Alsace: Europe's cultural hybrid

BY RICK STEVES Modified: September 25, 2012 at 9:26 am •  Published: September 25, 2012

When you're ready for a break from museums, it's time to hit the road. The Route du Vin — the wine road of Alsace — is an asphalt ribbon tying 80 miles of vineyards, villages, and feudal fortresses into an understandably popular tourist package.

The dry and sunny climate here has produced good wine and happy tourists since Roman times, so vineyard-hopping is a great way to spend an afternoon. Roadside degustation signs mean wine-tasters are welcome, but be prepared for grape varieties that differ from what you might find elsewhere in France.

Riesling is the king of Alsatian grapes; it’s robust but drier than the German style you’re probably used to. Sylvaner — fresh and light, fruity and cheap — is a good Alsatian wine for a hot day. Pinot Gris wines are more full-bodied, spicier, and distinctly different from other Pinot Gris wines you may have tried.

Gewürztraminer is "the lady’s wine" — its bouquet is like a rosebush, its taste is fruity, and its aftertaste is spicy — as its name implies (gewürtz means "spice" in German). In case you really get "Alsauced," the French term for headache is mal à la tête.

Along with its wine, Alsatian cuisine is world-famous. Even vacationers traveling on a shoestring should spring for a fine meal in Alsace.

You can't mistake the German influence: sausages, potatoes, onions, and sauerkraut. Look for choucroute garnie (sauerkraut and sausage) — although it seems a shame to eat it in a fancy restaurant. Also try sampling Baeckeoffe (a meaty onion-and-potato casserole), Rösti (an oven-baked potato-and-cheese dish), Spätzle (soft egg noodles), fresh trout, and foie gras.

For lighter fare, try poulet au Riesling (chicken cooked ever-so-slowly in Riesling wine). At lunch, or for a lighter dinner, try a tarte à l’oignon (like an onion quiche, but better) or tarte flambée (like a thin-crust pizza with onion and bacon bits). Dessert specialties are tarte alsacienne (fruit tart) and Kuglehopf glacé (a light cake mixed with raisins, almonds, dried fruit, and cherry liqueur).

For a pleasing taste of European culture, there's nothing quite like Alsace. Visitors enjoy a rich blend of two great societies: French and German, Catholic and Protestant — just enough Germanic discipline with a Latin joy of life.

(Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.)