Alsace (and Lorraine): Amazing facts from battlefield to vineyards

Get the facts about Alsace, one of the most beautiful and historical regions in France. With interesting historical facts, facts for kids, and more.
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Alsace is that little slice of France where you don’t bother asking the locals if they prefer French wine or German beer. Because of course they are Alsatians, and they’ve got their own wine and beer going on.

This northeastern region of the France shares a border with Germany, and still has with more than a flavorful serving of German in it. Alsace is the region that has been fought over, and transferred back and forth between the two countries for centuries.

Today Alsace is one of the most beautiful and romantic regions of France. The region contains a multitude of little villages and towns, some of which have been voted “the most beautiful in France”.

Alsace is also a region that attracts visitors for its culinary delights and christmas markets, as well as castles and city centers. So let’s explore a few interesting facts about Alsace in France, shall we? Allons-y!

1. Alsace has changed hands 4 times since 1870.

In a span of 80 years, Alsace ping-ponged 4 times between European countries more powerful than themselves:

  • The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 where Strasbourg and its surrounding area was heavily bombarded, and then absorbed into the new German Empire.
  • World War I in 1914, when 380,000 Alsatians were mobilized into the German army.
  • At the end of the WWI, France took back Alsace as part of the German settlement of the War in 1919 with the Treaty of Versailles. German and Germanophile-leaning Alsacians were expelled and French officials put in their place. French was restored as the administrative language.
  • World War II, when German soldiers invaded in 1939 and annexed Alsace. All Alsacians were automatically considered to be German citizens. The French language was banned and German became obligatory, with all signage translated into German.
  • After the end of WWII, Strasbourg and the region of Alsace went back to France in 1944 as a gesture of reconciliation between France and Germany.
Small town in Alsace

2. The fighting over Alsace dates back to Charlemagne.

The history of region of Alsace being fought over, dates back to the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne. Charlemagne had managed to conquer what is today France and Germany, but when he died the bickering between.

Frankish Empire under King Charlemagne
Frankish Empire under Charlemagne (credit: Wikipedia)

After Charlemagne died, the lands were divided into three areas for his three sons their descendants:

  • East Francia – Louis (approximately Germany)
  • Middle Francia – Lothair (approximately Alsace-Lorraine)
  • West Francia – Charles (approximately France)
Map of the Frankish Empire after Charlemagne's Death
East, Middle and West Francia after the death of Emperor Charlemagne – courtesy of Wikipedia

The fighting would not go well, and eventually Hugh Capet (a descendant of Charlemagne from the maternal line) would start the Capetian dynasty in France, while the Holy Roman Emperor would control what is now Germany, Austria and Italy.

The region of Alsace would remain in torment, continually fought over for centuries until finally becoming a part of France at the end of World War II in 1945.

3. Strasbourg is a European Union capital.

In recognition of its special importance between France and Germany, Strasbourg in Alsace is one of the 3 capitals of the European Union, along with Brussels and Luxembourg.

4. It makes good wines.

Given the history of the Alsace region, wines from this area started off being heavily influenced by their next-door neighbor German wines. Centuries of wars does not help wine production. After the end of WWII however, wine production in this part of France has taken off.

And in recent decades, Alsatian wines have diverged in tastes from German wines, becoming sweeter and drier gaining wides-spread recognition.

wine from alsace - map of region
Map of Alsace wine region in France

Most of the wines produced around the Alsace Wine route are white wines and they tend to be named after the grapes they are made of, like Reisling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, etc.

5. The historical region of Lorraine borders Alsace.

The term “Alsace-Lorraine” was born after it was created in 1871 by the German Empire after the Franco-Prussian War. On the border with Alsace and the Alps, the name comes from the medieval kingdom of Lotharingia, which was named after King Lothair I, the grandson of Charlemagne.

6. Its annual Christmas markets are world-famous.

One of the most popular Christmas traditions in France has to be visiting the Christmas market in Strasbourg in December.

While each city, town, and village will have its own marchés de Noël, the ones in Alsace and Strasbourg are considered among the most charming in all of France.

Place Kleber at Christmas, in Strasbourg
Place Kleber in Strasbourg (Alsace) at Christmas

Locals enjoy a raclette cheese sandwich and a vin chaud (or a non-alcoholic version) while doing their Christmas shopping.

7. It is part of the region of Grand Est.

The historical Alsace-Lorraine region is now called Alsace-Moselle. Since 2016, it is now a department in the French administrative region of Grand Est.

8. It borders the Rhine river.

The eastern most border of Alsace is marked by the Rhine river, making a natural border with Germany.

9. Key facts and figures

Here are some key facts and figures about Alsace:

  • Population: 1.9 million (Grand Est region: 5.56 million)
  • Area: 8 280,17 km2. (Grand Est region: 57,433 km2)
  • Capital: Strasbourg
map of france with regions

10. Its official languages are French and Alsatian.

Since the region has changed hands between France and Germany so often, the traditional language of the region is Alsatian, a Germanic language. It is a group of Alemannic German dialects spoken on both sides of the Rhine river and closely related to Swiss German.

Official signs are often written in both languages, although French has now become the dominant language.

11. It is one of the few French regions that brews its own beers.

Given its German heritage, it is no surprise that Alsace is the main beer-producing region in France. There are many breweries and microbreweries based in the region, and even an Oktoberfest celebrated every year.

a couple of beers at a bar in Paris

12. The Maginot Line was built around Alsace-Lorraine to protect France from Germany.

The Maginot Line was a line of concrete fortifications built along much of the eastern border of Alsace and Lorraine, named after the French Minister of War André Maginot.

It was built by France in the 1930s to deter invasion by Germany and force them to move around the fortifications. The period was known as the “phoney war”, when the rise of the Germany Reich readying itself for war were offset by images of a tired France still recovering from the previous war.

Unfortunately the Maginot line did not work, as the German Reich went around a French defensive weak point after the start of WWII.

13. Its cuisine is a mix of German and French food specialties.

From choucroute to kugelhopf (a type of cake served as dessert), the traditional dishes of Alsace combine French cuisine with German fare.

flammekuche
Flammekuche from Alsace

Perhaps the best known are the tartiflette, flammekuche, and the hearty quiche lorraine. You can read more about Alsatian foods here.

14. It takes 2 hours 20 minutes to go from Paris to Strasbourg on the TGV high speed train.

Alsace isn’t very far from Paris, and you can get to from the capital to Strasbourg in a mere 2h20 on the high-speed TGV.

This often leads people to suggest visiting Strasbourg as a day trip, but I would suggest not. There is so much to see and do in Alsace, you will definitely need more time than that!

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If you enjoyed that article, you may like to read more facts about France here. A bientôt!

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