Travel slowly, staying in vacation rentals (villas, farms, cottages, apartments)
Report 2015: Alpine Adventures and Other Travels in the Rhone, Rhin and Rhön
By wendy lynn from California USA, Summer 2012
Page 12 of 21: Alsace: Colmar, Riquewhir and Castles
Giersberg Castle above Ribeauville, France (Alsace)
Wendy and Joe start our first full day in Alsace by eating breakfast sans kids. The Caveau charges per breakfast, so it's not worth taking the kids who don't want a big breakfast ... and would rather get a few extra minutes of sleep. For €8 you get a croissant, a bit of baguette and coffee and juice. For €11 you can get the continental breakfast, which we never tried but assumed included eggs or meat and cheese. For the kids, we pick up a few pastries and and pieces of fruit at the nearby shops (which are open for business at seven in the morning.)
Our plan is to begin the day in Colmar, a good sized town 20 minutes south of Ribeauville. It's supposed to be nice and boasts a toy museum with a temporary Lego exhibit, which we think Alex will enjoy. As we drive into Colmar, we see a small version of the Statue of Liberty prominently displayed. Joe remembers that Bartholdi, the creator of the Statue of Liberty, comes from Colmar.
Colmar is an old town with a newer and more modern area surrounding the old center. This is unlike Ribeauville which is much smaller -- really a village -- and where everything seems old. We park easily and are a bit hassled by a French homeless guy who wants to "help" with our parking machine. We quickly find the toy museum, which is just okay. The Lego exhibit is small and not very interesting, but Alex seems to enjoy it. There are some barbies and strange dolls that catch Julia's attention. We witness an unpleasant exchange between some Chinese tourists and the museum cashier.
We continue walking through the city, stopping in the cathedral and making our way to the Petite Venice area. The town is charming with the ubiquitous half timber buildings in various pleasing colors and a small river running through the center. We see tourist trains everywhere and a few organized tour groups. Still, nothing too obnoxious. We spy a promising restaurant but aren't hungry enough to eat. We walk a bit more, but aren't overwhelmed by Colmar.
Next stop is Riquewihr, another small fairy book town on the way home to Ribeauville. Riquewihr is slightly more picturesque than Ribeauville, if that's even possible. Riquewihr has a more substantial original city wall and a few large towers that are missing in Ribeauville. Riquewihr's main street is also a pedestrian zone, unlike Ribeauville where occasional cars come through the streets. This makes for easy walking in Riquewihr, but somehow makes the town feel more touristed and a bit more constrained. We are happy to be staying in Ribeauville.
We enjoy Riquewihr and eat lunch at our first creperie. Alex has the best: bacon and mushroom. We also order a ham and cheese, tomato and cheese and a sausage with horseradish that is basically a sausage rolled up in a crepe. Mom and Dad sample the "crement" which is the local champagne. We next stop at a cool Christmas store where Mom purchases a detailed silver cuckoo clock ornament.
Next off to Riquewihr's torture museum. It's quite small and really only includes one torture device. Still, it's ghoulish and awful to imagine what happened inside that tiny space. Below the torture device is a dark pit where prisoners were kept and could hear the torture above. The signs tell of only one successful escape attempt.
The museum also includes quite a bit of WWII liberation material. The Alsatian history is a back and forth of French and German occupation over hundreds of years. In WWII when the Germans took over, they conscripted the young men of Alsace and forced them to fight, mostly on the Russian front as the first line. It's estimated 80,000 Alsatian boys and men died. The ones who returned were treated as traitors by their fellow Frenchmen. Very sad. The joy on the faces in the liberation photographs is easy to understand but does not fully tell the story of the continued sadness for many of the families. The last bit of the museum recreates a few medieval rooms from an actual town merchant who lived in the very space next to the torture tower.
It takes us ten minutes to return to Ribeauville and we are happy to feel that we have chosen the best location to explore Alsace. Joe wants to explore a bit on his own and comes back soon to report that he's found the foot path to the 12th century castles we've been seeing up on the hill -- St. Ulrich, which is the bigger, and Giersberg, which is the smaller. The castles belonged to two brothers who would contact each other by firing arrows into the shutters of the castle. Unfortunately, the brother in Giersberg fired his arrow just as the other brother was opening his window, and instantly killed him. Legend say that on a windy day you can hear the offending brother crying out for the brother he accidentally killed.
Julia doesn't want to hike up -- it does look like a long way up -- but Mom and Alex are game, so Julia stays home with Margaret who would have a hard time hiking that far. The foot path is just beyond the main area of town, a mere ten minute walk from Caveau. It takes us past the Jean Sipp grapes growing on the lower portion of the hill. It's just lovely.
After a 30 minute hike, full of history lessons by Joe (the Crusades up to Medieval times), we make it to Giersberg. A few other people amble about, but it's pretty empty. Giersberg castle is ruined but very dramatically perched on an immense rock outcropping. It affords beautiful views of Ribeauville and the entire area below. We walk a bit further and end up at the St. Ulrich castle which is bigger and more interesting. No one is there and the tower is open. We take lots of pictures and talk about how this was our best castle experience of the trip so far. It's almost 9pm by this time and we have just a little daylight left, so we have to forgo looking for the third castle which is even further up the hill.
We return home with a lesson on the Black Plague. Alex can't get enough of Joe's stories. By the time we get to town, most restaurants are closing, so we gather up Julia and Margaret and head to Caveau's restaurant which is still quite bustling. We order escargot, which the kids love! We also get two tarte flambes, an escargot and a ham and cheese. Both are very good. Wendy orders the coq au vin with spaetzle which is also good if not fantastic. We order a half bottle of the Jean Sipp pino blanc, which comes from the grapes we just walked past. Quite sweet, as most Alsatian wines are, but nice.
Then, off to bed!
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