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FRANCE ALSACE Strasbourg, Petite France

Being lumped together in most travel guides has perpetuated the almost irreverent and blasphemous misconception that Alsace and Lorraine are undifferentiated in their cultural identities. This could be the furthest from the truth because the rationale behind them often sharing the same chapter is due to their close geographical proximity as well as the sheer number of historical (and often bloody) events they have been through together and not because the two regions are homogenous.

Many eschew heading to Northern Europe during autumn and winter due to the (not unfounded) mortal fear of having an ill-fated holiday cursed with bad weather or possibly freezing to death. Alsace and Lorraine however debunks this myth with a generally milder climate compared to their counterparts along with the incentive of a smorgasbord of events associated with the end of the year.

A systematic itinerary should be planned by individuals with a semblance of geographical orientation in order to be able to cover the towns of Metz, Nancy, Starsbourg and Colmar. Cuisine in the two regions do have their own characteristics but both have a distinct German influence that is obvious in their soft spot for sauerkraut, pork, goose, sausages, and beer. Specialties like creamy quiche lorraine in (obviously) Lorraine as well as melt-in-your-mouth foie gras in Alsace should be eaten without restrain.

The fusion of Germanic and Latin culture in Alsace lends its edge to the heavenly realms of language, cuisine, art, wine-making and architecture. Strasbourg is a cosmopolitan metropolis mixing a blend of antiquity and modernity. Visit the Cathedrale Notre Dame to pay homage to one of the finest marvels in gothic architecture, traipse along the roads of Petite France and admire the quaint half-timbered houses and waltz into one of the many museums and be prepared to be overwhelmed by a treasure trove of art and history. If you are in the region during December be sure to be enchanted by one of the biggest Christmas markets that sparkles and bustles with festivity. Moving on, Colmar is home to the celebrated Issenheim Altarpiece painted by Matthias Grünewald. No cheery optimistic beatific halo-ed individuals surrounded by angelic choruses here. The unique three dimensional cross details the horrors of the crucifixion to the brink of grotesqueness. The sense of fear the tableau instilled in the then-illiterate masses still grips visitors the minute they step into the chapel. Rid this pessimism by visiting the Route du Vin and satiate yourself with wine-tasting sessions. Overload your senses with breathe-taking sights of emerald expanses of creeping vines and fiery sunsets that envelope the land, casting warm ochre hues on half-timbered houses laced with congeries of delicate blooms.

A short train-ride away, Lorraine’s magnificent architectural landscape is startlingly different from that of Alsace’s almost whimsical scenery. Nancy is where your acquaintance and love for the art nouveau movement could possibly begin with you being constantly enraptured. From the encased works in the Musee des Beaux-Arts to the seemingly inconsequential yet intricate grilles of shops and offices, the movement has evidently had a great impact on the region’s surroundings. Be sure to also take time to roam around the awe-inspiring Place Stanislas that has been recognized as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. (read: Precious! ) Metz, the capital of the region, is the site of the spectacular gothic Cathedrale St-Etienne- a perplexing conglomeration of buildings that have been annexed or left unfinished due to a variety of reasons across the centuries. Be sure to also keep a lookout for the neo-Romanesque architectural legacy the city has retained from its days as part of the German empire. The Verdun Battlefields is another must-visit tourist site that draws throngs of people with its encapsulation of the horrors of World War I- forts, trenches and devastated villages stand as they did a close to a century ago. The preservation of this period of anarchy never fails to strike a chord.

Alsace and Lorraine are distinctly beautiful. But beyond this mere touristy and almost perfunctory comment, these two regions embody the two faces of human civilisation; the chaos, terror and often senseless drive for power as well as the intangible beauty and magnificence of culture. In this instance, the latter has won.

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The regions’ history is similar but not identical in its entirety. Alsace and Lorraine were conquered by Julius Caesar in the 1st century B.C and remained part of Celtic Gaul until Alemanni and other Germanic tribes conquered it during the 5th century. The region then became part of the Carolingian Empire under the rule of Charles the Great.

After the passing of Charles the Great, the Treaty of Verdun was passed in 843 and Alsace and Lorriane came under the rule of Emperor Lothaire and was part of the German Holy Roman Empire. In 870, the Treaty of Meersen saw the two regions taking differing routes with Alsace going under the rule of Louis the German whilst Lorraine went under West Frankish rule. The centuries that followed saw the regions go under various secular as well as ecclesiastical lordships.

The 16th and 17th century saw the French slowly but surely exerting its power and influence over the regions. Issues of power and religion resulted in the Thirty Years War between 1618-1648. The conflict resulted in devastating consequences on both regions. Almost 90% of the population was wiped out. The Treaty of Westphalia that was established thereafter awarded the two regions to France.  Volatile peace was established until the Franco-Prussian War that was sparked by France angering the Austrians in their stand for Italy’s unification. The war was fought in an attempt to forge a unified German empire. The Treaty of Frankfurt in 1871 saw the two regions being ceded to Germany and a relative period of lull until World War I broke out.

The region came under serious fire during the war with both sides exerting force and sometimes brutality in their quest to gain a foothold. There were restrictions on speaking French in public as well as arrests of individuals suspected of disloyalty on either side. At the end of the war, the Treaty of Versailles saw the two regions reinstated as part of France and this remained the status quo until the World War II broke out and saw the two regions go under the rule of the Third Reich between the years of 1940-1944. The two regions were returned to France at the end of the war.

The two regions have seen a constant struggle of power for the land and the historical trajectories has resulted in the settlement of both German and French people in the same area.  In the process of the transfer of power from one country to another, there have undoubtedly been issues with regards to allegiance and consequently discriminatory actions undertaken. However, in recent years, there have been increased initiatives to preserve the regions’ Franco-German heritage and this has been lauded as a commendable effort to celebrate the dichotomy of the regions’ heritage and history.

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