Which is the most popular of all the thousands of villages in France? Easy. Right now, it’s Bergheim on the Alsace wine route. The ancient walled place, once celebrated for its abundance of witches, was recently voted France’s favorite on a French TV show. Each of the 13 regions of the country nominates a contender: 14the it comes from overseas territories, and the public votes by the hundreds of thousands. It’s like La Voz, but with towns.
Bergheim ran out of 2022 Victor Ludorum. And, here’s the thing, it’s the fourth town in Alsace to win the accolade in the competition’s decade of existence. That is grossly disproportionate.
So… what do the villages of Alsace have? Well, obviously, everyone pretty much votes for themselves. But so do those from other regions. There is much more. It is related to the nature of Alsace, the most civilized part of France that is located at the point where the country meets Germany. There is hardly a town here where you don’t want to stop, smell the flowers, eat large quantities, drink good wine and maybe stay forever.
And yet, a generation or two ago, it would have been unthinkable for an Alsatian village to top a French popularity poll. Alsatians were still stigmatized as “Boches français”. Suspicions arose from the subplot to this beautiful land. The region had been kicked around every time the Latin and Germanic worlds came to blows, which was often. He had traveled between two cultures, two religions and two languages.
More than that, an Alsatian born in 1870 would have changed nationality (from French to German and vice versa) in the 75 years up to 1945. During the wars, Alsace was not simply occupied but integrated into Germany. Thousands of Alsatians enlisted in the Wehrmacht, the vast majority against their will (the “malgré-nous” or “despite ourselves”).
Mistrust among other Frenchmen, fueled by the guttural Alsatian accent, earlier ties to Germany, and these generally unfounded doubts about wartime loyalties, took a turn. That said, I am convinced that it is precisely because of the ravages of their history that Alsatian places like Bergheim are so attractive.
Because Alsatians are regularly beaten, they have taken refuge in an epic domesticity fueled by both French style and German stagecoach. They have created an independent identity from a fusion of the two, so that color and festivity are rooted in hard work, while dressing for Sunday. In town after town, Bergheim and beyond, large half-timbered houses stand out against the landscape. They can be blue, green, pink or, at Hunspach, white. The town corrals are open to the street and are quite meticulously maintained. And the whole is covered with flowers, in particular geraniums, to a rather beautiful degree. It is as if the people combat bad memories with rigor and beauty.
Many, but not all, of the most fascinating villages are located on the wine route, winding some 170 kilometers along the hinge of the Vosges mountains and the Alsace plain, from Marlenheim to Thann. Here, the vines descend to the village gates, and into the forest and more hilltop castles than seem strictly necessary. It’s a folk tale come to life. Historical misery and bloodshed: these places have lived, suffered and fought, they have been defeated leaving only picturesque aftermath.
Some are so meticulously perfect (Riquewihr in particular seems to be in constant preparation for a competition) that, as one guide put it, US visitors often assume they were recently built as movie sets. In truth, these towns speak of the age-old prosperity of decent fellows and apple-cheeked matrons, of working hard, caring for the land, eating plenty, growing flowers, and letting loose at festival time. Arriving is a bit like coming home to a house you never knew you had.
And eating plenty is something we can all join in on. Frankly, there are not many options. Moderation at the table is feasible in Alsace, but it is a lonely endeavor. Some time ago, in the Guest Book of the Dedications of the Eguisheim parish church, I read the pitiful message: “Please, God, help me lose weight”. The lady, because she was a lady, was in the wrong place. Alsatian villages run on three-meat baeckeoffe stews, sauerkraut and their impressive array of pork cuts, with endless flammekueche, spätzle noodles, rubbish bin lid-sized fruit tarts and some of the best Riesling wines of the world. After a couple of days there, a few months ago, she walked like a burgomaster.
I arrived, that afternoon, at Eguisheim. I walked through the old town to a tithe court now colonized by the Vins Freudenreich family, for the service of their wines. I ordered a glass of Pferisberg grand cru gewurztraminer, made from grapes grown on the nearby slopes. I drank it sitting outside among gables, flowers, and burnished medieval memorabilia. It may be possible to be happier, but rarely at half past three on a Tuesday afternoon.
Five of the best villages in Alsace
Winner, France’s Favorite Village, 2022
Having won the prize, Bergheim is going to be rammed this summer. Award winners see visitor numbers increase by at least 50 percent. No matter. Come in anyway. Surrounded by almost completely 15the19th century walls, the wine town fills with color and flowers. Less happily, he also had a thing for witches, burning dozens in the century to 1682. A contemporary museum tells the story. Then head on, perhaps to nearby Hunawihr, where, at the NaturOparC (naturoparc.fr), you can get up close and personal with storks, the emblematic birds of Alscacien. They are soft-eyed, feminine and beautiful. Before you take one out to dinner, you just need to do something about the snap.
Eguisheim was the birthplace of the 11theLast century reforming pope, and later saint, Leo IX, one of the main promoters of celibacy for the Catholic clergy. There is a statue of him above an octagonal fountain in the center of town. Otherwise, Eguisheim shows few signs of asceticism. The prettiest spots are between the two sets of walls where the half-timbered houses, with sagging beams, seem to support each other after a 500-year party. Wine estates (look for Eichberg and Pferisberg grand cru wines) compete for space with food stores, and in a town center bar I once ran into a jazz drummer. He was scheduled to have dinner with Chuck Berry’s drummer the following night. I threw hints like cannonballs, but I didn’t get an invite. For the rest, Eguisheim has never disappointed.
Almost perpendicular vineyards border this splendid village, agriculture defines the landscape that then flows into Kaysersberg almost without interruption. Best taste it at Olivier Nasti’s two-Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Chambard, one of the best tables in Alsace. You’ll need €210 / £180 for the dinner menu, remember him (lechambard.fr). Fortunately, Nasti has a cheaper but excellent winstub or brasserie next door. To digest, you can wander down the lively main street (it’s lined with shops offering brightly colored crockery, gingerbread, and fluffy storks) to the birthplace of Nobel Prize-winning humanitarian physician, theologian, and organist Albert Schweitzer. 1875. You’ll never accomplish as much as he does, so you’d better wander off until it’s time for coffee and more cake.
Uniquely on this list, Hunspach is miles from the wine route, in northern Alsace, where low hills and long fields lead to Germany. And, exceptionally also, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of the town.theThe 19th century houses are all black and white half-timbered. No color, because the natural white of the lime was cheaper. Creates a nice harmony. Significant houses indicate that the Alsatians do not really play with home and hearth. They look at once robust, thriving, and yet as if the next Howitzer could blow them away. Speaking of which, the Schoenenbourg fortress, the largest of all the fortresses on the Maginot Line in Alsace, is close at hand. In truth, it is less a fort, more an underground municipality, armed and complete. One visit ensures you’ll never make fun of the Maginot Line again (lignemaginot.com).
It’s not a winner yet; will come
Within its walls, Riquewihr is so poorly preserved that, as I said before, one wants to wind it up and see how it works, to accordion accompaniment. It’s like little has happened there since the Renaissance, except they’ve spruced up the place and put up gift shops. Also cafes and restaurants, where they prepare the “Riquewihrienne” – sauerkraut finished with cream and six herbs and therefore a most attractive green. If you visit Riquewihr in the summer, by the way, arrive early, as the rest of the world shows up around 11am.