Map Quest

A journey through Alsace-Lorraine to the town that gave America its name

Two weeks later I flew into Strasbourg, rented a car, and drove south into the Alsatian Plain. My destination was the Route des Vins—a 112-mile stretch of narrow country road (three stars in my Michelin Green Guide!) that hugs the low eastern slopes of the Vosges and winds its way scenically through acre after acre of fastidiously tended vineyards.

Wine is a very big deal in Alsace. Vineyards have been planted in the region since at least the third century A.D., and today almost a fifth of all French white wine comes from Alsace, including the Rieslings and Gewürztraminers for which the area is famous. I arrived just as the vendange (grape harvest) had begun, and temporary signs posted along the road announced Vendangeurs! warning drivers to keep an eye out for grape pickers. Heavy rains and unseasonably warm weather were wreaking havoc on the harvest, and a rush was on to pick as many grapes as possible before they went bad. The story dominated the local newspapers. One article, titled “Race Against the Clock,” led with this ominous development: “Grape harvesting on Sundays!”

I took a short detour to visit Mont St. Odile, a convent and pilgrimage destination high in the foothills of the Vosges (“a splendid panorama,” two Michelin stars). After taking in the sights, I tromped down into the surrounding forest, where I picked up a trail following the remains of what’s known as the Pagan Wall—a mysterious structure, still ten feet high in places, that may date back to Celtic times. Deeper into the forest I came across a well-maintained Roman footpath. Alsace has had many occupiers.

Local producers at every town and village along the Route des Vins offer you the chance to tour their vineyards, visit their cellars, and taste their wines. I did my tasting in Ribeauvillé, a lovely, quaint medieval town (“picturesque,” one star) that—I have to admit—is a lot like all of the other lovely, quaint medieval towns in Alsace. The Michelin guide does not divulge this secret. At first you can’t help but be enchanted—by the medieval towers and churches, by the timber-framed houses and their red tiled roofs, by the bright flower boxes in the windows, by the narrow cobbled streets, by the quietly burbling fountains, by the artful displays of gourmet specialty foods, by the kindly shopkeepers. But these towns are the equivalent of sweet Alsatian dessert wines: delicious in small doses but cloying in greater quantity. By the time I had visited a few others—Riquewihr (“attractive,” three stars), Kaysersberg (“charming,” two stars), and Eguisheim (“hardly changed since the 16C,” one star)—I found myself developing an allergic reaction to them. And to my Michelin guide.

It was time to go to Saint-Dié.

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Toby Lester, an Atlantic contributing editor, is at work on a book about the Waldseemüller world map of 1507.

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