Guest Blogger: Ophélie is originally from France but moved to Belgium from McLean, Virginia five years ago. She and her husband have found that kids didn’t have to stop them from doing what they love. Instead, they shared their passion for travel and the outdoors with their young son and daughter. Ophélie can be found on Instragram and Facebook.
Located only five hours by car (or two hours by train) from Paris, Alsace is a cultural region in eastern France, which, since 2014, has been part of the of the Grand-Est administrative region. Due to its location along the French/German border, Alsace has been the center of a centuries long tug-of-war.
Today, when you visit the region, you can see how the influence of the two empires has affected the area in all aspects, including architecture, language, and gastronomy. Alsace is a land of transition, overflowing with history and half-timbered houses and ruins of medieval castles abound. While Strasbourg (the largest city in Alsace) and Colmar (the third largest commune in Alsace) may seem like obvious and attractive places to visit, there is so much that Alsace has to offer, and I highly encourage you to explore the entire area. Indeed, the Alsace Wine Route is located between Strasbourg and Colmar and offers a mosaic of landscapes, including vineyards, forests, picturesque villages, and old castles. Between Christmas and New Year’s Day, we decided to explore the region. With a mix of many of our family’s favorite activities, including hiking, small towns, gastronomy, and wineries, this was the perfect destination for a family trip.
THINGS TO DO
#1: Traditional Villages
Many villages along the Alsace Wine Route are part of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (The Most Beautiful Villages of France), a small association dedicated to promoting tourist appeal of small rural villages with rich cultural heritages. These charming and colorful villages definitely deserve to have their own title and the Alsace Tourism Center lists 18 iconic villages along the Wine Route. Because we were only there for a few days, we could not visit every single village. Instead, we visited fewer places but took the time to get lost in the small streets to immerse ourselves in the magical atmosphere of those small villages.
Although the Christmas market season had ended, the Christmassy vibe of cheerful songs, festive decorations, and seasonal food was still present. We particularly loved Ribeauvillé, a medieval village steeped in history, Kayserberg, a fairytale village surrounded by vineyards with forested hills rising above the town, and Riquewihr, the must-see fortified wine-making village. From mid-November to mid-January, these villages offer treasure hunts with game booklets that are available at the Office of Tourism, which has an office in each village. This was such a fun, interactive, and entertaining way to visit these stunning villages as we were able to roam the illuminated streets of Riquewihr and Kayserberg on the trail of a Christmas treasure while also unraveling several riddles. Our quest brought us away from the main tourist streets and into small narrow streets, where we learned about the history of the place. After a 1-1.5 hour sightseeing walk, we had gathered all the clues and returned to the Office of Tourism with our “mystery word.” All “winners” were offered a reward, which included an Alsatian seven family game, an artisanal Christmas decoration, a wine glass, a local story book, and much more. It was so hard to choose! My kids loved the whole process from finding the clues to picking out a gift, and the treasure hunts are one of their favorite memories of the trip! We did not do the treasure hunt in Ribeauvillé because we were there for less time. Overall, I highly recommend you look into this as an activity if you find yourself visiting around the holidays.
- Most of the towns are closed to traffic, unless you are a resident. Luckily, there is paid parking outside of the villages and the parking is less than a five minute walk to the village.
- The treasure hunts were FREE!
- I highly recommend that you visit the tourist office website to check out the calendar of activities in each village as they tend to offer different activities and events through the year. You can also visit the tourist office desk when you arrive at the village. As a bonus, the tourist office is staffed with friendly people with handy tips to share and free public restrooms (my kids always need to go at the worst possible moment, so I thought this was worth mentioning!).
#2: Vineyards and Wineries
The best way to discover the countryside is to hike it. We followed the “Grand-Crus” Wine Trail, which crosses several villages and is punctuated by signboards, explaining the work happening in the vineyards and the wine making process. Hiking through the Pays de Riquewihr, we were immersed in the heart of the vineyards and, along the way, we discovered the three castles of Ribeauvillé (the Saint-Ulrich, the Ribeaupierre, and the Girsberg) and witnessed the medieval way of life. The old castles truly are a great way to keep the kids motivated and excited while hiking!
If we enjoy very much walking in the vineyards, it’s almost a certainly we will love the final product even more! Raised in a family of wine-producers, I adore traveling to wine regions to discover small producers and taste their wines, while learning about region specific wine making processes. Appellation d’Origine Contrellé (AOC) laws govern French vineyards to ensure consistent and highest-quality winemaking and Alsace has been designated four grape varieties that meet the Grand-Cru AOC designation: reisling, gewürztraminer, pinor gris, and muscat. Along the Alsace Wine Route, many small producers offer degustation (wine tasting) menus and, after trying the amazing Grand Cru Schoenenbourg Reisling at one dinner, we opted to try the Fux-Fuchs GAEC in Zellenberg, a small-family owned production. The tasting room happened to be located next door from our hotel (the Au Riesling Hotel). Although it is tempting to try out the region’s amazing wines at every pit stop, we don’t drink and drive so finding a wine tasting spot within walking distance of our hotel was great – a win-win situation all around.
- Most wineries are open for visiting and tasting Monday through Saturday (9am – 12pm, 2pm – 6pm) without prior reservation.
- Access to vineyards is restricted during harvest season and the month beforehand. Check with the local Tourist Office before planning a visit during the harvesting months (August to October).
- For the wine lovers among you, I highly recommend you check out the Winefolly page on Alsation wines.
- Fux-Fuchs is a family-run wine producing company, with nine hectares (or 22 acres) of vines. They don’t have a website, but you can find their contact information on the Alsace tourism website. I highly recommend you try the Grand Cru Schoenenbourg Riesling!
#3: The Haut Koenigsbourg Castle
The Haut Koenigsbourg Castle cannot be missed during any trip to Alsace. Built in the 12th century, this incredible monument has witnessed the course of European history – constant rivalry between lords, kings and emperors. At the beginning of the 20th century, the German Emperor Wilhelm II (Alsace was controlled by Germany back then!) decided to renovate the castle that had been besieged and destroyed during successive battles. From 1900 to 1908, the Château du Haut Koenigsbourg was restored to its original glory.
Up on the heights of the village of Orschwiller, located a short 25-minute drive from Ribeauvillé, the Haut Koenigsbourg Castle is just a small detour from the Alsatian Wine Route. Perched on a rocky hill at an altitude of 757 meters, the Castle offers incredible views of the vineyards along the Alsatian Plains. A must see if you are in Alsace!
- Free parking is available along the road leading to the castle. There is then a two to 15 minute walk before you reach the castle.
- Plan to spend at least 90 minutes visiting and exploring the Castle.
- Because of stairs (and the terrible freezing air flow in the winter), I recommend you use a baby carrier rather than a stroller.
- Entrance fees are: Adult 9 € (~$11USD), Child 5 € (~$6USD), Student 7 € (~$8.50USD). Kids under six are free.
Alsace is a foodie heaven with countless culinary specialties. The symbol of Alsatian cuisine probably is the delicious choucroute: sauerkraut accompanied with pork meat. While my kids (who are usually not picky eaters) are not big fans of choucroute, they appreciated the flammenkuche (or tarte flambée), a thin tart covered with cream, fried onions, and bacon. Tradition Alsatian specialties also include street foods such as bretzels (fresh baked and soft pretzels, sometimes found with melted cheese on top or accompanied by smoked salmon or ham), and kougelhopf (a sort of brioche and leading symbol of Alsace), to name a few. We sampled as many specialties as physically possible after two days of Christmas family meals. Alsatian food is delicious, but definitely not light!
WHERE TO STAY & WHEN TO VISIT
We stayed at the Hotel Au Riesling, in the heart of Alsace’s vineyards, and we loved it. Au Riesling is a family-owned and run hotel located in the traditional village of Zellenberg along the Alsace Wine Route. Situated between Ribauvillé and Riquewihr, the hotel is ideally located to visit everything in the area. From the terrace, the hotel provides an unrestricted view of the vineyards and a glimpse of the faraway Black Forest and Vosges Mountains. The staff is very friendly and you can feel the warmth that is typical of family-owned and run hotels. The Hotel’s restaurant offers both classical French cuisine and Alsatian specialties, with a selection of local wines. We love our children to try new food and be sensitive to fine food, so we were really pleased that Au Riesling offers a “Children’s Menu,” which is actually half-portions of the regular menu! The time between courses was a bit long, but that is the French way and next door to the restaurant is a room with board games, books, and a television where kids can relax in between meal service.
The Christmas season is really magical in Alsace and therefore is one of the busiest periods of the year in terms of tourism. Consider booking your stay during the week to avoid overcrowding. Between May and October, Alsace’s natural landscape is simply stunning. During this time, the vineyards display shimmering colors, from tender green to deep orange. Apart from the enchanting postcard villages, the Alsatian vineyards really are the charm of the Alsace Wine Route.
Ophélie travels to some stunning locations and this post on Alsace has us wishing we could tag along on their next family adventure! If you find yourself similarly inspired, be sure to check out Ophélie’s other posts on WGWK!
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