Clouds hang heavy in the sky over Alsace, lending the surrounding vineyards a dull, waxy green. Ahead of us, Eguisheim, a village that I hadn’t even heard of until booking our hotel a few days earlier. I practice saying it as I drive – Eggy’s hime? Eh-geese-hime? Ayg-heese-hime? – but I can’t seem to perform the necessary tongue contortions. My eldest daughter and wife laugh at my linguistic ineptitude.
The first thing we hear upon arrival is another weird sound, a supernatural extra-terrestrial klacking coming from the roof of our hotel. Glancing upwards we spot two huge black and white birds on a chimney pot: Storks, the symbol of Alsace. The kids are immediately enthralled; Eguisheim is already weaving its magic.
Luggage quickly deposited in our rooms, we run out to explore the village before the next downpour. Following the kids’ curiosity, we wander the streets fairly haphazardly… only to soon find ourselves exactly back where we started. Well, that was odd. Let’s try again.
Sure enough, 10 minutes later, we’re back near our hotel once again. It’s as if Eguisheim has hypnotised us with its colourful wonky houses, the flower boxes overflowing with petunias and geraniums, the ancient inscriptions on the houses, and above all – quite literally – the majestic, bizarre clacking of the storks. Eguisheim is mischievous: it tricks you into thinking you are getting somewhere, whilst the truth is that its playfully cute streets are expertly shepherding you in circles. And there is good reason for this – look at its street map:
The story behind Eguisheim’s bizarre layout is actually very simple – defensive walls. The town originally sprung up and thrived around an ancient castle (octagonal, not round…) and was protected by a circular wall; outside this, a second wall in a larger circle provided additional security. Livestock was kept in the space between the two fortifications, and agricultural buildings erected to house and feed them. When, around the 17th century, the walls were deemed no longer necessary they weren’t completely torn down but instead used as a handy starting point to build new houses (why build four walls when three will suffice?). To make more space for the rapidly expanding town, the animals were shifted outside, and the barns and outbuildings also converted into dwellings.
In short, Eguisheim is a fascinating place to simply wander round and appreciate the little things: the engravings and coats of arms on the door lintels, the links to a millennium-old Pope (Leon IX: he was born in the chateau), the storks on the rooftops, the inscriptions on the cartoon-pastel houses and, perhaps most of all, the excellent local wine. It may be small, but as a destination for a short break in Alsace, Eguisheim runs rings around just about everywhere else (sorry…).
Hotel Colmar Vignes
(NOT SPONSORED) We can’t leave Eguisheim without mentioning our excellent hotel, which somehow managed to successfully combine traditional Alsatian hospitality with contemporary modern design, and – most importantly – being very kid-friendly. Situated just a few metres outside the circular old town, the Hotel Colmar Vignes is a great base for exploring the village and region. We particularly liked the kids’ area, with games and activities for the younger ones and a pool table keeping our teenager entertained. Also, dinner in the restaurant was a particular treat: full of local influences, and a carefully-presented kids’ menu. A wonderful selection of local wine, private parking and free WIFI sealed the deal.
Hotel Colmar Vignes is part of the “Logis” network of small hotels across France (mostly) and other countries. Each hotel in this group is independently owned and managed, with an emphasis on local experiences and individualism. We have stayed in a few and, in our humble opinion, this is how hotels should be: a vastly preferable and more interesting alternative to bland corporate hotel chains and big, impersonal resorts.
Kids’ tip – Eguisheim stork park.
Worth a (very) short detour is a small stork park five minutes walk from Eguisheim village centre. Injured and sick storks have been cared for here for the past few decades before reintroduction back into the wild. There are some interesting panels (French-only) on the evolution of the stork population in Alsace and, of course, the kids can get close up to these magnificent birds. No entrance fee, playground nearby.
Hidden Europa visited Eguisheim in July 2019
(c) 2019 Jonathan Orr