The democratically minded burghers of Alsace had already created a plethora of well-heeled, semi-autonomous towns for themselves centuries before their seventeenth-century incorporation into the French state. Sharing the Germans' taste for Hansel-and-Gretel-type decoration, they adorned their buildings with all manner of frills and fancies oriel windows, carved timberwork and Toytown gables and with Teutonic orderliness they still maintain them, festooned with flowers and in pristine condition. Not that you should ever call an Alsatian German. Many people converse in Elsässisch, a Germanic dialect, but their neighbours across the Rhine have behaved in a decidedly unneighbourly fashion twice in the last 130 years, annexing them, along with much of Lorraine, from 1870 to 1918, and again from 1940 to 1944 under Hitler's Third Reich. Locals remain fiercely and proudly Alsatian, European and French in that order.
The combination of influences makes for a culture and atmosphere as distinctive as any in France. It's seen at its most vivid in the numerous little wine towns that punctuate the Route du Vin along the eastern margin of the wet and woody Vosges mountains; at quaint Colmar; and in the great cathedral city of Strasbourg, now one of the capitals of the European Union. But the province is not just a photogenic setting for coach tours: it's also a densely populated industrial powerhouse, making cars, textiles, machine tools and telephones, as well as half the beer in France.
By comparison, Lorraine, a large region taking in the northern border shared with Luxembourg, Germany and Belgium, is rather colourless, although it has suffered much the same vicissitudes as Alsace. However, the elegant eighteenth-century town of Nancy, the cathedral city and provincial capital Metz, and the depressing but unforgettable World War I battlefields near Verdun are well worth visiting.
In a much neglected yet attractive corner of France, the wooded plateaux, pastures and valleys of the Jura mountains abutting the German and Swiss frontiers further south are rural and poor, but have been partly rejuvenated by the attentions of the leisure industry. Ski de fond cross-country skiing is the speciality here, and it's ideal terrain. It's good walking country, too, without the grinding ascents of the neighbouring Alps. The Jura has its own Route du Vin, without the hordes of tourists found in Alsace perhaps because the wines are less spectacular. Also the mountains and lakes here are far less congested than the Vosges in summer; if it's peace and quiet you're looking for, it's here you'll find it.
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