Tuesday 11th September 2012, Masevaux, Alsace
Today we moved on from Champagne after ten very happy days of constant sunshine. We always hate leaving the area but especially leaving our friends. Next time maybe we will manage to coincide our visit with the grape harvest.
No sooner were we on our way than the sunshine disappeared and the air became hot and heavy with lightning and crashes of thunder. We were on the main road towards Besançon, winding above the valley of the Doubs when the rain began. It was really violent, trees shed leaves and branches along the road which was instantly turned to a river of water! Eventually we managed to turn off the road and wait out the storm in a lay-by but it kept returning throughout the day, echoing around the hills with prongs of forked lightning hitting out at random into the surrounding woods and fields.
Today we visited both Montbéliard and Belfort. Both form part of Franche-Comté and are only a few miles apart. They are two of the most important towns of the region.
The Principality of Monbéliard has a very Germanic feel to its pleasant old town. It was until 1793, when it was reclaimed for France by the Revolutionary army, a separate German enclave within France, although French was always the official language. The city has the oldest Protestant church in France. Following the persecution of the Huguenots in France in the 17th century many sought refuge within Protestant Montbéliard. The German dukes of Wurttemberg originally built a castle overlooking the town in the 15th century, though the unmistakeably Germanic castle we discovered today was built in the 18th century.
Having struggled up to the castle we found it closed on Tuesdays. Housed within the castle though are the town’s archives - open. The archivist was a very helpful lady, pleased to have someone to chat to now much of the town’s material is freely available on the internet, meaning that genealogists can work from home. She eagerly showed us various calendars of the town’s early records. Ian was curious to see some of the German archives. “Nobody has asked me for those for over 20 years” she gasped in delight!
The scientist Georges Cuvier was born in Montbéliard in 1769. His fields of expertise included anatomy, palaeontology and natural history.
Today the town owes its wealth and cosmopolitan feel in part to the massive Peugeot factory, the largest employer in the area. We passed several of its factories as we left the town, the nearby motorway carrying dozens of transporters laden with Peugeot cars, still hot from the oven! There is an interesting museum but we didn’t dare stop to visit. Peugeot and Citroën are one company and we feared Modestine may be kidnapped from the car park for the museum as an early Citroën curiosity!
Some twenty miles away is the Territory of Belfort. Historically it has been of strategic importance in the area between the mountains of the Vosges and the Jura, linking the Rhine and the Rhone and known as the Belfort Gap. There has always been a major fort here but the French military architect Vauban was asked by Louis XIV to redesign and strengthen it. Of all the forts across France that he has been responsible for, and there are very many, this has got to be the largest and most magnificent of them all! It is massive!
In 1870-71 it successfully withstood a siege during the Franco-Prussia war. The siege is commemorated by a huge statue of a lion built into the wall of the fort high above the town. The work of the sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi it has become the symbol of the town. Bartholdi was born in Colmar, Alsace, in 1834. He travelled extensively in Egypt and is responsible for the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour. He also created the war memorial down in the town of Belfort commemorating the leadership of local generals of the Franco-Prussian war – in which Bartholdi served.
The old town is interesting with its public buildings and statues but also with its coffee shops selling teatime treats of Crottes de Lion!!
Wednesday 12th September 2012, Sainte-Croix-en-Plaine, Alsace
Once over the boundary between Franche-Comté and Alsace the atmosphere changes completely. Gone are the green fields of fat cattle and the huge crumbling white stone farm houses of the Jura with their massive, overhanging tiled roofs and integrated barns and cattle sheds. Instead there are the dark, wooded, high rounded hills of the Vosges. Their shape dictates their names. They are known as les ballons. Here the houses are smartly colour rendered, in excellent repair with neat shutters, frequently half-timbered and generally with high, slate hung roofs. The architecture seems altogether more delicate. Everywhere the buildings are decorated with baskets and balconies crowded with colourful geraniums. Ornate fountains gush crystal clear water in the town squares and there is a general air of affluence and tidiness. This evening we are camped near to Colmar surrounded by the vineyards that produce the dry white wine of the region – vins d’Alsace. Here the harvest is in full swing with tractors blocking the roads as they drag their trailers filled with grapes to the local cooperative to begin the fermentation process.
Today we have visited two of the delightful towns of this picturesque area. This morning Masevaux, where we camped last night, turned out to be a larger and livelier place than we’d imagined. It was market day and we quickly changed our plans to stock up at the local supermarket. Instead we spent the morning amongst the stalls on the main square selecting avocados here, courgettes there, bread and croissants somewhere else and generally soaking up the agreeable atmosphere of this charming little town.
From Masevaux we drove up through the forested hills to the col de Hundsruck at 748 metres. Here the air felt clean but decidedly chilly. Leaving Modestine we followed a track up through the blackberries and meadows to the monument to the Troupes du Choc, commemorating the forces that fought to liberate Alsace at the end of the Second World War.
From here we had an excellent view back down the route we had followed as we wound our way up to the top of the col. It had not been easy driving with a damaged hand unable to easily turn the steering wheel when the other hand needed to change down the gears! We decided it was just too difficult to continue the zigzag but beautiful route marked on our map to the Ballon d’Alsace. Instead we continued down the far side of the col, stopping for a picnic lunch in the pine forest – wrapped in our jackets against the chill, before descending to Thann on the valley floor. On the way we passed through the village of Bitschwiller. It sounded so much as if the village were infested with female Rottweilers that we kept the windows closed and didn’t linger!
Alsace is a very strange area. Already it feels more like Germany than France and the names of all the little towns and villages sound German. The area has belonged to both countries at different times over the centuries so that the people here have a mixed identity. They speak French, consider themselves French, but their way of life is more akin to Germany than France.
In Thann we discovered that by chance today was the day for their annual street market. Again this was a strange mixture of France and Germany. We bought salty bretzels and wandered past stalls selling doughnuts, chocolate-coated meringue cakes, chips with mayonnaise, sauerkraut and German sausages. Others though sold savon de Marseilles, pains au chocolat, fromage de chèvre, olives and herbes de Provence. The stunning gothic church with its delicate open stone spire and carved façade was surmounted by a roof of pretty glazed tiles worthy of the best to be found in Franche-Comté.
We had intended to revisit Colmar this afternoon but by the time we’d finished exploring the streets and market of Thann it was late afternoon. Instead we headed to a pleasant sounding campsite on the edge of a typical Alsace wine producing town set amongst the vines. For almost the first time we were unable to find a place out of season! It was entirely filled with Dutch campers! (Well our camping book is produced by and for the Dutch so we cannot complain.) They told us of this one which is more expensive, less pleasant and way out in the countryside so no chance of an evening stroll around a neighbouring town. It does have wifi though, still a rarity on campsites, so it has been useful.
We have already written about Colmar on our earlier visit to this area. This is the region for huge white storks with their long red legs and clacking beaks. They too add to the strange feeling that we are no longer in France at all. We will probably slip over the border without really noticing tomorrow.
Incidentally, we have been kept company ever since we left Exeter by a spider who has taken up residence in my wing mirror. She peeps out at me waving an occasional leg in greeting as we drive along. Every morning she has spun a web across the door and every morning I brush it away as we set off. What must her home be like inside the mirror housing? Ian speculated that like us, she may be keeping a travel blog as we go. Well, one thing is for sure, she can certainly spin a very good yarn!
Thursday 13th September 2012, Titisee, Germany
Tonight we are camping in the Black Forest on the shores of Lake Titisee. We passed this way in 2008 and enjoyed ourselves so much we decided to return for some undemanding relaxation. We remembered the campsite and we’ve pitched up on the very same plot! It has turned freezing cold this evening being just 6 degrees outside. Fortunately Modestine is great for all year camping. Inside it’s a comfortable 20 degrees. Tomorrow though, we pack away our summer wear and find our jeans and fleeces once more!
This morning we drove into Colmar. We were less fortunate than last time, taking ages to find anywhere suitable to park and discovering more than we cared to see of the city beyond the picturesque old town. Like most towns it has a much scruffier side than is usually displayed to visitors.
But soon we were strolling through the old town. On our first visit we found it stunningly pretty and today has reinforced that opinion. For much of the day the sun has been shining and it has been pleasant to stroll the streets, stop for a coffee on a cafe terrace, enjoy a picnic lunch on a sunny bench outside the covered market with goodies we’d purchased inside it and wander across little bridges hung with flowers where transparent streams, full of fish, flow between the old houses. These are timber framed, painted in pastel shades with wooden shutters and with bright geraniums at the windows. They have the usual steep roofs typical of Alsace covered either in coloured glazed ceramic tiles or rounded slate ones. The streets were crowded with visitors and with so much to stare at, everyone stood around on corners with their mouths open and their cameras clicking.
We visited the Collegiate Church of St. Martin, built between 1234 and 1365, with its stained glass windows and many wood carvings. Many of these date from the 19th century though there are some excellent 15th century statues including a wooden Madonna – la Vierge de Colmar.
After a while we began to feel as if we’d been let loose in a sweet shop and had gorged so much we couldn’t take in any more! There is just so much stunning eye candy in Colmar.
The covered market was built on the banks of the canal so that market traders could bring their produce of meats, fish, dairy produce and vegetables right into the heart of the city in flat bottomed barges.
We discovered several notable early residents of the city. First and foremost was the sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi, 1834-1904. We mentioned him earlier as the creator of the Lion of Belfort and the Statue of Liberty in America. His native town of Colmar has several of his major works around the town including a fountain at the corner of the covered market and the bronze sculpture of the “Grands soutiens du monde” group produced in 1902 which stands in the courtyard of his former home, now a museum of his work.
Also celebrated in the town is the blind writer and teacher Théophile Conrad Pfeffel, 1736-1809. He founded a military academy for Protestants, became president of the Evangelical Consistory of Colmar and produced poems, stories and fables.