Travel Guide Europe France Grand Est

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Introduction

More than any other region of France, Grand-Est has been shaped by continual waves of settlement, invasion and border changes. As the name suggests, this is a large region of eastern France, fronting the entire border with Germany and Luxembourg, and significant portions of the Belgian and Swiss borders, too. It is unsurprising then that everything of the region's culture, from the architecture and languages, to the food and wine, is a pleasing mix of Gallic and Germanic. Visitors come to explore the battlefields of the Ardennes and Verdun, to quaff glasses of champagne, gobble up quiche and sauerkraut, hike or bike the Vosges, or to glide lazily down the mighty Rhine.

The region was created in 2016 from Alsace, Champagne-Ardenne and Lorraine, as part of national territorial reform. The merger was strongly opposed by many, as each of the old regions has its own distinct identity. People in Alsace in particular took to the streets in protest, and an Alsatian independence movement has gained traction.

Throughout history, much of the area ping-ponged between Germany and France, and the last time parts of it were administered as part of Germany (by the Nazis) is still just about in living memory. The local culture is therefore a distinct blend of the two countries, though this is most pronounced in the east of the region. Paradoxically, you get a sense that the locals, particularly in Alsace and Lorraine, are more patriotically French than anywhere else in the country. Expect to see a lot of tricolores, even outside of national holidays.

The west of the region is largely flat or softly rolling - perfect for Champagne! - while the land becomes more rugged toward the north (the Ardennes hills) and east (the Vosges mountains). Beyond the Vosges is the Rhine Valley, and the Rhine itself forms the natural border between France and Germany.

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Geography

Grand Est covers 57,433 square kilometres of land and is the sixth-largest of the regions of France. Grand Est borders four countries - Belgium (Wallonia region), Luxembourg (Cantons of Esch-sur-Alzette and Remich), Germany, and Switzerland along its northern and eastern sides. It is the only French region to border more than two countries. To the west and south, it borders the French regions Hauts-de-France, Île-de-France, and Bourgogne-Franche-Comté. Grand Est contains ten departments: Ardennes, Aube, Bas-Rhin, Marne, Haute-Marne, Haut-Rhin, Meurthe-et-Moselle, Meuse, Moselle, Vosges. The main ranges in the region include the Vosges to the east and the Ardennes to the north.

The region is bordered on the east by the Rhine, which forms about half of the border with Germany. Other major rivers which flow through the region include the Meuse, Moselle, Marne, and Saône. Lakes in the region include lac de Gérardmer, lac de Longemer, lac de Retournemer, lac des Corbeaux, Lac de Bouzey, lac de Madine, étang du Stock and lac de Pierre-Percée.

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Cities

  • Colmar - small Alsatian city with many fine timber buildings and extensive pedestrianisation.
  • Strasbourg - the capital of the region is home of many European institutions - Parliament, Council and the Court of Human Rights - as well as a beautiful UNESCO-listed city centre and miles of cycle paths and canal walks to explore.
  • Metz - cathedral city with a strong military history and a regional branch of the Centre Pompidou.
  • Mulhouse - industrial city with an impressive array of museums, notably the Cité de l'Automobile and Cité du Train.
  • Nancy - medium-sized city of culture and learning. With a large student population, Nancy hosts vibrant ballet, opera, jazz and rock scenes.
  • Reims - site of the famous cathedral where the kings of France were once crowned, now heart of the Champagne region.
  • Troyes - timber-frame buildings surround a Gothic monster of a cathedral, noted for its exquisite stained glass.

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Sights and Activities

  • Cathedrals: Grand-Est has some of the most beautiful in Europe; the most notable are at Reims, Metz, Troyes and Strasbourg.
  • Vineyards: Champagne, Alsace and Lorraine are the major wine regions of Grand-Est.
  • Two marvellous museums in Mulhouse: the Cité de l'Automobile and the Cité du Train are respectively France's largest car and railway museums
  • Charles de Gaulle Memorial (Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, 20 km from junction 23 of the A5), ☎ +33 3 25 30 90 80. Closed Jan; Feb–Apr: Open 6 days a week 10:00–17:30 (closed Tu); May–Sep: Open every day 9:30–19:00; Oct–Dec: Open 6 days a week 10:00–17:30 (closed Tu). France's national memorial to its great leader and statesman, situated at his former home and burial place. The memorial itself is a gigantic patriarchal cross which dominates the surrounding countryside. Also onsite is a museum which charts General de Gaulle's life, from his role in the Allied war effort and liberation of France, to leading his country into its economic golden era and the foundation of the Fifth Republic. Adults: €13.50; concessions: €11; children (6-12): €8; children (under 6): free.
  • Lalique Museum (Musée Lalique), Rue du Hochberg, Wingen-sur-Moder (About 2 km northwest of Wingen-sur-Moder (served by TER Alsace rail) on Rue du Hochberg (D919)). Daily 10:00-19:00 Apr-Sep & December; Tu-Sa 10:00-18:00 Feb, Mar, Oct, Nov; Closed in January. A very large collection of works by René Lalique, a renowned French glassmaker and jeweller active from the 1880s until his death in 1945. The museum is adjacent to the sole production facility operated by Lalique (the company he founded), opened in 1921 and is located on the site of a glass-making factory dating to the 18th century. €6 adults; €3 children 6-18; children under 6 are free.

The Vosges - an accessible and relatively low-lying range of mountains, with peaks not exceeding 1,500 metres, straddles Alsace and Lorraine. The landscape is lush and wooded, and surprisingly wild wildlife - wolves, lynx, chamois, capercaillie - make this region perfect for anyone interested in the preservation and restoration of western Europe's native biodiversity. The main long distance hiking trail is the GR 5, while a web of mountain bike (VTT) routes cover the countryside. While its slopes may not be as famous as the Alps, there are plenty of winter sports opportunities in the Vosges, centred on the resort of Markstein.

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Events and Festivals

  • Fête Nationale (14 Juillet) is celebrated on 14 July to commemorate the storming of the Bastille prison, during the French Revolution, with festivities on the Champs-Élysées attended by the President of France and other dignitaries. There are fireworks displays in many cities, with the largest display in Paris against the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower. This holiday is informally known as Bastille Day.

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Weather

Grand Est climate depends of the proximity of the sea. In Champagne and Western Lorraine, the climate is oceanic, with mild winters and mild summers. But Moselle and Alsace climates are humid continental, characterized by cold winters with frequent days below the freezing point, and hot summers, with many days with temperatures up to 32 °C.

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Getting There

By Plane

EuroAirport (Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg) is the major international airport in the region, with connections to pretty much everywhere in Europe. There are also a couple of flights from North Africa, and a seasonal service from Montreal Trudeau, operated by Air Transat. For UK travellers, British Airways fly from London Heathrow, while easyJet fly from Bristol, Edinburgh, London Gatwick, London Luton and Manchester.
Strasbourg Airport (SXB IATA) receives a smaller range of flights from European and Maghrebi cities. Ryanair fly direct from London Stansted.
Lorraine Airport (ETZ IATA) serves the domestic market, with flights from Bordeaux, Lyon Saint-Exupéry, Marseille, Nantes, Nice Côte d'Azur and Toulouse Blagnac.

By Train

LGV Est is the high speed line that serves the region. The TGV from Paris (Gare de l'Est) serves all the major stations of the region in under two hours. In addition to city centre stations, two TGV stations serve the rural areas in the west of the region: 1 Champagne-Ardenne TGV (near Reims) and 2 Meuse TGV (close to Verdun). The line also offers connections from most other parts of France, including Bordeaux, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Poitiers and Tours). At 320 km/h, you'll be on the fastest train in Europe!

EuroCity operates trains from Brussels (Midi / Zuid), Namur and Luxembourg to Strasbourg and Mulhouse. Meanwhile, the Luxembourg to Paris TGV stops at Metz, Meuse and Champagne-Ardenne en route. There are also a number of local cross-border services operating through the Ardennes.

A mixture of SNCF TGVs and Deutsche Bahn ICEs operate from Frankfurt (Hauptbahnhof), Karlsruhe, Munich and Stuttgart to Strasbourg. Additional ICEs operate from Frankfurt and Saarbrucken to 3 Lorraine TGV, situated more or less equidistant between Nancy and Metz (though not especially close to either - 35 km in fact, the classic local government compromise that ends up suiting nobody). There are a number of local cross-border services as well.

TGV and Intercités trains (both SNCF) operate from Zurich and Basel through Alsace, generally stopping at Mulhouse, Colmar and terminating at Strasbourg.

Eurostar offers combined tickets from London (St Pancras), Ebbsfleet and Ashford to many cities in Grand-Est, changing at Lille (Europe). While it may seem like a hassle changing trains, this service is both cheaper and quicker than you might think; for instance London to Strasbourg for as little as £50 return can be accomplished in around 5 hours. Generally, the time sails by as quickly as the countryside outside, and you get to travel city centre to city centre, without facing the questionable pleasures of a couple of airports in between.

If you already thought Grand-Est was pretty well-connected by rail, you ain't seen nothing yet! Russian Railways' Moscow to Paris service takes seeing Europe by train to another level. Passing by Minsk, Warsaw, Berlin, Hanover and Frankfurt, the train stops in Strasbourg before going on to Paris. Needless to say, it's a sleeper service, and from Moscow you'll spend two nights on board (to be precise, 32 hours), but presumably if you're in love with the romance of crossing a continent by train, this will appeal to you. Count on spending around €250 for a second class (4 person) berth, or €360 for a first class (2 person) berth. Departs every Wednesday from Moscow Belorussky station.

By Car

The region is well-connected by road. The A4 autoroute links Paris to Reims, Metz and Strasbourg, while the A5 links the capital to Troyes and the southern half of Grand-Est. The A26 links Calais and the north to Reims (270 km from Calais) and Troyes (400 km), and this route is used by so many British drivers, that the whole highway is called the Autoroute des Anglais. Motorists from Belgium will pass through Luxembourg and enter France north of Thionville on the E25, while those driving from Germany will generally take the Saarbrucken - Forbach route (E50). Pan-European roads use green route indicators alongside the French national routes' red indicators. There are any number of roads crossing all of Grand-Est's foreign borders, and the vast majority will be unmanned by any sort of frontier force. The Schengen Agreement permits open borders across much of Europe, but recent (2016) security concerns have caused some checks to be reinstated.

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Getting Around

By Train

Apart from the TGV, which links the region's main cities, the rest of the network is slower, provided by TER Grand Est.

By Car

The region is well-connected by road, with the following motorways (autoroutes) being particularly useful:

  • A4 (east-west): Île-de-France, from Paris, Reims (A26/A34), Champagne, Verdun, A31, Metz, the Vosges, A35, Strasbourg.
  • A5 (east-west): Île-de-France, from Paris, Troyes, A26, A31.
  • A26 (north-south): Hauts-de-France, from Calais, Reims (A4/A34), Champagne, Troyes, A5.
  • A31 (north-south): from Luxembourg, A4, Metz, Nancy, Vittel, A5, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, to Dijon.
  • A34: Reims (A4/A26), Charleville-Mézières, the Ardennes, Belgium, towards Luxembourg Province.
  • A35: (Rhine Valley, north-south): Germany, from Karlsruhe, A4, Strasbourg, the Vosges, Colmar, Mulhouse, Switzerland, towards Basel.

The majority of the region's autoroutes are operated by two private companies, so toll charges apply.

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Eat

The cuisine is highly regionalised, though portions tend to be hearty and you'll notice a strong reliance on pork products throughout. Vegetarians and Halal-conscious Muslims are best catered for in urban areas, while Strasbourg has a large Jewish quarter with good kosher restaurants and shops.

Alsatians share a culinary heritage with south-west Germany, so expect lots of pork and sausage sauerkraut (choucroutes), flammeküche (tarte flambée - like a very thin oblong pizza) and creamy, chocolatey, cherry-filled Black Forest gateau. What makes Alsace special is that these stereotypical 'German' dishes are cooked with the usual panache and savoir-faire that you'd expect from French chefs, and locals are quick to inform you, with a snort, that their sauerkraut is far superior to anything the well-meaning fools on the other side of the Rhine could come up with! One dish unique to the Alsace is baeckeoffe, a casserole with mountains of meat (pork, beef and lamb - all in one pot), potatoes and veg. Its inspiration, the hamin, can still be eaten (sans pork), in Strasbourg's Jewish restaurants during the Friday-Saturday sabbath.

Lorraine has one stand-out dish that has conquered the planet: quiche lorraine. The original and best recipe fills shortcrust pastry with eggs, cream and smoked bacon, and is not quite like any of the hundreds of variants and imitators you can buy anywhere in the world. Aside from this, the region's pâté, potato dishes and stews are celebrated, as are a local variety of plums - the mirabelle. The gastronomically-adventurous will dare to try some of the many saucissons and charcuteries, as well as andouille (tripe sausage) and tête de veau (calf's head). The latter two especially can seem like a gamble; if you have good reason to be confident in the chef's ability, give them a go and the scales may well fall from your eyes as you enjoy complex and subtle flavours.

The cuisine of Champagne is among the least well-known, as it is largely indistinguishable from the French mainstream. Nonetheless, you should make time for a potée champenoise - a wonderfully slow stew of ham, bacon, cabbage, beans, carrots and potatoes - and indeed anything with pieds de porc (pigs trotters) in it. Many dishes use the local bubbly as a key ingredient: hedonists will want to luxuriate with hot oysters in champagne! This area is particularly known for its sweets - biscuits roses, macarons and chocolate champagne corks.

This being France, we mustn't overlook the cheese. The highlights (all made with cows' milk) include creamy and slightly crumbly langres, the very soft and strong munster from the mountains and carré de l'est, with the appearance of a square brie but unmistakable flavour of smoky bacon.

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Drink

In case you haven't been paying attention, around these parts wine is king! Touring the vineyards of the Champagne and Alsace are veritable rites of passage for any discerning wine buff, but even for those without the patience to go on tour, restaurants can be relied on to serve the best local vintages. Champagne is the world's best-loved (and potentially most bank-breaking) sparkling wine. Alsace is mainly known for its whites and the grape varieties are often - surprise surprise - akin to their German counterparts. Completely off the beaten track is Lorraine wine, whose notable crus include côtes de Moselle and the gris de Toul, a rosé wine that actually looks grey.

Here on the edges of northern and central Europe, the importance of beer can't be overstated. Lorraine and Alsace have the highest quality brewers: Champignolles, Kanterbräu and Grimbergen, as well as France's 'national beer' Kronenbourg. In pubs and bars, order pression (draft), while supermarkets are great for 'stocking up' on cans and bottles.

In Lorraine, there is also a tradition of making plum liqueurs and eaux de vie. Mirabelle and quetsch are the two plum varieties used to make these drinks, and production seems to be more of a cottage industry than being aimed at the mass market.

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Sleep

As with most of France, accommodation options are based around hotels in town and cities, and self-catering gîtes in the countryside. In the Vosges, there are many farmhouse inns which offer an authentic rural experience. Campers and caravaners are well-catered for all over France, and Grand-Est is no exception.

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This is version 3. Last edited at 10:23 on Nov 29, 18 by Utrecht. 2 articles link to this page.

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