The Alsace region of France has been on my travel bucket list ever since I saw pictures of Colmar. I wasn’t sure we were going to find a time to go, but circumstances aligned in March this year, making it the perfect time to visit this area.
Every year, Belgium has a one-week school holiday called the “krokusvakantie” which occurs before the Easter Spring Break. About a month before this holiday, we made a huge life decision to adopt a dog. Our beloved basset hound (who I have written about before) sadly passed away a year after we moved here. Our house has felt empty without him these past few years, though I do admit, being petless made the logistics of traveling easier. Still, we had connected with a basset hound rescue group in the hopes of adopting another dog, and in February we found a perfect match for our family, James.
Since James was new to us, we wanted to go somewhere on this holiday that we could take him with us. We didn’t want to stress him with a kennel stay, and we wanted to enjoy him on a holiday. I realized it would be the perfect time to visit the Alsace because we could drive there and bring James with us.
Where We Stayed
I found Le Hameau des Sources, a nice facility of eight cabins in the town of Soultzmatt. They allow pets (for an extra fee) and are in a perfect location from which to explore the Alsace region. We stayed for a week, so it was great to be in a cabin with a full kitchen and clothes-washing machine. It was nice to be able to eat a lot of home-cooked meals and not feel the constant stress of finding a place to eat out.
The host at Le Hameau des Sources was very friendly and accommodating. The cabin was cozy for the three of us humans and one dog. We paid extra for the linens, which in my opinion is totally worth the convenience of not having to travel with them! The cabins are located within view of the Petit Ballon peak of the Vosges Mountains. We enjoyed walks with James in the nearby fields, valleys, and trails for hikers and cyclists.
Though we were there for a Belgian holiday, France was not on a school holiday at the same time, and March is not yet the traditional tourist season in the Alsace, so we had the cabin areas practically to ourselves, as well as a lot of the places we visited. Being early in the spring, we didn’t have the best weather, it was still cold and rained at least half the time, but we still enjoyed it. It was a very relaxing week in a region filled with beautiful, fairytale villages.
What We Did
One thing I want to say before I get into the details of our trip is a general observation. On this and on many other trips we’ve taken, we are, of course, subject to the local television options, which means TV shows in the local language and usually few, if any at all, channels in English. This is not a complaint. We don’t travel to watch TV, but let’s be honest, we do watch it in the mornings to start the day with news and in the evenings to wind down and to look for entertainment, especially for our son. Something I love about this for him is that it has never phased him one bit that he must watch things in other languages. For example, on this trip, we found Ghostbusters on TV one night and he wanted to watch it, and the fact that it was dubbed in German didn’t stop him. I love that! I don’t think he’s learning any new languages this way, but I do hope that it is stimulating something in his brain that will make foreign language learning easier for him. In terms of brain power, it can only be a good thing, right? Anyway…
The Alsace region is known for its quaint villages and its wine production. It is very close to the German border, and in fact, the borders and control of the region has changed over the centuries, so the Germanic influence is evident in the architecture and regional cuisine. As I mentioned, we were in the region during the off-season, so there were a few very popular things to do in the area that were closed while we were there. I’ll mention those below. The good news is that meant that the places we did visit were relatively calm and crowd-free. If you are a regular reader of mine, you’ve suffered my complaints about crowds before, so the lack of crowds on this trip made me so happy. I think we need to start planning all our trips to places during their off-seasons!
Another random observation about the area, we encountered quite a few shops and museums that were closed from the 12:00 to 14:00 hours. I don’t know if this is a year-round thing, or just because they had more relaxed hours in the off-season, but it is worth noting for planning purposes.
Because the cabin we rented was in Soultzmatt, it was our home base for the week. It is a nice little town, but while it does have some clearly older buildings, it doesn’t have a touristy, super-quaint center old town like some of the other villages we visited. Still, it was a great location for a home base from which to travel the region. It was peaceful and quiet and we enjoyed the options for walking on nearby trails with lovely mountain views.
It was cool to see the summit of Petit Ballon from our cabin. There was still snow on the peak, though the levels of snow visibly changed every day, which I found myself monitoring with amusement. I was surprised at how quickly I got used to the view, and how easily I noticed when it changed. I was also very proud of myself for being able to tell it apart from the Grand Ballon peak when we were driving around the region. Fun fact about Soultzmatt, it is home to the Sources de Soultzmatt and there is a good-sized bottling facility there for Lisbeth water which we tried in a local restaurant.
From what I can tell, Colmar is one of the most popular towns in the Alsace and it is easy to see why. We spent two days enjoying Colmar, one day with our dog in tow and one day without him (he’s a basset hound, he was fine to stay in the cabin and sleep).
Just walking around Colmar and enjoying the sights is an activity in and of itself. Some popular spots to see are “Little Venice” and the Quai de la Poissonnerie (the Fishmongers’ District). We enjoyed seeing both.
We saw the exterior of the Church Collégiale St-Martin but did not go inside. There was an antique book sale in the Koifhus, a wonderful historic building in the city. We also enjoyed a quick pass through the town’s covered market.
We visited Colmar’s Natural History and Ethnography Museum, something my son seemed really interested in. They had an interesting mix of taxidermied animals, fossils, gemstones, rocks, and even some artifacts from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, including some Egyptian mummies. Overall, it was a relatively small collection, but it was a nice way to pass an hour or two, especially while it was raining.
Another museum that was interesting for our son and very nice to visit while it was raining outside was Colmar’s Toy Museum, ‘Musée du Jouet’. The museum has both display exhibits of toys from throughout modern history and hand-on exhibits. There is an open area where visitors can play all kinds of board games, video games, and with other interactive toys.
There is a soft play area for smaller children, and also apparently for Mom’s to nap, because, I am not trying to call anyone out, but I definitely saw two mothers dozing off in there while their kids played! I’ve been there, mamas, carry on. I was probably most amused here by the Barbies from the 1950’s and 1960’s, while my son was probably most amused by the throwback Nintendo systems.
Of course, we enjoyed some souvenir shops and ice cream as we walked around. We also stopped in Maison Alsacienne de Biscuiterie Boutique because we could not pass by the macaroons (not macarons) in their window without trying some of them. This was the first of many biscuiteries we saw in the region. We also saw many shops in the region with amazingly impressive nougat, a treat I didn’t know I loved until I had it in Provence!
We enjoyed walking through the Place Rapp and the Parc du Champ de Mars. It was lively on a Sunday afternoon with plenty of people enjoying outdoor activities. The park had a café, merry-go-round, and kids’ bicycles for rent.
Outside of the city center, we made sure to drive by Colmar’s (smaller) replica of the Statue of Liberty, which stands in honor of her designer, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who was from Colmar. There is a museum about the artist in his childhood home in the center of Colmar. We didn’t visit the museum, but it seemed to be a point of pride for the town.
The next town we visited was Kaysersberg. It is smaller than Colmar but its historic center is equally as quaint. We enjoyed walking the streets, window shopping, listening to church bells ring.
We ended our visit with a snack of crepes from a little shop whose name I didn’t write down and I can’t find it online, not even on Google maps!
It is on the corner across the street from Le Chambard hotel and restaurant (one of three Michelin starred restaurants in Kaysersberg). The crepes were delicious and the woman who owned the shop was really friendly and chatted with us for a bit about travel and her history of owning restaurants in many parts of the world. It was a lovely afternoon!
An even smaller town we passed through was Riquewihr. Here again, we walked and shopped and enjoyed the quaint sights.
We bought local wines, choucroute garnie, and de pains d’epices enrobes de sucre. Choucroute garnie is a regional dish of sauerkraut and mixed meats like sausages and ham. It is often served in large portions, family style, in homes and restaurants, but you can also buy it in large jars to prepare and eat at home. That was one night’s meal for me! (Only local sausages for my husband and son, they don’t enjoy sauerkraut like I do). De pains d’epices enrobes de sucre are sugar coated gingerbread cookies that my husband remembered from his childhood in Germany.
Strasbourg was the largest of the French Alsatian cities we visited. It is the capital city of the region and the official seat of the European Parliament. Here, we also just spent one afternoon walking around the city.
We walked through the Passage Georges Frankhauser of the Barrage Vauban, a 17th century bridge and dam. Inside the passage is a collection of what I assume to be statues and décor that once adorned the associated bridges, now in various states of (dis)repair.
We passed by a number of bridges and towers in the area, on our way to the city’s Cathédrale Notre Dame. With dog in tow, we just enjoyed the exterior beauty of the cathedral and got our son some gelato nearby.
The old city center is ringed by the River Ill. It was lovely to walk along the river all around the city.
Chateau du Haut-Koenigsbourg
Chateau du Haut-Koenigsbourg is an impressive, beautiful castle in Orschwiller, between Colmar and Strasbourg. It dates back to the 12th Century and has been both defensive and residential. It has been impressively restored, and restoration appears to be ongoing.
We’ve seen a lot of castles at this point, but it still hasn’t gotten old to see something as impressive as this. It is still pretty cool to see the architectural features and iconic castle details like gates and drawbridges that I grew up seeing in movies and fairytale books. And the best part of our visit to Haut-Koenigsbourg is that it was practically empty! Usually in castles you are bumping up against crowds, but since it was off-season, there was hardly anyone else there. We could take our time with the audio guides and really see everything we wanted to see, without worrying about crowds.
My least favorite part was the height. I was fine once I got on two feet and got into the castle, but the car ride up to the top was really throwing me for a loop! My legs were shaking as we walked from the car to the castle. I swear, the older I get, the more affected I am by heights and elevation!
Before leaving, we treated ourselves to coffee and cheesecake at the castle’s café. Cheesecakes in Europe are lighter and blander in flavor than New York style cheesecakes, but this one was pretty good!
We took one day to hop the border over into Germany to visit Freiburg. A friend of ours is from this area and gave us some recommendations for things to do, which we followed closely.
We went directly to the daily market (Münstermarkt) outside the Freiburger Münster for lunch. We were told to try the famous Freiburg sausages from the market vendors and they did not disappoint!
After eating, we viewed inside the church before strolling through the city center and along the Kaiser Josef Strasse pedestrian zone.
Freiburg has a unique system of rills or ditches called Baechle that you see throughout the city center. At first, I thought they must be related to the historic sewage systems, but apparently, they were actually used to bring water (from the Dreisam river) into the city for livestock and in case of fires. Now they are just a symbol of history and are fun for kids and pets to play in, and for folklore. Some say if you step in one, you’ll marry a Freiburger.
Freiburg also had some intricate stone mosaics on the ground outside of buildings, often corresponding to the purpose of the business there, or former business there. I am not sure how old they were, but they looked cool!
Some recommendations we did not have time for in Freiburg were to: enjoy the Stadtgarten (city park) and Schlossbergbahn (tram) up the hill to enjoy a drink overlooking the city; visit the Mining museum; visit this amazing looking water park in nearby Titisee-Neustadt; visit this amusement park in Oberried. Still, we had a nice visit!
With all the driving around we did, we also passed through the towns of Eguisheim, Husseren les Chateaux, and Gueberschwihr. I read that there are more than 100 towns and villages in the Alsace region, so it’s impossible to see them all, but also probably impossible to go wrong by visiting any of them. We found each town to be unique and charming in its own way. Just driving through the area is a neat experience. Much like the Mosel Valley in Germany, every so often, if you are looking carefully, you’ll see ruins of churches and chateaus and who knows what else, dotting the mountainsides.
What We Ate
I’ve mentioned some of our snacks and meals already in the above sections. The benefit of renting a private cabin was having a fully stocked kitchen so we didn’t have to eat every meal out. The host of the cabins sells optional breakfasts of croissants and baguettes which we purchased for one morning. For the rest, we had food in the cabin that we brought with us or purchased locally.
There is a small, weekly market in Soultzmatt on Tuesdays from which we got fresh cheese, vegetables, and a rotisserie chicken for meals one day. We also bought items at some of the regional specialty stores and got locally made sausages at a nearby grocery.
A regional specialty I haven’t mentioned yet is Tarte Flambee. This is a pizza like dish, but don’t call it pizza! Its base is a light dough that cooks into a thin, crispy crust. It is traditionally topped with a creamy cheese then bits of ham, onion, and grated cheese. From there, additional toppings can also be added. Ideally it is cooked in a special wood fired stove or chimney. A few weeks before our trip, a friend of ours in Belgium who is originally from the Alsace made us his own Tarte Flambee, so we knew exactly what to look for! We enjoyed it at a restaurant in Colmar called La Krutenau, and at a restaurant in Soultzmatt called Pizzeria L ’Entr ’Potes. None of them let us down!
Things We Missed
I noted in some of the sections above that we missed specific things in certain cities. Broadly speaking, for the region, we missed a few other things because they weren’t open for the tourist season yet, those being: Montagne Des Singes (Monkey Mountain), Europa Park (amusement park), and this summer sled track. Also, had the weather been better, we might have enjoyed some outdoor activities at the regional nature park, Parc des Ballons des Voges.
Regardless, we had plenty of things to do during our week in the Alsace. We enjoyed that it was a relaxing holiday spent cozily with family, including our new furry, four-legged family member, exploring some of the most charming, fairy-tale-like places we have ever seen! It is a beautiful area and once again, France did not disappoint us for a holiday like this!