Map Quest

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

From Atlantic Unbound:

Slideshow: "Images from Alsace-Lorraine"

A journey through picturesque villages to a surreal America in the heart of France.

For that eccentric breed of human being known as the antique-map enthusiast, the town of Saint-Dié-des-Vosges is sacred ground. Situated in the Vosges mountains of Lorraine, in northeast France, the town spreads out along the banks of a swift and muddy little river called the Meurthe. Gentle forest-cloaked hills rim the town, creating a natural basin that practically invites fog to settle in and stay awhile. The setting feels isolated, in a cozy sort of way, but in fact Saint-Dié is only a short drive from three of the most important cities of the Rhine Valley. To the northeast is Strasbourg, France, the capital of the neighboring province of Alsace; to the east is Freiburg, a German university town at the edge of the Black Forest; and to the southeast is Basel, in northern Switzerland.

Click the detail above to see the entire Waldseemüller map

Saint-Dié’s claim to fame is a memorable one: 500 years ago, after reading about the transatlantic explorations of the Florentine merchant Amerigo Vespucci, a small group of scholars in Saint-Dié coined the name America and put it on a giant world map known today as the Waldseemüller map of 1507 (named for the group’s chief mapmaker, Martin Waldseemüller). Surviving in the form of a single printed copy, it’s a remarkable document, and not just because of the name America. Drawn fifteen years after Christopher Columbus first sailed across the Atlantic, the map departed from the prevailing idea, based on Columbus’s own beliefs, that the lands being explored were some yet-to-be-determined part of Asia. Instead, it showed the New World as a giant, entirely new landmass surrounded by water—and, tantalizingly, it did so years before any European is known to have laid eyes on the Pacific.

Was this a spectacularly good guess, or did the Saint-Dié scholars have access to information about now-forgotten early explorations of South America? It’s impossible to say. All we know is that their sponsor, Duke René II of Lorraine, somehow got his hands on at least one nautical chart of the Atlantic and passed it along to his mapmakers, who incorporated information not only about the New World but also about the very recent Portuguese ocean voyages around Africa to India. As a result, the Waldseemüller map became the first to depict the contours of the Earth’s continents and oceans largely as we know them today. The mapmakers also produced a miniature version—a series of little paper strips designed to be cut out and pasted together onto a ball, in effect creating the first mass-produced globe ever made—and a geographical treatise called the Cosmographiaeintroductio, which explained the choice of the name America. Thanks in large part to Saint-Dié’s proximity to Strasbourg, a major center of Europe’s nascent printing industry, the Cosmographiae quickly went through several printings and became a best seller, and reportedly a thousand copies of the wall map itself were also printed. The timing was impeccable: the New World needed a name, and the Saint-Dié scholars, aided by the new powers of the printing press, gave it one, to the dismay of those who felt Columbus deserved the honor.

Saint-Dié is very proud of its history, so much so that it has taken to puffing out its chest and referring to itself as “the birthplace of America” and even the “World Capital of Geography.” To support those claims, it hosts an international geography festival each year at the end of September. I had been interested in the map since the Library of Congress acquired the sole extant copy, in 2003, for $10 million, and when I got word that the 2006 festival was going to launch a yearlong celebration of “the 500 years of the baptism of America,” I booked a flight.

When I finally saw a program of events, made available only shortly before I was due to depart, my heart sank. The festival bore the title “Geographers Rediscover the Americas,” and the program featured talks and discussions with such titles as “People and States: The Impossible Equation?” “Urban Dynamics in Guyana,” and “Snow in the Vosgian Massif, Past and Future.” To make the best of things, I decided to explore the area around Saint-Dié, which I knew to be a wonderful place to visit. As for the festival itself, I consoled myself by planning to attend the session titled “Do Americans Eat So Badly?”

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.

I chose a back road and followed it up into the mountains. Somewhere along the way, I passed from Alsace into Lorraine—and not long after, I arrived in Saint-Dié. I made straight for the town museum. It was only a short walk from my hotel, across the river and into the town center. The streets, festooned with blue-and-white banners announcing the Festival International de Géographie, were full of wandering packs of festivalgoers: middle-aged French geography teachers, aimless local teens, the occasional African immigrant, and an alarming number of people dressed up as cowboys and Indians.

The museum holds a small but precious collection of Waldseemüller-related artifacts: a copy of the Cosmographiaeintroductio, a few other maps and texts produced by the Saint-Dié scholars, and an assortment of other rare printed materials from the late-fifteenth and early- sixteenth centuries. (When I arrived, though, I was disconcerted to discover that for the festival, the museum had decided to pad its historical collection with displays of Amish quilts, American Indian portraits, and toy American soldiers.) The museum is well worth a visit, as is the nearby church, parts of which date back to the twelfth century. But to fully appreciate the region’s role in Renaissance history, you should also make time for a trip to the wonderful Bibliothèque Humaniste, in the town of Sélestat, just off the Route des Vins, which possesses a rich collection of early manuscripts and printed books, many of them once part of the private library of the famous humanist (and friend of Erasmus) Beatus Rhenanus.

The afternoon took on a surreal quality after I left the museum. I drifted down to a pedestrian area along the banks of the Meurthe, where I caught sight of the Tower of Liberty—a looming white structure that the town’s promotional literature describes as “a dream of steel, of cables and canvas, a boat, a bird, a plane.” Improbably, two white tepees had been set up on the lawn below the tower, and a sign in front of them invited visitors to take a walk in The Wild Forest of the Americas—a short path of wood shavings that led past a row of traumatized little saplings native to North and South America. Nearby, a troupe of middle-aged women in cowgirl outfits performed a dance to Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “New York, New York.”

I left the tepees and found a tent set up for cooking demonstrations. When I walked in, a chef in uniform was delicately placing a small flower garnish on a dish he had just prepared. The room was packed, and at first I couldn’t tell what he was working on, but soon enough I figured it out. We were watching the preparation of … hamburgers (“à la Vosgienne”), blueberry doughnuts, and milk shakes flavored with the distilled essence of locally grown buds of fir.

Florally enhanced American food, dancing cowgirls, tepees, the Wild Forest, Amish quilts: it was supremely ridiculous. But if this was how I was going to spend my time at the birthplace of America, then so be it. I didn’t need to insert myself ironically into the audience at “Do Americans Eat So Badly?” Instead, I could just have a hamburger and a milk shake right where I was.

They were delicious.