France's Alsace-Lorraine Is a Special Corner of Europe

By Robert Selwitz Modified: May 8, 2013 at 3:25 pm •  Published: May 8, 2013
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The blend of French and German cultures in Alsace-Lorraine, France's most northeastern sector, has created a fascinating potpourri that makes this one of Europe's most appealing destinations.


    Originally part of the largely German-based Holy Roman Empire, today's territory was French from the mid-16th century until 1871, when Germans won the Franco-Prussian War. It stayed that way until 1919, the year after Germany lost World War I.
    When Germany took over France early in mid-1940, the territory again reverted. But after France and its allies ultimately prevailed in World War II, Alsace-Lorraine was reunited with France.
    Strasbourg, capital of Alsace and the area's most important city, is a living museum of architectural styles, art, streets and canals. And its Petite France district is one of Europe's best-preserved medieval quarters.
    Founded as a Roman camp, Strasbourg roared to prominence during the Middle Ages. Its most majestic remnant from that time is the soaring 465-foot-tall cathedral erected between the 11th and 15th centuries. Indeed, the cathedral, completed in 1439, was Europe's tallest structure until the 19th century.
    The view from the top is said to be worth the arduous climb. Equally impressive are its graceful stonework, beautiful stained-glass windows and the mutlifaceted astronomical clock that draws massive crowds to its noontime "Apostles Parade."
    Nearby is the Maison de l'Oeuvre Notre-Dame, the former home of the stonemasons guild. Today it displays one of Europe's most impressive collections of medieval statuary. Some pieces were used to adorn the cathedral but were replaced by copies to protect the originals from weathering and pollution.
    Steps away is the city's history museum, housed in a former hall of the butchers guild. Filled with clever interactive displays, it offers a fine overview of Strasbourg's history through the rise of Napoleon. One highlight is a building-by-building model-map of the city commissioned by King Louis XV in 1727 that fills an entire room.
    Visitors can spend hours investigating Strasbourg, crossing canals and walking along the Ill River. The Ill, very near the Rhine, was key to the city's role as a trading hub. Not far away are the city's old ramparts and the spacious museum of modern and contemporary art.
    Forty minutes to the south by train is Colmar, a compact and delightfully walkable city. Numerous half-timbered homes, navigable canals, a bevy of medieval and renaissance structures, and a dedication to wine production are all part of its allure.
    Highlights include the 14th-century Church of St. Martin that houses Martin Schongauer's Virgin of the Rose Bush, an extraordinary multi-panel masterpiece. Then there's the Koifhus -- a customs house built in 1480 -- which was a critical player during centuries of city commerce. Also to look for are dozens of silhouette-style commercial signs by "Hansi," the moniker of Jean-Jacques Waltz. They're famous for his 19th- and 20th-century caricatures and engravings, many of which are subtle, satiric protests against German occupation.
    Colmar's Unterlinden museum is another must. Housed in a former 13th-century convent, its prize possession is the Isenheim Altarpiece. Nickolaus Hagenauer carved the work in 1505, and in 1515 Matthias Grunewald painted a series of panels that were attached to the wooden altarpiece. It's considered one of the world's most treasured works of ecclesiastical art.
    The museum also shows its vast display of silver and gold treasures, medieval paintings by artists including Schongauer and Lucas Cranach, and a huge collection of hunting and military weapons.
    Then there is the Bartholdi Museum, housed in the birthplace of sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, father of the Statue of Liberty. Exhibits detail his step-by-step creation process -- via sketches, drawings and models -- of the 19th- century icon.
    Colmar is also a good place to begin forays into regional winemaking and other medieval towns. Among these is Riquewihr, an ideal day trip, a half-hour and a $4.50 bus ride (or $45 cab ride) away. The bus stops are outside Colmar's rail station and just steps from Place Voltaire, Riquewihr's main entry point.
    Gorgeously preserved in a region where World War II destruction was intense, this 1,300-resident town draws some 2 million annual visitors. Half-timbered dwellings line the streets that are encircled by a single wall dating to 1291and -- in some places -- parallel outer ramparts, erected around 1500, also stand.
    Lorraine's capital of Nancy is another must. Prime draws include Place Stanislas, one of Europe's great public spaces. There's also an amazing proliferation of Art Nouveau buildings and design, the result of the movement having bloomed here during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
    Elegant, spacious Place Stanislas features gold-festooned gates, stately public buildings, comfortable cafes and a statue of the beloved Stanislas Leszczynski, the 18th-century son-in-law of King Louis XV of France. When Leszczynski was forced to abdicate the Polish throne (for the second time!) in 1733, Louis, who was quite fond of him, made Stanislas Duke of Lorraine.
    During his 33-year reign, he worked hard to improve conditions in his unexpected realm. En route, his masterpiece -- the 406-by-347-foot square in his name -- was created between 1752 and 1755. It converted a former open area between Nancy's medieval quarter and a newly built district into the fabulous space seen today. Its appeal became even greater in 2005, when motor vehicles were banned.
    It is easy to spend hours here perusing the ducal palace, Arc de Triomphe and City Hall, and the Museum of Fine Arts. Not to be missed is the collection of hundreds of pieces of Art Nouveau Daum glass in the basement, which is  cleverly displayed amid the structure's medieval foundations.
    Also prominent are Nancy's opera house and stately gilded iron gates at each corner of the square plus two amazing fountains. Place Stanislas is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site.
    To reach the heart of Nancy's "older" old town, it's necessary to pass through the Arc de Triompe and Place de la Carriere on the other side. Beyond are streets quite reminiscent of Paris' Marais district. The Musee Lorraine, occupying a former Franciscan monastery, and its impressive archaeological and medieval collections, plus rooms that replicate interiors of 19th-century rural homes are all worth a visit.
    Art Nouveau, the movement that peaked around the turn of the 20th century, put forth the idea that art should be everywhere, not just in formal settings. Thus fabric, jewelry, ceramics, furniture, stained glass and architecture reflect this egalitarian concept.
    The Musee de l'Ecole de Nancy offers a fascinating summary of those years. Occupying the former home and garden of patron and art collector Eugene Corbin (1867-1952), it displays works of Emile Galle, Eugene Vallin, Louis Majorelle and other movement leaders. The beds, furniture, tables and cabinets comprise an amazing collection that shows off the diversity of Art Nouveau.
    Also not to miss are the extraordinary glass roof of the Credit Lyonnais Bank, built in 1901, and interior decorations at the Gingko Pharmacy by Majorelle. And the Brassiere Excelsior, a 103-year-old restaurant, is festooned with stunning stained glass, chandeliers, sculptures, furnishings and soaring arches.
WHEN YOU GO
    For general French travel information: www.us.rendezvousenfrance.com
    In Strasbourg, the Hotel Beaucour Baumann is comfortable and just a short walk from the city's key sites: www.hotel-beaucour.com.
    In Colmar, the Romantik Hotel Le Marechal is an ideal base from which to explore the city: www.hotel-le-marechal.com or www.romantikhotels.com.
    In Nancy: Park Inn by Radisson Nancy hotel is a comfortable property directly across from the railway station: www.parkinn.com.
    Brasserie Excelsior: www.brasserie-excelsior.com
   
    Robert Selwitz is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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