Looking for an alternative to a traditional white Christmas in France? Follow north-west France’s Roman Route, its Route des Cretes (summits) or Route des Orgues – route of church organs and sacred music.
They all end up in the Florival or Launch Valley of the Est region of the Haut Rhin of south Alsace where, if you time your arrival for December, you will guarantee yourself to have a uniquely blue Christmas – even if it’s snowing.
Going potty for pottery and turning a shade of blue for Christmas
Every year in December, everything and everyone turns blue in the small Alsatian town of Guebwiller. To find this little town, head twelve miles north-west of Mulhouse, twenty-five south west of Colmar and five from the le Grand Ballon, the highest point of the Vosges mountain range with its eight ski slopes.
Every year it’s the same – people turn blue. Faces are turquoise and hands and fingers a sickly shade of manganese violet.
Not because of the cold, windburn, or an off-piste ski tan. And not because of the liquorice-scented gluhwein is served nightly at Guebwiller’s Christmas market along with roasted chestnuts.
This is all about paying tribute to a local Art Deco potter. And his famous pioneering glaze.
Theodore Deck (1823-1891) became renowned for his ceramic vessels. He created them using traditional Islamic processes like the “Iznik” style, used to decorate many of Istanbul’s ancient mosques.
Deck included white alkaline to create his signature “bleu de Deck.” It is a distinctive glaze mix of potash, soda carbonate, and chalk, which produces a lavish, deep turquoise blue after firing. In 1887, Deck published a treatise on tin-glazed pottery entitled “La Faïence”.
In nineteenth century Britain, Minton similarly revived tin-glazed pottery in the style of Renaissance Italian maiolica following their employment of a French ceramicist in 1849.
Théodore Deck made his living from making tile stoves at a factory in Paris. He revived the lost art of transparent enameling and, working at Sevres, passed on the new aesthetics to ceramicists, Edmond Lachenal and Émile Decoeur. Deck’s faience work was inspired by Saint-Porchaire wares as well as Assyrian, Hispano-Moresque, Chinese, Japanese, Italian Renaissance and Persian ceramics.
Guebwiller pays homage to Deck
Until Twelfth Night Guebwiller’s neo-classical red sandstone 1761 Eglise Notre-Dame is lit blue in celebration of the ceramicist. So is the town hall and other buildings. Beside the church, the museum – in an old canonical building and home of a family of silk ribbon makers, has a collection of 500 of Deck’s famous faience pieces.
What to see in Guebwiller
Guebwiller’s history is linked to the abbey of Murbach built in 727. Most of the current city is built around the Romanesque church of Saint-Leger and Burgstall castle. Enclosed by ramparts between 1270 and 1287, Guebwiller dates largely from the thirteenth century. During the French Revolution, the abbey’s assets were sold to industrial developers and Guebwiller became the second industrial centre after Mulhouse.
Its former Dominican monastery dates to the fourteenth century. The nave is decorated with murals. The acoustics are reputed to be among the best in Europe which can be verified if you have a heavy cold and are suffering from bouts of sneezing.
Or have eaten too much sauerkraut too quickly.
As well as Deck’s masterpieces, the town – at the southerly end of the Alsace Wine Route – has four “Grand Crus” ( Spiegel , Kessel , Kitterle, Saering). All the local vineyards offer tastings of their own masterpieces of viticultural art. There’s “moulleux”, “Cremant” sparkling, sweet “vendanges tardives” (late harvest) and “selections of des grains”. The best include Schlumberger Domaine, the Ollwiller vineyard at Wuenheim, Orschwir, Bollenburg and the Noble Valley as well as the cellars of Leon Boesch, Renee Flack, Camille Braun and Materne Haegelin.
If you’re feeling peckish, try family-run “Taverna des Vignerons” and “Jardin des Sens” which offer lighter, easier-on-the-colon options to hearty pork shin, pork knuckle, stuffed pigs trotters and beef slabs with an alp of sauerkraut and the famous lengthy, bendy sausages.
What to see near Guebwiller
Thann, 25km from Guebwiller on the river Thur is the start or finish of the “Route des Vins”. Its well-known for its storks nests, 1411 Witches’ Tower and late Middle Ages Collegiale Saint-Thiebaut. And nearby, Eguisheim is the definitive Alsatian town. Half-timbered buildings, “winstubs”, year-round window boxes, cobblestone streets and a charming Christmas market. It could be a backcloth for any Christmas pantomime.
A good base to tour southern Alsace is Dominique and William Pralong’s 1858 “Domaine de Beaupre”, once the De Bay family mansion, textile manufacturers in Guebwiller. Now it is an “artistic space”, holding concerts, recitals and art events, displaying the works of lesser known artists. Even the paintings in your room are for sale.
Bertrand and Florence Gelly’s “Caveau Heuhaus” in Eguisheim is a tasty cellar restaurant offering regional specialties like tartes flambees or “flammekueche” (Alsatian pizza).
In Soultz, Gregory Rominger’s “Metzgerstuwa” (“butcher’s table”) restaurant adjoins and was once in a butcher’s shop. One of its specialities is lamb kidneys flambeed in brandy.
So there’s no excuse whatsoever in going to Alsace and not coming back glowing with the good life. And looking like you’ve had a great “Noel Bleu”.
By Kevin Piley, a former professional cricketer, now travel writer. He’s also the former chief staff writer of PUNCH magazine and has written for over 600 titles.