The GR5 - The Vosges and the Alsace

August 21st 2009
Published: September 30th 2009
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This blog covers another or fortnight or so, this time spent in the Vosges - a range of mountains running north to south for about 150 miles. To the east is the Alsace, a flat plane that borders Germany and which retains a strong German influence, where the GR5 would often leave the mountains to find lodgings for the night.

I thought it would be best to start with a description of the typical day during this period. After breakfast, spend the whole morning climbing at least 500-1000m from the bottom of the valley. Arrive hot, sweaty and exhausted at the top of a col (mountain pass) or at the top of a crest. Relax over a long, leisurely lunch - either a picnic or a full meal in one of the numerous and excellent Ferme Auberges dotted along the route. Staggering onwards, proceed along the crest of the mountain range for a couple of hours with the fantastic panoramic views over the Vosges, the Alsace and even further to the Black Forest in Germany (and allegedly south to the Alps). Arrive around mid-afternoon at some historical monument - typically a castle or battlefield - before descending steeply (thereby loosing all the high ground you've painstakingly gained during the day) over the last hour or so back down to the next valley just up the road from where you started. Pass through one of the many towns hidden amongst the vineyards, which make up the Alsace 'route de vin'. Finish the day with a beer and a hearty dinner. Repeat. This description is a pretty good guide for my time in the Vosges, although for the second week substitute mountain refuges for B&Bs in town and natural monuments for historic ones, and that's pretty much the two weeks covered.

The rest of the blog is, therefore, a lengthy account of the same day...

There was no easy introduction to climbing in the Vosges. From Abreschviller, we had to climb 700m to reach the Col du Donon, the first of what would prove to be many thousand metre passes that the GR5 goes over. It was a steady climb up through conifer and pine forest, past Gallo-Roman remains (at least that's what the display board said), as we followed a historic pass through the mountains. At times I ressembled one of those comic book characters with a swarm of insects buzzing around my head. The final few hundred metres were pretty steep with switchhbacks and scrabbling over rocks, to reach a 19th century Greek-imitation temple that marks the summit of the Donon. From the top there were views back over the Lorraine Valley (from whence we came - see earlier blog) and into nearby Germany. From the summit, we descended to look at some much older (and more impressive) Roman remains before heading to our hotel at the top of the col for a couple of beers on the terrace and a relaxing swim. Later we were joined by two Dutch couples who had set off from Abreschviller with us that morning - they are walking in stages to Rome but perhaps unwisely had chosen this stage as their first walk that summer and were struggling as a consequence.

The following day we awoke to find mist rising from the valley, leaving the higher peaks poking out. It was a pleasant two hour stroll down to Schirmeck past small villages with big houses, following the mountain river with long abandoned factories and industrial buildings alongside it. The immediate area around Schirmeck looked grey and industrial, but the little centre of town was nice enough with a few historical buildings and shops. The river running through town was very swollen with the recent heavy rains which didn't bode well for the walking to come.

From Schirmeck, I headed to Strasbourg for a long planned weekend of R&R and to buy some new equipment. I said goodbye to Leivun at Strasbourg station, as he returned to Belgium, and I headed to the Youth Hostel at the very edge of town that had a washing machine (it comes to something when you choose your accommodation preference based on the respective washing facilities). Strasbourg has a very attractive historic centre with its huge red sandstone cathedral and the area known as “La Petite France” with old timber framed houses sitting alongside the canals and waterways, and which are now home to a wide variety of restaurants. I also managed a visit to the European parliament - and what a fine institution that is - which was naturally closed to the people who pay for it when I went to visit (perhaps that's a bit harsh, it was a Sunday afterall). However, a lot of my time was spent catching up on emails, reading the paper, and watching British sport in an Irish pub.

My departure for Strasbourg was delayed by heavy rain and poor planning (not checking the train timetables - a schoolboy error) so that I didn't get back to Schirmeck and the GR5 until around 1pm. Not being one to miss out of a good feed, I found a local tavern serving a substantial plat du jour (dish of the day). All of which meant that I did not start walking until half two and was, therefore, playing catch up for the rest of the day. It was steady climbing back up to a 1,000m, first pass a reconstructed medival “castle” overlooking the town and then later past Struthof concentration camp - the only such camp established by the Nazis in France during WW2. The site has been preserved with former buildings turned into a museum and a new big exhibition space. Unfortunately, as I was pushed for time, I was only able to view the memorial to the people who were deported. Thereafter, there were several more hours climbing through forest and in pretty wet conditions, as I got caught in several rain showers. In the early evening, it brightened so that rays of sunlight shone through the tree canopy and mist started rising from the forest floor. The stage finished by visiting the waterfall at Le Howald before arriving in the village itself - a dispersed collection of houses, like so many villages in the Vosges that nestles at the foot of the mountains.

In Le Howald, I stayed in the Gîte d'Etape - basically a communal building that provides simple dormitory accommodation for walkers and cyclists. They are pretty common along certain stretches of the GR5 and are excellent value for the cash-strapped trekker. However, as breakfast wasn't included, I headed to the local boulengerie. I include this in the blog, as I was able to observe what seemed to be half the village pop into the boulengerie - some for as little as 20 seconds, others for what seemed like hours. In rural France, community life does seem to genuinely revolve around the local épicerie (village shop).

I consider the day's stage from Le Howald to Barr as one of the highlights of the GR5. After a couple of hours gentle climbing through forest and past increasingly big boulders / rock formations, you reach the remains of a 10km long Pagan wall, which is 1.5m thick and 3m high in places. This is shortly followed by the monestry of Mont St Odile (the patron saint of Alsace), which stands on a massive rocky outcrop with commanding views of the Alsace and Black Forest below. First founded in around 700AD and subsequently rebuilt, it has an impressive collection of chapels, murals and importantly (well for me anyway) a cafeteria offering a good value lunch. Descending from Mont St Odile, you pass more murals painted directly onto the rock beneath the monestry, walk along more of the Paigan wall and stop at more natural rocky viewpoints overlooking the towns below and long abandonned castles.

The final approach to Barr is through vineyards - Barr is one of many towns that the GR5 passes through that is on the famous Alsace “route de vin”. All the towns are pretty similar with an old centre made up of medival timber framed buildings painted in vivid colours, excellent restaurants serving typical Alsacian food and all surrounded by vineyards. It turned out that the family that runs the Chambre D'Hote (B&B) where I was staying, are also wine producers with a full range of the local wines. I was invited to join my fellow guests on a tour of the wine cellars followed by a wine tasting session. Whilst the two French couples took it all very seriously, scoring the wines and pouring away half their glasses, I and a convivial German guy in his 40s decided to just enjoy the experience and drink what was put infront of us. 12 bottles and an hour later, I was well on my way as I set out for dinner. It was a shame that I couldn't buy any - there really isn't space in my backpack for a case of wine, no matter how good it is. I wanted to eat in a typical Alsacian restaurant, although I think the one I chose was pretty unique. It was dominated by the owner, a charismatic women with a great thatch of peroxide blonde hair who didn't bully but certainly cajoled, persuaded and insisted that her customers tried the specialties of the house. I decided it was best to go with the flow and had a half decent, and certainly entertaining evening meal as a result.

It is an hour's walk from Barr to Andlau along the chemins vignoles, with vineyards on everyside and where they stretch up on the western side to meet the forest that covers most of the mountainside. I was distracted from a very peaceful stroll by an American cyclist who said that he had “lost” his wife at one of the crossroads. As they had no mobile phones and I couldn't point him in the right direction, he had no choice but to keep cycling around these tiny backroads trying to find her. Andlau is another charming small town with timber framed buildings and narrow streets. From there the GR5 heads back into the mountains by following a large forest track up stream until it reaches a refuge. There is then more climbing to the top of the Col de Ungersberg before a steep ascent with switchbacks to the summit, where there is a viewing tower. It is a long and somewhat confusing descent from the top, so much so that whilst I was deeply engrossed in my map I managed to stub my foot on a rock in the path and ended up spectacularly falling over (Del Boy style), pack and all in the middle of the path. That will teach me about trying to multi-task. Having finally got back on track, the rest of the stage was taken up looking at castles. Bernstein is a ruin but still offers great 180° panoramic views from one of its towers and this was followed by the ruins of Ortenbourg and Ramstein castles. The evening was spent in Châtenois, another attractive town similar to all the others, except that it had a pair of storks - a symbol of the Alsace - nesting in one of the old gate towers.

From Châtenois it is a gradual but continuous climb for 3 hours through forest, passing a monkey sanctury of all things, before you reach Haut Koenigsbourg, a huge castle built on massive red sandstone rocks that was restored at the beginning of the 20th century by Kaiser Wilhelm II, as a demonstration of the German commitment to the Alsace region during a period when it was part of Germany. The final approach to the castle is very steep, and it is slightly disconcerting to climb the final flight of steps to find oneself faced with hundreds of tourists who have driven up and who are calmly enjoying the views (although in the hazy sunshine they were somewhat limited) whilst I struggled to regain my breath. After an interesting tour, I had a gentle descent through more woods to the town of Thannenkirch, before climbing once again to the remains of three castles which overlook the town of Ribeauvillé - Haut Ribeaupierre, St Ulrich (which offers very good views) and Girsberg. Late in the afternoon, I met a lovely young French couple from Lyon who were hiking with their young son of the father's back. They stopped to ask for directions and we got chatting - they were doing day hikes in the area before wild camping in the evenings. That night I ended up staying in quite an unusual place about 6km aboutside Ribeauvillé. Whilst Clausmatt is a gite, it is mainly a retreat for people to sort themselves out before they reintegrate back into society. The place is a little strange with its prison like showers and about half the insect world in my room but it had a warm and friendly atmosphere with very genuine people.

The next morning I had to ask that I was driven back to Ribeauvillé even though the GR5 goes practically past the entrance to the retreat and it is a hard slog up the hill to reach it from town. This is one of many examples of the almost obsessive (some might say stupid) desire to ensure that I walk all of the way to the Mediterranean. After a look around town and using the internet in the local library (where it turns out the young women on the desk has also walked some GRs), it is a hard 3 hour climb to gain 700m and reach the Rocher du Koeningstuhl with the “King's seat” (basically a dent in some rocks which if you try hard enough looks like a throne - at times there are no noticeable landmarks en route so people go to some lengths to make them up). Aubure is the highest village in the Vosges but as nothing was open I quickly passed it by and headed up to the Grand Brezouard (1228m). From there, the trail takes you along a ridge with views north and south, with the first sight of the high pastures, where animals graze during the summer. Towards the end of the stage, I came across a group from the local Amis de la Nature (friends of nature) who were preparing for the next day's fête des montagnes. As far as I could tell, this meant peeling, chopping and boiling about half a field's worth of root vegetables but I reckon the end dish would be pretty tasty. As they were full up, I didn't get to find out but instead pushed onto to the refuge de Col des Bagenelles, which is situated at the top of a valley overlooking some ski slopes and villages. The refuge cost 13€ a night which included a 4€ advance on your bar tab - the basic premise being use it or loose it. So essentially, the tariff for my room compels you to have two beers without thinking about it. Brilliant.

From the Col it is an easy drop down to the village of the Le Bonhomme. It is, however, a bit of a brutal climb out of the village, which I did in very hot weather, before you reach the Etang du Devin. Just before the lake, there is a WW1 pumping station and later an underground railway, which supplied German troops stationed at the top of the Tetes des Faux. The GR5 heads up there past lots of old fortifications including the remains of pillboxes, trenches and rusting bits of barbed wire. The descent takes you to a military cementary on the French side of the conflict, and then upwards towards the ski resort of Col du Calvaire. As I was approaching the top I started to pass lots of fresh-faced walkers for the first time in France and when I saw the ski-lifts going round, I got worked up at the thought of these people riding effortlessly to the top as I slogged my guts out getting to the top. As it turns out, the ski-lifts were operating for the mountain bikers who were speeding down the ski slopes whilst most walkers seemed to have come by car. It still didn't make me feel much better.

At the Col du Calvaire, I had joined the route of the Crêtes des Vosges, which was built in WW1 as a supply route for French troups along what had been the 1871 Franco-German border and numerous old border stones now mark the route. The average elevation (as I copy it faithfully from a guidebook) is around 1,300m and there are great views all along the route with high meadows, forested hills and steep cliffs on the western side that drop down to the Alsace plane below. The main problem though is the sheer number of “weekend walkers” - the trail was packed for the stretches I did due to the combination of the August holidays, it being a weekend and the glorious weather. From the Col du Calvaire, it is a splendid walk along the crest, with views down over lakes shimmering in the sunlight below and then through a nature reserve with meadows and what looked to be moorland. As well as the walkers, you pass many people out collecting myrtilles (like small blueberries) which are served in great slabs of pie at the ferme auberges. Instead of staying in the incredibly crowded and touristy resort of Col de la Schlucht, I pushed on to the Refuge Trois Fours. There I dined with a very nice Dutch couple who I was to bump into on and off for the next few days - the husband bore a strong resemblance to on older Sean Connery and I often found it midly amusing to hear a mild Dutch accent instead of a Scottish one.

The next day started well as we were able to see three chamois (deer) grazing on the pastures next to the refuge whilst we were having breakfast. That day I had a choice - either remain on top of the crête or drop down into the valley and then come back up. I think with hindsight I made the wrong choice. From the refuge, there is a straighforward climb up to Le Grand Hohneck (1362m) before a series of tight switchbacks take you down to Lac Schiessrothried, where there are some good views of the mountains and rocks reflected in the water. After that there is a long and tricky descent over loose rock down into the valley and the small village of Mittlach, passing many day walkers along the way (my “bonjour” greeting is now pretty well perfected). The afternoon, however, proved to be even more punishing, as I had to gain 600m in height in just over 4km over walking. After a good hour of climbing up switchbacks in the woods (passing more wild raspberry bushes as I did so), the path levelled out and became a hard slog up along forest tracks. Eventually, I was able to rejoin the path along the crest and the walk became an easy one, occasionally looking up to see hang gliders and radio controlled planes in skies.

The following day, it was an early start to reach Le Grand Ballon (1424m), the highest point in the Vosges, which is meant to have views as far as the Alps and Black Forest but it was only possible to see their distant outline in the sun. From there, the GR5 takes you down some ski slopes before reaching a ferme auberge. In the afternoon, there was a long loop through forest to reach Hartmannswillerkopf / Vieil Armand, the site of a particularly fiere battle in WW1, and where a mausoleum and cemetary now stand. It is then uphill through pasture to reach the refuge at Molkenrain, where I was able to join four old blokes for a beer and listen to their stories (and good natured German bashing). Unfortunately, the Ferme Auberge next to the refuge was closed and the refuge itself did not provide food. This led to probably the lowest point during my time in the Vosges - having to eat a four day old, almost rock-hard baguette, which I could just about moisten enough to chew after several minutes in my mouth although at the expense of a couple of teeth.

I had decided on a half day to Thann in order to be able to visit Colmar. From the refuge, it was a couple of hours wooded descent before I reached the “witches eye”, which was formed when a tower from the Chateau de l'Empelsbourg was blown up but a section of it fell completely in tact on its side in a perfect circle. After a brief look around Thann it was onto Colmar, which is often described as the best example of an Alsacian town. It was very hot back down in the valley, so I sweated by way through a bit of sightseeing before deciding to rest up for the day.

Heading back to Thann, I was faced by a day's climbing over several cols to reach the col du Rossberg (1,100m). The walk starts off in woods before emerging in the afternoon into pastures and high meadow that covers the top of some high peaks. An interesting diversion was watching a family lead a donkey over the hill laden with their food and water provisions. After a fairly steep final hour's climbing, I made it to the refuge at Rouge Gazon. The next day's walking takes you towards and then over the Ballon d'Alsace (1247m). After passing the Lac des Perches, the path slowly gains height through forest before a very steep final section leaves you gasping for breath. Ballon means a rounded mountain top and so at the submit there is plenty of space to wander with views over the Vosges and the Belfort Gap. The GR crosses several ski slopes before heading down again through forest. I stopped early because of the heat in a Gite where the owner is an interesting guy who used to be a goat hurder and who is a keen walker himself.

The final day in the Vosges saw me do 32km as I left the mountains behind me and started to cross the Belfort Gap, the flat piece of land between the Vosges and the Jura, which has been described as a “soft underbelly” for attacking armies. There was heavy rain in the morning as I passed through a few villages and around some lakes. In the early afternoon, there was a short climb to the Fort du Salbert, one of many fortifications that form a ring around Belfort, and from where you had a view over the city itself. I finished the day by heading to Giromagny, an industrial town in what seems to be a mining area, before catching the train to Belfort, where I had a couple of days to rest up before continuing into the Jura.

Additional photos below
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10th May 2010

Planning a GR5 snippet trek
plan on walking ribeauville - mittlach in june with my son and am appreciating your descriptions. I havent done any serious walking for some time and am debating whether to take two days and rucksack the route or stay in a centre and do day walks. Still cogitating

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