Alsace and the Vosges

Thursday 12th June 2008, Egisheim, Alsace
Despite the names of most of the surrounding towns being German, we are actually back in France this evening. It is an area that has belonged to both France and Germany during its history and it is something of a surprise to hear French being spoken when it still has a very Germanic feel to it. When we approached Austria from Italy, the Austrian influence was apparent long before we reached the border. Here it is the other way around. There was no sign at all that we were about to enter France until we crossed the Rhine and found ourselves here. However, several miles in to France you could be forgiven for thinking you were still in Germany.

We passed this way in 2005 when we visited the stunning town of Colmar, just a stone's throw from our present location. See Sunday 11th September 2005 This time we are giving Colmar a miss, instead visiting this tiny town of Egisheim which is completely typical of the region with its narrow winding streets of half-timbered houses, "pan de bois", painted in creams, pinks and yellows and bright with hanging baskets of geraniums. They seem to be as old as time with huge, sun blistered wooden doors leading down to cool cellars where the local white Alsace wine is stored. It is set in the very heart of the vineyards where the white grapes are grown that produce the clear, fruity dry wine that has made Alsace renowned throughout Europe. There are dozens of producers in this little town alone, each offering degustations (free tastings). We went for a stroll this evening to discover just how delightful Egisheim is, and stopped off to buy a single bottle. Even for that we were offered a taster and because we needed it immediately were sold a chilled bottle carefully wrapped to stay cold until we got back to the campsite on the edge of the village.

Fountain in the square at Egisheim

Side street in Egisheim

Particularly pictuesque corner of Egisheim

Typical view, Egisheim

Can't resist them, Egisheim

It seems a world away since this morning when we left Titisee and wound our way along steeply winding roads across the wet, green countryside of the Black Forest. It looks so fertile with its meadows and woodland, its huge wooden farmsteads and its healthy cattle munching their way across a landscape that is so steep it's easy to imagine they have two legs shorter than the others in order to stay evenly balanced on the hillside. It was quite chilly at 14 degrees for much of the day, some contrast to the 43 we were experiencing just two weeks ago in Greece.

Typical scene over one of the valleys, Black Forest

Around lunch time we found ourselves driving down the beautiful Munstertal. Here we encountered the monastery of St. Trudpert and stopped for a picnic lunch, after which we climbed up to investigate. Set like a beautiful jewel in the deep green of the pine forests and fields, it is now managed by Benedictine nuns who appear to be self-sufficient, with huge vegetable gardens, orchards and greenhouses of melons and tomatoes. There is a spectacular baroque church. This came as something of a surprise after Freiburg yesterday where we had rapidly re-accustomed ourselves to gothic buildings, assuming we had left baroque behind in Austria and Bavaria. It had lavishly painted and decorated ceilings, religious paintings and brightly painted and gilded statues and pulpit, side altars and a splendid main altar. Even the stone floor was highly polished. It was a place to linger and admire the skill of artists rather than to pray and reflect. More to our taste was a very simple granite fountain in the grounds. It represented a weeping Christ with real tears falling from his eyes into his cupped hands.

Monastery and cemetery of St. Trudpert, Munstertal, Black Forest

Church, residential buildings and vegetable gardens at the monastery of St. Trudpert, Munstertal, Black Forest

Baroque church at the monastery of St. Trudpert, Munstertal, Black Forest

Fountain at the monastery of St. Trudpert, Munstertal, Black Forest

Below the monastery was a cemetery for the parish where we found an iron memorial for those of Trudpert who had died in the Second World War. There were 265 names, each represented by an iron nail set into a plinth. We found its simplicity very moving.

Memorial to local men who died in WW2, cemetery of St. Trudpert, Munstertal, Black Forest

We drove down out of the mountains and green forests, out onto the flat plain of the Rhine where the fields were given over to agriculture and arable crops. Mainly there was maize and a few vineyards. At Bad Krozingen we stopped for a stroll because it was the last town in Germany we would be passing through. It was pleasant enough but nothing of outstanding merit, being a clean, bright, fairly modern little provincial town. However, we needed a few items so popped into the little supermarket on the edge of the town where we had parked. At first we were puzzled. Then it dawned on us. Everything, but everything, was Russian! From the jars of pickled cabbage, plums and gherkins to the dried fish snacks, newspapers and books on sale! The latter ranged from Russian classics to bodski rippers and even included a biography of Putin. Even the entire staff was Russian! What were they doing there? There was hardly a single customer, and unless they were Russian they would have no idea what they were buying. It made us feel very sympathetic towards the Polish and Romanian migrants that find themselves shopping for food in England without any idea of what they might be buying! No wonder Lidl is so internationally popular.

We spent ages wandering around the shelves, investigating the smoked fish counter and the deep freezers, trying to discover what the labels meant and what those indescribable squiggly things might be. Some of the Russian letters appear to be the same as Greek ones but the language was so different that it was entirely guess work. All the wine was Russian but we felt we shouldn't be buying wine from the Ukraine and Georgia on the borders of Alsace. So we bought some Russian beer because the label had a healthy Russian worker in a miner's hat on it and the Russian brand name looked a bit like Maxted.

Maxted's Russian beer, Bad Krozingen

We discovered even the Russians have a bargain box of "best before" items and bought a half-price smoked turkey joint cooked to an original Russian recipe (just like Babuska makes) and a jar of Russian pea soup with mushrooms. At the check-out the price was in euros rather than roubles but we were told what it was in Russian. We paid up and, showing off, wished the man good day in Russian. He wished us likewise as if it were the most natural thing in the world! What are they doing there? Is it a cover up to spy on the Germans? The last time we encountered so many Russians was in the Czech Republic at Karlovy Vari (Karlsbad) where the Russian mafia seem to have taken over the management of the spa and all the hotels. See 5th June 2007 Still, it gave us the experience without the necessity of driving all the way to St. Petersburg.

We continued across the wide flat plain until quite suddenly we were crossing the Rhine and driving into France. In the distance ahead we could see the mountains of the Vosges while behind us were those of the Black Forest. It looks very much as if they are part of the same landscape divided by the Rhine which has carved out a wide flat alluvial plain between them.

Having found this campsite we were quickly settled and off to explore the town. Having purchased our local wine we returned and set our Russian supper to cook in our Czech cooking pot while we sipped our chilled French wine. Eventually the rain that has dogged us for days returned and we were driven inside.

Friday 13th June 2008, Epinal, Lorraine
The campsite lady this morning told us that as we do not know the region there are certain places she thought we should visit. Not being in a hurry we said okay and after a further stroll around the so very picturesque town of Egisheim, were ready to follow her suggestions.

However, we discovered a stork sanctuary! Alsace is famous for its red legged storks that nest on top of church spires, town halls, telegraph poles – any place big enough to support their ungainly nests and ungainly bodies. The cigognes, as they are called, nest in Alsace but normally migrate to northern Africa for the winter months. They have become serious victims of electricity pylons, wind farms and hunters so that their number rapidly declined. In the 1970s they were reduced to a mere nine pairs in Alsace. A programme of captive breeding over a three year cycle seems to have solved the problem. Somehow the storks have had the migrating instinct bred out of them and they are perfectly capable of surviving the winter in Alsace. Their numbers have now risen to over 300 pairs. They are strange, gangly creatures with their sharp red beaks and long jointed legs. They have no voice, communicating by rattling their beaks. Once a couple gets going it sounds like a Saturday afternoon at a football match! We watched a couple trying to construct their nest. It will be a wonder if any eggs are ever laid as both the future parents had very different views as to how and where the twigs should be placed. In the wild, above the streets of the town, we saw several of these huge white birds flying with outstretched black wings and trailing legs, long twigs dangling from their red bills as they alighted unceremoniously on top of a chimney stack or the town hall roof, proudly announcing their acquisitions to their mates with a whirr of their rattling beaks.

Storks with stalks

The first stop on our itinerary was at Turckheim. This is larger than Egisheim and marginally less picture postcard perfect. It was none-the-less, stunningly beautiful but with an atmosphere of being lived in rather than a tourist attraction and retail centre for the local wine industry. Once inside the town walls we wandered street after street of colourful timber-framed houses, each beautifully restored and festooned with bright geraniums and begonias. The coloured tiles on the church tower and the huge roof of the town hall were all enamelled and arranged to form colourful patterns, rather as they are around Beaune and Dijon, to the south of here.

Town gate, Turckheim

Town hall and church, Turckheim

Street scene, Turckheim

16th century gateway, Turckheim

Next we drove through acres of green vineyards where the grapes are now set and starting to swell on the vines. Soon our route rose up into the granite massif of the Vosges Mountains on the west side of the plain of the Rhine. The air became cold, clean and crisp as we rose higher through the forests of beeches, birches and pines. Our destination was Les Trois Epis. It turned out to be a great anti-climax after the stunning towns of the plain. It was recommended to us because it is an important site of pilgrimage but apart from a sanatorium, presumably because of the clean air, the town has nothing to recommend it. Indeed, the pilgrims' church is one of the most hideous recent architectural constructions we have seen for a long time. Only in France could they find it attractive! Constructed in concrete it was the antithesis of the lavishly ostentatious baroque monastery we visited yesterday in Germany! We never cease to be astonished that France, capable of producing some of the greatest splendours of the art world, can embrace with the same enthusiasm, some of its most tasteless and ugly modern works.

Pilgrimage centre and church, Les Trois Epis

We continued to Orbey where we stopped for a picnic lunch in the town hall gardens. The town was not special but was on the route up into the high mountains of the Vosges where the air was bitterly cold. We stopped to look out over Les Ballons des Vosges, where the rounded, green, pine-clad humps of the mountains looked (possibly) like hundreds of hot air balloons in flight. Certainly there were some stunning vistas. We passed several lakes looking dark and chilly, set amongst the forests and open moorland, reminiscent of Dartmoor, though considerably higher and colder at this time of year. The granite uplands were covered in low scrub of heather and blueberry bushes sprinkled with many of the same flowers we would find back home - campion, toumentil and purple violets. We walked up to the Gazon du Faing, a ridge from where we had a spectacular view back across the way we had travelled, right to the Rhine and beyond where, in the blue distance, we could just discern the mountains of the Black Forest we left behind us yesterday. The wind on the ridge was biting cold and our eyes streamed as we turned and made our way down to the warmth of Modestine.

View in the Vosges Mountains

View eastwards from the Gazon du Faing towards the Black Forest

View westwards from the Gazon du Faing towards Epinal

Even higher we eventually reached the top of the pass at about 1100 metres, where there is a winter sports centre and a téléferique to carry visitors up to the very summit. It was running but there were no takers. From here on it was steadily downhill for many kilometres, winding down from the bleak moorland through dark pine forests, then deciduous woodland and eventually to fields and farmland.

No snow but that doesn't stop the skiers! Vosges Mountains

We decided we'd lingered longer than intended in the area so pressed on to Epinal where we are camped on the edge of the town. We will investigate it tomorrow. Unfortunately, lack of space in Modestine meant we could not take all our travel guides with us to Greece, so we have nothing to tell us about the towns we pass through in France unless there is an occasional reference on our computerised potted Britannica.

Saturday 14th June 2008, Neufchateau, Lorraine
The campsite was very easy-going about the time we checked out, so we left Modestine where she was and walked down into Epinal through the extensive park of the ruined castle above the town. The grounds are freely open to the public and apart from beautiful flower gardens and woodland walks there is a charming little zoo. The animals are mainly goats, deer, fat little pigs, ponies, a donkey with her very young foal, a couple of cassowaries, exotic ducks, peacocks and swans.

Vegetable gardens beneath the castle ruins, Epinal

The path led steeply down into the town where below us we could see the basilica of St. Martin. It came out onto one of the side streets next the town lavoir, which, surprisingly, appeared still to be used for washing!

Basilica of St. Martin, Epinal

Lavoir, Epinal

Around the basilica was the weekly market where we bought a spit roasted chicken and roast potatoes to save cooking tonight. We had no luck searching for an internet place so gave up and concentrated on the reason we had decided to stop at Epinal. There is a museum, dedicated entirely to the history of the printed image. Housed on the site of the print publishers Pellerin, it displays several hundred items from their collection, many printed by the company but all contributing to a comprehensive history of printed pictures since they became widely available during the 19th and 20th centuries.

In many ways these early prints and lithographs can be considered as the forerunners of comic strips. Very early ones, dating from the 17th century, were mainly religious, representing saints, Christ and the Virgin Mary. There were intended to decorate the walls of cottages, a visual interpretation of Christian beliefs. Later they were used as a tool for the education of young minds, picture strips with text beneath illustrating anything from tales of morality, fables, the peoples and costumes of the World or how commodities such as tea, cheese or chocolate are produced. There were also many with a satirical slant on the politics of the day, others extolled the virtues of military leaders such as Napoleon. Others were intended simply for enjoyment, so there were paper cut-out theatres with scenery, printed paper construction kits which could be cut out and glued together to form castles, tents, ships or trains. Then there were jointed puppets, all the component parts printed on a single sheet ready to be cut around and the joints held together with pins so they remained flexible. There were dolls to cut around with dresses for different occasions that could be clipped on to the doll with little cut around tags. We remembered such delights from our own childhood. There were examples of board games such as the perennially popular French "Jeu de l'oie". Our late French friend Alain published a history of this particular game and would have used this very collection for some of his examples.

Puzzle pictures from Epinal

Image de Napoleon, Imprimerie d'Epinal

Life of St. Genevieve, printed in Caen

Story of Robinson Crusoe, Epinal

France is one of those countries with the annoying custom of closing for two hours at lunch time, just as visitors have arrived in town, parked and finally found their way to the museum. This one was a good 20 minutes brisk walk from the town centre. The entire building was closed while the staff went off home, telling us we were welcome to return when they re-opened. Why can't they stagger their lunch breaks and remain open to enable people enough time to see around? Unless you arrive when they open at 10am there is no way you can fully appreciate such a seminal collection before they close at noon.

Irritated at everything we had not had time to see, we walked back into town along the banks of the river Moselle. (We explored its lower reaches around Trier and Luxembourg to where it joins the Rhine in Germany, last year.)

Happily the basilica did not close. The entrance has been restored in the 19th century while inside it is a strange blend of gothic and romanesque. It bare, dark stonework, arches, vaulting, columns, choir and side aisles are typical of northern Europe and struck us as comfortably familiar after the overpowering exuberance of the baroque in Austria and Germany and the heavy painted and decorated churches and monasteries of Greece.

In the main market hall we discovered a stall of Breton specialities. It was with nostalgia for our Breton friends and the happy times we have spent around Guissény in Finistère that we sat down to enjoy the menu of the day. We were served savoury pancakes with ham, cheese, egg and tomatoes together with a glass of Breton cider. Next we had sweet pancakes with bilberry jam and a cup of coffee. We noticed that Brittany now appears to make and market its own cola drink Breizh Cola under the amusing designation "Cola du Phare ouest" "western lighthouse" or "Far West". Well the pun made us laugh but maybe loses something in translation.

The cola of the far west! Breton cola

Time was passing so we returned to the campsite to collect Modestine, filled up with diesel and headed along fast, empty roads through pleasant countryside to the spa town of Vittel. This is where many of those millions of bottles of water we import annually into Britain come from. Nowadays the bottling plant is a subsidiary of "Nestlé Water" but the town makes much of its past and there are luxurious thermal baths offering treatments in an atmosphere that is both clinical and elegant. There appear to be three main springs, each flowing into a stone basin in the main foyer of the thermal spa. For 10 cents we bought a plastic beaker with the Vittel logo and carried out our own control. We may not be healthier but it was certainly an agreeable experience sitting in comfortable chairs amongst the potted plants with the local newspaper to browse while we carried out blind trials on each other as to which source had the best flavour. We both agreed la Grande Source was the most interesting and palatable, and were frankly surprised that the tastes were so varied.

Bottling plant, Vittel

How much a bottle does Vittel cost? Here it's used in the fountains! Vittel

Grand Hotel, Vittel

Thermal Spa buildings, Vittel

Entrance lounge, Spa, Vittel

Taking the waters, Vittel

One of France's more elegant toilets! Vittel

We'd not made much progress on our way towards Caen so decided not to find a campsite at Vittel but to continue towards Chaumont. As usual we took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up on a slightly different route and stopped here at the little Lorraine town of Neufchâteau. The site is pleasant and peaceful and despite the chill once the sun has set, we sat outside for supper – the chicken we bought in the market at Epinal this morning. It was only when Ian marked off our progress on the road atlas we realised we are only a few kilometres from the birthplace of Jean d'Arc at Domremy. Strange that it is almost exactly a year ago we made a special voyage there to see the village and learn more about her life. We still find this account both amusing and informative