Alsace is a region in the northeast of France, consisting of the departments of Haut-Rhin and Bas-Rhin, and part of the administrative region Grand-Est together with Lorraine and Champagne-Ardenne. It covers the alluvial plain to the west of the Rhine, and is bordered by the Vosges mountains to the west, and the German and Swiss borders to the north, east and south.
It is a region that blends French and German culture into a unique mix, with a distinct cuisine, many charming towns and villages to visit and of course the world-famous Alsatian wines.
Smaller villages and towns
The river Rhine has been a major artery of movement in NW Europe since prehistory. At Basel, the Rhine takes a sharp turn to the north and flows through an extensive alluvial plain, separating the Vosges mountains from the Black Forest. The area has been densely inhabited for a long time, with archaeological finds dating back to the Palaeolithic. In the Late Iron Age, it was inhabited by the German tribe of the Triboci. In 58 BC, Julius Caesar won a battle against the Germanic tribes along the Rhine, and the Romans then occupied the area. It remained under Roman rule until the 5th century, when the German tribe of the Alemanni came into the area.
Alsace has through its history changed hands between Germany and France on several occasions. The local culture is distinct, and the region offers historic cities and castles, and interesting countryside.
Alsace also has some of the most beautiful cathedrals and churches in Western Europe. The stunning Strasbourg Cathedral is a unique example of a mix of roman and gothic architecture and has the peculiarity of having one tower only and of being built with pink Vosges gres.
Due to their tumultuous past history, Alsatians are extremely proud to be French and take great offense in being mistaken for Germans when they go overseas or to inland France. You will not see more French flags on the streets of any other inland French cities. Alsatians have a very deep attachment to France, even if the French Government has not always reciprocated. During WWI, all Alsatian men were sent by the Germans to the Russian front. Some boys managed to escape before being sent there and went to Paris to enroll in the French army. This act of courage however came at a dire price as the family of those "malgré nous" would often be killed or sent to concentration camps.
The Bas-Rhin is the northern department of Alsace; Haut-Rhin refers to the department south of Selestat.
Alsace is divided East by the Rhine river (also forming the natural border between France and Germany) and West by the Vosges mountain range.
French is the official language and spoken by everyone, young and old. German dialect is still widely spoken by the older generation and in the more rural areas. The English language can be still limited to the younger generation. In some areas, the population may still use the native German dialect of Alsatian, an Allemanic German dialect similar to that spoken across the German border in western Baden-Württemberg or in northwestern Switzerland, but you will always find someone who can speak French fluently. Knowledge of standard German has again become important for economic reasons, but certainly English is more likely to play this role.
The Alsatian dialect was widely spoken in the big cities before WWII. After the war, people were discouraged from speaking anything else but French and children were even punished if heard speaking Alsatian on the playground.
In the last 30 years, the Alsatian dialect has rapidly declined and therefore the French Government has put in place some measures to try and save it. Children at school can take in optional "Regional Language and Culture" lessons and can even choose this subject as an optional one in their final high school examination. To an unexercised ear, Alsatian might sound very similar to standard German, when it is in fact very different. As there is no written grammar, Alsatian is pretty much a free agent and whenever new words come into the everyday vocabulary, people will normally choose the French word over the German ones. Today, Alsatian is enjoying a small resurgence with many communities,(including Strasbourg),posting bi-lingual street signs in both standard French and Alsatian dialect as the stigma associated with German culture is no longer an issue.
The Haut-Rhin département is served by Euroairport, the airport that serves Mulhouse, Basel and Freiburg, with excellent links by road and train to these cities. Budget airline Easyjet offers links to London and Liverpool. A smaller airport also exists at Entzheim, near Strasbourg. But the easiest way to get in is by road. The Bas-Rhin département is linked to Paris and the rest of France by the A4 highway and the N4 road, when the Haut-Rhin is linked to west by the N59 road (via the tunnel of Ste-Marie-aux-Mines) and to the south (Belfort) by the A36 highway. Other small roads link Lorraine to Alsace, but they're all really winding since they go through the Vosges. The main access to Switzerland is the A35 highway (between Mulhouse, France and Basel, Switzerland). If you arrive from Germany, you can cross the Rhine easily at one of several bridges.
Alsace has an extensive rail network due to its shared borders with Germany and Switzerland, with rail links to both of these countries passing through the region. The French SNCF and TGV networks pass through Alsace. Rail links to Freiburg and Basel are found at Mulhouse, and Strasbourg has direct connections to Germany, Paris and other cities in France.
It is best to have a car so you can explore all the little villages, stop for wine tastings and see the ruins of castles. The area is well served by train.
Alsatian cuisine is very distinctive; heavily German-influenced with a Gallic flavour. According to Alsatians, sauerkraut (French: choucroute) was invented here. In addition, a traveller can expect to find tarte flambée (an onion, bacon, and creme fraiche 'pizza' - Flammkuchen in German), Baeckehoffe and all sort of Charcuterie in abundance in Alsatian restaurants, nestling alongside escargots, "cuisses de grenouilles" and crème brûlée. Alsace is the smallest region in France, but it possesses the largest number of five-star chefs per inhabitant.
Alsace is also home to some of the best and most renowned beers in the world, like Kronenbourg, Kanterbrau or Fischer.
Alsace is a predominantly rural region with a low crime rate. Visitors to Strasbourg should heed the same advice for any major city; do not flash cash, be sympathetic but not gullible with beggars; don't wander down dark alleys alone.