A Trek to the French Southern Vosges (Satis Shroff)
Frankenthal-Missleheim is an excellent nature reserve in the South Vosges of France. You can go along the Col de la Schlucht, which is a gorge, via Trois-Fours, past Martinswald to Frankenthal and Holneck, where you can see the formation vegetables des cirques glacieres.
However, the first advice to wanderers and trekkers in the Southern Vosges is: don’t use a car, keep your dog on a leash, camping is strictly forbidden and don’t leave the paths. Mountain bikes, horse riding and cross country skiing allowed only on trails more than two metres wide. There were so many trees lying across the trails and you cannot imagine someone skiing along the Col de la Schlucht without bumping on horizontal tree trunks. Or you’d have to be a stunt skiier. And it is a long and intensive walk along the French countryside.
Let me introduce you Ms. Waldtraut Kapp, an elderly matron (nurse) from Freiburg with a penchant for flowers and herbs. It’s always good to refresh my knowledge of Botany with hers. She’s a self-taught botanist and knows a lot about gardening and botanical specimens from the Black Forest and the Vosges. She has inherited a wonderful house with exotic garden from a lady physician with whom she had worked in the past. Frau Kapp is an old fashioned, tradition-conscious lady, and even though she has only a training as a nurse, she has widened her horizon through reading books, travelling and talking with interesting people. Her knowledge of classical German literature would make a student envious, and yet she remains humble and interested in a lot of things.
Frau Kapp has been to Namibia and written a 2000 word article on the botanical pecularities of that country. It is August and there are blue gentian meadows everywhere in the Vosges. A gentian is called an ‘Enzian’ in German, made popular by the pale, blonde bard with goggles named Heino who makes his appearances during folk festivals, mostly in German TV. The meadows along the trails have Alpine anemones, pfeilchen, fever clover or to give it the Irish name: shamrock and rausch berries. It’s a rhapsody of orchids and blue and yellow daffodils which we call Narzissen in German.
As we walk towards the Martinswand you see some French locals doing rock-climbing. Then comes a moor at the Martinswand. A wand has nothing to do with fairies but is just a wall in the German language.
Along the gorge the scenery is beautiful at an elevation of 1139 metres. There are valleys winding between blue misty hills with the veil rising slowly, revealing the Vosges. We come across a clear blue lake with dark fir trees surrounding it like sentries. Now and again you come across waterfalls cascading into pools which are littered with rocks. A serene and majestic countryside. You discern the fresh smell of forest undergrowth, wet decaying leaves as you walk below the tall trees, and are rewarded in the clearing with a magnificent view of the Vosges and the grass is lime green. You notice at least four biotopes: the high moor as you walk, beech forests and rocky cliffs and crags.
There’s the Lac de Forlet some four kilometres from Soultzeren castle, where the traditional Munster cheese is still made. Munster is only nineteen kilometres from Colmar, which has houses like in the mountains with sturdy walls. You can see the farmers called Marcaire, from the word ‘to milk,’ still manufacturing the genuine Munster farmhouse cheese with their hands. The milk is left for a day and the tasty cream is skimmed off. Fresh milk is added to it and this mixture of old and new milk is heated to 35 degrees Centigrade in a big copper pot. Thereafter, it is removed from the heat and an enzyme is added to curdle the mixture. What remains is the ferment which is decanted into a wooden mould. It is left to solidify in the night. A month later you have relish the mature farmhouse cheese from the damp cellar.
The terrain has become slippery, narrow, stony and full of obstacles: trees lying across, small tunnels and rusty, fixed-iron-ladders. You picnic at 1pm in a French trench on the lee side of a hillock. During the World War II there was heavy bloody fighting in these very trenches. anemones and gentians grown now over the grave s of the fallen German and French soldiers. There’s an uncanny peace and serenity about the trenches as you munch your food. There are green grassy meadows here now with larks chirping incessantly where once the whining of bullets from rifles, shells from artillery and mortar made a killing field out of this lovely terrain. The cries of the birds are broken only by the thunder of the French Mirage-jets doing their sorties over the blue Vosges.
I know my father-in-law telling me that he was a POW in France on his way back from the devastating and traumatic experiences of Stalingrad and had nothing to eat. A kind French lady had cooked pancakes for him and other German stragglers on their way home to Freiburg. Since he didn’t have anything to put the pancakes in, he stuffed them in his army trousers. He speaks highly of the French people even to this day. A good deed in need is something you’ll never forget as long as you live.
You’ve been zig-zagging down the Col de la Schlucht which is a long journey along the scree strewn path. ‘Bon jour!’ say the other trekkers as they come up the steep gorge abreast of you. You do likewise: ‘Bon jour!’ with a tired smile, in case you’re not out of breath. As you trudge on you notice at least eight rock-climbers crawling like Spiderman on a cliff. You are rewarded with a splendid view of the beech and spruce forest till you reach Frankenthal at a height of 1030m from a height of 1330 m along a steep valley.
In a nearby café you relish coffee with rhubarb cake after the arduous journey. Nearby is an old stone house which is reminiscent of an old mill, where a French duo are making cheese. A small French girl with freckles like Astrid Lindgren’s Pipi Longstockings, her brother and mother are laughing aloud. The girl has a hopelessly bent aluminium spoon in the hand, the king used during the post-World War days, as a side-product of the aviation industry. She shows it to you and shrugs her small shoulders lightly. You notice that it doesn’t take words to communicate something funny to someone: gestures alone suffice. The rhubarb cake is a bit hard at the base and its been fun eating cakes with spoons. In Germany you always get forks for cakes. Nevertheless, you notice that the Fench are very cultivated. Even in a countryside picnic, eating out in the fresh air, the French bring their own chairs, tables, table-cloths and appropriate cutlery.
We meet Mr. Winterhalter, a thick-set German in his late sixties, with a bandaged hand (carpal syndrom), a gardener with love for flowers and admiration for Frau Waldtraut. There seems to be love in the autumn of their or is it late summer? You’re amused for in Germany we say: you never know where love falls, meaning thereby that you literally ‘fall’ in love.
Mr. Winterhalter says: ‘I was in Russia from the age of 18 till 22 and was wounded four times. I was decorated with the German Iron Cross.’
An old warrior, you think.
He goes on to say with a feigned laugh, ‘I’d have rather done my gardening than go to the Front. But we were forced to enlist.’
Frau Waldtraut is planning to bring along pensioned tourists from Freiburg to the Vosges and is trying to plan the excursion. She times the route including where to make a picnic with her usual German thoroughness. We say adieu to her and Mr. Winterhalter as she spreads out map of the Vosges and begins to ponder over the route.
They bid you farewell and say in unison: ‘Aufwiedersehen!’
You’ve enjoyed the walk back and marched at a brisk pace thanks to the good trekking shoes and remember that it had been fun stepping on stones along the way at the same time taking in the beautiful countryside of the Vosges. You think a walk in the Nature is a wonderful gift that you have made to yourself. You feel tired but elated in the end.
If you’re visiting Feiburg (Germany), Basle (Switzerland) or Colmar (France) you ought to do a bit of wine-tasting at the local vintner’s in Requewihr or Eguisheim. If you prefer German wines then in Freiburg, Endingen, Ihringen to name a few. Eguisheim is known as the Cradle of Viticulture in Alsace. Even if you’re not an expert on wines you can learn and taste the different varieties of the choicest wines in the characteristic long-stemmed glass known as the ‘Alsatian tulip,’ and discover the truth in wine: in vino veritas.