This is the 2nd half of our day hike along the Alsatian Wine Route, from Riquewihr to Hunawihr to Ribeauville. After spending a morning at the spectacular Riquewihr followed by a short 30 minute walk in the midst of centuries-old winery estates and endless rows of lovingly manicured grapevines, we arrived at the second medieval village of our hike.
Cluttered around a 14th Century fortified church was the quaint little village of Hunawihr, yet another enclave of historic half-timber houses set among the lush rolling hills of the Alsatian countryside. Arriving from the so-called Sentier Viticole from the south we entered into a world of pastel-colored cottages, many dating from the late Middle Ages and meticulously preserved by generations of local vintners.
Hunawihr was a haven of tranquility compared with the relative commercialization of Riquewihr. Missing were the Gothic towers and stalwart townwalls to entice the casual tourist, instead we found the quiet charm of a traditional French village still untouched by mass tourism.
This little hamlet of 600 featured no bustling tourist restaurants, zero souvenir shops and, thankfully, next to no tourists at all. On this gloriously sunny Saturday afternoon we came across less than 5 visitors, all congregating at the solemn fortified church on the hilltop. The village streets were otherwise empty, and the two of us had the entire town, including this 400-year-old stone fountain, all to ourselves.
We spent the rest of our visit admiring the village's medieval folk architecture and old winery estates. We could have taken a short walk to the nearby stork breeding centre for a close encounter with the majestic birds, but decided to continue with our hike and have more time to spend at our final destination of Ribeauville.
This has to be one of the easiest and yet most rewarding hikes I've ever taken, anywhere in the world. The entire 5 km is fully paved, relatively flat, and cuts between the timeless vineyards with stunning panoramic views of the Alsatian plains. On top of that the hiker also gets two of Alsace's famously photogenic villages, Riquewihr and Ribeauville, as the starting and finishing points of the hike.
Looming large above the town of Ribeauville is a trinity of medieval castles from which the powerful lords of Ribeaupierre used to rule over the surrounding towns and their wealth of vineyards, before their abandonment in the 15th Century. The elevation gain of 500m past the Châteaux of Saint-Ulrich and Girsberg to Haut-Ribeaupierre at the top would be a fascinating hike I'd love to undertake someday with more time to rummage around the surrounding countryside.
At last we entered the old towngates into medieval Ribeauville, probably my favorite locale within Alsace and one of the most picturesque towns of our 24-day journey. Along with Riquewihr it's one of the so-called Plus Beaux Villages de France, a claim that's difficult for any photographer, or even anyone with a phone camera, to refute.
Wherever you point your camera it's just impossible not to get a few beautiful pictures, even on a busy Saturday afternoon with crowds of day-trippers in the way. It gave me goosebumps just imagining what kind of magical ambiance would develop when these cobblestone alleys and townsquares become all deserted after sundown.
As a traveler this was one of those moments when I really wished we had just one more night in our itinerary -- just one night inside this enchanting village and watch the townscape slip 500 years back in time, perhaps with a bottle of the local Gewurztraminer in hand. In retrospect I would even trade our night in world-famous Strasbourg for one here in Ribeauville, though that's just logistically impossible given our itinerary this time. If we ever revisit Alsace though, this is where I'd love to stay.
With a vibrant resident population and enough independent Gîtes and Chambres d'hôtes to accommodate the more curious travelers, Ribeauville seemed much better equipped than Hunawihr or even Riquewihr as a base for exploring the nearby villages and sampling the local vintage. There's also the allure of the three castles, which always seem to beckon visitors on the town's main thoroughfare.
While there is a commercialized side to the town -- streets full of cafés, souvenir shops and local vintners -- there are also quiet alleys just a block away from the bustling Grand Rue, especially along the northern edges of the town around the crumbling remparts. With a little more time I would have loved to hike up the small hill with the humorously solitary tree among a sea of grapevines. The possibilities for short hikes around the town is just endless.
There's only one minor inconvenience: Buses 106 and 109, Ribeauville's connection to Colmar and thus the rest of the French national train network, runs only from Mondays to Saturdays. But as long as Sundays are avoided, buses between Ribeauville and Colmar and even between Ribeauville and Hunawihr and Riquewihr are relatively frequent. We even saw a fellow couple taking the morning bus with us from Colmar to Riquewihr, boarding another bus later presumably towards Ribeauville, after which we saw them again waiting at Ribeauville for a bus back to Colmar. In other words our hike from Riquewihr to Hunawihr to Ribeauville could alternatively be accomplished by public buses, just in case the weather becomes unsafe for hiking.
There's another reason why we found Ribeauville so deliciously memorable ... here we stumbled across a little pâtisserie that turned out to be our favorite on our 24-day journey across Europe. Patisserie Gilg actually has three shops -- one in Munster, one in Colmar near Petite Venise (which we somehow didn't notice), and this one on Grand Rue in Ribeauville.
What attracted us in the first place was the dazzling array of mouthwatering Mararons. Living on Canada's Westcoast I must admit that I'd never, not even once, had a macaron that I found remotely pleasing -- it's typically too sweet, too firm, and most often too dry and crusty. To be honest, I don't really know what made me think this was gonna be any different.
But this was simply perfect. Perfectly soft on the first bite. Perfectly melting in the mouth. And perfectly light on the sweetness to accentuate the choice of flavor. My favorite was the probably the Cassis for its fragrance and slight acidity, but it hardly mattered. These were so heavenly scrumptious that I could have had a dozen without feeling too full.
And there's more ... my wife discovered this impossibly smooth piece of Succès, generously smothered with layers of crème chantilly, crushed candied almonds and a thunderously crunchy nougatine. This, along with a piece of Black Forest Cake we had at Schiltach, were by far the best dessert dishes we had on our entire trip.
Bill for Two Persons
|Macaron x 3||3.5 Euros|
|Succès aux amandes, chantilly et nougatine||3.2 Euros|
|TOTAL before tips||6.7 Euros (CAD$9.4)|
Had we stayed longer in Ribeauville we probably would have skipped dinner and splurged on the rest of the pâtissier's artistic creations. For the rest of our journey in France and Luxembourg we earnestly sampled other pâtisseries, but sadly never found one approaching this level of mastery.
Coming out of the pâtisserie we spotted this gigantic stork nest as part of the village's medieval skyline. Judging from the bird droppings the nest was probably still in use, perhaps by the population of resident storks from the breeding centre in Hunawihr. Alsatians have always reserved a special place for their majestic storks, and even today it's still forbidden to remove their nests from the roof.
We remained in Ribeauville until sunset, and would have stayed even longer if we didn't have to catch the last bus back to Colmar at 18:20. This was a most satisfying day-trip, and one that we would cherish for a long time.
Three charming medieval towns, two fantastic restaurants and pâtisseries, one lovely route winding through some of the most gorgeous vineyards in the French countryside ... all inside 5 km of easy hiking. That's why this is one of our favorite beginner hikes among all of our trips. For something more thrilling I'd prefer Huangshan's West Sea Canyon, but for a hike even my mom can reasonably tackle, it just doesn't get any better than this.