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From the Rhône to the Rhine: Sélestat and Riquewihr

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Sélestat's weekly market was praised so highly online that I made it an anchor point of our itinerary in Alsace. It worked out perfectly that we were able to have breakfast at the Marché de Neudorf in Strasbourg before getting back on the road and arriving in Sélestat at about ten on Tuesday morning. The town is well regarded for its preserved medieval heritage in addition to the market so we allotted ourselves plenty of time to explore. Sélestat adhered strongly to the half-timbered aesthetic although there were some buildings where the familiar dark lattice appeared as though it might have been painted on the facade. The town was large enough that we had to wander around and even ask for directions a few times before we found the market on the opposite side of the ornate thirteenth century clocktower, a beloved landmark.

The market wasn't as large or awesome as the champion in Annecy but it certainly justified its important place in our itinerary. All the beloved French delicacies were present and there was a good selection of prepared food. Even though we had already eaten in Strasbourg we still found room for some more rotisserie and fruit. The high energy atmosphere along the beautiful main street of Rue President Poincare was exhilarating. Aside from the racks of modern clothing it felt like we could have enjoyed the same ambiance five hundred years earlier with the same array of colorful half-timbered houses lining the street on either side.

The Montagne des Singes is an animal park on a forested hilltop a short drive from Sélestat. The park is dedicated to the conservation of Barbary macaques which have become endangered in their native territory of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco and Algeria. We had seen Barbary macaques in Gibraltar eight years previously but of course the kids were too young to remember that. There were hundreds of macaques in the park and they were quite acclimated to humans so we could get quite close when they came to inspect us. They generally seemed more curious about the kids although I made sure there was still a respectable distance between us and the animals.

The fascinating thing about monkeys is how similar they are to us in their social behavior despite our obvious differences. The play with their young in more complex ways than other animals, they groom each other and show affection, they even argue. Watching monkeys interacting in a comfortable, semi-natural environment is almost like looking in a funhouse mirror.

From one spot in the park there was a clear view of our next destination, the hilltop castle of Haut-Kœnigsbourg.

Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg is an early twentieth century rebuild of a medieval castle that was burned to the ground during the Thirty Years' War. Ever since the painful tour of Burg Eltz our family approach to castles was to either admire them from afar or to check out the courtyard, but interior tours were a no go. This approach saved us plenty of time, money, and boredom. Once we found a parking spot near the castle we approached it from the wrong direction which resulted in a circuitous tour through the woods surrounding the perimeter before we found the entrance.

Although the castle is not regarded by historians as particularly authentic, our untrained eyes would never have distinguished it from a well-preserved medieval castle. It was built from the same local red sandstone we were familiar with from the cathedral of Mainz. Of course it wasn't possible to appreciate the castle's complex design or majestic presence atop the hill from the entrance or the courtyard. There's a reason why every photograph used to illustrate an article about the castle is taken from a drone. The closest we could get to that view was the bronze model within the courtyard. There was a pleasant view of patchwork Alsatian farmland from the cafe across the street from the castle.

We had been to two historically-preserved Alsatian villages near Strasbourg but the most renowned were between Sélestat and Colmar. The next on our itinerary was Ribeauvillé, a perfect little town adjacent to the foothills of the Vosges. The traditional houses seemed even more colorful and idyllic than the ones in Obernai. We went straight to a restaurant in the main square which featured a tall oblong tower called the Butchers’ Tower. Afterwards we stopped by a couple of market stalls in the square and bought some cheese and bread.

We walked the length of the Grand Rue through the center as far as the Place de la République at the western edge of town. From here we could see the vineyard-covered foothills and one of the three ruined castles that overlook the town. A walking trail leads up to the castles and probably would have been a fascinating hike if we had a week to spend in the area rather than just two days.

When I was doing my research on Alsatian villages before the trip one name that came up again and again as an unmissable destination was Riquewihr. Riquewihr was the first Alsatian town we had visited that still had a medieval town wall that was largely intact. As soon as we parked in the crowded lot outside the wall we could appreciate the colorful and verdant landscape that was the epitome of Alsatian beauty. The town was laid out like a small rectangular maze rather than a single long main street which made it more fun to explore. There were some busy areas and also some quiet little alleys where there were no other pedestrians. The one constant was that every single building and street was postcard perfect. Riquewihr was without doubt one of the most beautiful towns we had ever seen.

One of my favorite aspects of French culture is the summer evening markets that we originally discovered on our trip to the Dordogne. These are actually communal dinners rather than markets, somewhat similar to food truck gatherings in the United States except with better quality food and more elaborate dining areas. The Dordogne is the only region famous for evening markets but we found a good one in Bordeaux when we put the work into our research. I hoped we would be equally lucky in Alsace although I was largely dismissed when I inquired about them on travel forums. I was haughtily told not to expect disparate regions of France to have the same culture. I did have one promising lead for Tuesday evening in the village of Sainte Croix-au-Mines not far away, something called a buy and cook market the meaning of which was a little unclear. I didn't really expect to find it and figured we would go on and have dinner in a restaurant. Once we got back to the parking area in Riquewihr Mei Ling noticed there was an unusual rumble of voices coming from an area above us. We had parked at the base of the town wall and a staircase led upward to an upper level where we found exactly the kind of evening market I had imagined just getting rolling. It was also a buy and cook market, which meant that the main vendors were butchers selling raw meat to be cooked on communal barbecues. There was also a crepe maker, cheese and fruit vendors, and plenty of Alsatian wine. It wasn't the incredible spread of regional delicacies that we had enjoyed in the Dordogne but it was tremendous fun and best of all it was mainly locals and domestic French tourists with a smattering of expats thrown in, not a tourist scene at all. Mei Ling and I took turns grilling our sausages and brochettes and we stuffed ourselves at a communal table in the shade.

Before we left I made sure to inquire of the vendors where the evening market would be the following night. We drove onward through the beautiful Alsatian countryside to Colmar, watching the slowly setting sun light up the wheat fields in a pastiche of color.

Posted by zzlangerhans 18:58 Archived in France Tagged road_trip family alsace family_travel travel_blog riquewihr singes selestat tony_friedman family_travel_blog ribeauville haut-koenigsbourg

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