Alsace's life-changing art

The region in north-east France is rich in art, architecture, food and wine

When a painter friend heard that my husband Howie, and I were planning to visit Alsace, he said: "You have to go to Colmar and see the Isenheim Altarpiece. It's life-changing."

Our friend is not given to hyperbole, so hearing him suggest that a work of art might change our lives doubled the excitement we already felt about going to Alsace, in north-east France, on the border of Germany and Switzerland.

The region not only straddles three countries and cultures, but also contains a wealth of extraordinary art and architecture. Alsace is also famous for its culinary traditions, for its wine and cheese and choucroute garnie: a heavenly stew made from sausages, charcuterie and sauerkraut.

I had never been there, nor for some reason had I thought much about going until our friend Wendy suggested that a group of us travel there for a long weekend to celebrate her birthday.

She had been to Alsace before. She had gotten to know Mr Marco Baumann, proprietor of the Hotel des Berges, a country inn and its restaurant, Auberge de L'Ill (with three Michelin stars) in Illhaeusern, not far from Strasbourg. And she had fallen in love with the area - its mediaeval half-timbered houses, quiet waterways, vineyardcovered hills, art and its food.

Our plane landed in Strasbourg, the region's capital, on a crisp morning last autumn. The Isenheim Altarpiece, just under an hour away, would have to wait.

A bus arranged by the hotel took our group of 16 to the closest of the marvels we would see on our trip, the Gothic Cathedrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg, the monumental church, one of the world's tallest, constructed of red sandstone and decorated with delicate tracery, gargoyles and sculpted figures of the prophets, the Virtues and Vices, the Wise and Foolish Virgins.

Built over a period lasting from the 12th to 15th centuries, the church features magnificent stained-glass windows, an elaborate pulpit and organ, and a famous astronomical clock that shows the position of the sun and moon, and from which, every day at half-past noon, a procession of figures - Christ and the apostles - emerges as a rooster crows three times.

After touring the cathedral, we stopped at the Musee Alsacien, a folk art museum dedicated to the history and crafts of the region. To me, the most attractive objects - the ones I most coveted - were elaborate heating stoves made from ceramic tile. But the museum has something for everyone: costumes, toys, beer mugs, woodworking tools, model rooms recreating the interiors of a peasant house and a pharmacist's studio, complete with an alchemist's oven.

For lunch, we went to the Brasserie Les Haras, a restaurant in the 18th-century building that once housed a riding academy and a stud farm. After we crossed the stately, classically lovely courtyard, it was something of a shock to enter the ultra-modern interior, pale wood bent in circles and spirals, like a spaceship about to launch from inside the austere stone walls.

But that shock is rapidly dispelled by the excellence of the food: a menu that changes weekly and that, for us, meant pumpkin and goose liver tarts; a salad of chestnuts, green apples, pomegranate seeds and pears; seared scallops with a corn pancake - and one of the wonderful cheese plates that graced most of our meals.

Our lunch at the Brasserie was only one of many superb meals we enjoyed in Alsace, remarkable not only for the quality of the food, but for the liveliness of the company and the seamless ease with which Wendy's friends got along, nearly all of us from New York, and most of us past 50.

I often had trouble deciding what was the more pleasurable and memorable part of our trip to Alsace: the food or the art. I was struck by how many terrific museums exist within such a small area. Perhaps I should explain that many of the people on the trip were architects, so attention was paid not only to paintings, but also to the buildings that housed them.

Probably the most elegant was the Fondation Beyeler museum, over the Swiss border in Basel. Founded by art dealer Ernst Beyeler and designed by Renzo Piano, the airy, light-filled space is notable for its long, narrow exterior made of porphyry imported from Patagonia, for its glass roof, and for the way in which its large, strategically placed windows make the galleries seem to interact with the landscaped gardens outside.

One is always turning a corner into a room full of paintings and being confronted by a gorgeous view of the foliage, shrubbery and lawns that surround the building and enhance the pleasure of being in the museum without competing with the art.

Equally interesting is the Schaulager, also in Basel, a somewhat fortress-like structure, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, that combines an exhibition space with a warehouse dedicated to the conservation and storage of art.

Our art-filled day ended at Vitra, a combination factory, furniture showroom and architecture and design museum just over the German border in Weil am Rhein, also less than an hour from Illhaeusern. Vitra's main buildings - the Vitra Design Museum and VitraHaus - are used for temporary exhibitions.

The Vitra home collection is on permanent display in a showroom featuring furniture by Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson and other designers, whose work Vitra is licensed to distribute and, in some cases, manufacture.

Our group toured the grounds on which there are buildings by Frank Gehry, Herzog & de Meuron, Zaha Hadid, Piano and the Japanese architectural duo known as Sanaa. Perhaps the most beguiling work is a charming gas station created by Jean Prouve in 1953.

But, by far, the most daunting structure is Carsten Holler's Vitra Slide Tower. One climbs upstairs (an ascent of more than 30m) to the top of the tower, where there is a viewing platform and a clock. Then, using a protective blanket to prevent friction burns, the intrepid can slide down a sort of tunnel, a metal tube that corkscrews vertiginously all the way back to the ground. I chose to sit on a nearby bench and watch the stunned expressions and happy- to-be-alive grins of friends as they reached the bottom of the slide.

On our last day, we took a break from art and a turn towards history and wine. A friendly and funny young guide took us around the Chateau du Haut-Koenigsbourg, a massive castle built and rebuilt over several hundred years, but whose style mostly reflects that of the 15th and 16th centuries.

Later, we stopped in Riquewihr, a picturesque town, its streets lined with half-timbered buildings. There is a lot of that sort of charm in Alsace, but concentrated in one town, it reminded me, not entirely happily, of a set for The Sound Of Music (1965). The town is popular with tourists and we had a very good lunch at Au Trotthus, which served an unlikely but tasty Japanese-Alsatian fusion: Our food arrived in a sort of elegant Franco- German bento box.

But what I recall most vividly from our trip is the Isenheim Altarpiece. Our friend was right.

The painting, done by Matthias Grunewald in the early 16th century, is perhaps best known for the spidery fingers, arms and wrists of the agonised Christ, emaciated, waxy- skinned and covered with sores and bruises, and for the sharpness of the crown of thorns in the Crucifixion that appears in the altar's central panel. I should explain that the altarpiece is not only a painting, but also a contraption. Its panels fold up like an amalgam of an enormous book, a piece of furniture and a work of art.

Except for special holy days, the doors were kept closed, so that one saw the outside panels: the Crucifixion in the centre, flanked by St Anthony and St Sebastian. The wings can be opened to reveal a scene of the Annunciation, the Madonna and Child, and the Resurrection. When the wings are opened yet again, one sees St Paul and St Anthony in the desert, and the temptation of St Anthony, beset by monsters and demons. Between these two painted panels of the saints is a sculpted, gilded panel done by Niclaus of Haguenau, also in the early 16th century.

On the day of our visit, we were obliged to view the masterpiece under less than optimal circumstances: the Musee Unterlinden, where the altarpiece is normally kept - and to which it has been returned - was being renovated and the work was installed in a Dominican chapel nearby. The panels were detached and shown separately and, while it was helpful to be able to see all the paintings at once, it did make it harder to figure out how this marvellous construction was meant to work.

Ultimately, it hardly mattered. Several of our friends knew parts of the paintings' history and we were able to piece our fragments of information together into a sort of collective narrative. The painting was commissioned for the chapel of the monastery of St Anthony, in Isenheim (near Colmar), which treated those with a disease that came to be known as St Anthony's Fire, triggered by ingesting ergot, the LSD-like byproduct of spoilt grain that causes skin eruptions and terrifying hallucinations.

The artwork was intended to be visible to the hospital's patients, to give hope to the hopeless and - with its depictions of phantoms as threatening as any of the patients were imagining themselves - to make them feel less alone. Who knows if it succeeded, if indeed the sick were helped by Grunewald's depiction of monsters that suggest a 16th-century Maurice Sendak.

But what I found thrilling - and yes, life-changing - is the evidence that, at some point in our history, a society thought that this was what art could do: that art might possibly accomplish something like a small miracle of comfort and consolation. It seemed enormously inspiring for anyone who makes or cares about art.

But even without this profound encounter with Grunewald's work, we would have had a wonderful time in Alsace. What better reasons to go to a place than good food, good wine, beauty, history and life-changing art?


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 17, 2016, with the headline 'Alsace's life-changing art'. Print Edition | Subscribe