No other region in France feels so German.
History shapes culture and the history of Alsace was marked by various fights between the French and the German for the control of the territory.
In 1871, Bismarck annexed Alsace (and northern Lorraine) to the newly founded German Empire. Following the end of World War I, the 1919 Treaty of Versailles brought the region of Alsace back into France. Some 20 years later, in 1940, Alsace-Lorraine was incorporated into Hitler’s German Reich. In 1945 however, at the end of World War II, France managed to regain control of the region.
One of the consequences of this constant swapping between what is now considered the Franco-German tandem, is that the local culture has been influenced by both countries. Languages, the “temples in which the souls of those who use them are enshrined” (Oliver Wendell Holmes), are mixed here.
The names of many villages, such as Kaysersberg or Eguisheim for example, are clearly of German/Allemanic origins. The people living there though speak French. Not so surprisingly, many of the people I encountered that week-end (especially those working in the tourism or wine business) also understood German.
Alsace is both French and German.
A region with two temples and people with two souls.
Knowing this, it becomes easy to understand why many Alsatians decided to serve as sailors during World War I, thereby avoiding brotherly fights for the sake of either France or Germany. Nations are created by humans and do not always reflect the complexities of the feelings that are associated with the term “fatherland”.
The route I had chosen for this week-end went from the Hartmannswillerkopf, also called Viel-Armand by the French and often referred to as “the man-eating mountain” since it devoured the lives of 30’000 French and German soldiers during World War I, to the village of Rouffach where we stayed at the Château d’Isenbourg, a Grandes Étapes Françaises Hotel in the hills overlooking the old town of Rouffach, before continuing further North in order to visit Eguisheim, one of France’s most picturesque villages, and Kaysersberg (just as beautiful), as well as the castle of Haut-Koenigsbourg.
Quite a monster program for a two-day weekend but what can I say, except:
I have a faible for roadtrip experiences that provide a variety of impressions and experiences.
HISTORIC SITE: HARTMANNSWILLERKOPF
The Hartmannswillerkopf is a historic site that quietly delivers a rather powerful statement:
Despite all atrocities commited, century old hereditary enemies can find ways to reconcile each other within a few years.
In 1915, French and Germans fought an 11 month-long battle for the control of the peak. At the end of the war, the site became a memorial and a national monument was placed at the entrance of the cemetery. Wandering through the woods and seeing the remains of the trenches and stone shelters provides a strong impression of what living conditions must have been like for the soldiers who battled here. I felt the weight of history in the crypt beneath the cemetery and while standing in the midst of the white crosses of the cemetery, gazing at the French flag floating in the wind. The site exudes a certain solemnity. It doesn’t show much and is also completely free of access (donations are always appreciated of course), but it carries a strong statement.
PICTURESQUE VILLAGES: EGUISHEIM AND KAYSERSBERG
Typical Alsatian villages are often characterized by their colourful half-timbered houses with little doors, bow-windows and balconies, as well as their narrow streets and alleys. Strolling through Eguisheim and Kaysersberg made me feel like I was a character in one of those old illustrated books for children: it’s an enthralling experience.
There is something about old architecture that feels much more organic than the modern buildings I am often surrounded with. Over the centuries, tree roots started piercing through some of the walls and alleys of Eguisheim, the river running through Kaysersberg is an integral part of it’s identity and it’s easy to imagine how a couple of decades ago, it’s inhabitants would wash their clothes in the river, catch fish and fill up their jugs with fresh water.
CASTLE OF HAUT-KOENIGSBOURG
The castle of Haut-Koenigsbourg is an Alsatian fortress built in the 12th century. A witness of countless European conflicts and rivalries between lords, kings and emperors, the castle belonged to various owners such as the Habsburg dynasty and German Emperor Wilhelm II. During its renovation in the early 20th century, the medieval ages were also partly re-imagined, which is why reality and fantasy flow into each other in this place.
I only heard of the castle through the works of John Howe, a former student of the National School of Decorative Arts in Strasbourg and creative director and illustrator for the Lord of the Rings Trilogy under Peter Jackson. The castle of Haut Koenigsbourg inspired John Howe when creating the citadel of Minas Tirith and it’s easy to see how various elements of this place where used to give a visual identity to the fictive white fortress depicted in the works of Tolkien. I was very excited to discover the fortress and the place left a rather strong impression on me. I wish I had taken more pictures while visiting this castle, but since I could very well see myself going there again for a longer tour, I might have a new opportunity very soon.
Rouffach is a village of approx. 4500 people, half-way between Strasbourg and Colmar. It’s located right on the Alsatian Wine trail and driving along the vineyards or passing by century old churches on our way to the Château d’Isenbourg provided a satisfactory feeling of its own kind.
The Château itself sits on a hill overlooking the village of Rouffach, thereby providing a view that can be quite magical on a warm night in spring or summer. The facility has everything that one may wish for in order to fully relax and get pampered “à la française”, but the pool was more than enough for me and all I needed to cool off after the air conditioning in the car had died somewhere between Zurich and Basel.
At some point though, no matter how exciting, every escape has to end.
I will miss the food.
The sounds of French and German languages mixing each other.