A vintage experience awaits oenophilic congress attendees

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STRASBOURG, France -The first grape vines were brought to the protected eastern foothills of the Vosges in the third century. Ever since, the dry white riesling, sylvaner, gewurtztrainer, pinot blanc and Tokay wines have been Alsace's glory and wealth.

The favorite road to discovering Alsace lies along the Route des Vins, the wine road which starts in Marlenheim, west of Strasbourg, then wanders 100 miles south to officially end at Thann, where one would begin a wine road tour if arriving in Alsace at Mulhouse.

Whether traveling north to south or vice versa, one could drive the entire Routes des Vins in a day, but taking time to get lost in this scenic region of sprawling vineyards and estate wine cellars, picture-perfect villages, imposing chateaux, museums and Michelin-starred restaurants is what discovering Alsace is all about.

Starting at Marlenheim, the road lies a few miles west and runs south to Molsheim (worth visiting for its Butchers' House); continues to Rosheim, nestling within medieval ramparts; goes on to Obernai, birthplace of Sainte Odile, patron saint of Alsace.

Follow the route to Damback -- typical of the old walled towns with its fortified gates, wrought-iron signs, flower-decked streets -- and south of Chatenois, make a side trip to the restored Chateau du Haut-Koenigsburg, a 12th century fortified castle reconstructed in the early 1900s. The view alone -- vineyards and, to the east beyond the Rhine, the outlines of the Black Forest -- is worth the trip.

Two gems come next. The first is Riquewihr, probably the most picture-perfect of all the wine towns. Somehow it escaped the usual destruction of war and still stands within its circle of high walls as it did in the 16th century. It is protected as a heritage monument, and visitors can buy wine here at Hugel et Fils, whose winery occupies two historic houses.

A second treasure stop is Kaysersberg, the birthplace of Albert Schweitzer. Founded by the Romans, today it is a handsome and busy wine town with neat, half-timbered houses edging the cascading Weiss River and many 12th to 15th century landmark buildings.

A perennial favorite town along the Route des Vins is Colmar, a wine capital with arched bridges over the Lauch River and restored timber houses with multicolored roof tiles. Small touring boats and swans glide along the tree-lined canals in the Little Venice district; ancient houses flank the sunlit tower of the Church of St. Martin; the Customs House is a beauty, with towers, arcades and balconies.

A 20th century pilgrimage to Colmar is not complete without a visit to the 13th century Dominican monastery, which houses the Unterlinden Museum with the Issenheim altarpiece, the masterwork of painter Matthias Grunewald.

One more for the road: Nestled in the vineyards five miles out of Colmar is tiny Eguisheim, a marvel of a medieval-walled village, complete with cobbled streets, half-timbered houses, pointed gables, Renaissance fountains, a 13th century church and remains of an octagonal Roman castle. For a taste of local wine, stop at Leon Beyer, family-owned vineyards since 1880.

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