Wednesday, June 19, 2013


Somehow, I think of vacations as being longer. I'd call this a long weekend, except the weekend part of it was short; we got home early on Sunday. It's going to be a long post, though, and I'm linking sites and towns to the Wikipedia entries (sometimes in French, sometimes in English) to keep it a bit shorter.
We managed to keep almost a week free of volunteer duties and doctors' appointments, babysitting, dinners out and other nice or not-so-nice obligations. We almost went to England, but the family, there, had other obligations -- very nice obligations -- congratulations to Nigel and Valérie! The big question was "where?" We've had such a horrible spring; should we head south? Or go see friends?

Well, we called P and J in Basel and they were home from their trip and we called M and K in Freiburg-im-Breisgau, so that settled it. We headed east; I programmed the GPS to not authorize highways, so that forced us to a leisurely pace on our way to Metz, where we planned to spend the first night. Our route took us through the village of Epine, which has a basilica. This is a village of 700 inhabitants in the Department of the Marne, near Châlons en Champagne, with an enormous church! It's a Gothic church; it didn't get its basilica status until 1914. The name of the church, Notre Dame de L'Epine, and the town, does not come from the crown of thorns; the legend is that the statue of the virgin was miraculously saved from a burning thorn bush. What surprised me most, aside from its cathedral size, was that the statues all had their heads. In France, most church statues lost their heads during the French revolution. The next thing was the gargoyles, which are in incredibly good condition, too. There's a plaque near the entrance, honoring Captain Louis d'Hangouwart, who, it seems, single-handedly saved the basilica from destruction on Sept. 9, 1914. That was very close to the beginning of World War 1, and very far west already! There is, of course, also, the miraculous well, over which the church was built.
We were on the WWI battlefield road and made a stop at the Butte de Vauquois. There was once a village at the top of this hill. There was a city hall and a church separated by the street. It was a battle of mines. The deep mine crater line what was the street. The French trenches are on one side and the German trenches on the other. The German trenches are permanent structures, in stone; the French ones are more basic mud with walls made of woven branches and sandbags. The whole hill is pitted with mine craters. The forest has grown back, but you can still see the craters; you can't walk off the paths.
After that, we went to Verdun,  the Douaumont Ossuary, which on the site of the demolished village of Douaumont. There's the fort dug into the hill just before you get to the ossuary and walked on the hill/roof, full of shell holes. Military cemeteries are impressive, especially the big ones. So many graves for the ones identified; so many bones of the unknown.
It was a fairly short drive to Metz after Verdun. P-F and N lived in Metz about 20 years ago and loved it. Now we know why. It's a beautiful city, with a vibrant city center. I guess it helped that the weather was nice and people were out. Not tourist people, but local people. The cafés set up on the plazas and sidewalks were packed. The shops were busy. I could live here.
The next morning turned south towards Mulhouse. We stopped to take a look at the Château de Lunéville, a kind of mini-Versailles, built by Léopold, Duke of Lorraine early in the 18th century, but his son had to give it up to Stanislas, the exiled Polish king, who was Louis XVth's father-in-law. They are in the midst of restoring the building that was pretty much destroyed by a fire in 2003. The gardens will be the last part to be restored; there is currently a contemporary sculpture exhibit, there.
We continued on down through the Vosges mountains. We stopped in Gerardmer for lunch and remembered our vacation there more than 20 years ago. Our route took us past Xonrupt, where we stayed. The Linvosges textile factory is one of the very few textile works still functioning and we visited the factory shop. The rest of the afternoon was taken up driving along the crest line from the Col de la Schlucht to Mulhouse. As we came down on the Alsacien side of the mountains, the weather was hot and sunny and we had time to walk around Mulhouse a bit. It's a dying city. On entering the city, you drive through the same warehouse-style shopping centers that surround almost all French cities, and in the city center, you see the closed shops and restaurants. There were people, but not nearly as many were out and about as in Metz. Our hotel was an old hotel near the train station, very nice and friendlier than a chain. We were next to the Museum of Printed Textiles, which we visited not the next morning, but the morning after. It's an interesting visit, because as in Manchester, you see how much was invented for the textile industry. In Manchester, it's the creation of the fabric, in Mulhouse, it's the chemical industry for fixed colors in printing. There's a bit of the history of dyeing fabrics, which was copied from the Indian tradition of tie-dyeing and batik, before creating stamps and then engraved cylinders.
The trip to Basel was to see P and J. We saw them last year, when they were in Paris. For Paul that was the first time in over 40 years and for me, it was the first time. They are delightful. The urban heating infrastructure is in upheaval in Basel, so the GPS had to work very hard to find their apartment building, but we did find it. They have a sumptuous apartment with a beautiful view, lots of greenery and tall trees, and they are a short block away from the tram that gets them into the city center in just two stops, no more than 5 minutes! It's perfect. We took the tram and connected to another to go to up to the other side of the city to the restaurant, where we were lucky to eat on the terrace, in the sun. We had an excellent basque chicken and then ambled down the hill, through what seemed more like a village than a city center, down to the city hall and the church and the old streets, to the other side, where we got a tram back to the apartment. The city was packed with people visiting for ArtBasel, the contemporary art sale. On our return to the apartment house, we got in the car and went over the border into Germany to visit the Vitra production site at Weil am Rhein. Like the industrialists of the 18th and 19th century, the site is an architectural showpiece of contemporary architecture: Jean Prouvé, Frank Gehry, Buckminster Fuller, to name a few. This is where they make the famous Eames chair
and so many other pieces that have become iconic, like the Panton chair.
Back to the apartment for more conversation and a great dinner of asparagus and ham before heading back to Mulhouse for the night.
The next morning, after visiting the Museum of Printed Textiles, we went to see the Schlumpf collection, which is now the National Museum of Automobiles -- acres and acres of cars. Interesting, but a bit too much of a good thing.
Back into the mountains to take the high road to Colmar, via Munster. Colmat is lively, clean and filled with tourists. Like all these pretty Alsacian towns, it's Disneyesque, maybe a bit more so than the other towns. We took the little train around the old town. The hero of Colmar is Bartholdi, the sculptor who did the Statue of Liberty. Everything is named for Bartholdi.
On Saturday morning, we took the slow route to Freiburg, in Germany, to see M and K. Their daughter, S, was there with her baby girl, so that was a treat. We had a short visit all together and then S left and we went into town for lunch. Lunch was taken as we walked around the market in front of the cathedral, first stop at one of the sausage stands for the main dish, followed by the lightest, creamiest cheesecake I've ever had. Having filled up with food, we went to a beer garden for some beer. There was a band playing. The town was bursting with people happy to be out in good weather on the weekend. We walked around a bit and then went up to one of the restaurants on the mountain for coffee and a slice of Black Forest cake before going back to the apartment. We had dinner -- asparagus and ham -- at a restaurant just down the street.
Sunday, we were getting tired of taking just the country roads, so we allowed highways, but spent most of the morning on the country road about half the distance back to Paris, and this took us right through Ronchamp, where we saw a modern-looking church on a hill, which I remembered (from a documentary) as a Le Corbusier, so we went up there to see it. There is a whole Clarisse community up there, but you can't see anything except the chapel from below. Renzo Piano did the new convent and oratory, also invisible from below.
As this is not vacation season and the road was empty for the return to Paris, so we got back in time to see Dominique Weil's exhibit at La Charpente.

No comments: