Touching the void - The Vosges mountains

Whatever the weather, the Route des Cr�tes offers a walking experience that’s hard to beat. R�gine Godfrey braves the elements as she heads up Le Hohneck to the roof of the Vosges mountains

It is not difficult to see why the stunningly beautiful town of G�rardmer attracted tourism as long ago as the mid-19th century. The narrow forested valley is perfect for winter sports, and its jewel of a lake, carved out of an ancient glacier, is perfect for all sorts of nautical pleasures during the summer months, dragon boat racing included. But I had come to the Massif des Vosges to get off the beaten track and to enjoy being close to nature.

The Route des Cr�tes, I had been told, is a series of rounded mountains named ballons, which provide magnificent vistas as far as the Black Forest in Germany, and on clear days even the Alps. So I drove from �pinal past sumptuous forests of spruce, beech and fir trees, approaching the Col de La Schlucht that divides the regions of Alsace and Lorraine. Waiting for me at the Refuge du Sotr� was my guide Florian, who was already kitted out.

Head for heights Hiring an accompagnateur en montagne – a guide – is well worth it in the Vosges. As with any mountain range, local knowledge of its treasures and, more importantly, of its meteorological quirks is invaluable and can greatly enrich your experience.

We were already at a height of 1,200 metres and were heading for the top of Le Hohneck, nicknamed the roof of the Vosges’. At 1,363 metres, it’s the third tallest mountain in the Massif des Vosges, and the second highest summit in the d�partement of the same name. Our walking plan was quickly agreed: from the viewpoint indicator map at the top of Le Hohneck, we would take the Route des Cr�tes and part of the renowned GR5, the grande randonn�e path from Holland to the Mediterranean.

By the time we started from Le Hohneck, a sombre formation of clouds threatened. A fine drizzle soon enveloped us as we proceeded on the wellestablished path that sloped downwards. Florian could see I was disappointed in the weather and prompted Benjamin, his young stagiaire, (trainee), to show me the dainty mountain pansies (viola lutea) growing in the deep grasses on the sides of the track. The massif prides itself on the variety of its flora. The rare alpine flowers on Le Hohneck are all protected. The great yellow gentian, arnica and especially the pink martagon lily speckled with purple, are found in good numbers. This area of the mountain calls itself the Hautes-Chaumes. On 25 May, feast of St Urbain, these sub-alpine meadows become home to herds of the gorgeous black and white Vosgienne cow. They arrive from the valley to graze until St Michael’s feast day on 29 September. Their excellent milk is turned into a delicious soft cheese. The marcaires – high mountain farmers – sell it as G�rom� on the Lorraine side and Munster in Alsace. Legend has it that an Irish monk born in the 9th century created the recipe.

An hour later the rain had stopped but instead a thick mist was spreading around the landscape, now opaque, with poor visibility ahead of us. We stood close to the Worsmpel Cirque looking at a couple of n�v�s, pristine white snow plaques that would never completely melt down. Florian offered me herbal tea and pointed to several chamois down below. Chamois (rupicapra rupicapra) do not tend to look for danger from above and sure enough mothers and young were feeding, unaware of our watchful presence. Although there was some distance between them and us, we could clearly see the gamsbart or chamois beard, a tuft of hair at the base of their neck traditionally worn as a trophy by hunters from alpine regions. After a while we moved, prompting one chamois to charge down from a steep wooded slope, showing its supreme agility.

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Caught unawares Delighted with this encounter we were heading back to base when another couple of adult chamois appeared on the horizon, this time totally aware of our group, but seemingly unafraid. What luck! Nothing can beat the awesome vision of these superb animals, with short horns and a very distinctive white face with black stripes. Back at the Sotr� refuge (Lorraine is the land of Sotr�, a mischievous goblin) we enjoyed the gastronomic specialities while chatting over a glass of kir � la mirabelle (white wine and greengage liqueur). Manager Jean-Marie Haton set up an association within the Sotr� refuge that turns disabled people’s dreams of hiking into a reality. For this, Sotr� uses its own brand of transportation, the Jo�lette’, a one-wheel mobility contraption engineered by Jean-Marie’s friend Jo�l. Superb hospitality and delicious food made it an evening to remember. Tofailles, a delicious Vosges speciality, is a wholesome dish of braised potatoes cooked with onions, leeks and wine, served with pork.

The following day dawned and, due to the fairer weather, I was eager to stretch my legs in the reputedly beautiful Vall�e des Lacs, I could see two of its lakes from the spectacular vantage point at Sotr�. Le Lac de Longemer, a fly-fishing paradise, was a gentle stroll away and is a typical picture postcard scene with the quaint Saint-Florent Chapel tucked on a promontory. The very deep natural expanse of water is unpolluted and the clear glacial waters are conducive to swimming, which is allowed, although not supervised.

A little more challenging, but enjoyable, was the climb to a belvedere at the Lac des Corbeaux, 15 kilometres south of Longemer. When we reached the Roche du Lac the views were awesome, revealing the lake as dark as the crows that populate it, hence its name. In contrast, the peatbog lake at Lispach, also a fisherman’s haven, looked more serene.

Before I left the Vosges I was told of a delightful proverb: “Quitte � marcher, autant en prendre plein la vue!”, which means: “If you have to walk, might as well get an eyeful!” And an eyeful I certainly got.