It seems a while since I sat at the keyboard. But we’ve been playing our bit in the launch of the new Ryanair service (mentioned in the last newsletter) between Stansted and Strasbourg. One friend, Alistair nobly came out on the very first flight to cheer us in the November gloom (and he could have been cruising down the sunny Nile with his wife and sister!), then John and I returned to the UK to see respective mothers, family and friends, then another friend, Ann, returned with us to participate and encourage us in the continuing renovations. I realised as we drove back from our UK visit over the Vosges from Strasbourg Airport to Entre-deux-Eaux in the clear light of the full moon, stars, and milky way, how much this feels like home after six months.
It was wonderful to see Alistair emerge from the airport baggage hall wearing his familiar distinctive leather hat and carrying, as his sole luggage, a large blue canoeing barrel – and no, there wasn’t any Ryanair champagne to celebrate the launch, just orange juice, brioche, and television crews at Strasbourg airport. Thereafter, all car journeys involved a slowing down to assess the height and flow of all local rivers. As seems to have been the case everywhere, there has been a lot of rain in the Vosges recently and the water has been pouring off the mountains, swelling the rivers.
One day, after yet more overnight rain, John and Alistair loaded John’s Dagger Legend Canadian canoe onto Snowy (our little white Yaris) and I drove them into St Dié to a launching site below one of the weirs. The river had changed totally after all the rain, and I was quite alarmed as they swept rapidly out of view in the direction of Baccarat. In summer the wide river Meurthe meanders lazily towards the glassmaking town of Baccarat. In the old days whole rafts of timber logs would be floated downstream to the saw mills and beyond. But on this occasion it looked quite dangerous and otherwise deserted. Initially there was some trepidation as Alistair and John hadn’t paddled together for nearly a year or in anything like these conditions for a couple of years, on a flooded River Tees.
The Meurthe seemed, for those knowing some of the UK rivers they’ve paddled in the past, to be like a raging Washburn! The canoe was carried around the first weir out of St Dié as they were still assessing water conditions; the torrent, six foot drop, and the possibility of an early spill gave way to caution, and they carried the canoe round the weir. They successfully negotiated the next, lower, weirs. But then the river widened out for a short stretch on a bend; there sandbanks and part of a fallen tree blocked the obvious, deeper water canoeing line. An attempt to avoid it by taking an alternative narrower flow, resulted in a near spill as they clipped a partially submerged branch. But fine balancing, after thoughts of a swim, kept the boat upright with both occupants on board, although stuck on a rock. Getting started again, and avoiding the next, almost immediate hazard, was achieved with relief. More weirs and standing waves were successfully negotiated.
Then they came upon the section where, a couple of years ago after the December 1999 tempest, the river had been completely blocked by fallen trees. Most had now been removed and piles of short sections of cut tree trunks lined the banks. But the river got more “everglade” like with flows in several directions and no obvious canoeing line as the water swept around and over some still fallen trees. And a right-angle bend didn’t help in assessing the situation. Avoiding what looked to be an impossible fast flowing section without any possibility of inspection, one of the minor flows was taken. But they ended up in shallows and more trees. Some canoe hauling was required to get past this section; getting back onto the river again was exhilarating as the river was still constrained by narrow banks with tree roots giving added swirls. A clear but rapid section then brought them to another narrow, fast flowing section with a partially submerged tree across the width which they hit, spilling John out over the trunk and Alistair out on the canoe side. As John was swept away he managed to rescue the paddles and then took a “breather” and assessed his situation, up to his shoulders in water, while just about managing to stay in one place against an overhanging branch. The current was far too strong to edge along the branch to the bank and as soon as he moved one foot from the bottom, he was swept off downstream in the current. Fortunately the river widened and John managed eventually to swim out of the flow to the opposite bank to Alistair and about 100 metres downstream. By this time Alistair, who had been very near the bank, and had managed to salvage the canoe, found a driftwood plank, and proceeded to paddle across the flow and collected John from the bank. Time for refreshments. Fortunately the Trax pile canoe clothing drains rapidly and, with exercise, remains warm. And then off into more fast-flowing river currents.
At Etival, where they could have got out and phoned me to pick them up, in the now steadily pouring rain, they decided not to go down the “canoe shoot” past the paper mill weir as there was a huge “stopper” and standing wave at the bottom. And the river past the weir looked reasonably benign so they set out again. But just round the first bend it was back to a fast flow, standing waves, and more adrenaline flow. However, all went well and the only concern was some three foot waves over a broken weir just before Raon l’Etape. By the time I picked them up at Raon l’Etape, three hours after they started, it was still pouring with rain but they were paddling quite normally again! Back at St Dié, the river had probably risen another foot and was flowing even faster – which would have been enough for them to have not even considered setting out in the first place.
The stretches of rivers nearer to the mountains are either nearly dry in summer or become raging torrents in winter. This was the first time John had really had a chance to inspect them at this time of year and to see them start their winter fill. There is obviously a fairly fine balance point between them being too shallow and too fast and full. And it seems to take the water about twelve hours from rain at the top to make it’s way down to our level. Near to the top (including the Meurthe from St Dié to Raon l’Etape) they are marked on canoeing (actually kayaking) maps as red (or occasionally purple). More into the plane they are green; more placid, and paddleable most of the year.
Ann is also a keen kayaker and occasional canoeist, and, quite reasonably, she prefers to stay in the boat and avoid the added spice of unplanned capsizes. So as the rivers continued to swell and thresh even more in the continuing rain, she and John opted for the relative tranquillity of exploring the large lake at Pierre Percée north-east of Raon l’Etape. This is a relatively recent artificial lake formed from damming a valley, to provide a constant source of cooling water for electricity power stations in Alsace, and has lots more interesting little inlets than the old glacial lakes round Gérardmer. (Ann had seen mention of a perimeter walk being over 30 km). Again the weather was pretty foul. Ann and John paddled off into the rain and mist looking like something out of “The Last of the Mohicans”. But the rain lifted as they turned northwards around the first bend and they seemed to be alone on the lake (only later did they come across a couple of fishermen on a bank and another in a boat). The scenery, with the steep high, wood-covered, banks, partly covered in mist and low cloud, was very attractive. Along the shore line, mostly sandy, it was more open with some shrubs and occasional grass, but under the dark pines there was nothing. To keep the shoreline open, trees had been felled and their remaining stumps formed interesting patterns and shapes. Despite part of the lake being a bird sanctuary, they only saw a few cormorants and herons. A break for coffee and biscuits was made at the northern extremity at what they named “Bent Birch Bay” – so others should know when they’ve reached the same point! There was almost no wind for most of the trip and the lake was just about flat although there was a slight sign of surface disturbance out of the shelter of the westerly bank sides. However, as they paddled to the western extremity (where there was a deserted sailing club) they noticed the canoe suddenly pulled by an ill-defined current and slightly choppy water surface so had to think more about paddling and less about looking at the scenery.
Meanwhile I’d climbed up to the remains of the old chateau of Salm, hoping to get a good view of them on the lake below. However a layer of mist and low cloud below the rocky outcrop blotted out any view of the lake. The chateau of must once have dominated the valley, but after a chequered history, being passed around as an inheritance or dowry, it was finally dismantled under the orders of Richelieu. All that remains is a ruined tower silhouetted on the overhanging ridge (which looked very mysterious through the mist and pine trees) and the well shaft which was bored 100 feet down into the solid rock (hence, probably, the name Pierre Percée). In the damp and mist I was quite glad of the company of a brown dog which met me in the village and escorted me up and back. Despite various viewpoints around the lake, I saw nothing of the red canoe and Ann and John for nearly three hours, so was quite relieved to see them paddling back up the inlet they launched from having paddled, according to John’s GPS, just over 10 km (the GPS was taken in case the mists thickened and obscured the shores and their starting point). They were wet, but only from rain rather than total immersion, and pleasantly tired from the last stretch, paddling back to the eastern shore across the open lake and current. They hadn’t managed to circumnavigate the entire lake – just three of the major inlets!
Another watery trip was a walk from the Cascade des Molières, above St Dié, (mentioned in an earlier letter after John and I had walked up to this Victorian feature). Ann and I discovered that the water was tumbling down the hillside rapidly and picturesquely, but the Victorian “improvement” had been switched off, probably to avoid the pipe freezing in winter, so the cascade over the huge boulder just wasn’t there! We walked on up the hillside, all the time hearing the tumbling natural waterfalls, but didn’t have time to reach the viewpoint on the ridge at the Sapin Sec before we’d arranged to meet John (who’d kindly been shopping as we explored).
I shall remember the spectacular red sunsets of other walks (which seemed to miraculously have escaped the forecast rain). Alistair and I scrambled down a footpath from the prehistoric hilltop of Le Chastel (I’m not wholly convinced
that the “dolmen” at the top was an ancient one) as the mountains turned blue and the sun set (and the car seemed quite a way off!). Ann discovered that Farmer Duhaut’s cowshed led to a perfect view of sunsets, and we took to strolling up there in the evenings, as the ground mists advanced and the sun declined. I shall also remember a walk with Ann up the lane at the side of Mme Laine’s and along the forest ridge to Saulcy village cemetery (full of brilliant yellow, pink and crimson potted chrysanthemums placed on the graves at All Saints), through the War Grave cemetery (with its Armistice day wreath) and back over the fields past a solitary man digging potatoes (wasn’t he risking his crop as we’d had heavy frosts weeks ago?). After that (dry) walk, Ann and I went down to the village Mairie to upbraid the mayor about the ditch immediately outside our house which is overflowing (as it hasn’t been cleared for several years), covering the road (where it will be a hazard when it freezes into an ice sheet), and squelching down to our barns (far too muddy to get the car in and out) where guttering John put in a few years ago is managing to divert the rapid flow from seeping straight into the house walls, foundations and cellar.
Despite frequent rain, we’ve between us done a lot of clearing outside the house. One day John decided to create more space in the atelier, the former workshop of the old owner, M. Fresse, who was an electrician. (The atelier is a single story detached building beyond the barns). I was busy planting out a hazel tree (I hope it’s name “Nottingham” is a favourable augury!) when I heard a steady chugging sound in the atelier. I looked up and saw John driving the old fifties Deutz tractor out of the atelier onto the road. I hope he didn’t need a licence – the name Fresse is in large letters on a plate on the back! This clear out produced stuff for the bonfire and rubbish for the tip (not the tractor, of course). Alistair (who would appear to be a secret pyromaniac) had been promised a bonfire. So soon after his arrival, which coincided with a couple of relatively dry days, he and John set to on the piles of rotting wood from an old porch and end barn wall and soon we had a blazing bonfire of a height and intense heat worthy of a Viking pyre. Alistair, in his enthusiasm to stoke the blaze, managed to singe his hair and eyebrows, twice. Some of the wood, oak, was not rotten, and was saved for future use. As the fire blazed all day, they turned their attention to “pruning” the thicket of damson saplings – but fortunately spared a few. The rain started in the evening, but the bonfire glowed on throughout the night and was still smoking in the pouring rain in the morning (and still steaming the next day, after the wet canoeing trip)! Later, whilst I was clearing our stacks of cardboard from one of the old cow troughs in the barn, I decided to lay cardboard and plastic in one of the newly cleared areas to prevent an invasion of nettles and thistles. One day we’ll have a new flower or herb garden there, where once there were rotting piles of wood.
We didn’t force our visitors to work throughout their holidays (though I haven’t mentioned that Alistair got involved in the next batch of apple pressing – this time for cider – and that Ann had a grand clean up of the “West Wing”, in readiness for our eventual winter migration when the weather turns cold and we can look forward to the under floor heating in insulated splendour!). Diversions with Alistair included viewing the magnificent astronomical clock in Strasbourg Cathedral, a quest for oversize ski boots (finally satisfied in Gérardmer), a craft fair in St Dié, a food fair in a nearby village hall, and Sunday lunch at a busy auberge up at Le Valtin (Alistair was eyeing the huge chimney and barbecue with great interest – more interesting fire possibilities – and wouldn’t it be good if we put one in our new room?). Oh yes, and we finished up at a mediaeval village in Alsace, Riquewihr, with its glittering Christmas decorations shop (far more exciting than Santa’s grotto).
And with Ann we explored the Friday market at Fraize, where we bought a large cauliflower and some very interesting purple potatoes (this was not the skins – it was the insides that were purple!) which turned out to be delicious with, as the man said, a slight chestnutty flavour and texture, but somewhat expensive for everyday consumption at four euro for 500g (we’ll have to try planting some next year!). Ann had also read that Luneville had a chateau like a miniature Versailles. So we spent a couple of hours on Sunday afternoon exploring Luneville’s old streets, squares, overblown baroque cathedral (huge cherubs on the façade, wonderful shafts of sunlight on chrome yellow pillars inside), the formal gardens of the chateau, and the small museum in one wing of the chateau. And our farewell meal with Ann at the appropriately named “les Voyageurs” Restaurant was most enjoyable.
We’ve enjoyed having our latest voyageurs sharing our Vosgian adventure, and it goes without saying that it was most satisfying to be able to “pop” back to England so easily and see both mothers, Toby, Leila, John’s sister and friends, and even to indulge in a bit of shopping (things like packs of Christmas cards, Camden tablets, and fabric first aid plasters which are hard to find here!).
The Ryanair flights have been OK; the downside is the relative inaccessibility of Stansted from Nottingham by public transport if you don’t have access to a car (we still await the East Midlands-Basel bmiBaby service). Alistair and I flew to Stansted in an older 737-300, with the first and last six rows not in use (“too bendy” suggested Alistair). But all the other flights have been in new 737-800 planes, on time, and each nearly full, with around 175 passengers. And does that mean the 1.99 euro flights will soon be history? (although Nicola has booked her mother on an Air France flight from Gatwick to Strasbourg over the Christmas/New Year period for the lowest ever fare of just over £100). And Snowy now knows how to get to and from Strasbourg airport in a fairly consistent 75 minutes be it dry, misty, or raining, and day or night.