Thursday, 3 June 2010

Across Germany to Alsace

Lesley’s bit –

By late afternoon on a Sunday you’d expect car parks and camping places to start emptying out as people make their way home. Folks on the German side of the Moselle seemed to have no intention of going anywhere other than to the nearest bar. Everywhere had a distinct holiday feel. The sprawl of campsites we had seen from Luxemburg turned out to be large and still packed, so we headed away from the Moselle to Saarburg.

From a whistle-stop drive through it looked pretty enough in a done-up for hoards of tourists way - castle perched on crags, cable-car to the heights, lots of signs advertising Kaffee und Kuchen and Biergartens - but parking a van in busy tourist areas isn’t like parking a car. We couldn’t squeeze the van into a great little parking spot by the river and luckily the very unattractive parking for mobile homes was choked with massive beasts of vans, so we didn’t stop there either.

Not stopping anywhere was taking its toll on Rob and low blood sugar grumps were starting up. After being fed some bread and sundry charcuterie products we stopped at a bar in Saarhölzbach for a glass of white Saar wine.

We followed the pretty wooded valley of the Saar and then headed off further into Germany towards the dam at Losheim am See, where we knew there was a campsite. What we found there instead was a perfect spot for the night on a grassed car park overlooking the high plateau (€2 for 24 hr parking), alongside a few other vans.

Rob’s bit –

We set off again from our perfect free camping pitch on the Monday morning, and drove down into Losheim village to do some shopping.  However, it was like a ghost town and it dawned on us that today (24th May) was Whitsun, and a bank holiday in much of Europe.  Here bank holidays, like Sunday trading laws, are still rigidly observed, and not a shop had its shutters open.

We had decided to push on to Alsace in eastern France, and took one of our rare trips on a motorway to cross the industrial heart of the Saarland (though it actually looked quite wooded and just ordinarily suburban from this route) to the Pfälzer Wald area of Germany that borders Alsace.  The town of Pirmasens looked interesting, with grand spa-type buildings in a very red stone, but everything was still resolutely closed and we just passed through.  The countryside got ever prettier as the road climbed into the forests (the ‘Wald’ of Pfälzer Wald) and we started to pass through villages of Hansel-and-Gretel style half timbered houses that looked so archetypically German.  

Wissembourg’s timber framed houses

The French town of Wissembourg lay only 3km beyond the border.  Here too it was the Whitsun holiday, and a kind of fair had taken over the town centre.  Shops may have been shut, but the streets were full of stands serving local food specialities along with local white wines, and people strolled in the evening sunshine from one to another.  We could hardly not join in. I will mention just tarte flambée / Flamkuchen, a kind of thin pizza topped with onions, bacon and cream, as well as some little steamed dumplings served with apple purée, whose name escapes me but which were great.
Cooking flamkuchen

Wissembourg looks thoroughly German.  It was clearly a wealthy town in times gone by (and I would say still is), and its centre is lined with magnificent half-timbered houses, in the style called Fachwerk in German.  The German-ness is no coincidence, for despite a gradual integration into the French realm after the middle ages, much of Alsace remained culturally and linguistically German well into the 20th century.  It was absorbed into Germany itself between 1870 and 1919, and again briefly in the early 1940s, and it is probably only since 1945 that its identification with the French state has become complete.  Many people speak a German dialect at home, and you can sometimes hear people in shops or cafés switch between Alsatian and French mid-sentence.

Rob and the Satnav –

I have become a fan of Satnavs.  I am not normally an early adopter of new technology, preferring to wait until it is mature, a whole lot cheaper and its usefulness has been proven.  In planning this trip I was heard to say that a satnav seemed like a ‘bloody expensive alternative to a road atlas and a bit of common sense’.
However on the Tuesday I went out on my bike, crossing back into Germany from our campsite near Lembach (French side, though you’d hardly know), and I took a route on forestry tracks that climbed steeply through the Pfalz woodlands.  High in the woods, several tracks converged, and an hour’s riding on twisting sandy paths rutted by logging lorries only brought me round in a big circle.  So I switched on the Garmin (OK, Garmintrude to us), and it (she) led me straight onto the right route out, as well as telling me my altitude and giving me a map of the whole area.  And all this without a paved road in sight.  Later on though as I rode back up the steep hills towards Lembach she did ask me if I wanted to re-class myself as a pedestrian and I was slightly hurt.
Bobenthal in the Pfalzer Wald (Germany)

The hills of Alsace are known as the Vosges, and we spent the next two rainy days slowly meandering southwards along backroads through them.  
Vosges morning walk near Fleckenstein

Near the present-day German border are a number of ruined mediaeval castles set on impressive towering crags above the forest, such as Fleckenstein and Wildstein, and we passed these, as well as a much more recent line of fortifications which crossed our path several times between Lembach and Dambach.  The Maginot Line was a vast chain of state-of-the-art fortresses constructed by the French military in the 1930s, to guard against any future threat from Germany, after the bitter experiences of 1870 and 1914-18.   Enormous reinforced concrete bunkers and gun emplacements rise –just – out of forested slopes, but these are mere entrance points for a much larger subterranean network that allowed munitions to be stored and moved around to bombard the invaders from many different hilltops.  A fine idea, only with one major flaw: what if the invaders simply came another way ? This is what happened in 1940, as Hitler invaded the low countries instead as a stepping stone into France, therefore bypassing the new defences.  You might wonder why France left its Belgian frontier so lightly defended when the Germans had already been this way in 1914...

Fortifications on the Maginot Line
We were too late for the guided tours at the Four à Chaux complex near Lembach, but stumbling upon these weather–stained concrete hulks in the woods was in itself impressive.

Lesley’s bit –

We drove through a lot of forest. As we drive around we occasionally ask each other questions which we can’t answer and we say “we must check that out”, but then we forget about them and never do. My check out for Alsace would be how the landscape has changed over the centuries. These forests are largely managed pine, and there seems to be a saw-mill in just about every village, so this industry is a big employer. From the amount of timber framing about, the area has obviously been big on wood for hundreds of years, but the old houses are not pine. I’d expect them to be oak, but as oak, while still present, is not the main wood in these parts, so have these pine forests replaced older oak ones? Must check that out.
Woodlands viewed from Wildstein

We stopped in the larger town of Saverne because it was our best bet for a wider range of shops. Our guide book didn’t really rate the town for its tourist attractions yet we found it very pleasant, with the timbers of some of the old houses carved in the most intricate fashion, and the centre being notable for a deep lock carrying up to two pleasure boats or barges at a time up or down the Marne Rhine Canal. There was also a château – Château des Rohan – built apparently by one of the Rohans who was prince-bishop at the time. This, however, means nothing to us. What time? Who were these Rohans? (assuming they were nothing to do with the Riders of Rohan from Lord of the Rings) Must check that out.
View from Saverne’s Lock

The tourist office in Saverne had free wifi (ask for a session longer than their standard twenty minutes as they can give 2 hour passes). It is worth checking out tourist offices then, as not all McDonalds do have it. We can get most basic e-mails checked and sent and a blog entry uploaded in about an hour, but we are not getting time to just sit and browse, so none of our questions get checked out. This is quite a frustrating aspect of our travels. Being used to constant broadband at home and work, we have been too used to instant communication with friends and family, and we are missing being able to find quick answers to our where’s, what’s and why’s.
Timber framing and tiled roofs in Woerth

Rob again –

Alsace is known for its white wines, which are rather unusual in France as the style resembles more closely their German neighbours, with grapes such as riesling, edelzwicker or gewürztraminer, as well as the more usual pinot blanc and gris.
We spent our last day, Friday 28th May, in Alsace in the wine-growing areas at the foot of the Vosges hills.   We stopped in the small towns of Rosheim and Barr, both full of gorgeous half-timbered Fachwerk houses and reeking of old Germany.   In Rosheim we found a vintner advertising dégustations – tastings – of their wines, and we came away with bottles of riesling, gewürztraminer and dry muscat wines, as well as the sparkling crémant which particularly appealed to Lesley’s palate.

More timber framing in Rosheim and Barr

Barr had a well positioned camping by a school, just a stone’s throw from the town centre, and this allowed us to walk in with Charlie and have a drink – local wines, what else ? – and a meal of more local delights, before retiring to the van to finish up yesterday’s wine.

Saturday morning market in Barr

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