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Regional identity

Alsace: a region marked by a strong identity. Discover the Alsacian dialect, the folk arts, the fine arts, the traditional costumes, the local laws and specificities...

No need to be keen on history to feel the rich past of Alsace, right from your first visit. Many happy and sad events fashioned this region and its strong identity, which witnessed the birth of major Alsacian celebrities. The dialect is widely used and is no doubt one of the most visible witnesses of this feeling of belonging felt by many Alsacians, which is reinforced by local law in force in many fields.

Alsace is also a region of art and culture of which the various inspirations testify its open-mindedness and the endless creativity of its artists. Local arts and Alsacian fine arts represent remarkable wealth. Without forgetting civil architecture that includes many buildings inherited from the Renaissance and the Classical period, military architecture, which testifies the highly strategic location Alsace has always occupied in Europe and the religious heritage, which has bundles of architectural treasures.

Finally, the richness and diversity of traditional rural housing testifies the geographical and cultural plurality of Alsace.

Dialect and languages

One of the last regional languages still in use

The dialect is used throughout the whole of Alsace as well is in part of the Moselle area.It is one of the most widely spoken regional languages in France. It is also a key aspect of the region's identity, being the result of Alsace's turbulent history. Unlike several decades ago, today you won't find any Alsatian under the age of 60 unable to speak French, as the French language became compulsory at school after the liberation.Unfortunately, the transmission of the Alsatian language from one generation to another is in constant decline, particularly in urban areas.

A dialect which is clearly distinct from German

Although originally derived from Alemannic, the Alsatian dialect is clearly distinct from German.Firstly because this is above all a spoken language.Secondly, because Alsatian has not evolved in the same manner as German, having absorbed a number of words from the French language.Although spoken in a relatively limited area, the Alsatian dialect varies from place to place.

 

Local arts & crafts

Pottery

The pottery-related arts are widespread throughout Alsace, particularly in Betschdorf and Soufflenheim. The town of Betschdorf produces some remarkable items, the production methods for which have remained unchanged since 1717. Manufactured from grey clay, they are decorated with cobalt blue before being fired in the kiln and varnished through the application of coarse salt at the end of the baking process. For its part, the town of Soufflenheim has been manufacturing pottery since the Renaissance period. Mostly yellow, green or brown, the items produced here are many and varied, ranging from Backeoffe dishes to Kouglopf moulds and pitchers, etc.

Furniture

One of the characteristics of Alsatian craftsman-made furniture is its sheer abundance and variety. Virtually all traditional homes contain a combination of seats with storage compartments, closets, four-poster beds, cabinets and "Kachelofen" (a stove covered with ceramic tiles). Fir, pine and poplar enjoyed pride of place up until the end of the 19th century, when they were gradually replaced by oak and fruit tree varieties. Alsatian decorative schemes often comprise flowers, rosettes, geometrical shapes, stars and trees of life. Where colours are concerned, differences can be noted from one Alsatian département to another. Items manufactured in Upper Alsace area generally feature turquoise backgrounds whereas the craftsmen in Lower Alsace tend to prefer red and ochre coloured backgrounds. Additionally, furniture from Upper Alsace is often carved, while we find a marked preference for painted furniture items in Lower Alsace.

Kelsch

This material was traditionally used to manufacture household linen items. These can still be found today in the form of tablecloths with red and blue squares or stripes. Previously manufactured from hemp or linen, kelsch is today made from a mixture of flax and cotton. The word "kelsch" comes from the town of Cologne, where the blue dye used to manufacture this cloth was produced. Nowadays, it is still woven in Alsace in Muttersholtz.

 

The fine Arts

Painting

The 15th century saw the birth of Alsatian pictorial art, particularly through the work of Martin Schongauer from Colmar. The piece which best epitomises his work is without a doubt "Virgin at the Rose Bush" which is housed in the Dominicans church in Colmar. The harmony, the finesse, the overall balance and the sheer skill in the use of colour are clearly perceptible. Another work not to be missed during any visit to Colmar is the "Retable d’Issenheim" (the Isenheim Altarpiece), produced by Mathias Grünewald and housed at the Unterlinden Museum. This artist quickly emerged as a master in the portrayal of spatial and surface effects, enabling him to create highly detailed and often strange scenes. The 16th century was characterised by the still lifes of Sébastien Stosskopff, many of which are on display at Strasbourg's Fine Arts museum. It was in the 19th century that the painter and illustrator Gustave Doré produced his major works, including "Enigma" and "Christ leaving the Praetorium", a picture measuring 9 m in width and 6 m in height, on display at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Strasbourg. For his part, the talented portrait painter and illustrator Jean-Jacques Henner produced a number of interesting works including among others "Alsace, the lost province" and "Fabiola (the Red Nun)". Finally, the 20th century saw the emergence of Tomi Ungerer, an illustrator and graphical artist from Strasbourg who quickly embarked on an impressive international career.

Sculpture

In the 19th century, Auguste Bartholdi brought us one of the world's most famous monuments. This was "Liberty enlightening the world" better known as the "Statue of Liberty", which was created by this artist from Colmar in 1865. He also produced numerous statues for his hometown, and his work included among others the "Lion of Belfort". Alsace was also the home of Hans Arp (Jean Arp). Originally a member of the Dada movement who later embraced surrealism, he produced a series of reliefs using painted wood, embroidery and glued paper before becoming a master in the field of sculptures in the round. Most of his works can be seen today at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Strasbourg, but you can also touch and admire a number of his sculptures simply by walking down Avenue du Général de Gaulle in Strasbourg.

 

Costumes

A wide variety of traditional costumes

A traditional symbol of the region, the famous Alsatian headdress was abandoned after 1945. Today, this can only be admired during certain cultural and tourist events. Varying widely from one part of Alsace to another, the traditional costumes reflected the social standing and faith of their wearers. Consequently, Protestant women in the North would wear the colours of their choosing, where as Catholics from Kochersberg (to the north-west of Strasbourg) wore only ruby red. Some women would decorate the hems of their skirts with velvet ribbons. Others, particularly in the south, would wear printed cotton clothing, often made of silk for special occasions with paisley patterned designs. The aprons, worn everywhere throughout Alsace, were plain white. However, on Sundays it was not uncommon to see silk or satin aprons decorated with embroidery, and worn over skirts or dresses. Headdresses were extremely diverse, with an increasing trend towards the use of ribbons from 1840 onwards. Always black for Protestants, the headdresses were often colourful and decorated with patterns for the Catholics. These features may come as a surprise, as illustrators often portrayed an inaccurate image of traditional Alsatian costumes. When Alsace once again became part of France, the "illustrator's costume" was adopted by the whole region, replacing the vast variety of traditional clothing which once existed.

Local laws

Local laws: A reflection of Alsace's unique history

Alsace's special identity is so distinctive that it even influences certain legal and regulatory aspects of life in the region. Mostly inherited from the German annexation period, special laws concerning hunting, social insurance, public holidays, the church or the retirement system continue to apply in Alsace. These are often more progressive than those applying in other French regions. For example, the people of Alsace and the Moselle area have two additional public holidays: the feast of St Stephen (December 26) and Good Friday (on the Friday preceding Easter Sunday). Although rarely contested, local law is not set in stone. Consequently, a number of laws have been regularly modified or updated.