When a painter friend heard that my husband, Howie, and I were planning to visit Alsace, he said, “You have to go to Colmar and see the Isenheim Altarpiece! It’s life-changing!” Our friend isn’t given to hyperbole, so hearing him suggest that a work of art might change our lives doubled the excitement we already felt about going to Alsace, in northeast France, on the border of Germany and Switzerland. The region not only straddles three countries and cultures but contains a wealth of extraordinary art and architecture. Alsace is also famous for its culinary traditions, for its wine and cheese and for its choucroute garnie: a heavenly stew made from sausages, charcuterie and sauerkraut.
I’d heard about Alsace for as long as I could remember. Howie’s great-grandfather emigrated from there to New York in the 19th century. I recall learning, in school, how the region had been claimed by both France and Germany. With each war, each invasion and occupation, its inhabitants had been forced to switch their allegiance, their citizenship and even their language from French to German and back again.
But I had never been there, nor for some reason had I thought much about going until our friend Wendy suggested that a group of us travel there for a long weekend, to celebrate her birthday. It was one of those fantastic occasions that seemed too good to be true but was, a trip to Europe — made possible by Wendy’s generosity — aboard a private jet with friends from various aspects of her life.
She had been to Alsace before. She’d gotten to know Marco Baumann, the proprietor of the Hotel des Berges, a country inn, and its restaurant, Auberge de L’ Ill (with three Michelin stars) in Illhaeusern, not far from Strasbourg. And she had fallen in love with the area — its medieval half-timbered houses, its quiet waterways, its vineyard-covered hills, its art and its food.
Our plane landed in Strasbourg, the region’s capital, on a crisp morning last fall. The Isenheim Altarpiece, just under an hour away, would have to wait. A bus arranged by the hotel took our group of 16 to the closest of the marvels we would see on our trip, the Gothic Cathédral Notre Dame de Strasbourg, the monumental church, one of the world’s tallest, constructed of red sandstone and decorated with delicate tracery, gargoyles and sculpted figures of the prophets, the Virtues and Vices, the Wise and Foolish Virgins. Built over a period lasting from the 12th to the 15th centuries, the church features magnificent stained glass windows, an elaborate pulpit and organ, and a famous astronomical clock that shows the position of the sun and moon, and from which, every day at half-past noon, a procession of figures — Christ and the apostles — emerges as a rooster crows three times.
After touring the cathedral, we stopped in at the Musée Alsacien, a folk art museum dedicated to the history and the crafts of the region. To me the most attractive objects — the ones I most coveted — were elaborate heating stoves made from ceramic tile. But the museum has something for everyone: costumes, toys, beer mugs, woodworking tools, model rooms recreating the interiors of a peasant house and a pharmacist’s studio, complete with an alchemist’s oven.
For lunch we went to the Brasserie Les Haras, a restaurant in the 18th-century building that once housed a riding academy and a stud farm. After we crossed the stately, classically lovely courtyard, it was something of a shock to enter the ultramodern interior, pale wood bent in circles and spirals, like a spaceship about to launch from inside the austere stone walls.
But that shock is rapidly dispelled by the excellence of the food: a menu that changes weekly and that, for us, meant pumpkin and goose liver tarts; a salad of chestnuts, green apples, pomegranate seeds and pears; seared scallops with a corn pancake — and one of the wonderful cheese plates that graced most of our meals.
Our lunch at the Brasserie was only one of many superb meals we enjoyed in Alsace, remarkable not only for the quality of the food but for the liveliness of the company and the seamless ease with which Wendy’s friends got along, nearly all of us from New York, and most of us past 50.
On our first night at the welcoming and unpretentiously luxurious Hôtel des Berges, on the banks of the Ill, a placid river on which one can take a small boat or watch a family of ducks, we dined in the informal hotel bar: local foie gras, followed by a stellar choucroute, the sausages and meats obtained from nearby farmers or prepared and smoked in-house.
On our final night at the hotel, we moved to the more formal restaurant for the sort of meal that has won the place its three stars, a dinner that included a series of nearly impossible choices between breaded quail and lobster salad; between salmon soufflé and a filet of pike-perch (sander) with an extraordinary risotto made with greens, herbs and chorizo; between veal with cepes and pigeon with truffles; between a pear tart and a medley of chocolate desserts. Other memorable meals occurred at JY’s, in Colmar, and at Les Trois Rois in Basel (the Swiss city is less than an hour from Illhaeusern) in a magnificent dining room overlooking the Rhine.
I often had trouble deciding what (aside from the sheer fun of being with friends) was the more pleasurable and memorable part of our trip to Alsace: the food or the art. I was struck by how many terrific museums exist within such a small area. Perhaps I should explain that many of the people on the trip were architects, so attention was paid not only to paintings but to the buildings that housed them.
Probably the most elegant was the Fondation Beyeler museum, over the Swiss border in Basel. Founded by the art dealer Ernst Beyeler and designed by Renzo Piano, the airy, light-filled space is notable for its long, narrow exterior made of porphyry imported from Patagonia, for its glass roof, and for the way in which its large, strategically placed windows make the galleries seem to interact with the landscaped gardens outside.
One is always turning a corner into a room full of paintings — when we visited, there was a show of futurist works by Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin and the artists they influenced — and being confronted by a gorgeous view of the foliage, the shrubbery, the lawns that surround the building and enhance the pleasure of being in the museum without competing with the art.
Equally interesting is the Schaulager, also in Basel, a somewhat fortresslike structure, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, that combines an exhibition space with a warehouse dedicated to the conservation and storage of art. Among the considerations in the building’s construction was the need for ideal conditions (humidity, temperature, light) for art preservation. Last fall, the show on view included paintings by Andy Warhol, Max Ernst and Elizabeth Peyton, and sculptures by Bruce Nauman, Robert Gober and Jean Arp.
Upstairs, the storage spaces had been opened to visitors. (The art on view changes when work is being shown elsewhere in the world.) One could wander along the bare corridors and into rooms containing videos by Bill Viola and Steve McQueen, an installation by Matthew Barney, and — most interesting to me, since I’d been unfamiliar with their work — hundreds of whimsical clay figures, acting out often hilarious, original and occasionally moving scenarios, created by the Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss, whose work recently appeared in a major show at the Guggenheim in New York.
Our art-filled day ended at Vitra, a combination factory, furniture showroom and architecture and design museum just over the German border in Weil am Rhein, also less than an hour from Illhausern. Vitra’s main buildings — the Vitra Design Museum and VitraHaus — are used for temporary exhibitions (during our visit there was a show about the Bauhaus). The Vitra home collection is on permanent display in a showroom featuring furniture by Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson and other designers whose work Vitra is licensed to distribute, and in some cases manufacture.
Our group toured the grounds on which there are buildings by Frank Gehry, Herzog & de Mueron, Zaha Hadid, Renzo Piano and the Japanese architectural duo known as Sanaa. Perhaps the most beguiling work is a charming gas station created by Jean Prouvé in 1953.