OFFERING traditional treats, a unique atmosphere and strong cultural identity, all the more magical under recent festive lights, Alsace in northeastern France is an ideal destination for a winter holiday. You can be sure that a short break in the historic cities of Strasbourg and Colmar will provide a feast for the eyes, and indeed the palate.
The streets, houses, church facades, windows and balconies shine with a thousand lights and colors starting from the first Sunday of Advent until the first week of January. The delicious smell of cakes, traditional Bredele cookies and the fine aromas of vin chaud (hot wine) pervades.
The magical atmosphere seems to rub off on the area and its people around this time; winter is the season of traditional Alsace.
Despite the border region's turbulent history as a battleground over the centuries and most recently its tribulations during the German occupation during World War II, Alsace exudes a charm that attracts tourists from all over the world.
To the east of Alsace is the German region of Baden Wurttemberg, while to the south lies the Swiss city of Basel. The combined region shares a long history of political and cultural ties that are apparent in Alsace today.
A fascinating mix of French and German history, architecture, music, language, culture and food defines the region.
Local people speak both French and Alsatian - a German dialect - and the region has maintained its own local legislation, applying specific customs and laws on certain issues due to historical reasons, despite being part of France.
Alsace's attractions are many: from the treasures of its medieval architecture, the picturesque streets of its historic cities and the crown jewels of its historic places of worship in Strasbourg and Colmar; to its famed wines and rich heritage in cuisine.
The region offers plenty to keep visitors occupied and enchanted by its traditional charms.
The rich history of Strasbourg makes a trip to the regional capital a must-do on any trip to Alsace. Founded by the Romans in 12 BC on an existing Celtic township, Strasbourg occupies a strategic position in Europe, at a meeting point of north-south and east-west routes.
The choice of Strasbourg as the European capital following World War II is no accident. The city stands as a symbol of reconciliation between peoples and of the future of Europe. It is the official seat of the European Parliament and several other European institutions.
Thanks to the richness of its heritage sites, the town center of Strasbourg was listed as UNESCO World Heritage in 1988.
It is rare for an entire town center to receive this distinction and Strasbourg was the first place in France to receive such an honor.
The environs of the Strasbourg Cathedral and the neighborhood of Petite France are natural tourist attractions.
An outstanding masterpiece of Gothic art, majestic in scope with its ample proportions watching over the city, the cathedral was described as "a skillful combination of monumental size and delicateness" by writer Victor Hugo and is known as one of the most beautiful Gothic cathedrals in Europe.
With a 142-meter tower, it was considered the tallest building in the Christian world until the 19th century.
Inside the cathedral, the 16th-century Renaissance astronomical clock is a masterpiece in its own right. Little wooden figures revolve to mark the passage of time, ringing bells every 15 minutes. Every hour the figure of Christ chases away the skeletal image of Death.
The area around the cathedral is the city's oldest and the star of the Cathedral Square is without a doubt the famous Kammerzell House.
This 15th- and 16th-century Renaissance house has the most richly decorated half-timbered panels in the city and today features a restaurant and a three-star hotel.
La Petite France is only a 15-minute walk away along the river bank and is perhaps the most romantic and picturesque district in the city. Take time to stroll along the banks and gaze at the reflections of the half-timbered 16th-century houses in the water, their exposed dark wooden beams criss-crossing whitewashed walls. The area's narrow cobbled streets are lively in the evening, with restaurants serving up Alsatian food.
At the heart of the Alsace wine route, Colmar may not be the capital of Alsace, but it remains a diverting and enticing place in itself. Situated near Germany and Switzerland, between the Vosges and the Rhine, Strasbourg and Mulhouse, this immaculate city holds enough diversions to delight a visitor.
Wonderfully preserved from the ravages of time, art and history are incomparable here, and the atmosphere relaxed and intimate. A little bit French a bit more German, with some Venetian ambiance thrown in for good measure, Colmar's old town is the main attraction. It features old Alsace dwellings in abundance - most picturesque with flower-covered balconies and oriel windows.
All of the major sites are within easy walking distance and concentrated around the old town. As you stroll from one delight to another, pause before the Maison Pfister on Rue de Marchands, which was built in 1537 and is lavishly decorated with frescoes. It is widely recognized as being one of the most ornate and well-preserved buildings of its kind.
It is also surrounded by some other fine examples of the architecture.
Built in 1609, the House of Heads on Rue des Tetes owes its name to the 106 heads or grotesque masks that decorate a rich facade, on which a three-story bay window is also located. Adolph House on Place de la Cathedrale is considered one of the oldest homes in Colmar, built in 1350. It gets its name to the Adolph family, who removed the Gothic picture windows at the end of the 19th century.
Saint Martin's Collegiate Church, built between 1235 and 1365, is another important example of Gothic architecture in Alsace. The colored tile roof is a striking feature of the church's exterior.
Finally, you should not leave the city without strolling around the romantic Petite Venice, with its meandering canals lined with willow trees and flower-decked cafes.
Alsace food and wine
Alsace is the home of some of the oldest vineyards in France. Early in its history, the region was an integral part of the Roman Empire, exposed to Rome's culture - including its love of wine. The Roman occupiers identified that the eastern banks of the Rhine River were ideal for siting vineyards.
While much less famous than the Bordeaux and Burgundy regions, Alsace remains a producer of some amazing white wines and some of the finest late harvest wines, also known on a more commercial level as "ice wine."
Typical Alsace varieties such as Gewürztraminer, Muscat, Riesling, Sylvaner or Pinot Noir are well-established favorites among wine lovers. Across the border in Germany similar varieties are also cultivated, also producing some extremely attractive white wines.
Alsace also has a strong gastronomic tradition, its cuisine intrinsically linked to its wine heritage. Having passed to and fro between France and Germany during its history and with strong ties to powerful church figures, Alsace developed a very rich culinary tradition that manifests itself today in the number of Michelin-starred restaurants it boasts - one of the highest concentrations in France.
Further evidence of Alsace's culinary reputation is found in the fact that German and Swiss neighbors have long hopped across the border to sample some of the best food available in this part of France.
It is widely claimed that the most modern interpretation of world-famous delicacy foie gras comes from the north of Alsace.
The controversial practice of force-feeding geese was recorded among the ancient Egyptians, and was believed to practiced first and was introduced to the Alsace region by Jewish settlers.
In the 18th century the modern-day delicacy were invented in Strasbourg.
Another very famous dish known across continents is choucroute - or sauerkraut - a signature dish from Alsace, as well as being German traditional fare.
This fermented cabbage dish was taken by sailors on long voyages to prevent scurvy and other conditions caused by vitamin deficiencies.
The festive season also sees the appearance of special dishes and snacks. Among the most delicious are cookies made of natural grains and nuts and spices.
If you go
Where to eat in Alsace
Au Crocodile (10 rue de I'Outre, Strasbourg): Intimacy, elegance and harmony reign in this one Michelin starred Strasbourg institution, which exudes a certain classicism. Chef Philippe Bohrer respects Alsace traditions and gives the best of it through his cuisine, composed of delicate and new flavors. The choice of wine is in perfect harmony with the refined character of the various dishes on the menu.
L'Auberge de l'Ill (2 rue de Collonges au Mont d'Or, Illhaeusern): The classic French restaurant was first awarded a three-star Michelin rating in 1967 and continues to be one of the oldest three-star establishments in France. The restaurant has served as a school for many of the world's premier French chefs, such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
Chez Yvonne (10 rue du Sanglier, Strasbourg): This traditional Alsatian restaurant is where former French president Jacques Chirac comes when he is in town: a homey place with wood paneling, choucroute on the menu and a convivial atmosphere.
La Maison des Tetes (19 rue de Tetes, Colmar): A huge, handsomely restored old dining room with a gleaming white porcelain stove and honey-colored pine paneling that forms private dining alcoves. Specialties include home-made foie gras with Riesling, marmalade of apple in a Muscat jelly, fillet of beef with goose liver in a crust of choucroute, roasted duck in spices.
Where to stay
Hotel Rohan (17 rue du Maroquin, Strasbourg): In the heart of Strasbourg's historic city center and just a stone's away from the Notre Dame Cathedral, the hotel has 36 elegant rooms, each with its own unique decoration.
Hostellerie Le Marechal (Petite Venice, Colmar): A 16th-century hideaway overlooking the picturesque River Launch in the heart of the medieval town of Colmar, Hostellerie Le Marechal is a tranquil retreat. Rooms and suites are decorated with brocades and antique furniture overlooking the canal.
How to get there
Alsace has two major international airports: Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg Airport in the Upper-Alsace and Strasbourg Airport in the Lower-Alsace. From Shanghai, Air France, Lufthansa and Swiss Air offer services to and from Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg airport. TGV trains run between Paris and Mulhouse for two and a half hours.