Heritage tourism in Alsace, part I

Alsace is a famous region of Eastern France, having been a buffer between France and Germany for several centuries. As such, the region has a lot to offer about historical tourism. Interested in medieval architecture? Alsace abounds castles and old towns. Interested in World War One? Like during the previous war of 1870, France and Germany fought for almost every square kilometer of the land. Interested in the Second World War? It was the theater of bitter fighting between the Allies and Nazi Germany. But Alsace is also famous for its wine and vineyards, for its urban architecture, its vernacular languages, its cultural identity(ies) and its storks.

In May 2017, six history students made a trip to Alsace, visiting towns, castles and old battlefields. Here is a glimpse of what they visited.

The entrance to the fortress

Built on top of a spur in the mountains of the Vosges, the castle of the Haut-Koenigsbourg has been overlooking the Alsatian plain for close to a millennium.  This unique medieval fortress was once the property of German emperors, of dukes and counts and even brigands who pillaged and extorted the surrounding lands. In the 17th century during the Thirty Years War, the castle then in the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor was besieged by a Swedish army and destroyed. For almost three hundred years, the Haut-Koenigsbourg was but a ruin. After the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, a part of today’s region of Alsace was annexed by the German Empire. Kaiser Wilhelm II wanted to rebuild the castle and make it a museum glorifying Germanic culture. Under the care of architect Bodo Ebhardt, the castle was rebuilt from 1900 to 1908 with modern technics such as cranes and electrical tools. Ebhardt and the Emperor wished to make it resemble what it looked like before its destruction in the 17th century.

Examples of pole arms used by German warriors and knights

Today, tourists can admire this fantastic fortress with an astonishing sight over the plains, its walls, stairs, its towers. The Haut-Koenigsbourg is a century-old museum with an armament room, ancient canons, frescoes in the party room reminiscent of imperial propaganda, a room with hunting trophies collected by the Kaiser and even a medieval garden with rare plants.

 

A side view of the castle, Althaea officinalis or marsh mallow in the medieval garden, view over the plain and the Vosges from a tower

 

Navigating the canal

From the Haut-Koenigsbourg, one can see the city of Colmar, the capital of the Haut-Rhin department. Nicknamed the “little Venice”, Colmar is a very old city and a tourist favorite in the region. In this once free and independent city, visitors can admire the numerous monuments, have a ride on the small boats navigating the several rivers the city is built on or look at a replica of the Statue of Liberty (Colmar is the birthplace of Augsute Bertholdi, the sculptor behind the statue).

A house partly dating from 1419. The oldest remaining houses are from the 14th century. The “Little-Venice”
The Neuf-Brisach fortifications

Located some 15 kilometers east of Colmar and only 5 kilometers from the Rhine River and the border with Germany, Neuf-Brisach is a unique town designed in a star to be a fortress protecting against Germany. It was created ex-nihilo in 1698 on the orders of Louis XIV, the Sun King, who had recently conquered the region. The plans were made by the famous military engineer and aristocrat Sébastien Le Prestre, Marquis of Vauban, whose military legacy can be admired in many cities throughout France. Neuf-Brisach is built around the central square, former parade ground, and within the star-shaped walls. There are only four entrances to the city and all can be seen from the central square. A museum dedicated to Vauban’s work is a must-see when in Neuf-Brisach, but it is walking or cycling on or around the fortifications that make the city worth seeing. From Neuf-Brisach, it is only a short drive or walk to visit its German neighbor the fortified city of Breisach-am-Rhein.

A stone made map of Neuf-Brisach