Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The Hohneck

Over the years of travelling I've found that some of the most interesting places you come across are the ones you find by happenstance. The deserted beach in north west Scotland with golden sands stretching as far as the eye can see, the bistro/cafe in back lane of a city or a family run hotel deep in the countryside with an unpromising facade but a menu of superbly cooked, local dishes (and really here I'm thinking France for this) and of course that surprise view, as you round a corner on a road or a mountain track (though it's less of a surprise if someone has marked it on a map as 'Surprise View')

And so it as with the Hohneck (1362m), third highest point in the Vosges, an area of north east France, to the west of the Rhine and geographically and geologically speaking the French equivalent of the Black Forest on the German side of the Rhine.  It's part of the Alsace, which over the centuries has changed hands between those two countries, the last time being after WW1, when it became French once more, and this explains the number of German place names.  It's terribly confusing, especially when the local French people speak to you in German.

I was on a road trip last week with my daughter in our campervan.  We'd arrived in Calais, driven up through the Belgian Ardennes and then onto Luxembourg city, a quick visit into Germany, past the steel industry of Saarbrucken, which possibly makes Sheffield, even at it's peak of steel production look a bit tame, and then crossed back into France with the intention of looking round the old part of Strasbourg.  We arrived in the Vosges from Strasbourg not exactly by chance but certainly by circumstance, preferring not to cross back into Germany and the Black Forest (it feels so tense on that side of the Rhine) and constrained to be back at Calais in 5 days time, thus putting a limit on how far south we could go.

We stopped on a campsite on the edge of Munster, a small town of robust cheese and a spectacularly pretty main street of colourful half timbered buildings and so clean and tidy, it could be in Switzerland. Gone it seems are the days of France being a country full of litter and toilet paper. Even my daughter commented on how there were no discarded sweet wrappers and drinks bottles on our walk.

The road out of Munster goes up to the Col de la Schlucht (a name having an impossible number of adjacent consonants, so that it could almost be Welsh, only it's German - or is it French? I give up.).  Anyway, it's a bit like the Snake Pass only easier to drive and having a small ski centre at the summit of the col at 1139m.

It was a rather grey and blustery but we were up for a walk and the Hohneck was only about 3kms away and 100 vertical metres.  As the detail on my road map was a bit thin even for such a short walk, we called in one of the shops on the col and picked up an IGN 1:25k.  This only served to confuse me more. "That way", I pronounced, trying to sound confident, pointing south and we set of towards the base of the chair lift where, given the lack of obvious path, I decided to risk some dodgy French on the man selling tickets for the luge d'ete. "Monsieur.  Le sentier pour le Honeck, c'est par ici?" Amazingly it worked and he told us to go up the piste to the top ski station and follow the "ballons rouges" which were large orange lollipops on poles. It was a bit of a steep pull up by the side of the lift but levelled out at the top into a pleasant stroll through woods of birch and oak and some other kinds of arbres, and we strolled along a track lined with myrtilles (bilberries ) and wild raspberries which necessitated frequent harvesting stops.

After 1 to 1.5 km, the woods give way to open countryside, along a ridge of alpine meadows and grazing bell toting cows, with steep cliffs of volcanicky looking rock falling away to the Munster valley on one side and more gentle slopes on the other. This is part of the GR5, the Routes des Cretes. On the far side of the coombe about a km away, we could see a rounded summit with a building on it, which we hoped might be a mountain cafe, as it indeed was. You can in fact drive to within a few metres of the summit, so there were quite a lot of non-walkers inside as well as a couple of backpackers, who looked like they were on a more serious mission.

Tartes aux Myrtilles guarded by the madame!

On the walls were pictures of the region, a few cow bells and other items of 'tat' to tempt the tourist. I ordered drinks and a tarte aux myrtilles for the two of us and we watched out of the window as the thin, whispery clouds raced up the valley at our eye level and a few spots of rain started to fall. The tarte was heavenly - my daughter said it was the best thing she had ever eaten - and had the tray of remaining tartes not been so well guarded by the madame, we might have been tempted to run off with it. The coffee on the other hand was an extreme disappointment. It used to be that any self-respecting establishment in France would serve real coffee made with freshly ground arabica beans as a proper, full on espresso created with all the hissing and wooshing gadgetry of a Gaggia. That no longer seems to be the case and whereas in England now everywhere serves coffee, usually made with cheap, bitter tasting beans, a culture of 'instant' seems to have overtaken France.  Quelles horreurs, c'est un catastophe! I do hope I'm wrong on this and I've just been unlucky in the places I've bought cofffee on this trip but I suppose working an espresso machine is a dying art.

Mountain restaurant at top of Hohneck

The wind was no less blustery when we stepped outside but the cloud had come in, so we took a few quick photos of some murk from the summit and headed back out of the car park to retrace our steps. By the time we reached the top ski station, the lateness due in part to yet more myrtille forraging, the lift had stopped. I'd hoped we might blag a ride down as my daughter has never been on a ski lift.  Instead we made do with walking and trying to spot where we'd left the campervan, debating whether I had in fact put the hand brake on.

It wasn't a big walk but it was quite special.

(More pics to follow)


The Odyssee said...

Well your french is certainly better than mine.
It's not an area we know so we are looking forward to seeing the photo's.

Pennine Ranger said...

There aren't many photos and they're on my daughter's camera. I hope to get hold of them at weekend. The Vosges wasn't an area I knew anything about before this brief visit but I certainly want to go back and spend some more time there. It doesn't have the grandeur and scariness of the Alps or (with slightly less scariness) the Pyrenees but it looks a fab area for walking, backpacking, cycling, climbing, etc and there are a number of camp sites you could use as a base for day trips. I suppose it's a bit like the Vercors or Chartreuse but without the caves!