There is something so rustic and enticing about traveling in rural Europe, that in a way they are too attractive and tempting to be resisted. The European countryside encloses the soul of this continent and displays its beauty and worth in an authentic and ingenious way. Every time I set out to pick up a place to visit in Europe, more often than less, it results in a village or a province untouched by mass- tourism. Riquewihr, a small province in North-eastern France, with only 1300 inhabitants, is one such destination. Known as the “gem of the Alsatian wine-route” or “Route des Vins d’Alsace”; it falls right in the middle of the famous wine route in Alsace and attracts around 2 million visitors a year.
You must be wondering how a small town with just a few hundred residents can engage guests around 800 times its size. Well, like every time, the answer lies in its history and the willingness and devotion of its people to keep their quondam alive. With only a single main street of Rue Charles de Gaulle in the village, Riquewihr is packed full of the wealth of the Alsatian Renaissance. The charm of the town resides in the excellent state of its preservation, which seems to stand still since the medieval times.
Some History Behind:
Magnificent houses dating from the 15th and 16th century boasts Alsatian architecture at their best. These medieval houses were built when the city was at the peak of its prosperity, from the sale of its splendid wines which were loved and raved since the middle ages. Such was the craze for these wines, the village was saved & rescued from devious landowners and mobsters by German King Rudolph of Habsburg in 1269; to the extent of promoting the status of a wine-growing region to a town and fortifying the area to keep the riches within and protected.
With buyers like the major Hanseatic League cities and the Holy Roman Empire themselves, a double fortification was constructed in the 13th century, along with elevating the town’s standing to a capital for ten years; this was the Golden age for Riquewihr. Wealthy merchants and wine-growers built houses to match their status and left behind a legacy adored by tourists till date.
Typical of the Alsatian architecture, houses in Riquewihr showcase the half-timbered frame, but stands out from the contemporaries, with the extensive use of Sculpted half-timbering and Oriel windows; adding elegance and grandiose to the streets.
Don’t get all lost in the treasures of the main street. Venture through the side-alleys and courtyards that reveal many intricate details of its golden past.
Notice the unmissable medieval guild signs throughout the town; each of which has a story to tell. These hanging emblems of the erstwhile era are striking and enhance the experience of a leisurely stroll through the cobblestoned paths.
Of particular interest are the emblems designed by the famous Alsatian Caricaturist Hansi; works and life of whom are exhibited in “The Hansi Museum”, a must visit. These signs not only illustrate the business of the craftsman but also are built to add some intrigue and humor; little artworks in themselves.
Unlike other nearby Alsatian villages, Riquewihr showcases inner courtyards with elaborate old wells and fountains. The ramparts and double fortifications built in the 12th century still exist and are part of the town’s many attractive features.
The most famous landmark and identifying feature of Riquewihr being the 6th-century watchtower also known as the Dolder stands gloriously at one end of the town and offers a bird’s eye view of the neighboring vineyards. The watchtower now converted to a museum takes you through the journey of the city through the centuries.
The Famous Wines of Riquewihr:
Well, talking of the vineyards, we should probably be talking about the exquisite wines that Riquewihr has to offer. You didn’t think it was so popular just because of its historical gems, did you? With the texture and sophistication of French wines, if you are promised a fabulous collection of aromatic white wines; it’s a deal very hard to pass. True to its name, Riquewihr is a major contributor to the special wines that call Alsace, its home. Some notable names include Riesling, Pinot Gris, Muscat, and Gewurztraminer. The elongated dry, sunny and warm temperatures of Riquewihr create extended ripening periods for the grapes, leading to its extremely complex flavor and smell. Combined with the secret recipes of each wine-grower, wine-tasting in Riquewihr becomes an interesting adventure for wine-lovers too.
Some worthy mentions are:
(b) Hugel et Fils
Tired of the houses and the museums, Riquewihr Tourist department offers many wine trails and walking paths around the town. This trail, not only passes through the vine-covered hills of Schoenenbourg but also, presents a beautiful angle to the medieval town. The stone-walled town of Riquewihr appears as a small bunch of cardboard boxes in the midst of green hilly slopes.
Time to visit:
Riquewihr is an all-year-round destination with special events and festivals waiting for you in each season. With my favorite time being the summers, when all the balconies and facades are blossoming with the colorful geraniums and petunias; Advent and Christmas, bring a distinct charm to the town. The dazzling Christmas lights that illuminate each street and every house of the town make for an enchanting medieval holiday experience.
How to visit:
The compact size of the town and the ease of access through public transport make Riquewihr a top choice for anyone visiting Alsace. It can be visited as a day trip from nearby cities like Colmar & Strasburg or as part of a village-hopping tour of the Alsatian wine-route. Opted by many, hopping the villages close together in the Alsace wine-route can serve as a good option too.
Check here, For Eguishime, another beautiful postcard village in Alsace.
To get a more intense experience, stay overnight in Riquewihr. This provides you with a chance to experience the quaint streets of the town; either in the early morning (like we did) or in the late afternoon when the day-trippers are gone, and a local charm enwreathes the entire village.
We visited Riquewihr during the Advent and it was absolutely magical. I completely loved the feel of this quaint and eye-pleasing French village.
A Memory to share:
An account very dear to me during our visit to Riquewihr was the day following our arrival into the town. We woke up early in the morning to catch the town at its quietest possible. The streets were still lighted up and the Christmas lights were glittering in every house, which made it look lovely. It had rained a few hours before, that made the cobble-stoned paths shine beautifully. Suddenly the whole town seemed very different than the previous evening. Slowly we could hear the movements in the houses and the exhausts in the kitchen started pumping white smoke. The smell of burning wood started filling up the lanes. Shops started gearing up for the day’s tourist to arrive. The whole feel of the town was slowly sinking in; as we saw the town waking up before us. We could now observe all the behind-the-scenes affairs of the town. Like, a single main bakery was serving as the bread and pastry source for mostly every restaurant and B&B; Big barrels of hot mulled wine and soups were getting pushed straight out of the kitchens and stalled on the streets; busy shop owners grabbing their morning coffees from that one special local cafe in the town. The special part was, even in the midst of all this rushing and sprinting, our presence in the streets was duly acknowledged by the locals with pleasant smiles and greetings. We almost felt like a part of the system and there was an instant connect with the place. We had our breakfast and the morning coffees, as you might have guessed, from the best place that the town had to offer and there was an equal welcoming gesture to receive us. The overall warmth in the place was completely dimming the wintry chill of that December morning.
Even though this experience is not adding to the typical details expected from a blog, I think it was essential on my part to still share it, to portray the authenticity and originality of small provincial places like Riquewihr, which are also seen in the items, produce and the food they vend.
Small towns like Riquewihr, always give me that scaled-down taste, which is often hard to find in the big cities. A more intimate talk with the shopkeeper that extends beyond the item you are buying; Lunch-only Cafes with local delicacies written and rubbed daily on a blackboard, streets ending in a courtyard with chit-chatting locals, eager to start a conversation with you.
These are those insightful and ever-lasting experiences that I yearn from my travel and they enrich me with priceless memories. This is “My kinda travel”!