Les Chateaux, Villages et Vignobles des Vosges
A seven day walk in Alsace
The Vosges are a little range of mountains in the north-east of France, west of the Rhine and the city of Strasbourg. There are a number of different walks in this region and they can be undertaken either singly or combined together. All are accessed from Strasbourg or Colmar. Described here is a seven day walk in the central part of the Vosges featuring mediaeval châteaux, fortresses and villages and some of the celebrated vineyards of Alsace. Although the GR 5 runs north/south through the Vosges much of the walking is done on routes marked distinctively, and frequently confusedly, by the Club Vosgien.

Strasbourg is an agreeable city both to visit and to use as a jump off point for walking. But you do need to be aware that when the European Parliament is in session its many hotels may be heavily booked. It is definitely advisable to book ahead.

Holding such a strategic position between the Rhine and the natural barrier of the Vosges, Alsace has, throughout history, been a battle ground between the warring powers of Europe. It is not surprising, then that its culture lies somewhere between that of the two dominant powers - France and Germany. Language is inter-changeable, unimaginable to Australians. There is a local dialect as well which sounds very like German. And while Alsace is now firmly established as "French" the German influence on architecture, food and wine is overwhelming. The fortresses towering over the Rhine valley that are such a feature of this walk are an ever present reminder of the past struggles.
Settlement in the Vosges
The earliest settlement, in the Neolithic era, was followed by the Celts who were the first to build forts to ward off marauding tribes. With the Romans came some stability but frequent invasions in the centuries following turned the region into a pawn in the power struggles of Europe. This is a potted history.

58 BC Caesar set the border of Roman Gaul at the Rhine
4th century. Barbarian invasions
5th century. Fell to the Frankish king, Clovis
870. Conceded to Germans, after centuries of fighting among descendants of Charlemagne.
1618-48. Invaded and pillaged many times during the 30 years war.
1648. Handed to France under Treaty of Westphalia.
1870-71. Franco-Prussian War was fought largely over Alsace. Ceded again to Germany
1914-18. First World War. Reclaimed by France
1940-45. Occupied by Germany but returned to France
The Walk
Day 1. Chatenois-Thannenkirch. 10km
Day 2. Thannenkirch-Riquewihr. 13 km
Day 3. Riquewihr-Sainte Mairie-aux-Mines. 18km
Day 4. Sainte Mairie-aux-Mines - Ville. 22km
Day 5. Ville-Diffenthal. 22km
Day 6. Dieffenthal-Le Hohwald. 19km
Day 7. Le Hohwald-Ville. 8km
Chatenois to Thannenkirch
To start walking we caught an early local train from Strasbourg to Sélestat from where taxis or a bus are available for Chatenois. It was early November in 1995 and we were walking light having arranged a package with a company called Randonnées sans Bagages en Alsace who organised the transport of our luggage each day. This company has long disappeared but many others have sprung up.

This first day was an easy introduction to the walk. We set off with the frost still on the ground and climbed in bright sunlight through forests, gradually working out the
balisage allotted to our route. First there were blue circles, then red oblongs and yellow triangles, and then red and white oblongs. It was all quite confusing.
Our first target was La Montagne des Singes. We saw no monkeys - only a high fence but apparently a colony of monkeys was kept there. Thinking about monkeys prompted us to think about dogs - Alsatian dogs - which curiously have nothing to do with Alsace. More correctly known as the German Shepherd Dog, it was a herding dog used on farms in Germany, later gaining prowess as a military dog.

After the two world wars the dog had become popular but its name was not viewed favourably in countries which had been at war with Germany. The name Alsatian Wolf Dog was adopted, soon abbreviated to Alsatian. As the memories of the wars dissipated, the original name was restored for official purposes although Alsatian remains in common usage

After the monkey mountain, we climbed steeply to the
Haut-Koenigsbourg Château, the highest point of the day at 730m. This was the first of the châteaux-forts which overlook the Rhine Valley and are a feature of this walk. These once massive structures forcibly demonstrate the strategic importance of the Vosgien peaks in the history of the area.

Constructed in mediaeval times,
Haut-Koenigsbourg fell into disrepair until, in the period of German control after the Franco-Prussian War, it was given by the town of Selestat to Kaiser Wilhelm II and then elaborately restored. On our arrival it was closed for lunch so we were content to admire its bulk and lofty position from outside, sitting on the ramparts looking out over the valley and eating a picnic lunch.
It was a downhill walk from there through forests, colourful with Autumn leaves, to Thannenkirsh - a quiet rambling village with several hotels, some houses, a school, church and the Mairie.

Dinner was part of the package and this first night was the full-on Alsace experience. We started with a nourishing serve of
soupe à l'onion followed by Baekeoffe, one of the amazing specialties of Alsace. To the table was triumphantly brought a huge earthenware casserole, its lid sealed with pastry. Inside was revealed an immensely filling casserole of pork, pigs trotters, potatoes and carrots. With a week's walking ahead of us we polished off a good part of it and even managed to fit in a slice of tarte aux poires. This hearty meal was washed down with a Pinot Noir d'Alsace, our first of many delicious regional wines.
The "noble" wines of Alsace.

Alsace wines are first recorded from Roman times. Later the great religious orders established vineyards and now many small vineyards dominate the landscape throughout the Eastern foothills of the Vosges.
Muscat is often served as an aperitif. It is very dry and light and nothing like the very sweet muscats produced elsewhere.
Riesling is perhaps the best known. Introduced from Germany, it has been grown here since 1477. It is fresh, elegant and fruity.
Gewurztraminer is spicy and full bodied. Often late picked, it creates a very luscious wine.
Tokay, or Pinot Gris, is robust, high in alcohol full and rich.
Pinot Gris is the only red wine grown. While agreeable, this lacks the character of the white wines.
Crémant d'Alsace may be offered as an aperitif. It is made by the same method as champagne, mostly from Pinot Blanc or Auxerrois grapes.
Eaux-de-vies, made from fruit,are also popular, the most famous being kirsch which is made from cherries

The next morning, glad to walk off some of the previous evening's dinner, we began with a steep climb out of the village and into the forests. This was to become the formula for each days walking. All the towns are in the valleys and the walking, centred on the castles and the views, is up on the ridges. Sometimes this was to involve several climbs a day, starting from as low as 200 m and climbing 600 m or more, up to heights over 800 m.

Today, having accomplished the first climb with a minimum of puffing, we wound around on forest paths to reach Les Trois Châteaux - Haut-Ribeaupierre, St Ulrich and Girsberg. All three castles are in ruins but St Ulrich is the best preserved so we gave it the full treatment. Perched on a cliff edge, it overlooks the town of Ribeauville and the vineyards which creep out of the valley and up the steep hillsides almost into the forests.

Along with a surprising number of other walkers, we climbed around the castle walls and up into a tower to look down on the valley. Unfortunately it was smoggy and foggy and the view was to be imagined rather than experienced. This was to become another prevailing feature as views over the Rhine valley were usually obscured by smog and the atmospheric conditions.

From the heights we went down into Ribeauville for lunch. Pretty in a Hansel and Gretel sort of way, the village streets were lined with wine shops selling the local vintages and gift shops promoting the earthenware casseroles used for Baekeoffe. Lunch was in a pub, drinking a beer with a slice of onion tart - another local specialty. After that, it was up the hill again and more winding round mountain tracks.

Late in the afternoon, our entry into Riquewihr was through a picturesque gate in the well preserved ramparts and here there are more little narrow streets and more wineshops and vinstubs (winebars), gift shops, restaurants and hotels - all of picturebook half timbered construction and painted in pastel colours. Our hotel, La Couronne was one of these, with wonky floors and huge wooden beams.

Dinner was provided in a restaurant down the street. This time it was the other great assiette d'Alsace - Choucroute - sausages, bacon and smoked pork on a bed of sauerkraut, served with potatoes. We were beginning to fear a week of dinners alternating between the hearty Baekeoffe and the equally filling Choucroute. Meanwhile, the wines were wonderful - crisp, fruity and delicate.
Riquewihr to Sainte Mairie-aux-Mines

There was a change of scenery today as we crossed to the west of the range and the town of Sainte Marie-aux-Mines. It was sunny and warm as we again climbed up, up and up along tracks and forest roads. The forests vary between dense plantings of pines which are heavily logged and deciduous trees with colourful autumn leaves. The leaves were falling and beginning to cover the ground - sometimes making it quite difficult to follow the track.

There were no châteaux and again the valley misted up so there were no views to the East. The Western side of the mountains, however, was clear. An auberge appeared just at the right time for a pre lunch beer - then on some more till there was a perfect lunch spot in the sun at the top of a ridge. After this it was down, down, down, from the highest point of the day around 1100 m, through the falling leaves and past some old mine shafts to Sainte Marie-aux-Mines.

The silver mines of Sainte Marie-aux-Mines are long exhausted but the town continues as a local centre of commerce. No half timbering and no touristy shops here - this is a real town. We were the only guests in the huge Hotel Cromer which we discovered was actually closed, so they were good to accommodate a pair of lone walkers.

Monsieur, le patron, with great insight, asked what Alsatian specialties we had already eaten so as not to duplicate. He smiled knowingly at the mention of Baekeoffe and Choucroute and then cooked a delicious fillet of pork, preceded by soup and onion tart and followed by gateau. Another lovely wine - Tokay Pinot Gris.
Strasbourg. The area known as Little Venice
A German Shepherd Dog - has nothing to do with Alsace
Chateau de Haut Koenigsbourg
© Le Pin Parasol
© Le Pin Parasol
Walking towards Sainte Mairie-aux-Mines
Walking in the Forest
Sainte Mairie-aux-Mines to Ville

Walking out of Ste Mairie the day started badly. It was a freezing morning, the balisage kept disappearing and there were many false starts. A compensation was the sighting of a nervous little deer in the forest and eventually we were back on track, finding our way among a maze of forest tracks. This was to be, after the inauspicious start, the best and most varied day of the walk

We climbed steeply, up 600 m to reach the highest point, and then it was easy, pleasant walking along the ridges. Every now and then expansive views opened up of the valleys beyond, for once clear of the fog.

We lunched, sitting on moss covered logs in the forest. Then it was down, down, down again, through purple heather and pine trees, into the valley and along a bushy track that skirted above villages till eventually it descended into. Along this pathway a group of school children on a nature excursion were having lots of fun digging up worms and beetles and collecting plants. We passed through the tiny hamlet of Breitenau and Ville came into sight.

A disadvantage in walking at this time of year is the shortening of the days and it was getting dark as we checked into the Hotel Bonne Franquette. There was just time to buy provisions for tomorrow, Armistice Day, which is a public holiday and, apparently, taken so seriously here that even the bakers are closed.
Again there seemed to be no other guests. Dinner was a change and definitely outside the established Alsace formula - prawn cocktail, magret de canard and tarte aux pommes. We enjoyed this very much - along with another bottle of the great wine.

All this climbing had led us to consider the application of Tour de France parlance to walking. Le Tour separates its riders into "
rouleurs", those who excel on the flat, and "grimpeurs", or hill climbers. Without doubt, we decided, we are rouleurs - that is, we go better on the flat but we were finding the climbs manageable, so maybe it just comes with practice.
Ville to Diffenthal

Our climbing prowess was tested again next morning with a long slow climb to reach the high point of the day at the Rocher du Coucou. This was an ascent from 600m up to 855m. The view of the plain and the valleys was expansive, though again the valleys were full of haze, smoke and smog.

The track passed by the ruins of the Château du Frankenbourg and then we continued through sandstone country with heather growing by the path. After a while there was a change to open forests in the midst of which huge conglomerate rocks stood up like the ruined castles. Every now and then gaps in the trees opened up wide vistas well beyond the ridges. All in all the day's scenery and forests were a welcome change from the gloomy pine forests.

Descending some more, we had lunch on a little creek before climbing up to the Château de l'Ortenbourg. Lots of French families had been enjoying the holiday with picnics and were now lazing about enjoying the afternoon sun or clambering over the ruins of the château. We joined them, scrambling around the ruins.

Then it was a delightful walk through the vineyards in the late afternoon sunlight to Diffenthal and the Hotel les Châteaux - so named because of its fine view back towards the châteaux dotted along the ridges.
In the late autumn, the grape leaves were all turning red and yellow, though some of the vines still had grapes to be picked. As these were very wizened little fruit it seemed likely that these were for the celebrated late picked vintages.

Our room here had a lovely view of the vineyards and the castles which were floodlit overnight. Dinner, incredibly, was a repeat of the previous night - still good but almost a letdown not to have the Alsatian specialties repeating themselves.

A large group of local people was enjoying a night out - eating and drinking well and singing along to an accordion. Their fun was infectious and the entire dining room enjoyed the ambience of the evening. It was fascinating to listen in to conversations, the local bi-lingual people naturally dropping in and out of French, German and the local dialect without realising it was happening.
Dieffenthal to Le Hohwald

There were no shops in Diffenthall but the hotel was happy to make some sandwiches and sell us a bottle of wine for the walk to le Hohwald. This was Day 6 and the second last day.

We made an early start in the crisp morning air back up the ridge, through the vineyards and open forests, to find yet another ruin, the Château Bernstein, overlooking the plain.
Then, following the GR 5 we marched along forest paths, so deep in fallen leaves, that the path was quite hidden. At this point the route climbs to the summit of Ungersberg at 900 m and then goes down the other side to Col de l'Ungersberg. There was a glorious light in the trees, shining through the last of the golden leaves.

The track ran down into thick forests and came to a little creek which it followed towards Le Hohwald. This was a wide valley sprinkled with houses and little farms. The village of Le Hohwald itself was quite elusive and our hotel seemed even more so, 2 km past the village. But there were lots of walkers to give directions - mostly elderly couples, enjoying an after-lunch stroll in the afternoon sunshine.

The rather grand Hotel le Clos Ermitage, at 4.00 pm, was still mopping up after Sunday lunch and in some disarray. Ready for a hearty meal we were greatly surprised to be offered a minimal menu of soup, salad and charcuterie and it seemed that someone had to go out to get even this.

We discovered that this was the hotel's opening weekend after being taken over by an ambitious young couple who had just completed a huge and very expensive renovation. The hotel had been full of guests all weekend and after 45 couverts for lunch they had run out of food. Later we shared a drink and a good laugh - they were fun and we hope they were to make a success of the enterprise. We were their first Australians.
Return to Strasbourg
Next morning there were a number of alternatives to complete our circuit. Somewhat weary of climbing through forests, we chose a short route of 8 km which involved only a brief climb and then a steep slither along muddy tracks into Ville. On the outskirts of Ville it started to rain so no-one felt guilty to be cutting the last day short. There was just time for a coffee before catching a bus to Sélestat and then a train back to Strasbourg.

Strasbourg is busy and elegant and, in its preparations for Christmas, had quite a festive air. Restaurants seemed to have moved on from Baekeoffe and Choucroute, though if you look around they are there. Pork products and sauerkraut remain the basis of many meals. The only pine tree to be seen was a huge Christmas tree in the cathedral square.
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The Hamlet of Breitenau
Castles overlooking the Rhine Valley
Grapevines descending into Diffenthal
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