The prospect of fine dining and lush scenery gets Anthony Lambert and family on their bikes for an active break, Alsace-style
Our teenage son had become a distant whirr of legs and wheels as we pedalled up the slope at a more sedate pace, content to enjoy the panorama over arrow-straight rows of vines. It may be something of a humiliation to discover that your offspring can outpace you on two wheels, but a cycling holiday happily absorbs any latent testosterone storms.
It was our first afternoon on a nine-day "Rivers and vineyards" independent cycling tour through Alsace. The trip offered the prospect of great scenery, enough exercise to limit the impact of the gastronomy and wine, and plenty of diversions along the way. Few areas of western Europe have endured such frequently redrawn borders, but the legacy is a region of exceptional architectural, historical and military interest.
From our first hotel in the stork-nesting village of Ammerschwihr, we had familiarised ourselves with the 18-speed bikes and their comfortably padded saddles by cycling to nearby Kayserberg, typically Alsatian with its cobbled streets of cross-braced timber-framed buildings ablaze with window boxes of geraniums. Pastel colours decorate the rendered panels between the knobbly timbers.
It was here that the medical missionary and Nobel Prize winner Albert Schweitzer was born in 1875, and his birthplace is a museum devoted to his life and work in French Equatorial Africa.
Our route for the next eight days took us along the wine road that runs north/south between the Vosges Mountains and the Alsace Plain, bordered on the east by the Rhine, with a foray across the river into Germany for two nights. The roads were almost invariably quiet lanes with some off-road cycle routes.
Impeccably written and detailed directions made it impossible to lose your way, while a booklet described the villages and things of interest. Almost every village has its cave and most houses have a wine cellar, indicated in the part-Gothic village of Turckheim by large shuttered letterbox-shaped openings in their lower walls to ventilate the cellars.
I might have been the French equivalent of Fay Maschler for the welcome we received at Restaurant Caveau in Eguisheim, the birthplace of Alsatian wine under the Romans. Even though we had been caught by a shower and lacked the attire one might expect in a Michelin-starred restaurant, Madame beamed a welcome as she whipped off our waterproofs and stowed our panniers. The table d'hôte lunch included a different local wine with each course to complement the rillettes, terrine of shrimps, pork and vegetables in a clear jelly, shredded rabbit in a ragout with boar gravy encased in creamed potatoes, and a dessert of Mirabelle plums in pastry with a Mirabelle sorbet, all for €29 (£21).
The castle overlooking the restaurant was the birthplace of the 11th-century Pope Leo IX who had become a bishop by 24 and was responsible for the schism that created Eastern and Western churches when the Patriarch of Constantinople was excommunicated. After a stroll through the town's narrow streets, we weaved through massed ranks of vines to Gueberschwihr.
Various brass bands were practising around the huge cobbled square in preparation for an evening fair, each trying to outdo the others. Dominating the square is the 36-metre high Romanesque clock tower of 1130, but, unusually, the adjacent church is 19th-century neo-Romanesque with an astonishingly elaborate pulpit surrounded by carved figures of popes.
At Rouffach we took a break from cycling and caught the train to Alsace's wine capital at Colmar, a town curiously described by Voltaire as "half German, half French, and totally Iroquois". In an area known as "Little Venice", narrow canals off the river Lauch once delivered produce to the covered market, typically French with its metal frame and walls of brick and freestone. Stone sculptures and models for New York's Statue of Liberty fill the museum in the birthplace of its creator, Auguste Bartholdi.
But the greatest treasure in Colmar is the Unterlinden Museum, the most visited of all French provincial museums because of its outstanding collection of early religious paintings, most notably the magnificent Issenheim Altar by Grünewald. Teenage appeal is provided by the fantastical creatures crowding the panel depicting the Temptation of St Anthony, hideous enough to have inspired Tolkein's orcs and trolls.
Vines gave way to walls of maize as we traversed the Alsatian Plain to cross the Rhine into Germany, pausing on the west bank to explore the fortress town of Neuf-Brisach. Designed by the military architect Vauban and regarded as his finest work, the octagonal fortress with 17km of walls required such quantities of red sandstone, brick and timber from the Vosges Mountains that a 40km canal was built from Rouffach to ship supplies.
More than 3,000 men laboured on the brick walls over nine metres high and three thick. A museum in the imposing Belfort Gate has diagrams and models showing the complex system of walls and ditches surrounding the grid plan of streets and central tree-ringed parade ground.
Crossing the bridge across the broad Rhine between France and Germany at Breisach-am-Rhein, we encountered the only heavy traffic of the trip. The original bridge was the sole crossing of the river between Basel and Strasbourg throughout the Middle Ages, so Breisach became an important trading city with a cathedral on the tall hill around which the town is laid out.
From Breisach the cycle path north beside the Rhine leads towards the Kaiserstuhl, a former volcano. Its slopes are the warmest part of Germany and produce late burgundies. We were prematurely driven away from the river by flooding so severe that all barge traffic had been halted. Water was pouring over the levees into the surrounding woodland, so we took to lanes through orchards of plums, pears and apples between tidy villages and farms where nothing is out of place. Our next move, to Dieffenthal, was the longest by distance at an easy 40 level kilometres, partly by traffic-free canalside paths with views across the maize fields to the Vosges Mountains and their string of stone castles on prominent crags.
A plaque on the station at Volgelsheim was just the sort of thing that catches one's eye from a bicycle but is easily missed from a car; it recorded the station's use as a set in the 1937 filming of that landmark in world cinema, Renoir's La Grande Illusion, which Goebbels honoured with the label "Cinematographic Enemy No 1".
Near Marckolsheim we stopped at Casemate 35/3 on the 150km Maginot Line, which has been restored to give an idea of what it must have been like to defend a smaller position as the Germans attacked across the Rhine in June 1940. An English booklet produced by the museum uses eyewitness accounts and reports to reconstruct minute-by-minute its place in the battle and the wider picture. Shell-marks on the armoured observation bell and the spartan conditions for the defenders, with slightly angled sleeping boxes and a well for drinking water, reduced us to silence.
By now we were in good shape for the most taxing day, a self-imposed climb up a long hairpin road to one of Europe's most unusual castles, Haut-Kœnigsbourg. During the German occupation of Alsace, between 1871 and 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II restored the crumbling remains of Haut-Kœnigsbourg, creating such an impressive reconstruction of a castle from the Middle Ages that Renoir filmed many scenes of La Grande Illusion within its walls.
We followed a Roman road on our last day, stopping for lunch at Bergheim where we stumbled on one of those unspoilt provincial restaurants that has made few concessions to fashion, holding on to the traditions that have made eating and drinking in France such a pleasure for centuries: a limited menu done well, warm service, starched tablecloths, a sensibly priced wine list. After an excellent confit du canard with horseradish and a walk around the town's well-preserved walls and towers, we returned to Ammerschwihr fitter and not quite such laggards on the hills.