Cycling the Alsace Wine Route: From One Beau Village to the Next

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Bergheim, Alsace: 4-flower rated village

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.

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Cycling through the Medieval town gate in Rosheim

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.

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St. Odile fountain in Obernai

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Place du Marché (Market Square) in Obernai

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.

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The gingerbread house in Gertwiller

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.

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Barr town hall market square

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Exploring the streets of Barr

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.

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The cycle path entering Mittelbergheim

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.

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Cycling through 4-flower rated Itterswiller

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A light lunch in Itterswiller

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Inspiring scenery along the bike path heading out of Itterswiller

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.

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Mike entering the old town gate in Dambach-la-Ville

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?

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Market day in Ribeauvillé

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My French 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.

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Looking over the vineyards from Hunawihr’s fortified church

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.

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Gorgeous clock tower and cafe-lined street in Riquewihr

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.

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A soothing scene in beautiful Kientzheim

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.

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The fairytale town of Kaysersberg

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The splendid bike path approach to Kaysersberg

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.

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Main square in Turckheim

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.

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Enchanting Colmar sunset

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Petite Venice district of 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

 

Categories: Biking, France | Tags: , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

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22 thoughts on “Cycling the Alsace Wine Route: From One Beau Village to the Next

  1. All those villages are just dripping with charm. I can only imagine how wonderful that must be to ride through them all. Although they are on the wine route, I suppose you have to wait until the end of the day for a glass otherwise you can’t really ride a bike.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We cheated a lot and started drinking wine well before our final destination of the day. Luckily no mishaps! It helps that most of the paths we were on are bike only (no cars).

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  2. My mind is blown by the sheer number of these charming villages, one after the other! What drew my eyes just as much were the bike paths; they look so civilized and peaceful and manageable. Every post you write on this bike trip makes me salivate a little more over the possibility of doing it ourselves. (What I did not salivate over was whatever is on the far plate at the light lunch in Itterswiller! Holy cow (or whatever animal it is) – that might prevent me from being able to pedal for days afterward! 🙂 )

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    • When I go through my photos now I too am amazed by the number of charming villages. They just keep coming, some less than a mile from each other. The bike paths are totally awesome. They are definitely hillier than the ones we did along the river valleys in Germany but I kind of liked working up at least a little sweat. That thing on Mike’s plate is pork knuckle…not my cup of tea but he enjoyed all of it!

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  3. Total charmers you said it. Very picturesque. Love the Helbig sign. So is the cycle route bikes only? Louise

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Uncool Cycling Club

    Oh my goodness! Impossibly pretty 😎

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Brian Foster

    What a glorious few days of riding. Charm everywhere. How did you keep your eyes on the road without crashing? I would have bedded down for the afternoon and night after that great lunch. Will definitely be putting this region into our plans for France, even if we don’t bike it. Tips for your garden after this trip? Up for your own 4-flower rating? You must be pining for another biking adventure.

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    • It’s a good thing we were on a bike path and not a road with cars after that lunch! A nap would have been nice. I’m sure you guys would love this area. It is really easy to see via car using a place like Colmar as a base and doing day trips. The flowers are incredible. Sadly, I don’t have a green thumb.

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      • Brian Foster

        We would do it by car with many layovers/sleepovers. Like the street named after you. Famous in the region; won’t ask why.

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  6. What a fabulous way to see this part of the world, Caroline. I think I’ve left it too late to learn to cycle now but I can see it through your photos. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re right; cycling was a really enjoyable way to experience this region. I’m not sure it’s too late to learn to cycle, plus there’s the nifty e-bike option to help with the hills😊 . The great thing about our biking trip in Germany and France was that we could concentrate on cycling and the scenery and not worry about car traffic. This makes a huge difference for me.

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  7. Caroline, another great update from your cycling adventures in France! The most striking feature of course is the stunning architecture! While we have not been to Alsace, we also have appreciated the flower rating as a way of distinguishing one village over another and agree that it is often those unmentioned little villages along the way, that can capture one’s heart.

    Your post certainly makes us interested in spending time in this region some day. It is incredible how much diversity there is in France, in terms of architecture and gastronomy in amongst different regions of France. I think this is the most salient feature of France: that one can turn left or right, go North or South and inevitably find beautiful micro systems at the village level that never fail to satisfy the traveller.

    Love all your beautiful photos. The square in Turckheim, Colmar and the arched gate at Dambach la ville. I was just saying to Ben that even though we have been to France over a dozen times together it is amazing how much we still have to discover!

    Wonderful post.

    Peta

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    • Thanks Peta. We have seen very little of France and this lovely region has certainly whet our appetite for more. It is incredible what a diverse country it is. We look forward to picking your brains for other travels in France.
      We were totally amazed by the beauty, architecture, flowers and meticulous condition of even the tiniest rural villages. When we stayed in Hunawihr (population less than 600) we were a tad worried we’d need to get back on our bikes in the evening and ride the 4-6 km to Ribeauvillé or Riquewihr for dinner. It turns out that this little hamlet had several simple but excellent restaurants. I think this is common in France, but rarely happens here.
      We were really impressed with Alsace. Cheers, Caroline

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  8. Alsace is certainly one of my favourite regions! Love the landscape and the Alsatian foods 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Wow! To see one ot two of those charming villages would have been great, but it looks like each stop was cuter than the one before! How many days in total would you need?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I mentioned in one of the comments above that seeing all these cute villages became a bit of a blur. It’s a good thing I take notes and that technology enables me to see where my photos were taken! The number of days really depends on how much you want to see. If time constrained, 3 days in Colmar that include day trips would work. On bike, between Strasbourg and Colmar I think you need to budget at least 7-8 days (there’s lots to see in both these cities plus detours along the way). If you ever need details just let me know.

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  10. Beautiful photos! You must feel really rewarded when seeing all these charming views after a long hike! Looking forward to reading another post about the Castle!

    Liked by 1 person

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