A co-worker asked me to sum up my visit to France in two words; on the spot, I chose "wineries" and "castles".
It's of course no surprise that a visit to France is rich with wineries, but when we were first thinking about traveling to Alsace I was not thinking about castles, which are more properly described as chateaux.
And for much of our time in France we were in towns and cities, and really didn't think much about either wineries or castles, but rather about cathedrals and cobblestone streets and canals and half-timbered houses and the like.
But then, one day, we went out for a drive in the country, and we stopped and had a picnic lunch.
And there we were, sitting at a picnic table next to a beautiful country winery, in a beautiful town in a part of the world where wine-making has been practiced for nearly two thousand years. And the weather was beautiful, and we were looking up at the Vosges mountains above town, and we saw, across the mountain ridges, castle after castle after castle.
Anyway, this part of France is simply blanketed with these beautiful chateaux, as you can easily see for yourself by looking at the "Bas-Rhin" (lower Rhine valley) and "Haut-Rhin" (upper Rhine valley) sections of the List of castles in France page on Wikipedia. Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin, together, comprise the major part of the Alsace region, and just by skimming the Wikipedia page you can see that no other part of France is as full of castles as this.
Why is that? Well, apparently we have a father-son pair to thank: Frederick the first of Swabia, and his son Frederick ("the one-eyed"), founders of the mighty Hohenstaufen dynastic family of the Middle Ages, ruled over these parts in the 1100's and built literally dozens of castles along the ridges of the mountains on either side of the Upper Rhine Valley (the Vosges to the west, the Swabian Jura to the east).
One lovely local guidebook I read says that there is an Alsatian saying that "Frederick the One-Eyed placed chateaux around the Vosges as though he was flicking his horse's tail."
Even in ruined state, these castles are gorgeous, as you can see in this picture I took on our visit to Kastelberg, near Waldkirch, Germany:
But, really, it's very hard to understand the role of these castles in their ruined state.
You find yourself mystified: what were these places like? Why were they built? Why on the top of mountain ridges? Who lived here? What was it like to live here?
Questions like these are why Chateau Haut-Koenigsbourg is such a delight.
Although the castle is one of the Hohenstaufen constructions, and hence is almost 900 years old, and was completely destroyed during the Thirty Years War, it was beautifully and carefully restored about 130 years ago and has been carefully maintained ever since.
Taking the tour of this castle was definitely one of the highlights of my trip. The museum is superb, with lots of information displayed as you wander the massive, extensive castle from bottom to top and back down again.
We were lucky to visit on a glorious summer day, yet have the grounds mostly to ourselves (a major surprise, since the castle is said to be one of the top 10 most-visited destinations in all of France!).
We spent hours there.
In fact, I was so enthralled that I broke one of my unwritten "laws of traveling" and bought a lovely little souvenir booklet in the gift shop, which I very much enjoyed reading.
If we had a month to spend in Alsace, or better if we actually lived there, I'm sure I would go to visit as many of these beautiful chateaux as I could.
But since our time was sadly limited, I am wonderfully happy that we got to see the ones we did, and if you ever find yourself in Alsace I thoroughly recommend that you visit at least Chateau Haut-Koenigsburg, and perhaps several more as your time permits.