ALSACE-LORRAINE 2006 -Weeks 7~8

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WEEK 7~8 NEWS - LORRAINE - the Vosges Mountains, cities of Nancy and Metz and the Moselle valley:

We had travelled the Alsace Wine Road ending close to the Swiss border, and our camp at Cernay was the furthest point of this trip. It was now time to begin the return journey across the length of Lorraine, following the Moselle river from its source in the Vosges Mountains, ultimately to its confluence with the Rhine at Koblenz. This was to be our route for the trip's final 2 stages, covered by this and the next edition.
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But first we had to cross the Vosges mountain chain whose rain shadow protects the Alsace vine slopes from the prevailing wet westerly winds. We should follow the so-called Route des Crêtes (Crests), which literally traverses the south~north spine of the mountains, passing close to the peaks of the Vosges. Although not high mountains, the highest point Grand Ballon being just 1,424m/4,672 feet, they form a spectacular landscape with sweeping moor-land and forested valleys to the west, and eastwards craggy terrain dropping precipitously into glacial cirques filled with mountain lakes. In clear weather, there ought to be spectacular views across the Rhine valley to the distant Black Forests hills and even the Swiss Alps. This was to be our route across the best of the Vosges, and high wild-camps would give us an even more intimate feel of the mountains.

After 2 more days' delay with yet more persistent rain, we made a start from Cernay despite an unpromising météo. The Route des Crêtes had originally been constructed by the French military during WW1 to supply munitions to the front line where the Western Front ran down to the Swiss border. The strategic heights of Vosges were fought over bitterly, settling to a static line of trench warfare along the Vosges crest. It seemed that this trip, we were doomed not to escape the horrors of WW1. The road gained height via dramatic hair-pins, reaching the French National Necropolis Memorial near the summit of Vieil Armand (Hautmannswillerkopf in Alsatian). Some 60,000 were killed fighting for possession of the mountain top between 1914~18. Way-marked paths lead up the tree-covered heights which, even today, are still zigzagged  with a bewildering maze of trenches, dugouts, reinforced concrete gun emplacements and rusty barbed wire (see right). The 2 sets of front-line trenches were in places just 20m apart - just a grenade's throw across no-man's-land. We climbed up to the memorials at the summit, and although it was difficult to picture this same landscape with its natural woodland stripped and shattered by shell-fire, the trench systems were exactly as abandoned in 1918. In the swirling cloud and misty drizzle, it was a chillingly realistic memorial to the men who had fought and died here.

We continued northwards along the Route des Crêtes for our first night's wild-camp close to the summit of Grand Ballon. It was an exposed position for a high camp, but we battened down and brewed tea. Cloud drifted around the summit area, and despite occasional breaks in the cloud, distant views were frustratingly limited. Dusk fell early, the sky cleared to give a starry night, and the Route des Crêtes lived up to its name: the road truly did pass along the crest-line, and way below us to the south, east and west, we could see the twinkling lights of towns and villages in all the surrounding valleys. We settled in for a cold night at 4,500 feet. The following morning, we woke to misty cloud filling the valleys below us; the sun was losing the battle to break through. We kitted up to climb Grand Ballon but cloud persistently swirled around; it was spectacular, but the glorious distant views again failed to appear (Photo 1).

The next 12 kms of the Route were the most impressive, the road seeming to crest a narrow arête and the terrain falling away on both sides into deep forest-covered valleys. Beyond the Col de la Schlucht, the road passed through beech and birch woods, glorious with autumn colours; the land opened up and a flat parking area offered the perfect spot for our 2nd night's high camp. Temperatures fell rapidly again with dusk, but the sunset and clear sky promised us a better day tomorrow. The nearby beech woods were carpeted with bilberry bushes; despite being beyond their seasonal best, here was breakfast. But a warning sign quoted Prefectorial Decree No 1322/97 - I kid you not - which limited the picking of bilberries to 3 litres per person per day. Were the bilberries in such need of regulation, we wondered, or was French society so intensely over-administered?  We suspected the latter, but enjoyed our bilberries all the same! A clear sun eventually topped the tree-covered slope above us, and the air warmed; it was at last going to be a good day for our mountain walk. We crossed moor-land, carpeted with bilberry and ling and dotted with wild raspberries and yellow gentians, to reach a ridge path onto the intermediate summit of le Tanet (Photo 2). Here at last we got the promised distant views even though hazy. Across deep cirques, the lower slopes of distant hills were densely tree-covered, but the higher plateau-tops opened out with Alpine meadows grazed by horses and cattle. Along the Route, we passed a number of such characteristically Vosges chaumes (upland summer pastures) (Photo 3). We descended through pine woods to a delightful mountain lake; the sun silhouetting the pines and sparkling on the lake way down below us was one of the trip's highlights (Photo 4). But the price to pay was the long haul back up to the ridge to retrace our steps to where we had camped, to complete our traverse of the higher mountains.

Dropping down from the Vosges into the upper Meuse valley, we camped that night in the foothills by Lake Longemer near to Gerardmer. And the following morning, with the early sun streaking across the mist-covered lake, we could look up towards the high Vosges skyline where we had been 24 hours earlier (Photo 5). We had now crossed into Lorraine, and now began the more lowland journey across the region. The remainder of the trip would broadly follow the line of the Moselle river which rises in the Vosges, and flows northwards through Lorraine, on into Germany to merge with the Rhine at Koblenz.

Our camp that night was at the small town of Neufchateau. Some places seem to go out of their way to make life difficult for visitors; others work hard to make you feel welcome, and Neufchateau was one of the latter. There was nothing startling about the town; it was not even mentioned in Rough Guide, but the Office de Tourisme could not have been more helpful, providing us with a town plan and directing us to an internet café to upload our latest web edition. Similarly the local municipal campsite, although due to close at end-Sept was most welcoming. Next morning our continued progression through Lorraine brought us to Domrémy-la-Pucelle, the birthplace of Joan of Arc. It was here that in the 1420s, at the height of the 100 Years War, she heard her 'voices' bidding her to lead the Dauphin's forces in the struggle to free France from the English occupiers.  Born in 1412 in a sturdy cottage (see left), and baptised in the straightforward little village church of St Rémy (the font is still there), she lived but 19 years, being executed in 1431 after her brief but successful campaign leading to the Dauphin's coronation as Charles VII at Reims Cathedral in 1429. Whatever the truth behind all the later legends surrounding Joan of Arc's life, the sense of standing here at the birthplace of the simple peasant girl who shaped the destiny of France was positively awe-inspiring. And close to the village, we paused to photograph this quintessentially French rural setting with its avenue of roadside trees (Photo 6).
While travelling on French autoroutes, have you ever seen signs to Metz-Nancy somewhere in the eastern unknown of the country, and wondered where they were? Our final 10 days in Lorraine were to take us there to find out. Despite continuing dismally wet weather, we based ourselves at le Brabois on the heights above Nancy to explore Lorraine's 2 principal cities. The name of Lorraine derives from the Lotharii regnum - the Kingdom of Lothar, one of Charlemagne's 3 grandsons among whom the Empire had been divided. The subsequent powerful Dukes of Lorraine adopted the 2-barred Cross of Lorraine as their heraldic emblem of their independent status, a historical symbolism invoked by de Gaulle's Free French in 1940. Nancy developed as the capital city of the Dukes of Lorraine. In the mid-18th century, the last of the Dukes, the deposed King of Poland Stanislas Leszczynski, acquired the title as a gift from his son in law Louis XV of France, on condition that on his death, Lorraine would be incorporated into the French kingdom. During his 20 years of office, Stanislas embellished the city with the most ordered of 18th century urban cityscapes, including the magnificent square which now bears his name. Stanislas Square must be one of Europe's most delightfully charming urban spaces, surrounded by elegant neo-Classical buildings, and in the centre, the portly statue of Stanislas himself presides over all. The Square is enclosed by triumphalist gilded wrought iron gates (see right), and the balconies of the Hôtel de Ville gave a wonderful panorama across the Square, creating an almost Lowry-like scene of Sunday afternoon strollers in the Square (Photo 7). We spent a rewarding day admiring Nancy's attractions, including its many Art Nouveau buildings. The most memorable visit was to the Musée de l'École de Nancy. Housed in an opulent turn of 20th century town house, the collection presents the works of the Art Nouveau movement of decorative arts which flourished in Nancy between 1875 and 1914, led by Emile Gallé. The École de Nancy brought together the works of various craftsmen - carved and inlaid furniture, decorative leather book-binding, glass-work and ceramics. Art Nouveau may not be to everyone's taste, but the collection could not fail to impress; if you visit Nancy, be sure to include the Musée de l'École de Nancy in your programme.

Just beyond Nancy, the Moselle merges with its tributary the Meuthe to flow northwards to Metz where we travelled by train. But this stretch of the Moselle valley is not the scenic route one might have imagined, passing derelict factories, coal dumps, power stations and steel-works; and the gloomy wet weather made the surroundings even more dismal. Metz had been a prosperous trading city since Gallo-Roman times, and remained independent until adsorbed into the French kingdom in 1552. It was here that the French surrendered after ignominious defeat by the Prussians in 1870, ceding control of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany. The city's architecture reveals this history: the original French quarter clusters around the Cathedral on the hilltop and along the banks of the Moselle which flows through the city. In contrast, the Ville Allemande, epitomised by the monstrously Teutonic railway station built by the Germans in 1905, reflects the post-1870 German determination to impose their perverted sense of order and superiority on the city, and to use the strategic value of the rail network for military transport to suppress France. But 1918 brought Metz back under French control. On a very wet day, we visited Metz, where the views from the florally decorated bridges across the Moselle up to the Cathedral were glorious even in poor light (Photo 8). The Gothic Cathedral is even more spectacular, towering upwards above the surrounding buildings. After Amiens and Beauvais, it has the tallest nave in France, lit by superb medieval lofty stained-glass windows and more modern ones by Chagall. But the pouring rain defeated us; we were getting a soaking despite our waterproofs, as we plodged around the city.

We have spent a few days in northern Lorraine, visiting the town of Thionville, once centre of the Lorraine iron and steel industry. The blast-furnaces remain, but all of the iron-ore mines have closed; 2 are preserved as museums. As in other parts of Europe, it was thrilling to walk the tunnels and former workings guided by a former miner. But rain and gloomy weather continue to predominate. Right from the start, this trip has been be-devilled by consistently wet weather; mud and wet clothes have been constant companions, perhaps fitting when more time than planned has been devoted to WW1. As we reach northern Lorraine, continuous rain falling in the Vosges has swollen the river Moselle which is now running some 8 feet higher than normal levels, flooding its valley and closing roads. Standing on its banks watching the hurtling pace of the angrily engorged river washing tree trunks downstream is frightening. We shall shortly be moving on, following the swollen Moselle as it flows into Germany, changing its name to Mosel, for the final stage of this trip.

Sheila and Paul                                                                                 Published: Thursday 12 October

Music this week:  Lully
Courante in E minor

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