It’s hard to make progress along the cobbled streets of Riquewihr, not because of the numbers of tourists visiting this gorgeous gem of an Alsace town, but because everywhere you turn, you’ll find yourself mesmerised by one 16th century half-timbered building after another.
Finding a town in France with at least several original half-timbered Medieval buildings is not too difficult; Troyes on the River Seine in the Aube Department about ninety miles southeast of Paris is an excellent example. But Riquewihr, a town of just twelve hundred inhabitants, located six miles north of Colmar, seems to consist of nothing but 16th century buildings which, almost by chance, survived the awful ravages of two world wars in spite of battle lines drawn up nearby.
An Impossible Array of 16th Century Buildings
You will gawp in awe, I guarantee, at the array of gorgeous half-timbered buildings lining every street and alley – the richly sculpted wood decoration of the wine-taster’s house; the Dolder, a watchtower by the old city walls; the timbered gallery and turret of the Strasbourg Court with its mullioned windows; and the rich colours, cobalt blue, ochre yellow, pink or (even sometimes) white of the painted plasterwork between the timbers.
But what you might miss as you amble around, eyes transfixed, are the smaller, less obvious features of these buildings. They are well worth searching out.
A rounded, stone archway above a heavy wooden door on the main street, the Rue du General de Gaulle no less, has a small decoration inscribed into the stonework. It’s the old trade sign of a baker; a pretzel and a loaf of bread.
A figure wearing a coat of mail (small, linked metal rings) and sporting a long beard carved into a wooden post on a much more ornate, Baroque-style building is a nailsmith while a stone lintel above another doorway has a metal pitcher carved into it, the sign of a pewterer. And some curious little stone-carved symbols that look like Japanese script above another doorway are the sign of a stonemason.
Many of the houses have carved wooden corner posts. One of these is more memorable than most, a little boy having a pee! Known as the Manneken Pis, it’s been here since 1545, outdating the more famous one close to the Grand Place in Brussels which was put in place in 1618.
Finding these more interesting, often intriguing, objects and symbols against the stunning background of a cornucopia of half-timbered, colourful buildings isn’t easy. If you want to do it, it’s best to buy a small guidebook; a good example is “Riquewihr: The Pearl of Alsace” by Ehret and Noto-Campanella available in the town in English, French and German for around 7 Euros.
The Town Gourmet or Wine Taster
One of the most impressive – out of so many – house facades in the main street was built for arguably the most important person in 16th century Riquewihr, the wine taster or gourmet. While today we associate “gourmet” with food, the term originates from the French for a wine broker or taster employed by a wine dealer. He would have decided on quality and set prices.
Considering that the typical fruity, mostly dry, white wines of Alsace – Riesling predominantly but Pinot Gris and aromatic Gewürztraminer too – have always been the town’s biggest money earner, the gourmet was a very important fellow.
Today’s wineries are scattered throughout this lovely town, interspersed with restaurants, cafes, bars and the inevitable trinket shops that set up universally as soon as tourists arrive anywhere in droves. The town is literally surrounded by vineyards and much of the wine is made here in old buildings in several of the side-alleys.
There are famous Alsace wine names here in Riquewihr with their outlets; Hugel & Fils, Dopff and Irion, winemakers since the 16th century, plus a good number of smaller wine-makers unknown internationally, the pleasantly chatty Daniel Jung in Rue de la Couronne for instance. And all of them more than happy for you to taste a range of their wines before you buy and to have a chat about them.
A glass – or two – of good Alsace wine and a walk around the lovely cobbled alleys of old Riquewihr; life at its best.