Such is the beauty of so many Alsacien villages (once you’ve been here, awkward-looking names like Riquewihr, Niederschmorwihr and Eguisheim simply roll off the tongue because of the breathtaking charm that pervades them), that even to be named one of the best in the region would be considered quite an accolade. So when Kaysersberg was announced on French TV as this year’s winner of France’s Favourite Village (Le Village Préferé des Français ), its inhabitants could be forgiven for feeling just a little bit smug. And having been there recently myself, I could hardly blame them if they did.
You see, Kaysersberg is one of those places it is impossible not to admire, even amid the bustle of a warm summer’s day, when discerning visitors (most of them French) and oenophiles from across the globe fill up its cobbled streets and squares. A key staging post on Alsace’s celebrated Route des Vins, this village of 2,700 inhabitants has plenty of wine shops and cellars to tempt your taste buds and palate, plus a good number of restaurants and cafés to while away the hours. But it also takes a rather beguiling physical form, strung out as it is along the valley floor and straddling the meandering River Weiss, offering a maze of narrow streets within which you feel compelled to wander.
One of its most striking features is the imposing château that maintains a watchful eye over the village, in spite of its ruined condition. ‘Kaysersberg’ translates as ‘Emperor’s Mountain’, and it is the rock on which this medieval fortress stands that has been considered an important strategic position since the Romans were here, helping to control passage between the Rhine Valley and eastern France. It is possible to walk up to the castle from Rue des Forgerons in the village (an energetic 15-minute jaunt up well-made steps), and once there you can admire the large cylindrical keep (its only intact remains), and take in a magnificent panorama over the village, the Weiss Valley, expansive vineyards and the Plain of Alsace, with the undulations of Germany’s Black Forest lining the horizon.
Down amid the warren of streets, there’s plenty to intrigue. The delightful, half-timbered merchants’ houses lining the lanes date from the 15th to 17th centuries, and testify to the wealth generated here throughout the Middle Ages. The right to hold markets was conferred in 1429 (a modern-day version is held each Monday morning in Place Gouraud), and from that time Kaysersberg became an important and prosperous trading centre, largely focused on the locally produced wines that were exported across the Rhine.
The tragic and tumultuous events of more recent history were to be felt here, too: there was a series of bloody confrontations as the Allies gradually liberated Alsace from Nazi occupation during the freezing winter of 1944/45. And given the picture-postcard streets, pretty squares and the old fortified bridge that gracefully spans the lazily flowing Weiss, it can be both challenging and distinctly sobering for today’s visitor as they attempt to conjure up the fierce tank battles and ruthless, house-to-house combat that once ravaged such idyllic scenes. Yes, Kaysersberg – with such a rich and yet turbulent past – is a feast for the imagination as well as for the eyes.
As you wander, you will likely need to suppress the odd twinge of envy as you come across local residents going about their day-to-day business. For as they buy their bread, chat to neighbours or open up their boutiques, they can take pride in the knowledge that – for this year at least – theirs is the favourite village in all of France.