The picturesque village of Riquewihr (Reichenweier in German ; pop. 1,250) is one of the highlights of Alsace, a jewel of timber-framed Renaissance architecture. Riquewihr is sheltered by the Schoenenberg hills, at the foot of the Vosges mountains and facing the plain of Alsace. Renowned for its Riesling wine, it is also listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France. The best periods of the year to visit Riquewihr are in spring and summer, when the village is beautifully decorated by flowers on the balconies, and in December for its Christmas Market.
In Roman times, Riquewihr was the site of an observation tower in what was already a wine-growing region. The village developed in the 6th century, during the Frankish period, and was probably named after a major landowner known as "Richo". The Latin name of the place would have been Richovilla (Richo's domain), which later evolved into Richovilare (mentioned in 1049), and eventually Riquewihr, or Reichenweier in German.
At the height of the Middle Ages, the village was protected by Reichenstein Castle, property of the Dukes of Alsace, then of the Counts of Eguisheim-Dabo. These latter acquired an increasingly bad reputation as lords bandits. In 1269, Rudolph of Habsburg, future King of Germany, set about to put an end to the devious practices of these mobsters. Recruiting troops in Strasbourg and Colmar, Rudolph besieged and destroyed the castle and executed the bandits. The future king was impressed by the local wine and elevated the village to the rank of town. Reichenweier (Riquewihr) then passed to the Dukes of Horburg, who rebuilt the castle in 1291 and raised a rampart around the village, which still exist to this day.
In 1324, Reichenweier was sold by the Horburgs to Ulrich X of Württemberg. The fate of the Alsatian town would change in 1397, when Count Eberhard IV of Württemberg got engaged to the infant heiress Henriette d'Orbe-Montfaucon, Countess of Montbéliard. Married ten years later, the couple of the unified counties elected Reichenweier as their capital. This was the start of a golden age that was to last until the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) that ravaged Germany.
In the 16th century, Reichenweier exported wine throughout the Holy Roman Empire and the cities of the Hanseatic League. In 1534, Duke Ulrich VI of Württemberg adopted Lutherianism. A few years later his half-brother, Count George, retired to the Alsatian towns of Reichenweier and Horburg following a dispute with Ulrich.
During the Thirty Years War that opposed Catholics and Protestants, Riquewihr was besieged and plundered twice, in 1635 and 1652, by the troops of the (Catholic) Duke of Lorraine. At the 1635 siege, the inhabitants were promised to be spared if they surrendered. They opened the gates on 26th June, but the invading troops didn't keep their word and conducted summary executions. The ensuing decades were marked by epidemics of plague, typhus and cholera, which inflicted a serious blow to the local community.
In 1680, Louis XIV annexed Riquewihr to the Kingdom of France. The town remained nevertheless under the laws and customs of the Holy Roman Empire until the French Revolution.
During WWII, contrarily to many other Alsatian villages, Riquewihr avoided destruction thanks to its location on a dead end road.
The charm of Riquewihr is its superb state of preservation. Every street is sublime, lined with half-timbered houses dating back to the 15th to 18th centuries.
The rampart of the medieval town were punctured by two gates, built in the late 13th century by the Duke of Horburg. The lower gate was demolished in 1804. Only the upper one survives now, and is known as the Dolder.
It is topped by a five-storey tower that rises to a height of 25 metres. A bell inside served to ring the alarm when the enemy was spotted in the plain. Dolder means "highest point" in Alsatian, and it was indeed used as a watch tower, being higher than any other building in town.
In the Thieves' Tower Museum, the former prison of Riquewihr, visitors will be able to witness the gruesome torture chamber and oubliettes. The tower was constructed in 1550 and is 18 metres high.
Also of interest is the pinkish Castle of the Dukes of Württemberg, which now houses the Alsace's Museum of Communication that retraces the history of the postal service and telecommunications in Alsace.
How to get there
A few houses have been turned into museums and offer a great opportunity to peep into the history of this fascinating town. Among them, let's note Behre House (dating from 1514), Liebrich House (built in 1535), Kiener House (1574), Dissler House (1610), and the old winegrowers' corporation at Preiss-Zimmer House.
Riquewihr is on the E25 motorway between Strasbourg and Basel, just 10 km north-west of Colmar. The E35 from Cologne and Frankfurt runs parallel to it on the other side of the Rhine.
If you don't have a car, you should get first to Colmar by train. There are frequent services from Strasbourg (30min), Mulhouse (20min), Basel (45min), as well as a few TGV from Paris Est (2h50min). Trains from Germany usually require a change in Strasbourg or Basel. Once in Colmar, you can catch a bus from the train station to Riquewihr.
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