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Sandra's Alsace Part 2: Historical and Intellectual Surprises in Village Churches

Sandra Kohler's picture
on Tue, 02/16/2016 - 12:37
Churchyard in Hunawihr, Alsace
This is the second post in a series by author and Untourist Sandra Kohler on her eye-opening travels on an Alsace Untour. Read her first post, about the vineyards and wines of Alsace, here.
So much of what we saw and I have written about could be described as “things we’d expected to find in Alsace.” We’d looked forward to a relaxed and low-key stay in beautiful picturesque countryside, to excellent food and wine. 
But perhaps what will stay with us longest from this trip is a sense of Alsace as being at the center of Europe and its history, both recent and not so recent. 
More on the history of war in Alsace in the next installment. Subscribe to the Untours blog so you won't miss a single post. And read Sandra's first post, on the vineyards of Alsace, here.
To start with the latter, we had no idea that Alsace was home to much intellectual and religious ferment in the middle ages and Renaissance. Selestat, a medium-sized town to the north of our immediate area, was a hotbed of radical humanism. It houses the Bibliotheque Humaniste, containing a collection of precious manuscripts from the seventh through the fifteenth centuries, including some of the very earliest printed works, incunabulum.
Unfortunately, this library is currently closed for renovations, as we discovered on our first visit to the town. But two beautiful churches, the Romanesque Church of Ste. Foy and the Gothic Church of St. Georges, can be visited. Each boasts a rich history dating back to the middle ages. 
St. Georges replaced the chapel where Charlemagne celebrated Christmas in 775. Ste. Foy has origins in the eleventh century. Selestat itself was a surprise: the lively area around the churches and the Bibliotheque Humaniste boasts sophisticated shops, cafes, restaurants, and small attractive squares. It’s a place where I wished we could have spent more time. 

To continue with our visits to churches in Alsace, from Selestat we drove to the Abbey in the small village of Ebermunster, the only baroque church in Alsace. It’s a wonder: astounding ceiling paintings, carved wooden choir stalls (pictured above), a great organ which was being tuned while we were there. Again there is fascinating history. The Abbey’s founder was supposed to be the father of Ste. Odile (more on that later). 
We found out that there was going to be an organ concert there the following Sunday and came back for it. It was quite an experience. The guest organist, visiting from Paris,  gave a forty-five minute pre-concert talk which we sat through without understanding it. His French was too fast, too soft, too blurred by echo in the space for me to get more than a word here and there, and Walt doesn’t speak French at all. 
Finally the organist plays – an hour and a half of mostly Bach, with some work by Marchand, a Bach contemporary. It was long and intense, an experience of mixed pleasure and pain. The church seats were about as uncomfortable (though not as cramped) as those on our plane to London. But the church was beautiful, the organ’s tones rich, grand, overwhelming, and the scene interesting: we seemed to be the only tourists there, and the sophisticated-looking mostly older crowd of locals were a different “take” on Alsace’s residents than the people in our village.
One more church that was local and notable was one in Hunawihr (home of the stork park). It’s extraordinary not only because it is a fortified church, in which villagers could take shelter from the violence around them in the middle ages and early Renaissance, but because it is today simultaneously Protestant and Catholic, with separate graveyards for each persuasion. Situated high on a hill, it provides wonderful views of the countryside.  (See the photo at the top.)
Since our return from Alsace, we have been watching a Teaching Company course on the history of the Reformation. Looking over the French-language brochure about Hunawihr’s church that I brought home with me, I find names and events I’m just learning about: the Protestant Reformer Zwingli, a contemporary of Luther, the Peasant’s War of 1525, in which “the common people” of both Hunawihr and Beblenheim were evidently involved, the conflict in the 1530s between adherents of Luther and Zwingli. It’s hard to imagine these peaceful villages involved in such strife. (A theme to which I’ll return).
Subscribe to the blog so you won't miss Sandra's future posts on Alsace: the history of the world wars, favorite day trips, and intellectual surprises.
Sandra Kohler is a poet and teacher. Her third collection of poems, Improbable Music, (Word Press) appeared in May, 2011. Earlier collections are The Country of Women (Calyx, 1995) and The Ceremonies of Longing, winner of the 2002 Associated Writing Programs Award Series in Poetry  (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003). Her poems have appeared in journals, including The New RepublicThe Beloit Poetry JournalPrairie Schooner, and many others over the past 40 years. Born in New York City in 1940, Kohler attended public schools there, Mount Holyoke College (A.B., 1961) and Bryn Mawr College (A.M., 1966 and Ph.D., 1971). She has taught literature and writing in venues ranging from elementary school to university, and still teaches adult education courses. A resident of Pennsylvania for most of her adult life, she moved to Boston in 2006, where she and her husband Walter Hagenbuch live in a two-family house with their son and his family, including two grandchildren. Walter is a retired public school administrator and science teacher, for whom photography has become not just a hobby, but an artistic pursuit. They have been Untourists since 2003, travelling to Italy, Switzerland, Greece, Spain, France and Turkey. They’ve just made plans to go to Ireland in the fall of 2016 for their 11th Untour.
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