I suppose technically that’s not true, given that we arrived in Riquewihr on the afternoon of day 5. For the sake of continuity, lets imagine all these wonderful events took place on day 6. Riquewihr is a strange place, it didn’t quite match up with the photos and descriptions I’d seen of it before we arrived. It’s as if Disneyland suddenly became a working farm. Or perhaps like a long forgotten set piece from “The Sound of Music” was just suddenly dropped in the middle of rural France. It’s a walled town, or at least the part that’s inside the wall is. It seems to expand far beyond the wall in at least two directions, every other direction is taken up with vast grapevines. Everything has taken a decidedly German feel about it. From the buildings to the food even to the people (no, I’m not counting the masses of German tourists). It seems to be a very hard working town intent on fulfilling the requirements of only one industry; Wine.
The winding D road that brought us up to the town was lined for miles with fields of sun drenched vines, a sight and smell that will linger in my memory. The entire portion of the walled town is cobbled and I admit to being more than a little puzzled on how best to attack it on the bike, given that our hotel was right in the middle of it. The whole thing is very pedestrian focused, I suppose that can’t really be helped with the amount of tourists that are still around at this stage in September.
Of course at this stage I hadn’t seen how the locals do it. Pretty much just take the most direct route to the destination and the tourists will move. So I found a slightly less busy side street and after some twists and turns down cobbled lanes, we were at the hotel unloading the bike. This was another two night stop so pretty much all the luggage was stripped off and brought up the stone spiral staircase to our room in Hotel de la Couronne. As you can well imagine, there was plenty of exploring. Julie donned her best stripey jumper to fit in with the locals and we were off out amongst the madness and grapes.
Yes, I think I’ve already mentioned there were some grapes in the area. This was taken only about a 5 minute walk from the hotel. It wasn’t hard to find photogenic grapevines in the area. Turns out it was a lot harder to find a can of coke in the area but the less said about that the better in case I launch into yet another long-winded rant. On that, I still hadn’t fully gotten the whole ‘small French town’ thing. Despite Riquewihr being a tourist attraction and having numerous hotels, there wasn’t a convenience store to be had after about 6 or 7pm. The odd evening I take a mad notion for a bottle of coke and it’s been known for me to quaff the odd bottled or canned beer after a hard days touristing. No. Not here. Even the only bar in the town closed at an palette-dryingly early hour. I still hadn’t learned to stock up during the day, as if there was some storm or mythical creature roaming the streets at night that delighted on poking fun at those who found themselves thirsty. Ok, I’m done.
Yes, the town is nice, there’s no denying that. It’s even relatively quiet for such a tourist attraction. Having said that, I’m sure a lot of the visitors were on day trips because at night, it cleared out considerably. So we found somewhere to have our dinner and perched ourselves on the plastic patio chairs in the courtyard of one of the numerous restaurants in the town, all of which seemed to be serving the same food anyway. Julie’s fine as long as there’s something with chicken on the menu. My many attempts to have her try something a little more adventurous have failed up to this point. I can’t remember what I ate on the first night but I’m sure it was something fantastic. Not memorable in the slightest but fantastic all the same.
Day 6, the actual day 6 mind you, started with not knowing where the hell we were going to go get breakfast. We settled (Julie went ‘ooh’ and I wasn’t too bothered either way) on a place pretty much right across from the hotel and had the standard French breakfast consisting of bread, preserves, croissant, orange juice and bad coffee. It is worth noting however that the coffee here was better than any of the previous attempts. Satisfied, we set out back on the same grapevine lined road to find something suitably German sounding in the middle of the French countryside. After a fill of extortionately priced fuel from an unmanned station in the next town over, we found Chateau du Haut-Kœningsbourg. No, I still haven’t figured out how to do the thing over the A in Chateau. It wasn’t really hard to spot the site, it’s nestled high in the mountains overlooking the town in which I’d just been swearing at petrol pumps. When we did finally get up there after yet more impressive switchback turns, the view was quite something.
Just before this was taken, there was a mass of white fluffy cloud obscuring the view. As it moved off to the left I tried in vain to get a photo of it. Needless to say, it didn’t come out as expected. It looked nice anyway, take my word for it. I don’t have any way of accurately describing the size of the castle/Chateau/whatever you want to call it. I’ll just have to settle on ‘feckin huge’.
By the time we had finished all the climbing throughout the many staircases and hallways in the Chateau, we found ourselves in one of the turrets, surrounded by cannons, catapults and other bits & pieces that seemed as if their days of intentionally causing harm was over. Just unintentional these days, having witnessed another tourist stub his toe on one of the smaller canons cast iron wheels. The entire turret was a quite impressive wooden construction, very open and airy. Especially when I walked close to the edge and you could see directly down to the ground many, many feet below. The turret windows did offer views as impressive as the one I posted above in pretty much all directions. Sadly, some of the castle was under repair at the time we visited so you’ll just have to imagine the below photo without the scaffolding or the crane peeking out.
It was the perfect day to visit, slightly misty rain when we arrived and fine when we left. After risking a hernia pushing the bike out of the space I’d parked it in (still haven’t entirely learned to always park facing out), we set off back down the mountain towards Riquewhir. So back down the switchbacks, through the forest and past all that wonderful scenery that I seemed to be growing accustomed to at an alarming rate. Would there be withdrawal symptoms when we left? Hmm…
Back on that same old grapevine lined D road and Julie wanted an excuse to practice her French. Well, it was more a means to an end. I’m sure if you’ve already read her blog post you’ll know where I’m going with this. There were dozens of people out harvesting grapes, big yellow buckets, tractors, jumpers on fenceposts. That kind of thing. Meanwhile, I took the more sedate and less challenging route of photographing an object that I didn’t have to ask permission of and that doesn’t usually talk back.
It was warm. If I didn’t know any better I’d have thought there was a huge storm rolling in. After pictures of friendly farmers had been taken, we returned to the hotel for a much needed afternoon break. Well, and to get out of the heat for a bit. Being Irish on the continent is a hard job. We’re just not built for this kind of weather. So back out into the streets of Riquewihr and while mumbling things like “Ohh I’m not sure” and “I don’t know if I can pull it off”, we wandered into the outlet shop for one of the towns wineries. After tasting some of the recommended wines (almost like we knew what we were doing) and being the uncultured swines that we are and not spitting out the mouthful of wine after tasting (woo, free wine!), we settled on three bottles to bring home with us. Three bottles which sit in the cupboard, waiting for a ‘special occasion’. Much like the bottle of Tattinger champagne that’s sat in the fridge for the last 2 years waiting for a similar occasion. We’re going to have to come up with something to celebrate fairly soon.
Some more farting about looking at tourist tat shops and eating ice-cream ensued after the traumatic wine buying session and before long we were settling back to looking for a place for dinner. As the evening drew in and visitor numbers in the town began to drop, we took a seat on the verandah of a restaurant around the corner from the hotel. Hell, pretty much everything was ‘around the corner from’ or ‘across the street from’ the hotel in this place. It’s not like you could get too lost. Being the sometimes adventurous sort that I am, I went for something new; Chocroute. Back to the uncultured swine thing, I’d never before seen or even heard of this seemingly wonderful sounding dish. What appeared some minutes later was a veritable feast of meat, potatoes and more sauerkraut than one man could (or should) possibly eat in a single sitting.
Having had my fill of sausage (careful now), I pushed aside the remaining sauerkraut for fear that the amount of it I’d already eaten would make my innards rise up against me and stage some kind of overnight coup while I was sleeping. It was then and only then that I noticed a strange sight across the road from the restaurant. I’ve already said that Riquewhir is very much a wine town, a farming town. So no surprise that it’d be inhabited by a French version of the farmers we have in Ireland. So imagine if you will, the sight of an Irish farmer in his early 40’s off out for a drink after a hard day in the fields. He’d have a pint of stout of course. Maybe a pint of Smithwicks or something similar. While his French counterpart, looking much the same, is holding a decorative glass full of red wine. Ok so maybe it looked funnier than it’s coming across here. I just tried to imagine ‘the boys’ in any rural Ireland town going for a few drinks after all the daily chores are done and choosing a nice cold glass of pinot noir.
The chilled red wine thing threw both of us. After some investigation it appears to be the norm in Alsace but the first time we thought the staff in the restaurant were having a laugh at the tourists. Again with the uncultured swine thing. That’s coming up all too often I fear.
We packed up to leave the next morning after having breakfast in the same spot and I had to fight off the urges to take the scenic route back through the mountains. This is an area we will almost certainly be back to, although we may pick our hotel a little more carefully next time. The Vosges are amazing (as you’ve seen in the last post) and the many small towns in the foothills are picturesque and thankfully, full of accommodation. It’s to be expected of course, given the alternative route from Thann to Riquewihr and beyond is the famous ‘Route du Vin’. The next stop is Reims, another city I’m not even going to attempt to pronounce properly.