After Ribeauville and Riquewhir it would be hard to believe that there could be more prettiness, but then comes Colmar.
Near Germany. Near Switzerland. With 67,000 inhabitants it’s a big town, in fact the retail area is huge, yet it retains a small town feel.
It’s Gothic. It’s medieval. It’s heaving with tourists, and yet it’s absolutely worth the visit.
We walked our legs off, and feasted on the most tempting pretzel dripping with cheese and lardons. It’s food like this that keeps vegetarianism from this van.
Good though Colmar was, the best was yet to come. And it was only a few kms down the road.
Minty had spotted another camper stop at another vineyard.
The last was convenient.
This one is excellent.
There’s room for 5 mos, and tonight there are 4 motorhomes and ArchieVan.
There’s water, a dump point and good toilets.
It’s free. Yes, completely free.
It’s a short walk to a stunning medieval village.
And there are tastings.
Yesterday’s tasting at Jean Paul Hueber was fun, even though old Mrs Hueber badly lacked humour. Today’s at Antonie Stoffel was a completely different affair.
Young M. Stoffel is probably in his early 30s and swops between French, German and English as he entertains the tables of guests at his winery.
He’s generous, knowledgeable and funny too.
He has 8 hectares (about 20 acres) and from that he produces about 50,000 bottles a year.
Wow. That seems a huge output. It makes you wonder at the vast amount that the miles and miles of vines create.
After trying many wines, and buying several, we retired to the van for a fiery and tasty chickpea and cauliflower curry, matched with a Riesling. A good partnership.
And what a town…
For our Saturday night wander we walked the outside of its concentric circles, and it was enough to blow us away.
Eguisheim developed as a trading post and had 22 market courtyards. The town was built defensively around these markets in concentric circles. Only looking from above can you fully appreciate this. On the ground it’s the opposite of a modern grid system – it’s easy to get lost and near impossible to work out where a street will take you. Lost in a place like this isn’t a problem though – it’s interesting wherever you look, and in the evening it’s delightfully empty.
As Minty took a gentle Sunday afternoon of reading and TV, I stanked up to the towers on the top of the nearby hill. Nearby is a relative term – I was exhausted by the time I got there and realised that a few weeks of good eating have not done a lot for my form.
I need more exercise and less patisserie.
After lots of walks around Eguisheim absorbing this gorgeous little town we finally wandered down the road to yet another little aire outside the village of Orschwihr.
It’s a small (wealthy) village, there’s only a bakery, and several wineries, yet still they’ve provided a great facility for six vans with water, toilet emptying and even electricity.
Stanking through the woods above the village brought the joy of myriad greens with sunlight streaming through. Chirping birds marked my passing while lizards scuttled through the undergrowth.
Detour to Thann.
The next targeted town of Thann was only 20 or so kms down the road by the direct route. Instead we took the road less travelled, meandering through 120 beautiful kms of the Vosges Mountains incorporating Munster, Gérardamer and La Bresse before descending into Thann.
Munster is known for its goat’s cheese, which according to Minty smells like old men’s bottoms. I’m not sure how she knows that particular scent, but I do know that I enjoyed its tang on a tarte flambé.
La Bresse is a ski resort, as beautiful in its green coat as it can possibly be under snow.
The whole is a calming expanse of mountains and woodland that I recommend to all.
The Vosges is a grown up, if small, mountain range with many passes over 1000m, and peaks reaching towards 1500m, except they’re not really peaks at all. Instead of the jagged tops we’re used to from the Alps or Pyrenees the Vosges are round topped, called Ballons, and feel so much less threatening because of that.
Thann is a narrow strip town ranged along the Thur River with vine covered hills soaring to the east and west. The town was suffering under an absence of bin collections, but its church impressed with its enormous organ, and fancy roofline.
Along the Thur this row of pretty houses ended with a simple bar selling two types of Fischer Beer. These were nectar after a warm day’s walking.
Had the bar woman been more friendly we’d have stayed for more despite the eye poking price. Instead after the second grumpy reception we moved around the corner where a fellow was brewing four different beers beneath his little bar. Pints there were the price of halves in the previous place, and while it didn’t have the draw of the river flowing by, the view onto the street was good enough, and the beers tasty and interesting.
Most French drinking establishments are relaxed about you bringing a croissant to go with your coffee, or your own crisps to accompany your beer. With a supermarket across the road we chose the latter and our dinner’s first course was a bag of crinkle cut strong cheese chips (as the French call them). Yes. We live well.
The Witch’s Eye. Engleburgh.
Above the town the remains of Engleburgh Castle include a giant Polo known as the Witch’s Eye. This huge circle of stone is actually the remains of the castle’s tower which was blown up by miners after the German border moved back to the Rhine and the castle no longer had relevance as a defensive position. Apparently this stone ring remained intact.
The hills to the east of Thann are covered in vines at the lower level, and forested further up. There are reasonably well marked footpaths that are empty at the moment.
Bird life thrives in the forest, and bats dart every which way in the evening.
Woodpeckers hammer on the bark as fledglings of many types explore the miracle of flight.
Minty spotted a beautiful slow worm basking in the sunshine.
Butterflies of every camouflage and size flit by.
On an evening walk in falling light I was delighted to see two deer nearby, then while I was still thinking about their proximity I came face to face with a large doe on the path just a few feet in front of me. She stood, stock still, watching me for a minute or so before scampering off through the undergrowth.
Later I disturbed another little fellow that resembled a lithe, brown badger with a white face. After some research we decided that he was most likely a stone marten. He was gorgeous, but he didn’t hang around, first shimmying up a tree, then back down and away.
As darkness fell the bellowing in the woods became a bit spooky. I told myself it was deer, but I suspect that it was actually wild boar. Every pool had the tell tale signs of their hoof prints, suggesting a good evening’s wallowing took place there.
Wildlife that we didn’t appreciate was the Asian Giant Hornet who visited the van. I shiver now just to write about it. Wasp shaped and coloured but about 2 inches long I was more scared of it than I would have been by a creature crashing through the woods. Thankfully he left on request.
There’s something odd about Thann.
There’s no politically correct way of saying this.
There are a lot of strange people in this little town.
There are also signs all over warning of what to do in the event of a chemical gas escape.
I suspect the two observations are connected. We’re not going to hang around long enough to find out.
After three slow and delightful weeks in France the beers and sausages across the border now beckon. We’re packing to leave Thann this morning and I suspect we’ll have steins in our hands at the end of the day.
The generosity of France.
Baiting the French is almost a national pastime for the British, and the French do a good job of returning the favour. Despite their punishingly high prices I want to stand in their defence and comment on their generosity.
So far we haven’t paid for parking anywhere – a huge boon to any town. We have stayed at excellent aires that have all been free. We have even used facilities on private land that don’t charge. The towns understand that they need to attract travellers to retain their character, why can’t we get our heads around that?
I suspect during the 80s as Britain began to drag itself back from near collapse we became rather obsessed with making money and began to charge for every single thing that we could extract a coin for. It’s a shame and it annoys me, especially when our services are not commensurately better.
With our past businesses including Change The Language and The Cornish Way we have charged a fair price for the basic service, then anything else has been free. If (when) I set something else up in the future I’ll do it on that basis too.
We haven’t even come across any of France’s legendary rudeness. The whole experience has further reinforced our love of the country.
That said, it’s exciting not having a clue what’s next.
70 miles up the road took us over the Rhine and, on reader Margaret’s recommendation, to Freiburg on the edge of the Black Forest.
We pulled into a wohnmobil stellplatz (motorhome parking) on the edge of town.
The €9 fee seems ok, but there are no toilets, just parking (and electricity if you need it). It’s full with 50+ vans. At approaching €500 total a night you’d think it’d warrant the plumbing involved in putting a loo in, but hey ho.
German van campers seem happy with very crowded sites with no grass. We have been on several. It seems such a curious contrast to their huge houses with acre lawns. Perhaps that’s the point.
The walk into town tells you you’re in a very different place.
Thousands of people. It’s a university town and so has a vibrant youth population. Bikes all over. In fact so many bikes that you have to be super aware of every step. Fortunately there’s none of France’s dog poo so you don’t have to be on the lookout for that too.
You realise just how different cycling is in this country when you see parents riding strange creations with several children in a big box in front of the bike, or standing on a frame at the back. Who would dare risk the whole family’s life in that way riding through Manchester?
What an organ!
For a non religious couple we spend a lot of time in church these days.
The munster in Freiburg is a soaring but dark space. Many of the fabulous French churches are celebrations of light, the munster is dark and heavy, but beautifully created.
Yesterday we were impressed by the size of the organ in Thann.
Here in Freiburg one organ was never going to be enough.
In fact they didn’t even stop at two.
There are four organs in this monster munster. Sharing between them 11,000 pipes, and all playable from a central keyboard, or each can be played individually. I’d dearly like to hear that lot going for it.
The attractive town, mostly built in the 1460s, has a large retail core heaving with the well heeled, and students. Big brands and smaller independents seem to rub along together.
Well heeled? How many shoe shops does one town need? And while food and drink is a lot cheaper here than in France, the (beautiful) shoes are seriously pricy. Every pair that I fancied were over €300!
Water channels (Bächle) run down many of the streets (like Menage Street in Helston) providing play places for children with boats, and serious hazards for those sampling too many steins.
Rather bigger hazards in the form of trams run down many streets too.
We chose Martin’s Brau for our first cultural experience. It’s a modest beer hall brewing several excellent and well priced ales.
While we enjoyed great beer we sat staring in rude wonder at the massive meals being devoured by many of the patrons. Pork knuckles sat atop huge clouds of mash potato. The selection plates of sausages, steaks, gammons and bones would have overfaced us, but were tucked into heartily by many.
Try telling these guys that eating meat is killing us.
I love the change an unmanned border can still bring, and I’m excited to be in Germany again. Keeping the calorie count low may be our biggest challenge, that and not getting run over by bikes.
Schwartzwald. The Black Forest.
From any high point in Freiburg you can see the forest, threatening to take the town back into the wild.
A couple of miles east of the town and the road starts climbing steeply.
It’s not long before we’re over 1000m and where there’s a break in the trees the views stretch for miles.
Views of rolling hills, backed by mountains.
Pretty (huge) chalets dot the scene.
In the distance there are the big climbs of the Eiger and Mont Blanc.
Our stop above the village of Todtnauberg is at 1150m, it could get chilly later.
A long circular walk in the footsteps of early 20thcentury philosopher Heidegger gave us ample appetite for a generous slice of Black Forest Gateaux (what else?) and a couple of beers at the Hotel Engle.
Now we’re serenaded by thousands of chirping birds, but in the moments when they’re quiet there is no sound at all. It’s perfect.
I’m frustrated that I didn’t learn German, and I will one day, but for now we’re happy to be here.