Of Castles and Minstrels


Twentieth in a series

September 2, Ribeauvillé and Hunawihr — Before dropping us in Ribeauvillé for a hike, Laura took us by the fortified church of Hunawihr. Hunawihr, like most of the towns on the Alsatian route des vins, is nestled between two low hillsides. Towns developed around the creeks that ran through the tiny valleys.

Besides the gilt grapes that adorn the clock hands, the church is remarkable for being both Protestant and Catholic. After Martin Luther led the reformation in nearby Strasbourg, Egenolphe III Ribeaupierre established evangelical ministries in Hunawihr as well as other villages; when he was threatened with severe punishment by the Holy Roman Emperor, he restored the baptismal font and other Catholic features. Later, the parish recruited seven Roman Catholic families.

Outside, Laura watered the flowers planted on the grave of Francois Sipp, Jacques’ grandfather, who married Marie Louise Mack, thus joining two wine growing dynasties.

On the other side of the hill, along part of the pilgrimage route that leads all the way to Santiago de Compostella (2,200 km away), we came into Ribeauvillé, festooned with banners announcing Pfifferdaj, the festival honoring minstrels who used to carry news from one fiefdom to the next. Stands were being erected to hold the lucky 400 ticket holders who would watch the spectacle sitting down; the other 39,500 visitors would stand squeezed next to buildings and arches as floats trundle by.

Each year, a story is created by an artistic director who also designs the floats that will enact the tale. The town’s streets become the stage. Hundreds of local volunteers, organized into associations, build the floats and craft the costumes, starting months ahead. Dozens more play the role of characters. We stopped by the Domaine Jean Sipp, operated now by Jacques’ cousin, Jean Jacques, and his son, Jean Guillaume. A crew was hard at work on the moveable set piece that would depict a rhino attacking a castle. The rhino was big, perhaps a dozen feet high and twenty feet long, with a moveable “shlong”— all set on rails to simulate the attack.

Photos of one of the associations, Delirium Tribu

Photos of one of the associations, Delirium Tribu

A truck was needed in another association’s yard, and the driver needed a ride back, so we got to see even more floats in the midst of construction — a giant staircase flanked by dragons that would be hooked to a smoke machine. Because the parade processes through stone archways, each of the floats has to be designed to fold down and slide through areas with height restrictions.

Just as important as the parade: the pre-party. Jacques’ cousin was assembling a professional sound stage and system, lighting, illuminated bars, dance cages and a “mousse” (foam) machine that would be used to spray revelers deep into the night.

Todd in the tower

Todd in the tower

Laura dropped us at the foot of a driveway that leads to the three medieval castles that overlook Ribeauvillé. (Follow the signs to “3 Chateaux.”) Up we climbed for about 45 minutes to reach the fort dedicated to St. Ulric. Ulric, a German saint who died in 973, is considered the patron against birth complications, faintness, fever, mice and moles. Quite a combination. When he was nearing death, he had ashes laid in the form of a cross and the cross sprinkled with holy water, after which he laid down and peacefully died. Places that were named after him were said to have healing properties. A primitive castle stood here in the 11th century that was expanded around 1450.

We took the short trail across to Giersberg castle, which perches on a natural rock. Ribeaupierre built this castle for his vassals, the Gyrssbergs. It was abandoned after the 16th century and fell into ruin.

From Giersberg with St. Ulric's castle in the background

From Giersberg with St. Ulric’s castle in the background

Heading back to Hunawihr on foot, we passed Rosacker Grand Cru fields of Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Along the way, an old signpost marked the limit of a Medieval cooperative.

Ribeaupierre's crest

Ribeaupierre’s crest on the marker

After a nap and a little packing, Jacques treated us to a tour and wine tasting. The Sipps carry on the tradition of fine wine making but have modernized it with computer-controlled steel tanks and organic farm methods. Time also plays its role: for example, Jacques lets his sparkling “sleep” for two years before releasing it. I especially liked Pinot Gris 2014 Tradition, and we purchased two (just two! bummer!)  to carry in our suitcases: a 2011 Riesling Grand Cru Rosacker and 2013 Pinot Noir Tradition.



From the Sipp-Mack website:

Our family’s choice to convert to organic status reflects our desire to work in a healthy atmosphere, without pesticides and chemical fertilizers. We also wish to presert the environment by fostering the natural balance between the soil and vines to create dynamic ecosystems! We encourage the biodiversity of fauna and flora through the use of cover crops and the maintenance of bush hedges — home to many small birds, insects and animals… These actions create healthy vines that are more insect and disease resistant and produce more flavorful, better balanced fruit. To further improve fruit quality, our yields are voluntarily reduced by pruning the canes short in winter and thinning the immature grape clusters in summer.

I remembered how, on the night of our arrival, small bats had flitted above the vines next to the Sipps’ back deck. “Sign of a healthy biosystem,” Jacques said.

That last night, the Sipps treated us to a lovely casual dinner of barbequed lemon chicken, tomatoes fresh and warm from Laura’s garden (with mozzarella, crushed garlic and basil), green salad, and thinly sliced baked potatoes. And the pièce de resistance: bananas flambé. It was hard to say goodbye, to friends old and new.

Next: The Planet Amsterdam

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