian wine is experiencing a renewal of interest, as vineyards change their emphasis from quantity to quality.

The Route des Vins from Marlenheim to Thann passes right through Alsace, taking in a succession of picturesque villages, such as Ribeauvillé, Riquewihr and Kaysersberg past low vine-covered hills and castle-topped crags.

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