Alsace & the Vosges

Walking around France

The region

Pays de Montbeliard and the Territoire de Belfort

Between the Vosges rising abruptly out of the plain and the slopes of the Jura lies a valley about thirty kilometres wide known as the Belfort gap.

This became of vital strategic importance in the aftermath of Prussia's victory over France in 1870. The peace treaty which followed ceded Alsace and Lorraine to Germany but a sliver of territory around Belfort was detached from the department of the Haut Rhin and remained French. The area in question was predominantly French speaking and the fort at Belfort had put up a heroic resistance during the struggle. The Territoire de Belfort became a separate department which it remains to this day.

The Pays de Montbeliard also has an unusual history. When France annexed the Franche-Comte, Montbeliard remained independent, ruled  by the Duke of Wurtembourg as part of the Holy Roman Empire. During the Reformation the Duke decided to become a Lutheran and therefore his territory was loyal to the Protestant faith. There is still a Lutheran presence today. During the French Revolution the territory became part of the French Republic.

Belfort developed very quickly after 1871. French industrialists from Mulhouse, which was part of Germany until 1918, invested heavily in the area. The famous French engineering companyAlsthom, which makes the TGV engines, started in this way. Montbeliard is the home of Peugeot, still French owned and producing cars on French soil. The area is very dependent on Peugeot and alternative employment is limited if the firm cuts back. Hericourt, like many towns in the plain near Mulhouse, used to be a major centre of the French textile industry until Asian producers captured the market.

Alsace and the Vosges

Looking down the eastern slopes of the Vosges towards the Rhine I often felt as if I was in Germany. Paris seemed a long way away as I stared at the Black Forest in the distance.

  • The Vosges are granitic mountains, eroded into their present rounded shape known as ballons.
  • About 400,000 people speak Alsatian today, a dialect of German.
  • In the Vosges the weary walker can find hospitality in a number of ferme auberges – inns run on a farm. The atmosphere is often Bavarian or Austrian.
  • What do I remember of Alsatian cuisine? – filling dishes which kept out the cold like boiled beef stew, boiled ham, quiche made of cabbage, cream and cheese, tarte aux myrtilles, local quetsch fruit like a plum with fromage frais on a sponge base.
  • Unlike the rest of France Alsatians have always marketed their white wines by grape variety – the scented Gewurztraminer, Riesling, and Pinot Gris. They also make their own spirits from local fruits like quetsch and mirabelles. They are quite similar to the schnapps found in Germany and Austria.
  • The character of the domestic buildings belongs to Southern Germany. Ribeauville is a picture postcard example. Many of the houses are very old, built with wooden beams and decorated with elaborate carvings. Window boxes of geraniums hang from every facade next to shutters, balconies, dormer windows and gables.
  • Twice in modern times Alsace was legally part of Germany.
  • Unlike in the rest of France religious instruction and religious symbols are not banned in state schools. The separation of church and state in 1905 did not affect Alsace because it was then part of Germany.
  • The World Wars have left scars in Alsace. In Hericourt I met an old man of 87 who was conscripted into the Wehrmacht and served on the Russian front. The Nazis located a concentration camp inside Alsace at Natzwiller-Struthof.
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Diary extracts

"Climbing up to the Hohneck in pouring rain I was delighted to find an inn where the ambience was very gemutlich. A large party of Alsatians were making plenty of noise. Two older men played guitars decorated with coloured tassels. Many of the songs were like the drinking choruses of Austria and Southern Germany. The two men sang a verse and the company chimed in with a chorus of DA DA DA!!! There was that steamy hugger mugger atmosphere you find in a bar after a day’s skiing. The lunch menu consisted of a tasty meat pie with salad followed by stew with more salad. The fromage blanc with kirsch and crystallized sugar built up my energy but two glasses of red wine probably had the opposite effect. What did I care? It was warm inside and still pouring with rain."

"If I had taken the trouble to research rainfall in the Vosges I would have found that it is nearly double the national average. I reached the top of the Hohneck at about 2pm and made the refuge de Tinfronce at the Col du Calvaire at 6.15pm after four hours strenuous effort. The wind drove constantly from the west threatening to knock me over and making onward progress difficult. It seemed nothing would keep out the blasting rain coming from the same direction. I was warm but my arms, legs and backside seemed pretty damp and I wondered how long my waterproofs would survive. I hoisted my umbrella into the wind and tried to hold it steady. In truth I was like Don Quixote jousting with windmills."

"The walk along the wooded ridge above Ribeauville is known as the path of the three chateaux. Saint Ulrich is perched on a rocky outcrop next to Girsberg which is much smaller. Haut Ribeaupierre makes up the trio, poking out of a sea of trees with sensational views into the valley, a tower right on the edge of the void. Haut-Konigsberg made the fourth castle in my collection. The GR zigzagged downhill through heavily scented pines, slim and elegant, with a beautiful red brown bark which complemented the pink sandy earth. Nearby I also saw red oaks and the famous meleze d’europe, with its flaking grey coat."

"The beech trees were resplendent in their autumn coat of yellow and brown and a dense mist shrouded the mountain of Le Donon. Apart from drops of water pattering onto the leaves all was silence. At 1009 metres the summit is the most northerly peak of any importance in the Vosges. Ghosts from the past kept looming out of the cloud and the atmosphere was decidedly spooky. I was completely alone.
The path came to the foot of a monumental stairway built of rock. This was the most recent vestige of the past, constructed by German soldiers in World War One to enable the Kaiser to walk up to the summit. The remains of successive occupation by Neolithic peoples, Celts and Romans lie scattered across the hillside. Carved stones show that Vosegus was worshipped here, a deity of the primitive people who gave his name to the Vosges. Nearby is a cistern used not only to collect rain water but also for ritual purposes. In Celtic times a wall surrounded the site and it was a place for commercial exchange as well as a refuge.

A platform of rock crisscrossed by huge cracks covers the highest point of the plateau. On top of it the Forestry Commission of 1869 built a crude temple of rough hewn blocks as they imagined it would have looked two thousand years before. It was probably an advantage to see it with the mist softening the harsh outline of square columns and a triangular roof. Below the far end of the plateau I found a cave which was part of the Celtic defensive system. It was also used as a shelter in the Great War.
Below Le Donon the great forest of the Vosges seemed to stretch for miles in all directions. Trees covered every peak and valley with not a building in sight. The only sound was a bird of prey calling out across the hills."

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The Walk


I crossed the Belfort gap through Montbeliard and Hericourt and then walked along the Vosges Mountains from Giromagny to the mountain of Le Donon in the north, a distance of approx. 230 miles. This was hill walking at its best with dramatic views across the Rhine Valley to the Black Forest.

I passed through some beautiful forests and also the wine growing area around Ribeauville. There are four major ascents – Ballon d’Alsace (1247m; 2h 40 from Giromagny), Grand Ballon (1424m;3h40 from Thann), Hohneck (1362m; 2h40 from Mittlach)and Le Donon (1009m; 2h 30 from Shirmeck). Although the ground is uneven from time to time there is nothing which is too difficult.

I followed the GR5 as far as Le Donon with slight variations. Generally the way marking is good but watch out for the different convention in the Vosges. Rather than the usual red and white stripes for GRs the Club Vosgien uses a red rectangle.


View more details.

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Maps and Guides

Topoguide La Grande Traversée du Jura Ref. 512 published by the FFRP for the section across the Belfort gap. Topoguide GR5 Crete des Vosges Ref. 502 also published by Federation Francaise de Randonnee Pedestre (out of stock as at 30.4.2012 Consult for alternative maps and guides). IGN 1:25000 maps for section North of Le Donon 3616OT, 3715OT.

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The Vosges experiences heavy rain and strong winds at certain times of the year. Annual rainfall is between 50 and 100 inches. I battled through a rain storm in May but also enjoyed sunshine. There is too much snow to walk safely on the crests between December and March.

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I had no difficulty finding accommodation. Some of the ferme auberges in the mountains are very cosy. It is worth phoning ahead to check they are open and not full in the busy season. Some auberges have a day off each week!

I list below places where I stayed which I can particularly recommend. I have not covered every stopping place on my route.

Ferme-Auberge du Gresson Moyen
Mme. Hirth.
68290 Oberbruck
Tel 00 33 (0)3 89 82 00 21

Ferme-Auberge du Molkenrain (lunch)
Monsieur Claude Pfauwadel
Route des Cretes 68700 Wattwiller
Tel. 00 33 (0)3 89 81 17 66.

Chalet Hotel du Grand Ballon

(Club Vosgien Strasbourg)
Le Grand Ballon, 68760 Wiler sur Thir
Tel. 00 33 (0)3 89 48 77 99
fax 00 33 (0)3

Ferme Auberge du Schiessroth (lunch)
Famille Schubnel
Schiessroth, Metzeral 68380
Tel. 00 33 (0)3 89 77 63 63

Chalet refuge la Tinfronce
Col du Calvaire Lac Blanc 68370 Orbey
Tel. 00 33 (0)3 89 71 58 26
Fax 00 33 (0)3 29 56 79 47

Gite d’Etape Les Brimbelles
M et Mme. Jean Pierre Segard
9 Route de Ste.Marie aux Mines, 68150 Aubure
Tel. 00 33 (0)3 89 73 91 04
fax 00 33 (0)3 89 73 91 04

Hotel Au Cheval Blanc
Anne et Yves Hinderer
122 Grand'Rue 68150 Ribeauville
Tel. 00 33 (0)3 89 73 61 38
fax …..37 03

L'Instant, Chambres d'hotes
Pierre Schoch
39, chemin du Eck, 67140 Le Hohwald
Tel. 00 33 (0)3 88 08 35 95
fax…..35 96

Hotel Velleda
Col du Donon, 67130 Grandfontaine
Tel. 00 33 (0)3 88 97 20 32

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Click on the thumbnails below to see larger images with captions.

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