A Weekend in the Entirely Delightful Alsace

For those of us lucky enough to live in south-west Germany, the Alsace region of France is the perfect destination for a weekend trip, close enough to drive to in less than a couple of hours after leaving work on Friday and yet so different that it’s like being away on a real vacation. There are many charming and inexpensive hotels to stay in. One of my current favorites is La Source des Sens in Morsbronn-les-Bains, about 10 minutes drive from Hagenau. Other good places to stay are Ottrott, Saint-Hippolyte, Ammerschwihr.

This time though, we were heading for a gourmet temple, L'Auberge de l'Ill in Illhaeusern. The previous three months had been rather distressing for me and my husband suggested that this special treat would cheer me up. We stayed in la maison du pêcheur or fisherman’s cottage, an extra room in the garden of the Auberge de L’Ill. Based on a typical Alsation tobacco-drying shed, our cottage consisted of a tiny living room, the width of a two-seater couch downstairs and a tiny bedroom, slightly wider than a double bed upstairs, as well as a remarkably spacious bathroom. On the banks of the river Ill, it was utterly charming.

La grande bouffe or vinaigrette, cheese, butter and Maître Anthony
Eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant is expensive, not something most of us can afford, or indeed would even want, to do very often. But personally I would rather save the money I could spend on indifferent pizzas or tired curries, and instead experience really top-quality cuisine once or twice a year. Because the local Alsace wines are very much more reasonably priced than, say, French Burgundies or Bordeaux, a meal at a top restaurant in Alsace is much more reasonably priced than a similar meal in other parts of France. On the first evening we took the menu, seven small courses chosen by the chef to show the best of his cooking. This is usually a wise choice for first-time visitors and we proved this to be true for us on the second evening when the individual dishes we chose were excellent but the final meal was less harmonious.

One interesting thing I find about great restaurants is that while of course the grand dishes, lobster and the like, are wonderful, sometimes I am more impressed by apparently simple things like the teaspoon of vinaigrette on a salad making up the amuse-bouche, or the excellent butter, almost certainly from Maître Bernard Anthony, eleveur de fromages, cheese pope of southern Alsace, who supplies most of the best restaurants in the region and has his own quaint restaurant adjoining his shop in Vieux Ferrette. Maître Anthony’s cheese shop is open on weekdays in the afternoon and on Saturday mornings. The restaurant is open from Thursday to Sunday evening and advance reservation is essentíal. Sundgauer Käsekeller Bernard Antony, 17, Rue de la Montagne, 68480 Vieux Ferrette; telephone +33 389 40 42 22.

Hiking
When you are stressed or distraught, hiking in beautiful countryside helps to put things in perspective, and if you are happy as can be, it merely emphasizes how perfect life can be. Some years ago we bought a book in a second-hand bookstore in Strasbourg: Wanderwege im Elsass. 60 Rundwanderungen in den Vogesen by Rudolf Ritter. Our version was published back in 1987, amazon.de has a 1999 version. This little book is quaintly old-fashioned, but Ritter’s walks are still signposted with the same markings provided by the Club Vosgien and the places of interest which he refers to, such as old chapels, look-out posts, or standing stones, are of course still there, as they have been for hundreds of years.

Our first morning, a perfect spring morning, sunny with a light breeze, we made a short stop in Eguisheim to buy a picnic lunch at a baker’s before heading to Pfaffenheim, the starting point of our four-hour walk (#27 in the book). I was stunned by Eguisheim, which turned out, although not famous like the faintly Disneyesque Riquewihr, to be a lovely village, with charming, narrow lanes, half-timbered houses and the most tasteful tubs of flowers of any village I have seen in Alsace.

We left our car in the square in front of the church in Pfaffenheim and set off up a steep path through vineyards, pausing to say good morning to the first lizard of the summer, sunning himself on a warm rock, and then joined a pilgrim’s path lined by the stations of the cross as well as by a group of stone figures posed in various states of anguish or regret. This footpath turned out to be one of many pilgrims’ routes to the shrine of St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago known as Camino Santiago de Compostela. In less than an hour we had reached the pilgrim’s Chapel of Notre-Dame de Schauenburg. The front door was locked, but we walked round the side to admire the priest’s charming and very colorful terraced garden where we discovered a side door wide open. Inside, I was delighted by the stained glass windows, many of which depicted scenes of village life in earlier times. We were lucky, the air was clear and fresh and from the terrace we could see as far as Freiburg and the Black Forest in Germany.

In another hour we came to the women’s Convent of St Marc. It must have been a happy place, a group of nuns were ahead of us on the path for a while and we could hear their joyful laughter. At 5 p.m. we arrived back in the village where we enjoyed a panache or beer shandy at a pavement café. Afterwards I was tired, happy to relax on our pretty terrace overlooking the river until it was time for dinner.

Next morning, we left our hotel and drove north, stopping at Andlau, close to Selestat, the starting point of our Sunday hike. This walk (#10 in Ritter’s book) led mainly through woods, with just a couple of stunning views, and thus while very pleasant was not quite as interesting as the previous day.

As we drove home we discussed what a very pleasant weekend we had spent, and how lucky we had been with the weather. We realized that while we had intended to buy a jar of foie gras from the restaurant we had forgotten to do so. Oh dear, that means we’ll have to go back soon!

Text © Ailsa Mattaj • Photos used with the kind permission of I. Mattaj