Weeks 11 and 12

Week 11

You won’t be surprised to read that week 11 started off with flea markets on Sunday. But instead of sticking to the Lorraine ones as we usually do, our friend Nicola proposed going over together to Alsace, to some larger markets she’d enjoyed in previous years. The first market we were heading for was in the flat plain of the River Rhine, between Colmar and Mulhouse. Having crossed the forested Vosges mountains, and descended through pastures (cheese making) and then vines, we were down in the flat, hot maize fields and large prosperous-looking villages. The Oberhergheim (you can hear the Germanic history in all the Alsace place names) market ran the length of two main streets and also lined the link roads between them, so there were loads of stalls. John bought another little wine tasting dish (it didn’t look very good quality, but polished up beautifully, so he was pleased with it) and a wooden bread plate. I bought some replacement crockery with an attractive elephant design (for when we let the farmhouse). We drove back through Munster (originally settled by Irish monks), had our picnic, and explored a smaller market in the hillside village of Soultzeren. We drove back a very pretty route past the Lac Blanc and along part of the Route de Cretes to the Col de Bonhomme. We pulled up at our house just as our first “real visitors” (apart from my mother) were arriving.

They’d flown into Strasbourg on Friday, spent Saturday exploring Strasbourg, then hired a car on Sunday and driven over in a leisurely fashion. I think our nearby town of St Dié, where they’d paused for coffee, was a disappointment, as the centre is post-war (following the scorched earth policy of the retreating German army at the end of 1944). It was a lovely evening, so we had an excellent leisurely meal on the terrace, catching up on news and planning the next day.

Brian had to be back in Strasbourg to work in the lab on Monday morning, so had got up, made coffee and left before 8 o’clock. Considerably later, the rest of us breakfasted on the terrace, then set out to investigate a recently restored fortified castle (on a hill above the vineyards of Alsace, overlooking Eguisheim). It was a lovely drive over the Col de Mandray and the Col de Bonhomme, then down to Munster (again!). The castle of Hohlandsbourg had been besieged at various times by the Habsburgs and the Swedes but seems to have finally been destroyed during the thirty years war by the French to prevent it becoming occupied by advancing Austrians! So there was a lot of restoration work to be done, just to rebuild the walls. But part of the restoration also involved creating a herb garden (though it was disappointingly small!). After we’d had our fill of the castle, we drove down to our favourite wine village, Eguisheim (I’m sure John deliberately missed the turning to the other four castles on this five-castle route as his tourism-tolerance is limited!). We bought some quiche to eat in the square, tasted some Gewürztraminer in one of the courtyards and Rosemary bought a couple of bottles for dinner. We also stopped at Turkheim and looked at cast iron casseroles (at the Staub factory shop) and storks (which seemed to be trying to encourage their recalcitrant young to fly).

Tuesday was another glorious day so again we had a leisurely breakfast on the terrace, a trip to St Dié Library and Museum (Rosemary was fascinated by the traditional Vosgian techniques for making window blinds), and in the afternoon drove Rosemary back to Strasbourg. We took the Pierre Percée road, with its lakes, dam and reservoir, and turned off beyond Pierre Percée to investigate the stretch of Roman road that another friend, Margrit, had been very excited about. Well I can see why she was excited. We wound up a narrow track almost to the summit of a ridge of hills, and followed a track into the forest, and there before us stretched this cobbled road with wheel tracks worn by some metal wheeled vehicles. We followed it for quite a way into the forest, seeing no one else. It was spectacular and ran for nearly a km. (It had probably been rutted by logging sledges and German war vehicles as well a by Roman chariots!). It was then quite a contrast, after we’d dropped Rosemary off near their hotel in Strasbourg, to tour out of town electrical stores and IKEA.

Well, after that unaccustomed bout of tourism, we had a couple of quieter days. Then on Friday it was a walking day again! I was particularly looking forward to this, as we were due to climb Kemburg, the hill which we skirt round on arrival and departure as we go on that fast dual carriageway road round St Dié. The climb up was very attractive (and not such a slog as the previous week’s walk), and there were amazing rock formations and spectacular views. At one point I could see Saulcy, St Leonard and Anould, and on the group photo which appeared in the newspaper, I am to be seen with my back to the camera, trying to locate Entre-deux-Eaux (which was behind a hill). There were churned up logging tracks in places at the top, but the Society had been able to make a fresh attractive descent path following the storm damage. We paused at the Sapin qui pisse (supply your own translation) and finished at the carved stone Trois Fauteuils (which the ring road lay-by is named after). It was a most enjoyable walk.

Week 12

After a Saturday of gardening, picking and freezing (beating the birds to the last of the blackcurrants and gooseberries – they won on the blueberries), it was back to the Sunday flea markets. But this time we varied the routine by going on a tour of the abbey and village of Senones before attacking its flea-market. The guide was most entertaining. He was neither the intended guide nor the first reserve, both of whom were incapacitated. But he had a lot of fascinating asides about the corruption of the abbeys, the reliability of Don Calmet, the abbey’s well known local historian, the exacting taxes of both absent dukes and monks, the difference between English parks and French jardins, the wartime positions on neighbouring peaks of French and German armies and the present difficulty of obtaining European funding to restore abbey and ducal palace. He timed his tour to coincide nicely with the changing of the guard, which, in one of his asides, he had described as a bit of pageantry without any historical basis, which had been devised by a previous mayor; however the fake ceremony had confounded the sceptics with its popularity, which was just as well after the financial outlay on costumes, wigs trumpets, fifes and drums. The flea market spread out in the square in front of the abbey cloisters and John observed old scythes being sold for a mere 5 euros each, whilst I bought another Maigret novel (which has been a pleasantly easy read). After that we drove along a very scenic cross country route, ending up in another prosperous Alsace plains village (similar to the previous week) which had about 300 stalls, but, alas, nothing of interest to us. So we left about 3 o’clock and retreated back over the Vosges mountains, as we were expecting more friends (Jessica and Mark) from England. John set about cooking some pork with apricot stuffing and a pear and chocolate tart, then J + M arrived bearing an enormous (and delicious!) raspberry gateau. So lots of swapping of news, and gourmandising in the evening sunshine.

Jessica (an old school friend from Broadstairs days) and husband Mark were at the start of an unplanned 3 week walking holiday, so the idea was to do some warm up walks, before they moved on to the rigours of the Pyrenees. So in the hot sunshine on the Monday we walked through our village and up to the top of the furthest hill you can see behind the church, the Tête de la Behouille, with its memorial to 350 men from the chasseurs killed on one day in September 1914.

Tuesday was misty and cloudy (storms had been forecast for Tuesday evening or Wednesday), and, after much discussion the previous evening,  Mark and I joined the St Dié walking group at 7.30 am for their 22 km. all day walk. The Friday walks in the hills round St Dié have had spectacular views and rock features (no, I’m not biased!), but this longer Tuesday one which started beyond Gérardmer, La Bresse and Cornimont must have been the most unspectacular walk you could find by scanning the local maps! We set out from a car park, ascended, then walked along flat, stony tracks till lunch time. As we ate, the thunder forecast for the evening started to rumble, then got closer, so the picnic ended early and we set out, pausing quite soon to don macs and then to trudge like damp little hobbits (the macs with humpy rucksacks underneath were partly responsible for that image) through the dripping misty, forest, back to the car park 6 hours after we started.

Wednesday continued damp, so we decided not to walk but to explore picturesque Alsace (we are always unable to convince visitors that laid back Lorraine is really the more attractive). So we drove over the Col de Ste Marie, through Ste Marie les Mines (it was not the day to explore the silver mines), up to the Chateau of Haut Koenigsburg (spectacularly restored by Kaiser Wilhelm in a Bavarian hunting lodge style, but it was not the day for fake castles). We drove on, through the vineyards, to a couple of less touristy vineyard villages, – firstly Bergheim (where we had delicious savoury pancakes and coffee) and then Hunawihr (where unfortunately the fortified church was shut). Finally on to Colmar where Mark and Jessica wanted to see Grunewald’s Issenheim altar-piece in the Museum. John and I looked in a few shops, then I went into St Martin to say hello to a favourite carving, then on to the Dominican Church to see the Schongauer painting of the Vierge au Buisson de Roses for the first time (it had previously been stolen from St Martin’s and the Dominicans’ was thought more secure!). John meanwhile looked in bookshops and we all met up for coffee under the umbrellas of a café.

Jessica and Mark needed to spend Thursday reading and planning and shopping for the next stage of their trip and on Friday morning we waved them off, hoping that they’d survive France’s busiest weekend on the roads and also find campsite places without reservations. I think they found our dire predictions irksome …… However we haven’t yet heard how they survived their first night under canvas (or whatever new tents are made of). On Friday afternoon I joined the walkers group on a far more interesting walk than the Tuesday one. Lots of view points (two orientation tables), narrow forest paths, rock formations etc. The coach was so full on the way back, that the back-seat regulars, all the old men of the rambling club, beckoned me into their midst (have I made it into St Dié society now?).

In today’s newspaper I noticed that there was a guided visit round St Dié cathedral. So we had a morning of gardening coupled with an unpleasant row with Farmer Duhaut, who still refuses, despite my earlier request, to discuss beforehand what he’s doing with our fields, so John was infuriated to see him driving across our far field (which he’d cut some weeks earlier), presumably to secure it for pasture for his cows. Then, after a late lunch, we went into St Dié. John preferred to shop, and I turned out to be the only visitor the young (?student) guide had had during the whole week! So she got out her notes and took me on an exclusive visit, which I really enjoyed (and no, Leila, I didn’t ask the poor girl lots of unanswerable questions, as she’d prepared well!). It was interesting hearing about the windows, the gargoyles and the altar furniture which were designed to decorate the cathedral which had to be totally rebuilt following the German dynamiting of it at the end of the war.

Tomorrow we may vary the flea market routine slightly by visiting a tractor fair. And then, next week we might just do a bit of work on the house – but don’t hold your breath! In the meantime, John is cooking one of the many marrows (one of the round ones, whatever they are called) for dinner tonight, yesterday we picked our first tomatoes and we shall soon have our first peas. (You can tell from this touching pride that our old garden only grew grass and flowers!)

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