This week’s journey takes us back to the charming and picturesque village of Riquewihr. Situated between the forested peaks of the Vosges Mountains and the vineyards of Alsace, this small medieval commune bears an uncanny – and delightful – resemblance to Belle’s sleepy provincial village in Beauty and the Beast.
History of Riquewihr
The village dates back to Roman times, when Riquewihr was the site of an observation tower in an already successful wine-growing region. It further developed in the 6th century, and was probably named after a major landowner known as Richo, who loaned his name to Richovilla (“Richo’s domain”), which later evolved into Richovilare and eventually Riquewihr, or Reichenweier in German.
At the height of the Middle Ages, the village was protected by Reichtenstein Castle, property of the Dukes of Alsace and later the Counts of Eguisheim-Dabo. The latter acquired an unsavory reputation as lord bandits, and in 1269, Rudolph of Habsburg, future King of Germany, set about to put an end to their devious practices. Rudolph, with troops from nearby Strasbourg and Colmar, besieged and destroyed the castle and executed the bandits, but was so impressed by the local wine that he elevated the village to the rank of town. Reichenweier (Riquewihr) then passed to the Dukes of Horburg, who rebuilt the castle in 1291 and raised a rampart around the town (which still exists to this day).
In 1324, Reichenweier was sold by the Horburgs to the Dukes of Württemberg. The fate of the Alsatian town would change in 1397, when Count Eberhard IV of Württemberg became engaged to the infant heiress Henriette d’Orbe-Montfaucon, Countess of Montbéliard. Married ten years later, the couple of the unified counties selected Reichenweier as their capital. This was the start of a golden age that was to last until the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).
Throughout the 16th century, Reichenweier served as a winzerdorf or “wine village”, exporting wine throughout the Holy Roman Empire and the cities of the Hanseatic League. During the Thirty Years War that opposed Catholics and Protestants, Reichenweier was besieged and plundered twice, in 1635 and 1652, by the troops of the (Catholic) Duke of Lorraine. In the first siege, the inhabitants of the village were assured they would be spared if they surrendered. They opened the gates and were immediately betrayed by the Duke’s invading troops, who summarily executed the villagers. The ensuing decades were marked by epidemics of plague, typhus and cholera.
In 1680, Louis XIV annexed Riquewihr to the Kingdom of France. The town remained under the laws and customs of the Holy Roman Empire until the French Revolution. (source: Eupedia)
During World War II, the village – at the terminus of a dead end road – was spared major damage. As such, Riquewihr today looks more or less as it did in the 16th century, and has earned – quite rightfully – the official designation as one of the most beautiful villages in France (les plus beaux villages de France). A very special combination of history, culture, scenery, and incredible food and wine – particularly Riesling – makes it one of the most romantic and sumptuous places to visit in all of Europe.
We made our first journey to Riquewihr in early March 2016. We arrived in late afternoon, after visiting the nearby villages of Ribeauvillé and Bergheim, and parked our car (for a small fee) at the top of the village in Place des Charpentiers. From there, we made the very short walk downhill toward Le Porte Haute, a narrow gate through the town’s upper defensive fortifications constructed in the late 13th century. Just beyond Le Porte Haute stands Riquewihr’s emblematic monument, the Dolder, a 25 meter-high belfry and watch tower with expansive views over the rooftops of the old town and across the Alsatian plain. A small fountain at the foot of the Dolder, erected in 1560, was originally used to gauge the capacity of wine barrels and other containers. The heraldic lion atop the Fountaine de la Sinne bears the coat of arms of Riquewihr (featuring Württemberg deer antlers and a star).
We found the small intersection in which the fountain sits an excellent place to admire the architectural features for which Riquewihr is well known: half-timbered houses in nearly every color of the rainbow, intricately carved wooden beams, arched stone doorways, wrought iron signage and window boxes overflowing with flowers. A mere twenty steps into the village, and we were already enchanted!
Leaving the Dolder, we continued our exploration of Riquewihr along the cobbled main street – rue du Général de Gaulle – where wine merchants and pâtissiers warmly greeted us with smiles and samples of their products (including the best freshly baked macaroons we’ve ever had, from Au Petit Délice!). Numerous restaurants, hotels and les caveaux – wine cellars, many dating back several centuries – lined the street, offering comfortable accommodations and all manner of gastronomic delights. Shopping opportunities were also plentiful here; clothing, souvenirs and regional wine featured prominently in store windows.
With no particular destination in mind, we occasionally wandered off the rue principale onto side streets and alleys, each more lovely than the last. It was in these tiny cobbled streets that we truly felt as if we’d stepped back in time. With virtually no automobile traffic and few tourists present, there was little indication we were in the modern world at all. It was absolutely beautiful!
We also found a French cat lounging atop a wine barrel – well fed and suitably aloof!
We eventually made our way back to rue du Général de Gaulle and followed it the short distance to Place Voltaire and the neo-classical Hotel de Ville, or town hall. It was there, as we watched the sun dip toward the horizon, that we were gently shaken from our fairy tale reverie and reminded of the 2 1/2 hour drive back to our home in Germany. We reluctantly made our way back up the main street toward Le Porte Haute, reaching our car just as the sun began to set. Our time in Riquewihr was short – little more than an hour – but a blissful escape to a truly unforgettable place.
For those wanting to make the most of their day trip or weekend getaway to the region, we also recommend visiting the other scenic villages of the route des vins d’Alsace (Alsatian wine road) – including Ribeauvillé, Turckheim, Eguisheim and Kaysersberg – as well as nearby Strasbourg and Colmar.
Thank you for joining us on this adventure in Alsace! – T. & B. June
Next week’s journey: Bryce Canyon National Park – Utah, USA