So many lovely towns along France’s scenic Alsace Wine Route…which ones are the fairest of them all? That’s what I was musing over on our last night in Strasbourg as we plotted our next six days of exploring Alsace à vélo (Alsace by bike). Looking back at it now, I laugh about my obsession with reading reviews and checking the “flower ratings” of countless villages. No way was I going to miss a town with the coveted 4-flower rating or one on Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (the most beautiful villages of France) list. It turns out that regardless of rating (or no rating at all), every village, town and city we visited was over-the-top charming.
The best decision we made was to base ourselves in three places for two nights each: Obernai (town), Hunawihr (small village) and Colmar (city). Distances between settlements are short and the vineyard countryside that separates them is stunning. We travelled by bike from Strasbourg along the EuroVelo 5 cycle route that connects with the popular Route des Vins d’Alsace cycle path, averaging a leisurely 35 km/day. It’s a great trip to do on bike and the rolling hills made us feel better about indulging in the delicious local wine and cuisine. A convenient regional train that accepts bikes is a handy option if the hills or the wine become too much. Come along for the ride and I’ll introduce you to some of the beaux villages (from north to south)…
Rosheim was not on our radar but turned out to be a perfect lunch stop while waiting out a brief shower. It gives a great first impression with its Medieval-era town gate. Inside, the quaint little town has an authentic, non-touristy feel.
Obernai, our first base for two nights, is an enchanting town with restored buildings from Medieval and Renaissance periods. Records show that its market square has been used continuously for weekly markets since 1301. A fountain featuring St. Odile, the patron saint of Alsace, gracefully overlooks the beautiful square. I wonder if she’s looking down with dismay at the mountains of cheap clothing from China that dominate Obernai’s market today. Despite this, I’m glad we happened to be there on market day (Thursdays) and found a few stalls selling local cheese and baked goods.
Gertwiller is worth a quick detour if you’re a baked goods fan. It specializes in the manufacture of pain d’épices (spice bread), a traditional sweet-spicy and dense loaf cake. It loosely fits in the gingerbread category but bears little resemblance to the cookies typically served around Christmas. If you don’t make it to Gertwiller, pain d’épices is sold all over Alsace. It seems many countries have a version of gingerbread. My favourite is the German lebkuchen, but lets not start WW3.
Barr turns out to be one of our favourite Alsatian towns. Its main square, anchored by an imposing town hall is absolutely gorgeous and its narrow cobblestone streets are fun to explore. Take a look at the flower display in the photo below—hard to believe this is only a 3-flower designated town! A flower rating (from 1 to 4) is awarded to French towns each year based on criteria such as landscaping and flower displays.
Mittelbergheim, a diminutive beauty framed by forested hills and surrounded by vineyards has one of the prettiest locations of any of the villages we visited. Clearly it has earned its title as one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, a designation used to promote small rural villages with rich cultural heritages and scenic beauty. It’s surprisingly devoid of tourists.
Itterswiller was a perfect lunch stop and I could happily say that I had been to one of France’s 4-flower rated villages. The tiny, flower-packed village did not disappoint but after visiting countless towns I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between 2-flower and 4-flower ratings. Our lunch of pork knuckle, chicken in riesling cream sauce, homemade noodles and roasted potatoes was superb but boy were we sluggish back on the bikes.
Dambach-la-Ville is a fortified town with walls and entrance gates dating back to 1325. There’s something magical about cycling through the old gates of these Alsatian towns.
Ribeauvillé is another 4-flower town and one of the most popular tourist centers in Alsace. We were shocked by how packed it was, but there’s no doubt that it has tons of charm especially early in the morning and in the evening when the large tour groups aren’t out. I was intrigued to find a street bearing my surname…perhaps some Ribeauvillé relatives?
Hunawihr is nestled in the vineyards between busy Ribeauvillé and Riquewihr. This tiny village on the Plus Beaux Villages de France list was the perfect base for us— ultra-peaceful but only a few hilly kilometres away from the amenities of both towns. Its fortified church (St. Jacques-le-Majeur) and cemetery are surrounded by a 13th century wall and provide sweeping views of the hamlet and endless vineyards.
Riquewihr, like Ribeauvillé is hugely popular and for good reason. Its main cobblestone street is lined with brightly-painted, timber-framed houses, inviting cafes and plenty of shops. Both places are absolutely worth a visit, but if I had to choose between the two, I’d give Riquewihr—another Plus Beau Village— the nod.
Kientzheim (not be confused with Kintzheim) wasn’t even in our cycling map but I’m so glad we rode in for a peek. It appears to get completely overlooked, probably because everyone is in the neighbouring “must-see” towns of Ribeauvillé and Riquewihr. For those looking for shops and lots of cafes, this isn’t the place, but if a peaceful traditional village is what you’re after, adorable Kientzheim hits the mark.
Kaysersberg is special. With its old Imperial castle looming above pointy gingerbread houses and gurgling creeks, it takes the fairytale features of so many Alsatian villages to the next level. It’s also the stunning approach to the town via the cycle path that has me giving Kaysersberg my vote for favourite village in this part of our travels. Don’t expect to have it to yourself; Kaysersberg is busy but not to the same extent as Ribeauvillé and Riquewihr.
Turckheim is a close runner up for my favourite Alsatian village. It isn’t often mentioned on the “must-see” lists so it’s relatively quiet but it has all the charm and amenities of the hot spots. I fell in love with its easy-going vibe, its cafe-lined cobblestone streets and its whimsical, storybook architecture.
Colmar, a city of over 70,000, is in a class of its own and like Strasbourg (Alsace’s other big city darling) is a must-see. It’s extremely popular but the numerous architectural attractions and large squares help spread out the masses. Colmar is impossibly romantic, particularly the Petite Venice quarter with its flower-lined canals and water-edge restaurants. This was another great base and we happily frittered away a day wandering, eating and window shopping our way through Colmar.
I think by now you must get the idea that Alsatian towns, from tiny to large and no-flower to 4-flower, are total charmers. You can’t really go wrong. My one small regret is not getting to Eguisheim, just south of Colmar that’s both a 4-flower and plus beau village. Darn, I’m still a slave to those ratings!
PS: If you find yourself in this part of Alsace, don’t miss out on Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg, an impressively restored Medieval castle with an interesting history—perhaps the subject of another blog post.
For a summary and links to all segments of our Germany and France cycle trip, see my post Cycle Touring in Germany and France