Shaney Hudson cycles and walks the 'fairytale' forests and villages of the small, but highly contested, region of Alsace.
"WE ARE French but we are a special kind," our guide, Daniel, tells me as we hike through the forest. If I were anywhere else in France, I'd be tempted to smile, so fierce is the regional sense of identity; but here, walking on the spine of a land fought over by two empires for a thousand years, I don't doubt it.
I'm hiking in the mountains of Alsace, in the north-east of France. The destination remains largely underexposed to Australian travellers but is a popular getaway for European campers and outdoor enthusiasts, drawn by its well-marked hiking and biking trails and stunning mountain scenery.
It's a beautiful place but one with a dark history. On the border with Switzerland and Germany and with the Rhine river snaking through, Alsace has been tugged back and forth in a territorial dispute between France and Germany for hundreds of years.
Our first day in the region has been a cultural crash course. Our night train chugged us away from the quintessentially French terracotta rooftops and purple lavender fields of Provence and deposited us in a land of dark-green forests and Hansel-and-Gretel-style houses. We are in France but it looks as if we are in the German countryside. Daniel and fellow guide, Jen, put us kindly but firmly in the right place: France.
"If you ask someone if they think they are French or German, they will reply, 'First, I am Alsatian, second, French,"' Jen says. "If you ask someone if they are French or German, they can get very angry. They are French."
Almost as if to illustrate the point, we round a bend in the trail and come across an abandoned World War II bunker, overgrown and covered in moss. Although the doorway is jammed tight with rotting foliage from five decades of fallen leaves, we pass many other empty relics just like it during our walk, physical evidence of the wars fought on this land.
While we scurry up the embankment for a closer look, Daniel recounts how his grandfather, who changed nationality four times in his life, would tell joking tales of how the Germans were drinking American coffee in the bunkers one day; the next, the Americans were eating German bread in the same bunker up here in the hills, as the two sides went backwards and forwards during war.
"My generation is the first in a thousand years to not have a problem with the Germans," he says.
Although the conversation is heavy, our hearts are light: you can't help but enjoy the crisp mountain air and intense fluorescent green of the forest as we hike along. The forest is an important part of the culture of Alsace; locals bring their families to their favourite spots each summer to collect chestnuts and pick the wild strawberries, blackberries and raspberries we see by the trail.
A little further along we stop at a clearing for lunch, feasting on pate and bread presented on a folded-down paper bag and eaten with our hands - a welcome change from the heavy three-course French menu du jour we've eaten for days on end.
Above us is a giant statue of Jesus and we look across a long, rigid mountain range covered in forests, castles and vineyards. Yellow paths criss-cross the mountains like ropes and villages nestle like pink puddles in the nooks and crags of the valley. Over a paraglider's noisy drone, we can hear church bells ringing. In a place that has experienced such turmoil, it's amazing how much freedom we feel looking across this magnificent mountain range.
The trail dips into the valley and through a small town, past vineyards and cherry trees beginning to bloom.
We pass two people walking beside a brook, their Alsatian dog wading along beside them in the water in an effort to escape the heat. They are speaking Elsassisch, the local language: a living dialect that is unique to the region and sounds closer to German than French. Although school is taught in French, Elsassisch is often the first language spoken by children in the region.
We soon have our first encounter with the symbol of Alsace, the stork. Built on the highest rooftop, we see the silhouette of a large beak sticking over the side of a giant nest. In the 1960s, the area was home to 140 breeding pairs; by 1974, there were just nine breeding pairs. However, storks have made a strong comeback in this area as the towns work to protect them by building platforms for their nests.
We finish our walk a few hours later in Kaysersberg, a tourist village dotted with Hansel-and-Gretel houses covered in garlands of flowers, sweet shops and souvenir stores selling racks of plush stork toys in a variety of sizes. Set around a fast-flowing river and criss-crossed with bridges, the town's centuries-old houses seem pinched towards the sky, while a ruined castle sits on the hill. It's as if someone lifted the whole town from a book of fairytales.
For dinner we try the regional speciality, flammekueche, a style of thin and crispy flatbread pizza with the consistency of a SAO biscuit, served fresh from the oven. We try the bacon and onion, and the salmon and cream cheese; but our discomfort and reluctance to eat the foie gras with rhubarb-reduction flammekueche starts a healthy international debate with our guide.
Why, he argues, should we be squeamish to eat foie gras when we happily feast on our own national symbol, the kangaroo?
Touche, we admit. Still, a few pieces are left untouched.
The next day we shift our activity from walking to cycling. Cycling is a key attraction in this region, with more than 700 kilometres of cycling trails, of which 500 kilometres are without traffic. We set out from an access path for vineyard maintenance, a smooth road with thigh-burning hills and thrilling downhill runs.
We cycle north, the Vosges Mountains climbing to our left, the Rhine snaking along the valley to our right. We're patriotically told the best wine is produced on the Alsatian side of these slopes, which faces south and gets the most sunlight. During the harvest festivals from late September to October, the fountains are emptied of water and filled with wine, from which patrons can fill a glass and drink.
We cycle through seven towns in five hours. In a time when you can cross a dozen countries without looking out of the window on a plane, it's satisfying to travel from village to village and experience a place in detail.
I'm seeing the real country and I feel as if I've earned this - the sunshine, warmth, smooth red access roads, scenery and birdsong, the mountains saluting and the hills protecting. It's a small journey but it's mine.
On our last day in Alsace, Jen takes us for a walk through the streets of Strasbourg. The city was originally a port town, bordered by the Rhine and Ill rivers. Recognising the strategic geographic and cultural importance of the city, it was selected as the place for the European Parliament, the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe.
The region is a fitting host. In France, 40 per cent of the population vote but in Alsace, 70 per cent do - an indication of a more fragile sense of peace and of a war still in common memory.
In the centre of town is the Strasbourg Cathedral, built between the 11th and 15th centuries and the tallest church in western Europe until the 19th century. If you're game to tackle it, you can walk the 322 steps to the cathedral platform for a bird's-eye view of the city but the pink-sandstone edifice is so intricately decorated it's a simple pleasure enough to just stand below it and look.
A few blocks away is one of the most beautiful villages in Europe. Known as Petite France, the steep-roofed, timber-framed 16th- and 17th-century houses here were once used by tanners and butchers. Painted in candy colours and dressed in summer flowers, they sit by the river, protected by a series of covered bridges. Each house is expertly preserved, although in their old age they jut out and slouch at peculiar angles to the river.
Strasbourg is a city with a character I haven't experienced elsewhere in Europe and it mirrors my experience in the region over the past few days.
My expectation of Alsace was that it would be a little bit of this and a little bit of that: a mixture of French and German influence. However, after spending a few days in the countryside with the people, I'm certain that this place is Alsace - and nowhere else.
The writer travelled courtesy of UTracks and Rail Europe.
Thai Airways flies from Sydney to Paris via Bangkok, with fares from $1921. thaiairways.com.au, 1300 651 960. The TGV fast train connects Paris to Strasbourg in two hours, 20 minutes. raileurope.com.au.
Hiking and cycling there
UTracks runs a series of self-guided tours in Alsace, including the seven-day Alsace Mountains and Vineyards walking tour (from $1550) and the eight-day Alsace by Bike cycling trip (from $1690, including bicycle hire). Both trips run from March to October and include accommodation and luggage transfer between hotels, breakfast and maps. It also offers a less strenuous, five-day Alsace Gourmet Walk (from $940). 1300 303 368, utracks.com.au.