Sept 13: today was a day for a side trip, a tour with 5 others and a guide to several villages in Alsace as well as a castle. All were located along what they call the Route de Vins, a trail of over 100 small wineries and postcard-perfect villages chocked full of tourists from around the world. Our guide, Julia (pronounced “Zhoolia”) was really knowledgeable (reminded me of niece Molly) and very funny. Four of the others were American and one was Australian, so Julia did the whole tour in English, which was nice. I am tired of using translation headphones since they don’t allow for questions.
We went first to Koenigsburg Castle, a huge medieval castle restored by Kaiser Wilhelm II (the guy who started WWI). It was atop the highest mountain in the area, and heavily fortified against invaders, but somehow, the invaders managed to invade and BURN a stone castle several times. All the floors and ceilings were wood, so I guess having those burned away would make the castle sort of uninhabitable. Wilhelm never lived in it. It was just a historic preservation project for him and, of course, a symbol of power. Did a nice job. Put in indoor plumbing, too, if you can call having a privy chair suspended in a little shanty extending out from the upper floor of the castle and open to dropped deposits about 50 feet onto the rocks below “plumbing.” Made the castle smell better, I guess, but probably didn’t save any work for the servants who had to clean up below.
But it was not really the toilet technology that impressed me. It was the heating system. I had never before seen the “stoves” they used in castles for heating. They are huge edifices (like maybe 8 feet tall and 5 feet square) in every room made of beautiful ceramic tiles. Wood is burned inside and the ceramic absorbs the heat and gives it off slowly to the surrounding room. Again, wish I could get my photos to load. Will have to add them when I get back.
After the castle, we went to three small villages that are all World Heritage sites, Equisheim, Rudiwihr, and Colmar. Finally got my first tarte flambee, the classic Alsatian food (a verrrry thin, rustic pizza with cheese, onions and bacon.) Delicious. I probably didn’t eat it in the prescribed manner, but I did my best, folding the slices lengthwise as one eats pizza in New York. Had a glass of the local wine, of course, just to support the local economy. In Equisheim, the town voted #1 in beautiful flowers, we walked the circle of lanes around the outer ring of the medieval village (about a mile) and stopped about every three feet to take more photos, before, you know, tasting the local wines. My favorite part was the marzipan shop. It was unbelievable. Marzipan sculptures of everything from fruit, sausages, sushi and mating piggies! No lie. If you know my love for almond flavoring, you can imagine my raptures. Sadly, you’ll have to take my word for it. I had to eat my purchases so my suitcase would close.
Colmar is the town that everybody says not to miss. It is truly extraordinary. It has such a beautifully restored medieval village within the city that you would think you were in a movie set—which, I guess, is often the case. Parts of Harry Potter (Harry’s early life) were shot here. I doubt that it was so clean and picture perfect in real medieval times, what with all the sewage being thrown out nether windows into the streets. But, I ask you, why dwell on that when one is trying to taste more wines? The real treasure of Colmar is the Isenheim Altarpiece, sculpted and painted in 1512-1516, on display at the Unterlinden Museum. It was painted for the Monastery of St. Anthony near Isenheim, which specialized in hospital work. The monks treated a lot of skin diseases, especially the plague, apparently. The image of the crucified Christ is pitted with plague-like sores to show patients that Jesus understood their suffering. The altarpiece has wings that open to display different sets of extraordinary and realistic paintings from Christ’s life, and is considered a masterpiece. It is one of the most beautiful pieces of art I’ve ever seen. It certainly rivals anything I saw in Italy, partly because the suffering is so vivid and the expressions on people’s faces were so easy to read.
Then, then skies opened up and we ran for the van and headed back to Strasbourg. The whole day was a history buff’s delight, lubricated by wine and marzipan.