The French/German Connection
By Elaine Robbins
Travel time from:
- Austin - 1.75 hours /
- Brownsville - 5 hours /
- Dallas - 5 hours /
- Houston - 3.75 hours /
- San Antonio - 0.5 hours /
- Lubbock - 7 hours
Revel in the quiet charms of Castroville, an Alsatian village in the heart of Texas.
Castroville may be just 25 miles west of San Antonio, but it feels worlds apart. Drive west from San Antonio on U.S. 90, and soon the hordes of tourists tromping along the River Walk are just a distant memory. Soon the McMansion subdivisions along the freeways fall behind, and then you’re there.
Nestled in a pretty, pecan-shaded bend in the Medina River, Castroville is laid out like a European village. You can stroll down quiet, narrow streets with names like London, Madrid and Vienna and admire the 19th-century French homes, while the church bells of St. Louis Catholic Church ring out over the market square. With charming architecture and a historic inn, Castroville makes a good base for exploring the Hill Country.
Even architect Frederick Law Olmsted, whose chronicle of his 1856 journey through Texas is one long litany of complaints, was captivated by Castroville’s charms. “The Medina is the very ideal of purity. … Upon its banks stands Castroville — a village containing a colony of Alsatians, who are proud to call themselves German, but who speak French, or a mixture of French and German. The cottages are scattered prettily and there are two churches — the whole aspect being as far from Texan as possible. It might sit for the portrait of one of the poorer villages of the upper Rhone valley.” About Castroville’s Tardé Hotel, Olmsted wrote: “How delighted and astonished many a traveler must have been, on arriving from the plains at this first village, to find not only his dreams of white bread, sweetmeats and potatoes realized, but napkins, silver forks, and radishes, French servants, French neatness, French furniture, delicious French beds … and more, the lively and entertaining bourgeoisie.”
Alas, the silver forks and French servants are gone, but I wanted to find out what vestiges of Alsatian culture remain. Who were the Alsatians, anyway? Everyone I talked to seemed equally mystified. “It’s funny hearing of a bunch of French people called Schmidt,” remarked my colleague Céline.
We started our journey at Haby’s Alsatian Bakery, where the apple fritters and strudels, cream puffs and long loaves of French bread offered the first clue that the German and French sides of the culture are still alive. We walked across the highway to Sammy’s Restaurant, where we met Sammy Tschirhart and his wife, Yvonne. Yvonne explained to us how the town’s Alsatian culture has managed to survive for more than 150 years. “The town was isolated, and people intermarried. Everyone’s kin to each other.”
That insular lifestyle has kept names like Haby, Hans and Schott alive. But the Alsatian language has not fared so well. Sammy is probably one of the last locals who speak Alsatian, a Germanic dialect. He explained that even in the home country, the French province of Alsace-Lorraine, the dialect varies from region to region. Add a Texas twang, and you’ve got a whole other language. “One time we had a visitor from Alsace,” recalled Sammy, grinning. “He listened to me talk for a few days, and finally he said to me, ‘I know you’re Alsatian, but where the hell are you from?’”
After visiting with the Tschirharts, we met with Carole Romano, founder of the Castroville Conservation Society. How, I asked her, has Castroville managed to avoid the sprawl that has spoiled so many places? “The land around Castroville has remained stable,” she said. “These are families that have farmed for generations.” She took us on a tour of the 1847 Alsatian vernacular house that she and her husband have beautifully restored. The house looks like it belongs in a French village, with its 8-inch-thick load-bearing limestone walls and casement windows covered with green-painted shutters. Even the new addition is hidden from the street, and its design meshes well with the Alsatian architectural style.
The best way to enjoy Castroville’s charms is to stroll around the quiet, narrow streets to admire the historic homes and Alsatian-style outbuildings. Castroville’s National Historic District boasts more than 100 historic homes, and the town as a whole has 400 historic properties, half of which date to the 19th century. Pick up a self-guided tour map in the visitor’s guide (available at Sammy’s Restaurant or the chamber of commerce) or call the Garden Club in advance to see if they can schedule a homes tour.
To see a different type of Alsatian architecture, visit the Steinbach House, a two-and-a-half-story half-timber and fachwerk house. Originally built in Alsace in the 1600s, it was reassembled in Castroville as a gift from the people of Alsace-Lorraine. Although the interior of the Steinbach House has been redesigned to accommodate visitors, the downstairs of this type of house was traditionally where the kitchen and living areas were located. The grandmother’s room was also downstairs, since she would get up early to light the stove and fix breakfast. The second floor housed the sleeping quarters. The top floor, called the dachzimmer, was used for drying and storing clothes.
Two good choices for dinner are The Alsatian Restaurant and the pricier La Normandie, both in the National Historic District. The Alsatian serves steaks, seafood and German food. We dined at La Normandie, a fine French restaurant housed in a lace-curtained cottage. French pop tunes from the 1970s set the mood, and maps and needlework from France line the walls. Although this restaurant mainly serves cuisine from Normandy, we found a few Alsatian dishes on the menu, such as an onion tart and a charcuterie of Alsatian sausage and sauerkraut. I ordered the country chicken with apples, which came with tiny potatoes (heartaepfel in Alsatian). In a nod to Alsace’s German side, my companion ordered the wiener schnitzel.
Worth a visit — or an overnight stay, if you want to sleep in a historic bed-and-breakfast — is the Landmark Inn State Historic Site. In the Republic of Texas era, Castroville, situated along the old San Antonio-El Paso road, was a thriving shipping stop for wagon trains traveling to Mexico. John Vance operated a general store along the road on the banks of the Medina River. “He learned that by the time people reached here, they were exhausted,” says Ken Conway, superintendent of the Landmark Inn State Historic Site. “He added a second floor in the 1870s. It has been an accommodation ever since.”
Even if you’re not staying at the inn, you can visit the gift shop and walk around the grounds. We strolled down to the Medina River to see the gristmill with its huge, rough rounded stones designed to grind corn. Before the gristmill was built in 1854, farmers didn’t grow much on their farm plots outside of town because grinding the corn required a three-day round-trip journey to San Antonio. After it was built, though, many farmers grew surplus corn and sold it to forts and for stock feed. The gristmill bolstered the local economy in other ways: It harnessed water to provide power for a sawmill and a cotton gin.
The next day we headed to Hill Country State Natural Area in Bandera. This huge, 5,370-acre swath of rough and rugged ranchland gives the public access to wide-open spaces just 45 miles northwest of San Antonio. Several dude ranches near the site cater to riders from beginners to experts. You can saddle up your horse and ride for miles across the rocky canyons, sweeping grasslands and broad, dry creek beds. These folks thoughtfully provide drinking water for horses, but people are on their own. “If you need it, you better bring it,” says lead ranger Randy Evans. “We don’t have anything but nature.”
For our last stop, we head down the road to Bear Springs Blossom Nature Preserve to see what Hill Country ranchland looks like in its restored state. The 125-acre preserve is one of the stops on the Bandera Loop of the Heart of Texas Wildlife Trail. Nature preserve caretakers Peter and Marianne Bonenberger, an energetic couple from Germany, offer guided walks around their property. This parcel of overgrazed ranchland was abandoned in the 1940s. When they arrived in the 1990s, wide swaths of the hillside had eroded. They cleared out the thick scrub of young juniper by hand and made cedar mulch to spread on the bare patches of land. Over time, soil formed and grasses began to grow. “In the beginning, we had three grasses,” says Peter. “Now we have 31.”
Butterflies and birds now are attracted to the wildflowers, oaks and cherries, and the golden-cheeked warbler uses the bark of the mature juniper for its nest. We left inspired by how two people, through the labor of their hands, could make such a big difference in just a few years. Like the Alsatians who created Castroville, they started with almost nothing and transformed their little piece of Texas into something beautiful and timeless.
- Castroville Area Chamber of Commerce, 802 London St., 800-778-6775.
- Landmark Inn State Historic Site, 830-931-2133, <www.landmarkinn.tpwd.state.tx.us>.
- La Normandie, 1302 Fiorella, 800-261-1731 or 830-538-3070.
- Homes tours: Call in advance. Castro Garden Club, 830-931-2298.
- Hill Country State Natural Area, 830/796-4413, <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/hillcountry>.
- Bear Springs Blossom Nature Preserve, <www.keepbanderabeautiful.org/bearspringsblossom>.