An Art and Architecture Tour in France
Published: April 2009
By Charles Michener
Racing through wine country in pursuit of masterpieces, from the ancient to the avant-garde
Tell friends you're taking a drive through Alsace, Lorraine, and Burgundy, and they'll assume you're going for boeuf bourguignon and quiche, Rieslings and Montrachets. But recently I set off to tour these northeastern provinces of France in search of something more substantial: the region's remarkable art and architecture. My stopping points took in a medieval village, a Renaissance masterpiece, an 18th-century industrial complex, a chapel by Le Corbusier, and a collection of avant-garde works of art. To accomplish this ambitious itinerary in just three days required a lot of driving on high-speed toll routes as well as along meandering back roads. But at each destination I was greeted by a feast for the eye as well as the palate.
Setting out from the Strasbourg airport, I stopped first at Colmar, the wine capital of Alsace, where I checked into the Hostellerie le Maréchal, in fashionable Petite Venise (Little Venice). It's a lovely rustic inn with an idyllic view of the river Lauch. I could happily have spent the day poking around the town's cobblestoned squares, but after a café lunch of tarte flambée, the crisp Alsatian "pizza" of ham and cheese, and one of the local lagers, I passed the afternoon exploring Colmar's principal attraction, the Musée d'Unterlinden. This former convent, dating from the 13th century, houses one of Western civilization's supreme masterworks of religious imagination, the Isenheim Altarpiece, by the 16th-century painter Matthias Grünewald.
It's far from the only draw, however. The museum's collections, in a complex of beautifully restored rooms and arcades, are surprisingly varied. They range from an archaeological cache of 7,000-year-old Neolithic housewares to superb medieval religious statuary; early German paintings (by Holbein, Cranach, and Dürer); a vast array of European glassware, pottery, furniture, and firearms dating from the 16th century to the 19th; and a small, distinguished group of modern paintings by such artists as Rouault, Picasso, and Ernst.
All this pales next to the museum's centerpiece. Painted between 1512 and 1516 for a convent 20 miles south of Colmar, the Isenheim Altarpiece depicts the Annunciation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and scenes from the lives of Saint Paul and Saint Anthony. It was once believed to have miraculous healing powers, and it's easy to see why: it is a swirling spectacle of pathos, sweetness, horror, and mystery, with a feeling of magic realism and colors bordering on the lurid. For a good hour, it held me transfixed.
After a superb dinner of roast quail at Au Fer Rouge, a handsome restaurant in the Old Town, I slept well, anticipating the next day's agenda of taking in three architectural glories from different epochs of French history.
My first stop was the town of Ronchamp, a little more than an hour's drive to the southwest. Ronchamp is celebrated for possessing one of Modernism's great icons, the chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut, designed by Le Corbusier in the early 1950's to replace a church that had been destroyed in World War II. As the morning mist cleared to reveal a sweeping panorama of woods and farmland, I wandered in and around this enchanted "cave," marveling at how the chapel evokes the same sense of spiritual drama that is usually reserved for far grander monuments such as Mont-St.-Michel and Chartres.
I learned that "Corbu" got his inspiration for the chapel's oddly shaped roof from the shell of a crab he'd picked up on a beach. Starting with that God-made, discarded object, the great Swiss architect achieved a genuine resurrection in wood, glass, and stone.
My next destination took me southeast, along a spectacularly twisty route through the Jura mountains, to the tiny village of Arc-et-Senans. If Ronchamp is often regarded as this century's pinnacle of religious architecture, the Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans is perhaps the ultimate example of industrial architecture in the 18th century. It might seem the height of folly to construct a grand array of Neoclassical buildings on the scale of Versailles dedicated solely to the processing of salt. But 200 years ago, this "white gold" (as it was called in the Middle Ages) was a prized multipurpose commodity.
The master builder was Louis XVI's royal architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, who envisioned his great saltworks as the centerpiece of an ideal town in which the workers would live in order and harmony. Thanks to the French Revolution, his dream was never realized, but the saltworks still stands, beautifully restored as a museum and conference center for the study of architecture.
I entered a vast, grassy courtyard enclosed by seven long stone buildings, each fronted by an imposing Palladian portico with towering, rough Tuscan columns. It wasn't easy to imagine life as it must have been for the hundreds of workers who "cooked" salt in these huge, bare stone rooms and cellars from 1775 until the mid-19th century. But Ledoux's vision was evident in such details as the generous spacing he allowed between the buildings for maximum circulation of air, and the proportions of the porticoes, which by some architectural magic seem to grow larger as one steps back from them. Wandering about this showplace of the French Age of Reason, I could actually feel my mind clearing itself of all messy thoughts.
The healing powers of architecture have never been more powerfully displayed than they are in the Burgundian wine capital of Beaune. After checking into L'Hôtel des Remparts, a rather down-at-the-heels but comfortable place beside the old walls, I strolled through town to the world's most sumptuously furnished hospitalL'Hôtel Dieu, which opened its doors in 1443 and continued for more than 500 years as a refuge for the ill and infirm until, in 1971, it became a museum.
I can't imagine a more magnificent place to be sick than this flamboyant Gothic structure, with its brilliantly patterned roof of multicolored tiles and its huge courtyard; the Great Hall of the Poor, where a 55-yard-long procession of cozily wood-paneled cubicles leads to a beautiful stained-glass chapel; the more private St. Anne Room, reserved for the care of "noble souls"; and the St. Louis Room, with its elaborate 16th-century tapestries. Most astonishing of all is a tour de force of Northern Renaissance art, the Last Judgment by the 15th-century Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden.
This enormous polyptych amazes not simply because of the richness of its colors and profligate use of gold leaf but also for the acute psychological realism of its many figures. All are completely individualized, from a foppish archangel Michael to the Virgin praying for sinners, the sorrowful apostles and various saints, the dignified Burgundian notables, and, at the top of the central panel, Jesus the Redeemer, sitting on a rainbow, his face darkened by the terrible weight of separating good from evil.
That evening I went to L'Écusson, a rather forlorn-looking restaurant just outside the old walls that turned out to have a warm, friendly interior. There I dined on robust fare: rich foie gras de canard, lamb shank bathed in a delicate carrot sauce, and a wonderful assortment of fresh and cooked cheeses.
The following morning I set off early for a leisurely drive along the "Route des Grands Crus" (D-122), between Beaune and Dijon. For 25 miles it snakes through the vineyards of many of the region's finest wines. I reached the center of Dijon, the ancient capital of Burgundy, just before 10the hour when the Musée des Beaux-Arts, in the stately old Palais des Ducs, opens.
I came away from this superb provincial museum inspired by such unforgettable images as Édouard Manet's breathtaking Portrait of Méry Laurent, a magnificent depiction of the finding of Moses in the bulrushes by Veronese, an exquisite Nativity scene by the Master of Flémalle in a room devoted to his work, and, most impressive, a room given over to lavishly decorated Gothic tombs that hold whatever remains of the dukes of Burgundy from half a millennium ago.
Before leaving for my next port of call, I went into an elegant patisserie and bought myself a picnic lunch of pÅté de campagne, a crusty baguette, mustard, cornichons, and a bottle of mineral water. Nearly two hours and 124 miles later I parked in the center of Épinal, a busy town in the Vosges mountains. Épinal seems architecturally charmless, so the relative sophistication of the town's new Departmental Museum of Early and Contemporary Art is startling. On an island in the Moselle River, French architects have daringly joined the rustic faÙade of a 17th-century hospital, a soaring barrel-vaulted skylight, and two starkly modern gallery wings.
The spirit of some unusually obsessive collectors animates this century-hopping gem of a museum, which opened in 1992. The survey begins with Gallo-Roman artifacts, moves on to 17th- and 18th-century paintings (Rembrandt, Fragonard, Boucher), pauses for a fascinating assortment of popular prints and playing cards of the 18th and 19th centuries, and concludes with a brilliantly chosen contemporary roundup (including Campbell's soup can paintings by Andy Warhol and first-rate works by such big names as Joseph Kosuth, Daniel Spoerri, Gilbert & George, and Jenny Holzer). Although the Épinal collections are representative of vastly different cultures and periods, they seemed, oddly, of a piece. Just before leaving the museum, I paused for a last look at the Greco-Roman displays. These ancient artifacts now took on "present" life: objects that are as alive and resonant of their own civilizations as the Warhol soup cans are of ours.
Driving in the late afternoon back to Strasbourg through the Vosges mountains, I felt profoundly satiated. My three-day orgy of looking and tasting had provided ample nourishment not just for the senses, but also for the soul.
CHARLES MICHENER is a senior editor at The New Yorker.
Hostellerie le Maréchal 4-6 Place des Six-Montagnes-Noires, Colmar; 33-3/89-41-60-32, fax 33-3/89-24-59-40; doubles $133-$285.
Le Cep 27 Rue Maufoux, Beaune; 33-3/80-22-35-48, fax 33-3/80-22-76-80; doubles from $155.
Au Fer Rouge 52 Grand' Rue, Colmar; 33-3/89-41-37-24; dinner for two $135-$180 (prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip).
L'Écusson Place Malmédy, Beaune; 33-3/80-24-03-82; dinner for two $135.
Musée d'Unterlinden 1 Rue Unterlinden, Colmar; 33-3/89-41-89-23.
Chapelle de Notre-Dame-du-Haut Ronchamp; 33-3/84-20-65-13.
Royal Saltworks Arc-et-Senans; 33-3/81-54-45-45.
Hôtel Dieu Place de la Halle, Beaune; 33-3/80-24-45-00.
Musée des Beaux-Arts Place de la Sainte-Chapelle, Dijon; 33-3/80-74-52-09.
Departmental Museum of Early and Contemporary Art 1 Place Lagarde, Épinal; 33-3/29-82-20-33.
Note: Each museum charges a $5 or $6 entry fee, and there are hefty toll charges on the autoroutes.
A Movable Feast
From the Strasbourg airport, follow signs to N-83, in the direction of Colmar. After approximately 40 miles, take the Colmar exit and follow signs for the town center ("centre ville"). Explore the Musée d'Unterlinden; then check in- to L'Hostellerie le Maréchal. Dine at Au Fer Rouge.
To reach Ronchamp, follow signs leading out of town to A-35 south to Mulhouse. Once there, get onto A-36 and continue until you see the sign for the center of Belfort. Exit and go through town, turning west onto N-19 toward Vesoul. After driving 13 miles, you enter Ronchamp. Make a right in the center of town onto D-264, which takes you to the Le Corbusier chapel. For the Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans, retrace the route to Belfort, take A-36 south, and exit at BesanÙon. Go to the town center, then continue south on N-83 toward Lyons. In the village of Quingey, follow the sign for Arc-et-Senans, about 17 miles away. Leaving Arc-et-Senans, follow the sign for Dôle (D-472 to N-5), which brings you to the A-36 autoroute. Head west toward Dijon and exit at Beaune. Lodgings tonight will be at Le Cep. After visiting L'Hôtel Dieu, dine at the superb L'Écusson.
Leaving Beaune, take N-74 north and make a side trip onto D-122, the "Route des Grands Crus." Follow signs into the heart of Dijon, where the Musée des Beaux-Arts is located in the Palais des Ducs. Later, proceed to Épinal by following the signs out of Dijon for the A-31 autoroute north. Exit to D-164 toward Contrexéville, go through Vittel, and pick up D-3 to D-166, heading east into Épinal for the Museum of Early and Contemporary Art, located in the town center, smack in the middle of the Moselle River. Return to Strasbourg on N-420.