Alsace is France with a German accent. Its unique mix of cultures offers enchanting cobbled villages, scenic vineyards, gourmet cuisine, and art that's still as vibrant as the medieval day it was painted.
Standing like a flower-child referee between France and Germany, Alsace has weathered many invasions. Once a German-speaking part of the Holy Roman Empire, it became part of France in the 17th century. After France lost the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, Germany annexed it. It bounced back to France after World War I (although Hitler absorbed it into the Third Reich during World War II).
All these centuries as a political shuttlecock have given Alsace a hybrid culture. And the city of Colmar is a great home base to experience it. Long popular with French and German tourists, this well-pickled old town of 70,000 is often overlooked and underrated by overseas traveLlers. During World War II Allied Forces were careful not to bomb quaint Colmar. So today Colmar not only survives, it thrives with 15th- and 16th-century buildings, distinctive cuisine, and rich art treasures.
Colmar's Unterlinden Museum gets my vote as the best small museum in Europe (musee-unterlinden.com). It fills a 750-year-old former convent with exhibits ranging from Roman artifacts to medieval winemaking, and from traditional wedding dresses to paintings that give vivid insight into the High Middle Ages.
Matthias Grunewald's gripping Isenheim Altarpiece, showing a gruesome crucifixion, is the museum's most important work. Germans know this painting like Americans know the Mona Lisa. The altarpiece was commissioned 500 years ago by a monastery hospital filled with people suffering terrible skin diseases -- a common cause of death back then. The hospital's goal, long before the age of painkillers, was to remind patients that Jesus understood their suffering. The many panels led patients through a series of Bible stories culminating with a reassuring Resurrection scene.
Colmar is the hometown of Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, the great sculptor who designed the Statue of Liberty -- which was a gift from France to the United States on its 100th birthday. Colmar's Bartholdi Museum describes the creation of Lady Liberty and displays many of Bartholdi's sculptures (musee-bartholdi.com).
When you're ready for a break from museums, it's time to hit the road. The Route du Vin -- the wine road of Alsace -- is an asphalt ribbon tying 130 km of vineyards, villages, and feudal fortresses into an understandably popular tourist package.
The dry and sunny climate has produced good wine and happy tourists since Roman times, so vineyard-hopping is a great way to spend an afternoon. Roadside degustation signs mean wine-tasters are welcome, but be prepared for grape varieties that differ from what you might find elsewhere in France.
Riesling is the king of Alsatian grapes; it's robust but drier than the German style you're probably used to. Sylvaner -- fresh and light, fruity and cheap -- is a good Alsatian wine for a hot day. Pinot Gris wines are more full-bodied, spicier, and distinctly different from other Pinot Gris wines you may have tried. Gewurztraminer is "the lady's wine" -- its bouquet is like a rosebush, its taste is fruity, and its aftertaste is spicy -- as its name implies (gewurtz means "spice" in German). In case you really get "Alsauced," the French term for headache is mal a la tete.
For a pleasing taste of European culture, there's nothing quite like Alsace. Visitors enjoy a rich blend of two great societies: French and German, Catholic and Protestant -- just enough Germanic discipline with a Latin joy of life.
Alsatian cuisine is world-famous. Even vacationers travelling on a shoestring should spring for a fine meal in Alsace. You can't mistake the German influence: Sausages, potatoes, onions and sauerkraut. Look for choucroute garnie (sauerkraut and sausage) -- although it seems a shame to eat it in a fancy restaurant. Also try sampling baeckeoffe (a meaty onion-and-potato casserole), rosti (an oven-baked potato-and-cheese dish), spatzle (soft egg noodles), fresh trout, and foie gras.
For lighter fare, try poulet au Riesling (chicken cooked ever-so-slowly in Riesling wine). At lunch, or for a lighter dinner, try a tarte a l'oignon (like an onion quiche, but better) or tarte flambee (like thin-crust pizza with onion and bacon bits). Dessert specialties are tarte alsacienne (fruit tart) and Kuglehopf glace (a light cake mixed with raisins, almonds, dried fruit, and cherry liqueur).
Rick Steves (ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public TV and radio. E-mail him at email@example.com and follow his blog on Facebook.