There's no denying Alsace's attractiveness, with its old stone and half-timbered towns set amid the thickly wooded hills of the Vosges, but it's a quaintness that in many places has become a commodity.
Strasbourg, the Alsatian capital and, along with Brussels, one of the "capitals" of the European Union, mostly escapes the tweeness of some of the smaller towns of the foothills.
STRASBOURG owes both its name – "the City of the Roads" in German – and its wealth to its position on the west bank of the Rhine, long one of the great natural transport arteries of Europe. Self-styled "le Carrefour de l'Europe" ("Europe's Crossroads"), it certainly lies at the very heart of western Europe, closer to Frankfurt, Zurich and even Milan than to Paris.
The city's medieval commercial pre-eminence was damaged by too close an involvement in the religious struggles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but recovered with the absorption into France in 1681.
Along with the rest of Alsace, Strasbourg was annexed by Germany from 1871 to the end of World War I and again from 1940 to 1944.
Today old animosities have been submerged in the togetherness of the European Union, with Strasbourg the seat of the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights and the European Parliament.
Prosperous, beautiful and easy to get around, with an orderliness that is Germanic rather than Latin, the city is big enough – with a population of over a quarter of a million people – to have a metropolitan air without being overwhelming.
It has one of the loveliest cathedrals in France and one of the oldest and most active universities: this is the one city in eastern France that is definitely worth a detour.
SAVERNE and WISSEMBOURG, to the north, also avoid the worst of the tourist-brochure image, and give access to some spectacular ruined castles in the northern Vosges.
South of Strasbourg, along the ROUTE DU VIN, there are countless picturesque medieval villages and yet more ruined castles which suffer to varying degrees from the attention of the tour buses. A very different, horribly sobering experience is the concentration camp of Le Struthof, hidden away in the Vosges forest.
COLMAR is almost excessively twee, yet still worth a visit for Grünewald's amazing Issenheim altarpiece, one of the most spectacular works of art in the country.
The old centre of Colmar, a fifty-minute train ride south of Strasbourg, is typically and whimsically Alsatian, with crooked houses, half-timbered and painted, on crooked lanes – all extremely pretty, and very touristy.
The modern city, however, has sprawled unattractively on both sides of the train tracks.
Colmar's attractions don't stop at its buildings; it is also the proud possessor of one of the last and most extraordinary of all Gothic paintings – the altarpiece for St Anthony's monastery at Issenheim, painted by Mathias Grünewald.
Thirty-five kilometres south of Colmar, MULHOUSE is a large sprawling industrial city. It was Swiss until 1798 when, at the peak of its prosperity (based on printed cotton fabrics and allied trades), it voted to become part of France. Even now many people who live here work in Basle in Switzerland.
It's also the home city of Alfred Dreyfus, the unfortunate Jewish army officer who was wrongly convicted of espionage in 1894. Not having much of an old town, it is no city for strollers, but there are four or five outstanding – and rather unusual – museums in the town and its vicinity that delve into the region's manufacturing past: wallpaper, firemen, railway, automobiles and fabrics are all given their platform.
There's also a jazz festival in August, which is a good time to be out partying in this town, with concerts in the museums, the schools and the streets, as well as in the cafés and bars.
Close to the gare SNCF, just along the canal to the right, is the excellent Musée de l'Impression sur Étoffes, 14 rue Jean-Jacques Henner. It contains a vast collection of the most beautiful fabrics imaginable: eighteenth-century Indian and Persian imports that revolutionized the European ready-to-wear market in their time; silks from Turkestan; batiks from Java; Senegalese materials; some superb kimonos from Japan; and a unique display of scarves from France, Britain and the USA.
Also in the centre, the Hôtel de Ville on place de la Réunion contains a beautifully presented history of Mulhouse and its region in the Musée Historique which exhibits seventeenth- and eighteenth-century furnishings. A section devoted to local archeological finds is closed until further notice.
Out of the centre of Mulhouse, near the northwestern suburb of DORNACH, in the direction of the A36 autoroute, is the Musée Français du Chemin de Fer, 2 rue Alfred-de-Glehn. Railway rolling stock on display includes Napoléon III's aide-de-camp's drawing room, decorated by Viollet-le-Duc in 1856, and a luxuriously appointed 1926 diner from the Golden Arrow.
There are cranes, stations, signals and related artefacts, but the stars of the show are the big locomotive engines with brightly painted boilers, gleaming wheels and pistons, and tangles of brass and copper piping – real works of art.
In the same complex is the Musée des Sapeurs-Pompiers, its antique fire engines and other memorabilia the personal collection of a retired local fireman.
A third museum, Electropolis – Musée de l'Énergie Électrique, 55 rue du Pâturage, is devoted to the production and uses of electricity.
A couple of kilometres north of the city centre, the Musée National de l'Automobile, 192 av de Colmar, has a collection of over six hundred cars, originally the private collection of local business sharks, the Schlumpf brothers.
The vehicles range from the industry's earliest attempts, like the extraordinary wooden-wheeled Jacquot steam "car"of 1878, to 1968 Porsche racing vehicles and contemporary factory prototypes.
The largest group is that of locally made Bugatti models: dozens of glorious racing cars, coupés and limousines, the pride of them being the two Bugatti Royales, out of only seven that were constructed – one of them Ettore Bugatti's own, with bodywork designed by his son.