Our family loves to explore the region surrounding our home in Heidelberg, Germany so we took the advice of a well-traveled friend working with the USO and visited what she thought was the most quaint village in this area — Riquewihr, in the province of Alsace, France.
Alsace is located on the west side of the Rhine River and since it’s part of the European Union, as is Germany, border crossings and money are easy to manage between countries. One Sunday afternoon we drove the 2.5 hours from Heidelberg to France. We had no idea what a treat we were in for.
Vineyards in this region have been producing wine for more than 350 years. Wine is a way of life for large areas of France and Germany (as well as other European countries). Many years ago, when cholera was a problem because of polluted water in some countries, wine was the safest beverage to drink so it became part of the European culture. However in Alsace, where the ruling government changed from France to Germany and back again over the ages, it was difficult for the vintners to adapt to current economic situations and prosper.
Today, the Alsace Wine Route extends 170 kilometers along the foothills of the Vosges Mountains. It is said that the people of this part of Europe, although they speak French and German, consider themselves “Alsatians.” There are many small, medieval cities worth visiting, starting in the north with the Alsace capital of Strasbourg. It is all beautiful French countryside; rolling hills are lined with vineyards and dotted by towns with a backdrop of steep mountains.
It is so… French! The A35 is the main scenic road in this area and the one you’ll want to stay on.
We stopped first at the Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle, which we saw noted on the map of the town of the same name. This castle sits high atop a mountain in the Vosges range at an altitude of 757 meters. It can be seen for miles so it is clear why the defenders of the Middle Ages chose the site for their castle. On the drive to the top there is a small hotel or relais with a restaurant that serves delicious French cuisine at reasonable prices. From here, there is a 20-minute-long hiking trail to the castle. If you’re traveling with the elderly or very young, you may prefer to drive up to a parking area with several shorter access paths to the castle entrance.
Haut-Koenigsbourg was built in the 12th century. It was looted and burned by the Swedes during the Thirty Years War and was then abandoned for more than 250 years. This area was under German rule in 1899, when the castle ruins were given to Kaiser Wilhelm II of Hohenzollern, who had the castle completely restored. In 1919, under the Treaty of Versailles, the castle reverted to French rule.
Visitors can walk from a courtyard and spiral staircase to many rooms including a bedchamber, chapel, arms room and kitchen. The fireplaces are magnificent. There is also a Keep (dungeon) that was built to protect the weak side of the castle. From the castle there are views of the valley below, making each little town discernable along the Alsace Wine Route.
One of those towns is Riquewihr, where some of the houses date from the 13th century. It is part of the Association of the Most Beautiful Villages of France; each of these small, medieval, wall-encased villages is surrounded by vineyards.
Riquewihr is located in a part of Europe that was originally German and, through many wars, became part of Germany. The castle’s nationality changed hand multiple times; from France, to Germany and, finally, back to France, the castle is now a French tourist attraction. Today, there is a little train that takes tourists through the town and into the vineyards; children love this gentle adventure. The tape-recorded guide describes in any of six languages everything about the town you’re passing and how the vineyards are cared for.
In each of the towns, wine-tasting opportunities can be found. As far as children drinking wine, we have found that the Europeans aren’t as uptight about what Americans might consider “underage” drinking. The drinking age, for beer and wine, is 18 in France and Germany and in France there is almost no enforcement of this law.
Macaroons seem to be the sweet of choice for the bakeries of Riquewihr and we found vanilla, chocolate and some kind of green macaroons. The vanilla and chocolate ones were to die for! We didn’t venture to taste the green ones.
Trip Planning Details for Alsace Wine Touring
Families may want to stay at the Hotel Haut-Koenigsbourg, located just below the castle in the heart of the village. It’s a small and simple place with 26 rooms (some are four-bedded family rooms), and several have a fantastic view of the Black Forest and Swiss Alps.
For more information on the many attractions of Alsace, visit the Alsace regional tourist office website. To learn more specifics about the Alsace Wine Route and plan your driving itinerary, use the comprehensive Tourism Alsace website which provides maps marked with the small towns that line the route. You can click on each town to see what it has to offer, including hotels.
One last note about drinking: The German government expects responsible drinking and absolutely does not tolerate any level of alcohol while driving; one of many reasons to make this trip to Alsace an overnight or longer excursion. In Germany, there is also political pressure to educate youth about the health concerns associated with alcohol. As a parent traveling in Europe you have to examine what your values are, and how to understand and explain other cultures to your children.
Moderation and responsibility are, as ever, the key.
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