An epiphany in Alsace

Yesterday was Epiphany. While this is a purely religious observance in Australia, here in France it’s taken on the same broader cultural significance as Christmas. That is, there’s a cake on offer, a surprise for the children, and you don’t need to be Christian to play along.

The cake is called a galette des rois, and it’s kind of a cross between a cake and a sweet pie. There’s pastry on the outside that surrounds a dense frangipane filling of almond meal in which is secreted one little fève– a small hard object. The fèveplays a role similar to that of a silver coin in a traditional English Christmas pudding. But in this case, the person in whose slice the fève is found, gets to be the king for the day and wear the crown that is generally provided along with the cake.

I’d decided to follow local custom and had resolved to buy a galette des rois at our regular Saturday market. I wandered around the stalls and spotted a mound of rounded tomes accompanied by a stack of gold paper crowns. This had to be it. I confirmed with the shop owner that these were indeed for l’Epiphanie and handed across the euros. He placed it in the bag and, glancing at Silas and Delphine, observed that we’d soon be having a little king or queen at home.

As it turns out, I’d made a bit of a mistake and had actually bought a gateau des rois instead. This is round and comes with afèveand crown too, so my confusion was understandable. But this version is made of brioche and sugary icing. It was a mistake but not an unhappy one. We all agreed that in its buttery, doughy goodness, it was delicious.

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The next morning we travelled down to Thann for church, or “temple” as it’s called here to distinguish it from the Catholic kind. We had the usual readings for epiphany – where Jesus is baptised by John the Baptist and God’s voice resounds through the clouds pronouncing his divinity – but we also had a guest speaker of the more visceral kind. Someone who brought a different kind of epiphany for me.

Our speaker works for the regional government to promote inter-religious dialogue and he’d come to speak about his work. It turns out that Alsace is one of the most religiously diverse regions in France. There are practising Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians of all sorts here, including many more protestants than is generally the case in the rest of France.

He was passionate about his work, and an unrepentantly proud proponent of the depth of inter-religious tolerance in Alsace. He spoke of how the respectful interaction here extends beyond just the larger cosmopolitan towns to also be found in country villages such as our own. Newly arriving rabbis, imams and priests are regularly invited to the worship places of the other faiths to be welcomed to the local community. Perhaps, he opined, this religious diversity and respectful interaction, has been made possible by the openness of Alsace’s geographical location, sharing borders with multiple countries. He imagines Alsace as a “corridor” through which people of many backgrounds have passed over the centuries, and even millennia.

He closed his presentation by clarifying that he didn’t believe the objective of inter-religious interaction was to generate one shared belief system. “Inter-religion is instead a question of dialogue between different faiths. The point isn’t to create one unifying religion, but to build bridges between them all.”

That night, we finished off our gateau des rois. I cut a chunk off for each kid and retreated to the kitchen to do the washing up.

Silas called out, “Mama, I think she’s found it!”

Delphine rushed to explain “I found it in my kouglof.”

Wrong cake, right region.

“I dug in. And I found it.”

“And now I can wear the crown.”

She posed it on her head “I’m King Louis!”

Wrong king, right season.

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Car city

I knew many things about Alsace before we came, but one thing I didn’t know is that it’s the home of automobile manufacturing in France.

10 years ago the Peugeot factory in Mulhouse (40 minutes down the road) produced its 10 millionth car. Today, it makes the car that we’re driving around in – the Peugeot 2008. But it all started much earlier.

The Mulhouse Peugeot factory only dates from the 60s, but Peugeot has been making cars in Alsace from almost the beginning of automotive history. And of course, its location here on the German-French border has complicated the story. In the late 19thcentury, Alsace was under German rule and so, although the Peugeot factory in this area was geographically close to Alsace, it had to send the Phaetonnet Type 8it produced to the Daimler factory in more central France from where they were then shipped back to Alsace for sale.

This long history of car manufacturing is celebrated at Mulhouse’s flagship museum “cité d’automobile” – Car city – which claims to be the largest car museum in the world.

Knowing Robert’s appreciation of cars – an avid “Wheels Magazine” reader and passionate enthusiast of electric cars – I decided that his visit was the perfect occasion to make the trip downtown and check it out.

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It is immense. A huge hall filled with rows and rows of cars greeted us as we crossed the threshold. They’re mostly a selection of cars that were once ordinary in their day, with just the occasional supercar to spice things up. Robert was delighted to come across his parents’ first family car in the line up – a Peugeot 404.

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His father had been a true Peugeot faithful right up until he was taken from us too soon. I remember him driving us as newly weds from the church to the reception in his burgundy Peugeot. The car’s glossy sheen his reverent acknowledgement of the significance of the day.

The old family chariot of my own family – a Datsun 180b – was not present. This was a French museum after all. But my own father wasn’t far from my thoughts either. How enraptured my mechanical engineer dad would be by these rows and rows of engineering innovations. By the steady evolution from “horseless carriages” that really did look just like a cart lacking a horse, onto the long-bodied roofless numbers with their sweeping wheel arches, right through to the space-aged Martian-like experiments of the 70s aiming for maximum aerodynamics.

The historical motoring through car models seemed to end there, at that era of bellbottoms and big hair. As Robert observed, from the 1980s onwards, cars took on the shape that now characterises almost all vehicles on the road today. Evolution has definitely slowed. But not completely. In the far corner of the hall, like a full-stop to the seemingly endless rows of cars, was a car on a pedestal: the Bugatti Veyron – the world’s fastest car.

It looks like a bullet and goes at 407 km/hour. I watched my own father-child moment taking place as Robert, Silas and Delphine stood mesmerised by the video image of this car reaching top speed. It was of course impressive. But apparently, unsustainable. As we walked away from the display, I overheard Robert telling Silas that after 15 minutes at this speed, the Veyron would explode. But there’s a failsafe, at this speed the car will run out of fuel at 10 minutes. Detonation avoided by 5 minutes.

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The cars were beautiful and such a testament to human beings’ scientific skill. But what I was left with at the end of our visit was a mind full of images of the voyages that we take in these cars: the seaside excursions, the family holidays, the trips home from the airport, the first time behind the wheel, a kiss snatched in the backseat. For me, it was these human moments that really populate our car cities.

Inns of the high country

Today we celebrated New Year’s Day in the mountains behind our home. Last week’s rain had washed away the snows and, with them, our hopes of a New Year’s ski. But when there’s no snow, there’s a ramble to be had instead and so as the day dawned mostly clear, I decided we’d bring in the New Year with a walk around our local ski resort of Le Markstein. We could familiarise ourselves with the resort before snow’s arrival made the terrain harder to interpret and we could also get out in the fresh mountain air.

It was also a chance to finally peer inside the doors of an Alsace institution – the ferme-auberge. These farm-cum-inns dot the landscape of the high Vosges mountain range. According to the glossy coffee table book tucked under the television, there are at least 68. I find the text difficult to understand, the author couldn’t resist literary flourishes in his nostalgic and poetic description of their history and present day reality. But the photos tell it all – flower bedecked in summer, snow-iced in winter, these family-run hostelries combine farming activity with offering a warm welcome to mountain visitors, including hearty meals for hungry walkers, skiers and snow-shoers.

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So my eyes lit up when I noticed our proposed walking route led right past one of them. And I was thrilled when, after a quick phone call, I could confirm that it was open on New Year’s day and serving lunch. We had a reservation for midday.

With the rosy sun touching le Grand Ballon, we headed off, backpack bulging with all the essentials for high mountain walking: jackets, overpants, drink bottles, snacks, beanies, gloves, map. Our preparations were necessary. As we arrived into Le Markstein the weather closed in and we all layered up in respect of the changeable mountain weather.

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A few backtracks and map re-reads later, we found ourselves moist and mist-haloed at our destination: Augberge S. Before pushing open the door, I read the sign “90% of all our meals are home made with our own or local ingredients. So, understand that our menu changes regularly.” Encouraging.

We stepped immediately into the dining room: true Alsace. Solid wooden chairs, red and white patterned table cloths, wood beamed ceilings and a Christmas tree in the corner awaiting the 12thday of Christmas. Our hearty host welcomed us and gave us the menu in verbal form. No need for a written version when it changes daily.

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Robert couldn’t resist the offer of escargots – snails. So I had to choose the equally French option – onion soup. For mains, we chose another local speciality of a potato and cheese dish featuring the local Munster cheese, from the eponymous town just 45 kilometres down the road.

We chatted happily with our hearty host as our meal was cooked by his wife, who came from Geishouse. And yes, he knew our neighbour, who just happened to have been president of the committee that runs Le Markstein. We talked about our neighbour’s generosity and how we had found that to be characteristic of the Alsaciens in general.

“Up in the mountains we’re all solidaire: we share, exchange and help each other out.”

“Alsace is known for its warm welcome but also for its good food and wine, beautiful countryside. That’s why it’s such a popular tourist desitnation here in France.”

Then he added with a cheeky grin: “We say that the French come to Alsace for their holidays, and the Alaciens go to France for theirs.”

It turns out that he and his small team had worked for 24 days straight. I expressed my surprise and said that sounded pretty exhausting. He shrugged and replied “but that’s what we’re here for: to serve people in the mountains.”

Our meal was tremendous: Delphine couldn’t get enough of the snails, soaking up the last remaining juices with her chunk of baguette.

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Everyone had a go at my basin of onion soup. And in the end the Munster potatoes defeated us, despite their rich, cheesy flavour egging us on to eat just another mouthful.

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It was with warm tummies and even warmer hearts that we walked away with a happy wave to our host.

“Au revoir – perhaps we’ll see you in Geishouse the next time.”

“No, I don’t think so.” He said resolutely, very much the proprietor as he stood at the entrance way to his own personal kingdom. “But I’ll always be very happy to have you back chez nous.”

Chateaux on plateaux

As we drive around on our explorations, they watch over us like sentinels – ancient castle ruins high in the hills.

They are many in number and diverse in their degree of decay. I knew nothing of their existence before arriving here. And so, yet again, I’ve been surprised by another delight of Alsace – it’s home to the largest number of mediaeval castle forts in France.

They started being built from around the 12th century. The weakening grip of the Holy Roman Empire left a power vacuum in the region and local lords were keen to protect themselves from the disorder. They built great chateaux forts to be their home and safe hold, both for their family and their followers. In time, some became the central administration for the region, which is why some towns here are still centred around their chateaux today.

Silas loves castles. So he’s been thrilled at their regular appearance on the skyline. He’s enchanted by stories of knights jousting, sharp-eyed archers perched atop ramparts and the possibility of dragons lurking in the dungeon. So he was begging to visit one soon after we arrived.

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The first castle we visited was Chateau du Hohlandsbourg. It’s been fairly recently restored from an overgrown sleeping beauty state to a pristine semi-ruin.

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The view from the ramparts was astounding: to the west, the Vosges mountain range rippled all the way to the horizon and to the east lay the city of Colmar below. We could hear its church bells pealing at 11am to announce the 100thanniversary of the end of WW1. It felt fitting to be in this place, once a site of ancient combat but today a peaceful place of gentle pleasure, on this day of remembrance.

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Our second chateau was closer to home and lesser in remains. But its story made up for the lack of apparent castle. L’oeil de la sorcière – the eye of the witch. This castle had been deliberately rendered a ruin, and by King Louis XIV no less, who had ordered it to be destroyed in 1673. The walking notes from the tourist office in Thann hadn’t explained just why Louis had felt so inclined, so I was left to ponder with Silas and Delphine what could have possibly made the King so angry. What ever might have been the cause, the result is, a-hem, eye-catching. The explosion caused one of the towers to break apart and fall on its side, becoming a great ring of stone jutting out from the side of the hill. As we approached it in the late autumn afternoon sunlight, it was eerie in its beauty.

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Castle number three came after a visit to Kaysersburg Christmas market last week. At the last minute, we had decided to continue by foot through the village and up the walking path to its hill-top castle. I was feeling tired. I’d skipped our usual lunchtime rest and refresh at home, and had instead picked up the children from school and headed straight out on the one-hour drive to Kaysersburg. I hadn’t expected to do a bushwalk and so had said yes to Delphine when she’d asked to go in the stroller for our wander around the town. But here I was, half-way up a mountain path, folded stroller on one shoulder, camera slung on the other and marching up the stairs in my heeled boots. My eye was caught by two laminated plaques attached to a rock by the side of the path. I stopped to read:

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“Out of breath or not… You are in !

The effort engaged – important or not in your eyes – nobody would have done it in your stead, and nobody else other than you will reap the benefits…”

The message from French philosopher, doctor, musician, and native of this village, Albert Schweitzer continued on for several paragraphs. It spoke straight to my heart. To that part of me that had decided to embark on this three-month long Alsace adventure.

Something settled inside me. I resolutely straightened the pram strap on my shoulder, reached out my hand to help Delphine up the rocky stair and followed my castle-loving son to the summit.

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