Hunspach, France — Tucked away near the Rhine River, far from the influence of Paris, this village gives few clues that betray its French nationality.
Stark white half-timbered houses with narrow shuttered windows, many of which peek out from the steep, clay-colored tile roofs, line the streets. The chatter among neighbors, incomprehensible to any passing Frenchman from Avignon or Bordeaux, is peppered with ''hoopla'' and ''ja, ja.'' And even the name, Hunspach, presents a much different ring to the ear than Versailles or Toulouse.
One does not go to Hunspach for its plethora of fine museums (there are none) , or for its exciting night life (the shutters of the houses close at 9 p.m.); one goes to this village to be immersed in the character of a region that is completely unique.
The region is Alsace, a rectangle of land bounded by the Rhine River to the east and the Vosges Mountains to the west. Its rich soil as well as its reputation for being a central crossroads to all of Europe inspired many a battle for its possession between France and Germany. As a result, Alsace has developed a personality that is part German, part French, and yet wholly Alsatian.
My discovery of Alsace began in Strasbourg, historical capital of the region. I wandered through the cobblestone streets of its old quarters, known as ''la Petite France,'' enchanted by the half-timbered houses planted along the quais of the Ill River.
For a glimpse of the furnishings that used to fill these houses, the traveler might go to the Strasbourg Alsatian Museum or to the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, approximately 65 kilometers south of Strasbourg. Both have charming collections of the colorful, folkloric craftsmanship of the region. Massive chests are adorned with brightly painted motifs. Porcelain-tile wood-burning furnaces created beauty as well as heat. And graceful canopied beds are displayed within settings of the once-common Alsatian household. The Unterlinden offers a particularly fine collection of the festive, traditional costumes of the various towns and villages of Alsace.
After an extensive visit to the Unterlinden, I sat down at one of the long, linen-covered tables of the restaurant ''A la Fleur'' in Colmar to enjoy a ''light'' lunch. Two enormous platters, one of cold asparagus (the European kind is white and more tender than the American type), the other filled with smoked and boiled ham, accompanied by homemade mayonnaise, a bearnaise-like sauce, and a vinaigrette, were placed before me.
In fact, much of my time in Alsace was spent enjoying the food. Like the rest of the French, the Alsatians spend two or even three hours dining, and for good reason.
Most of the ingredients in their cooking come from the rich soil and bountiful waterways of the region. Dishes range from the simple ''tarte flambee,m '' a large, paper-thin pie crust covered with white cheese, cream, onions, and bacon, baked in the traditional wood-burning ovens, to the more elaborate fresh trout sauteed with herbs and vegetables.
One of the best-known traditional dishes is ''choucroute garnie.m '' Golden sauerkraut is simmered for several hours with a variety of herbs and spices and a large array of Strasbourg sausages, bacon, and ham to produce a meal that does indeed live up to its fame.
To fully appreciate the character of this region, I took short expeditions from my home base of Strasbourg. A multitude of organized trips (only in French or German) can be booked through a Strasbourg-based agency of the French Railroads, known as Astra-Voyages, which is conveniently located opposite the train station. For those who wish to see more of the beautiful, lush countryside , the Club Vosgien (4 rue de la Douane) has weekend hiking excursions into the Vosges Mountains. Although in principle one should be a member to take part in these trips, in practice they will take nonmembers if there are empty seats on the bus the day of departure.
Day trips by train or bus can easily be arranged to towns like Colmar and Wissembourg (50 km north of Strasbourg), but in order to discover the authentic charm of the Alsatian villages and countryside, it is best to rent a car. This was my choice.
Heading north toward Hunspach along Route D249, we periodically passed large concrete disks protruding incongruously out of the ground of quiet forests and green fields. My Alsatian guide informed me that these were remnants of the Maginot Line, the unsuccessful attempt by the French to build a line of defense after World War I in order to avoid just such another war on French territory. The bunkers are a grim reminder of the abuse this region endured 40 years ago.
Hunspach, like the neighboring Seebach, Soultz, and Kuhlendorf, is a picturesque village nestled in the idyllic setting of the northern Vosges Mountains. Wandering through its narrow streets, I saw the archetype of the original Alsatian country homes. The half-timbered houses were adjoined by a stable so narrow that I found it hard to believe that at one time the farm hands had lived above it. Attached at a right angle to the stable was the barn. Directly across from the house and finishing off the U-shaped courtyard was the garden, at one time growing most of the family's vegetables, but now more often brimming with colorful flowers.
From doorways, windows, and porches, I could hear snatches of conversation bearing little linguistic resemblance to the French language. Whether it was due to the often-changing nature of their official language, alternating between French and German, or to the relative geographic isolation created by the Vosges and the Rhine, the Alsatians developed their own dialect. This dialect is, in fact, more German in character than French. Indeed, a Frenchman from outside the region would have difficulty recognizing such words as ''ziwelkueche'' for the French ''tarte a l'oignon,m '' or the common expression, ''hoopla,'' the equivalent of the French ''ooh la la.m ''
The dialect is not taught in school. The Alsatians keep it alive not only by speaking it at home, but also through the performances of groups like the ''Theatre Alsacien'' of Strasbourg, a local theater troupe that performs works written by Alsatian playwrights in the regional tongue.
Driving further, along Route D28, we came upon two small towns, Rietershoffen and Hatten. Situated only 2 km apart and offering little of aesthetic value to the passing traveler, they are curiously modern-looking, compared with the surrounding villages. A plaque in the Protestant church of Hatten tells why: During the last year of WWII, American troops stationed in one town and Germans in the other continuously battled until little remained of the towns.
In spite of its tragic past, Alsace has retained a vitality that any outsider must admire. It offers a puzzling and enjoyable mixture of cultures that can be found nowhere else in France.