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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
The Hamlet of Breitenau
Castles overlooking the Rhine Valley
Grapevines descending into Diffenthal