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Northeast France: the Grand Est

Alsace Ardennes Champagne French cuisine Grand Est Jean-Jacques Waltz Lorraine Oncle Hansi Vosges

As far as regions go, France’s Grand Est is just a big baby.  It was created in 2014 by consolidating the old provinces Alsace, Lorraine, Champagne and Ardennes into a single, large administrative unit.  It spans the northeast corner of the country and includes the city of Strasbourg and the Vosges mountains. Although it is very new, its regional distinctness has been centuries-in-the-making.  Its terroir--its geology, soils and climate--make it fertile ground for grape production (and for cabbages!).  Hence it produces some of the world’s best white wines.  It is also the birthplace of choucroute, an Alsatian cabbage charcuterie dish. 

The Grand Est sits along France’s border with Germany.  This circumstance has left a legacy of battlements, fortifications and bequeathed its people a wealth of survival stories. It has also left its mark with German-sounding place names such as Ebermunster and Haut-Kœnigsbourg.

We visited the Grand Est several years ago accompanied by our children whose ages ranged from 3 to 7 at the time.  We were pleasantly surprised at the mix of attractions for all age groups and appreciated the warm welcome from everyone that we encountered.  Our base of operations was the Ruhlmann family vineyard in Dambach-la-ville, a walled medieval town in the rolling foothills of the Vosges mountains.  From there we made a stop at the Eco-musée a uniquely-European take on the historic theme-park.  It is comparable in some ways to Colonial Williamsburg or Old Sturbridge Village, with its reconstructed historic buildings and actors in period costumes performing traditional trades.  However, it is marked by an edginess and authenticity that is foreign to themed American settings: A jazz band performing outside in the rain adjacent to the mud puddle of an Alsatian pig; neon-purple exposed timbers on a relocated 16th century farmhouse; intact industrial infrastructure of abandoned potash mine featured prominently along the park's entry drive; etc.  

Dambach-la-ville

Also from Dambach-la-ville, we made a day-trip to Strasbourg, a world-class city with a rich history.  We enjoyed visiting its cathedral and candy shops and spent time exploring the city's historic quarter on foot.  We also visited Colmar, a smaller city nearby and home to the Musee Bartholdi, the childhood home of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (sculptor of the Statue of Liberty). 

Another local hero from Colmar is Jean-Jacques Waltz.  Waltz is better known by his pen-name Oncle Hansi and was an illustrator of children’s books whose charming depictions of Alsatian children in traditional garb concealed subversive pro-French sentiments at a time when Alsace was occupied by Germany.  Born while Alsace was under occupation following the Franco-Prussian War, Waltz’s books are dotted with the grumpy, frowning (and stupid) Prussian officers (forebears of Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz in Hogan’s Heroes).  And he also served up potent French-nationalist symbols making icons of Alsace’s villages, decorative architecture and… its storks.  Interestingly, when Alsace was restored to France following World War I and Waltz’ books became popular children’s literature, his illustrations became emblems of both French regionalism and French national identity.

 

Read more about Alsace and the Grand Est region:

    

 

 



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  • Jonathan on

    Thanks for the reflections, Nick. So glad you enjoyed the blog and will think more happily of Alsace the next time you happen to pull an Alsatian Riesling from your wine cellar!

  • Nick on

    This is my first time here. This post served as an enjoyable introduction to the interesting exercise you’ve embarked upon here at readfrance.
    Being a student of history, the Alsace/Lorraine region always gave me a cold lump in my innards thinking of all the wars and battles in that region. But yours is a happy tale of life from the ditches.
    Especially intriguing to me were: choucroute (sounds yum), edginess of Eco-musee?, neon purple timbers on a relocated house?, and whether my son can reproduce some of the wonderful drawings of Uncle Hansi.


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