Monday 18th May 2015, Molsheim, France, continued
We intended using a German campsite as a base for reaching Strasbourg. However, it seemed very inaccessible and the nearest railway station was several kilometres away. When we checked it out it would have been an expensive train ride and we’d have needed to park Modestine in the village all day. Suddenly we remembered we’d used this site in Molsheim previously and found it ideal. The journey round is complicated as we have to use the crossing over the Rhine to get here and circumnavigate the city. At this point the river is the boundary between France and Germany. When we arrived it was really hot and glaring so we were delighted to recognise our old pitch under the trees where, several years later, Modestine has settled down once more to wait while we explore Strasbourg.
During the afternoon yesterday we walked into the town where on the main square many of the town’s families were out enjoying the sunshine from the terrace of the local bar, licking ice creams or enjoying Alsace beer or its chilled white wine. We joined them for glasses of chilled Riesling. As we sat there a cavalcade of motorbikes came slowly through the town and did a circuit of the square. It was a local "randonnée de retro-motos" and included everything from Vespas and Lambrettas to Harley Davidsons as well as side cars. There must have been a couple of hundred vehicles all told. Nowadays though, every driver wore a crash helmet. Twice they passed through the town as we watched. It was noisy but enthusiastically supported by the townsfolk cheering and waving flags.
Molsheim is famed as the place where hand built Bugatti cars were developed. In 1909 Ettore Bugatti set up a car production plant in Molsheim. Now, over a century later, Molsheim is still an important centre for precision mechanics. A group of Bugatti enthusiasts from Alsace have set up a museum in the town devoted to keeping the memory of Bugatti alive. Housed in the old Charterhouse the museum has collected material relating to racing victories, technological development of the Bugatti cars and his achievements in a wide range of fields including railways, shipping and surgery.
This morning we walked to the station and took the train into the centre of Strasbourg.
We wrote a full and enthusiastic account of the city on our visit in June 2011. It was so unbearably hot then and this time it has reached 30 degrees. It’s been a really enjoyable but exhausting day so this time we will simply put up a few photos we took today and direct you back to our previous account.
We even rediscovered the student canteen of the University of Strasbourg that we used on our last visit to the city. We are some forty or fifty years older than the students but the sign said it was open to anyone and we were made really welcome. It is run by people of all nationalities for students from around the French speaking world. Two young men from the African continent sitting nearby said a quiet, solemn prayer before beginning their meal. The atmosphere felt so comfortable and there wasn’t a mobile phone in sight. There was though, a very lively buzz of conversation. That may be why it felt so different from cafes and restaurants around the town where everyone is using their Iphone the entire time, each locked in his own individual world. Our meal was excellent and unbelievably cheap costing us 15 euros for us both for a three course meal with white wine from Alsace!
One new thing we discovered this time was the Vauban barrage for defending the city. It spans the river Ill that winds around the city. It is supported on a series of arches from which doors can be dropped down shutting off the course of the river so that the level rises to protect the city. Nowadays it is used simply as a walkway to cross the river. Below it is a cool corridor where a series of exhibits are displayed on the history of the city. Above, reached by a flight of stairs, it is possible to walk across the river or simply admire the view back across the water to the pretty area of Little France with its wooden walkways and bridges and its riverside bars.
We spent a delightful day but the cobbled streets cause havoc with my feet and we’d been walking most of the day. We returned to the station to find a train back to Molsheim due in four minutes. Thirty minutes later we were sitting under a tree drinking cold beer beside Modestine.
Now go read our original 2011 account of Strasbourg
Tuesday 19th May 2015, Sélestat
On Monday Ian picked up a leaflet about an amazing humanist library here in Sélestat in the foothills of the Vosges mountains. It consists of two outstanding collections of early manuscripts and incunabula. The first is that of the Latin school, founded in 1452, while the second is the personal collection of Beatus Rhenanus (1485-1547) humanist, philologist and personal friend of Erasmus. Together the collections contain over 450 manuscripts, 550 incunabula and 2000 items printed in the 16th century! We then discovered the library is closed on Tuesdays, the only day we would be conveniently able to pass this way. Eventually we discovered the existence of a campsite in the town that was not on our list. Thus we arrived here this afternoon to seek out the library ready for tomorrow. When we found it, it proved to be as magnificent from the outside as we’d anticipated. What the brochure had failed to mention was that the building is closed until 2017 for refurbishment and has been since 2013! Ian was distraught and even I was disappointed. Fancy still publicising it without making it clear the library was currently closed!
We stopped off at Obernai and Barr this morning, two little towns typical of Alsace with prettily rendered timber-framed houses, steeply pitched tiled roofs, windows with their shutters hooked back, bright and beautiful with window-boxes of geraniums. At street level there are frequently red climbing roses at the doorways.
Sometimes too there is some supporting ironwork on the rooftop to support a nest for a pair of storks. They really do nest in the towns and their beaks can be heard rattling even when they are not visible. Frequently they glide overhead, as large as a swan but with longer, red legs. This evening one even landed near to us on the campsite, obligingly waited for a photoshot before taking off again to return to its nest, clattering around on somebody’s roof all evening.
Both Barr and Obernai are set amidst the green vineyards of the Vosges. The region is renowned for its white wines. They are the only white wines we ever drink, generally dry and crisp they can be wonderful drunk chilled on a hot afternoon. In Barr we ate a picnic lunch overlooking the vines where the new leaves are opening up and everywhere looks quite perfect. The vines stripe the lower hillsides like corduroy while higher, and more distant are the dark green forested slopes of the Vosges Mountains. They are known as Les Ballons des Vosges, presumably because they are fairly rounded rather than in peaks. In the distance, on the far side of the plain of the Rhine the German mountains of the Black Forest can be seen as a dark shadow through the haze.
Despite the considerable disappointment about the library we spent a pleasant afternoon exploring the old centre of Sélestat, which is considered as the cultural centre for Alsace. It has several churches of interest including its gothic cathedral of St. George built in the dark red sandstone of the region. It reminds us of the neogothic churches around the Manchester area and it has blackened in the same way. Here though the Cathedral dates from the 12th century.
Despite showing obvious signs of shrapnel and gunfire damage all over the external walls, indicating involvement in heavy firing during previous wars, the wonderful 14th century stained glass seems undamaged!
Nearby there is the Romanesque red sandstone church of St. Foy.
It is very pleasing except for the pulpit which is out of keeping with the stonework of the rest of the church. It is highly decorative baroque painted in glittering gold and turquoise.
On the floors of the church are some interesting mosaics depicting the signs of the zodiac and certain rivers including the Euphrates and the Ganges.
In the crypt there is a rare curiosity – a plaster cast of a woman believed to be from the 12th century. Her death mask was apparently discovered in the crypt during restoration and a copy made. The church also has a couple of towers added during the 19th century when the town was under German occupation.
Wednesday 20th May 2015, Epinal
Because Ian was so disappointed at not being able to visit the library we decided this morning that we would drive to Epinal and take another look at the collection of images in the specially dedicated museum here.
Looking at the map it soon became clear that whichever way we went, crossing the Vosges would entail an awful lot of climbing along very twisty roads. Unless we returned to Molsheim they were unavoidable. Then we discovered a recent tunnel that has been cut right through the mountains between Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines and St Dié des Vosges. Modestine has not been at her most healthy this trip but has kept going. We don’t want her collapsing at the top of one of the cols so decided to humour her. The scenery in the tunnel wouldn’t be as lovely but it made for an easy life in the pouring rain. So after calling at Leclerc for fuel and food we drove through wonderful green woodland and beside steep fields of lush grass where red-brown cattle, the colour of the local stone, gorged on spring flowers, and made our way to Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines. Here we found the tunnel. With very few cars using it,with nobody on duty, and no indication of the cost, we drove on through. It was really excellent, passing for over 10km through the mountains. A few cars passed us in the opposite direction but only one vehicle seemed to be far back behind us. There was nobody on duty at the exit either. Instead there was a barrier and a credit card machine that demanded 17.50 euros to let us out! We’d been expecting eight but the electronic beam showed we were over-height for a car and automatically charged us as a high vehicle, in the same category as container lorries! We had no option but to pay the higher price. But it does show that machines cannot really completely replace humans.
No sooner were we out of the tunnel than there was a cloudburst of freezing rain that left melting hailstones slithering down our windscreen. I was just so glad not to be driving a helter-skelter of hairpin bends through the mountains and declared the tunnel to be worth every cent.
We stopped somewhere along the lovely route for a picnic lunch in Modestine while the rain poured down outside. We eventually reached Epinal just after 2pm where we recognised the Musée d’Imagerie which had just opened for the afternoon. Parking was easy and we spent a couple of hours rediscovering the collections.
Ian has managed to spend an entire day without taking a single photo. It must be a record!
Thursday 21st May 2015, Troyes
Tonight we are well on our way back to Caen where I need to collect the table I rashly bought in Caen market back in March and Geneviève has stored for us in her cellar until we return.
This morning we spent in Vittel. This little spa town and its neighbour Contrexéville, in the adjoining commune, are home to an enormous bottling plant where Nestlé market the local water under the name Vittel. It is also a thermal spa where one can receive the full range of spa therapies.
Vittel is a clean little town with nothing especially remarkable but generally very pleasant. The railway station is delightful and, although still in daily use, the original furnishings have been retained with carved oak tables and chairs, a 1920s oak phone kiosk and the original ticket counter also in carved oak.
The Hotel de Ville opposite is also attractive with manicured trees in front. The main spa complex is in a pleasant park nearby. Here there is the casino, a hotel for the spa, restaurant, night club, the actual therme with its treatment rooms and pool. The sources themselves are freely available and people were bringing their empty plastic bottles and refilling them. The fountain in the centre of the town was presumably using the spa water and the gutters were cleaned regularly with Vittel.
It has to be said that the spa as a popular resort for relaxation and taking the waters has long seen its heyday in Vittel. Back in the 1880s until the 1930s it was very popular but today, despite the sunshine, there were few people around. The hotel now seems to be operated by Club Med who have a shop marketing holiday wear and jogging tops at rather high prices. The promenades were originally constructed in wrought iron but styles and fashions changed over the years and it was given a concrete makeover. Now they are trying to restore the promenade around the actual spa to its original state. In the meantime it looks rather a mess.
The spa at Contrexéville, a few miles away, is smaller but more uniform in style. It was there that the aunt of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia would come every year for forty years to take the waters. She eventually died in the town and is buried in a small Russian orthodox church she herself had erected in the gardens beside the spa.
The two spas had occupied us all morning. During the afternoon we drove across the largely empty region of France occupied by Lorraine and Champagne. We passed beneath Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, where Charles de Gaulle lived. He is buried in the church there and, just in case anyone might not realise, a huge Cross of Lorraine has been erected above the village. It towers above the woods that crest the hillside. We wrote about Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises on an earlier visit to the region in 2008.
We drove through Chaumont and on across fields of wheat that already look as if they will soon be turning golden ready for the harvest. The landscape looked wonderful. The trees are now in full leaf and the wide expanse of rolling fields and woodland are at their most beautiful. In meadows golden with buttercups white cattle huddled together for companionship out in this huge empty landscape where no human habitation was to be seen.
Late in the afternoon we reached Troyes where the signing directed us easily to the campsite which we discovered last night on the internet. Actually we realise now that we stayed here once before but that is becoming commonplace now. It’s very pleasant and within walking distance into town tomorrow.