Thursday, 4 October 2012

Whirlwind of wine and a wedding in a non-existent land

You might be surprised to learn how much pleasure can be had travelling around a non-existent region.

The region in question is Alsace-Lorraine which vanished in 1918, along with the German Empire to which it belonged.

Of the present French region of Lorraine, only one department, the Moselle, was part of Germany. On the other hand, the whole of Alsace was included: both departments, known as the Upper and Lower Rhine, singularly unimaginative names which nonetheless threw a former colleague of mine into confusion.

‘Why did they call them that? The Lower Rhine bit’s above the Upper Rhine on the map.’

I couldn’t think of a withering reply so simply said ‘because that’s the way the river flows’, as patiently as possible. Patience was something I was called on to show a lot with that particular colleague, though I can’t say I succeeded all that often.

My wife Danielle and I have just returned from travelling around all three bits of the old German province.

In the Upper Rhine we visited friends who run a small glassblowing business, but I’ve spoken about them before so here I’ll only say how much I enjoyed sharing a bottle or two of the local Pinot Blanc wine with them and their extended family. This included chatting with a 12-year old boy and his 10-year old sister though, to be strictly truthful, it wasn’t so much a question of chatting as of being chatted to. Whatever my faults, being excessively tongue-tied isn’t one of them, so it was quite an experience to be reduced to silence by the joyous but uninterruptible flow these two managed to produce. Irresistible, though, in children that full of spirit.

Me and my (chatty) new friend Nicholas
From there we headed up the map but down the river to the Lower Rhine and Strasbourg, which is pretty much my favourite city. If it has a fault it’s that it contains rather too many fine old-stye Strasbourgers, convinced against the evidence, of their superiority over everyone else. Still, it’s hard to complain too much about that kind of mentality if you live in England, which is run by people who embody it in spades. 

In any case, those Strasbourgers count for little in Strasbourg, full as it is of so many different races, creeds and nationalities. Why, there are even some 20,000 British people there, to say nothing of the colonials – Americans, Canadians and the rest – who speak what they claim is the same language. And one of the best things about all those foreigners is that most aren’t ex-pats (semi-detached superior beings, due to leave as soon as their short-term contracts run out), but foreign residents, living there indefinitely and working on the same terms and conditions as any other local.

Strasbourg's cathedral 
soaring above one of its mediaeval streets
Water, water everywhere: Strasbourg's a city of rivers and canals
I could talk endlessly about Strasbourg but will simply whet your appetite with the little-known fact that the city boasts one of only a couple of dozen hospitals in France which still has its own wine cellar (and Strasbourg’s contains a barrel from 1472, before America had even been invented); it is, in addition, the only French hospital to retain its own bakery. So if you visit the cellar you get served excellent ‘crémant’, as good as many a champagne, and perhaps a local Riesling and Muscat (I always say that the Alsatians apply French genius to German wine and the result is outstanding). Alongside you get a slice or two of Kugelhopf (and I’m not going to try to describe this extraordinary savoury cake to you, you just have to go out and taste it) along with brioche (and the words Marie Antoinette never actually pronounced were in fact ‘let them eat brioche’).

The cave historique at the hospital: just magic
To complete our Alsace-Lorraine visit, we ended up with a swing through the Moselle department, on the other side of the Vosges range of low mountains or large hills, ideal country for walking if that’s your bent (as it’s ours).

Natural and human ruins in the Vosges woodlands
The wedding reception was the most riotously entertaining it has been my pleasure to attend. The Moselle wine at dinner was outstanding, but the high point of the evening was the song and dance show laid on by the bridal couple themselves, ably supported by some of their childhood friends: the bride remains in touch with people she has known since she was four or five. Amazing. I can’t even remember the names of the people I knew then, apart from ‘Mummy’ and ‘Daddy’, of course. 

She however had dragooned several of her nursery school friends into a show including a version of Thriller that proved to my satisfaction that though Michael Jackson may no longer be around, his spirit lives on.

Félicie and Yann, bride and groom, leading the floor show
In fact, my only concern about the whole event was that our friends were getting married after eighteen years as a couple. I did warn them that hasty decisions can occasionally lead to difficulties later, but they seemed to feel they ought to be able to deal with any that might crop up.

The reception was in the Ceramic Factory Casino in Sarreguemines. I loved the name of the place: it had stopped being a ceramics factory before it became a casino but, by the time, we got there, it had stopped being a casino either. Danielle, who had never been to a casino, had thought she might have a flutter, but her introduction to the thrill of the table will have to wait a little longer.

But I loved being a building that had outlived its name twice. It seemed wholly appropriate to a non-existent region. And, set as it was by the river Sarre and with walls boasting colossal ceramic decorations, it proved that mere non-existence needn’t necessarily be a block to beauty. 

Part of the front of the Casino des Faïanceries
in Sarreguemines
...and the same building glimpsed through the trees
from the other side of the Sarre
Take it from me: you can get a real kick from a non-existent region. You should try it yourself some day.


Anonymous said...

Hi David, thank you for this tour through the non existent region via your writings and images. The buildings and artwork are magnificent. You and your wife must have had a wonderful adventure!

Anonymous said...

Greatly enjoyable account; wished I had visited Strasbourg more often.


David Beeson said...

Thanks Aries and San - we certainly had a great time - one of those memorable trips that won't fade soon. And it's not too late to visit Strasbourg again - we're certainly going to.