Show Notes for Episode 385: Les Vosges, Off the Beaten Track

Category: Alsace and Lorraine

In this episode we discuss what you can do and see in the Vosges:

Visit the thermal stations and take a cure or just see how they work. Drink the famous mineral waters

Visit the last crystal factory of the Vosges that produces some of the famous Lalique crystalware

Do many kinds of outdoor sports:

Hiking,backpacking, biking, swimming, skiing, camping, following nature trails

Go birdwatching

See one of the 5 Remarkable Gardens of the Vosges

Take a canal barge trip on the Canal of the East

See the many ruins of medieval monasteries and churches as you wander through the mountains

See the fantastic, and enormous fortified castle at Chatel-sur-Moselle

Visit the small, quaint villages including Domrémy-la-Pucelle to see the house where Joan of Arc was born

Visit the two museum and the Roman house in Epinal

Enjoy the famous Springtime Daffodil festival or the Fantastic Film festival in Gerardmer (both held every other year) or one of the many summer music festivals

Eat the very good food of the Vosges: especially the cheeses, the charcuterie, and the berry pastries and the honey-spice cake

The Natural Regional Park of the Vosges which covers almost the entire mountain range is enormous. There are 26,367 hectares (over 50,000 acres) of park and has lakes, rivers, waterfalls and forest. There are 4,000 km of hiking trails, 500 km of Grand Randonnée trails for backpacking, 1,000 km of trails designed for VTT, and 160 km of nature trails with signs and information. The center of nautical activity and the hub for skiers is Gerardmer.

A Little History and Background

The Vosges is both a department in the northeast of France and the name of a geographic region that includes a huge, forested area with many rivers and lakes. It is also the name of the mountain chain that covers the eastern part of the department.

Bordering Alsace, which is to the east, the Vosges is an area that was part of the ancient dukedom of Lorraine and it is still considered to be a part of the Lorraine region. The Vosges is a largely rural area with one medium sized city, Epinal (32,000 people, with the outlying areas it has about 150,000 people) as its county seat, and many villages interspersed with forest and pastureland. Like Alsace, this part of eastern France was claimed by Germany and spent part of the 19th century attached to it. The Meuse River cuts through Epinal, on its way to joining the Rhine.

The actual department was created in 1790 during the French Revolution. To create it, some land was taken from Alsace, a little from northern Burgundy, and the rest from the old region of Lorraine. It is named after the mountain range, which is one of the oldest in France. Even though the highest peak, The Grand Ballon, is only 1,300 meters, (4900 feet) the climatic conditions – picking up all the rain and wind coming from the west, and the dense forest, make it one of the wettest, and chilliest parts of France. It has a good amount of snow in the winter. The Vosges is, even today, the second most wooded or forested region of France.

For a very long time this part of France was remote and hostile because of the rough winters and reduced accessibility, so many monasteries were built there during the Middle Ages. Their ruins are among the architectural sites to visit now.

The local dialect which is now disappearing, is a mix of French and Alsatian.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries there were many textile and paper factories in the region thanks to the many rivers and lakes. Most of these have disappeared, with a couple of exceptions: the big paper company Clairefontaine still produces its products in the Vosges, and a major outlet of high-end bedding and textiles called Linge de Vosges which has stores in all major cities in France, still produces its cloth in the region as well.

There are many lovely little villages scattered all over the region, more perhaps in the lower, western part of the Vosges. This region is great for low key tourism: many outdoor activities, thermal stations, small sites of historical or archeological interest, and general sports activities.

The capital, Epinal, sits in the center of the Vosges. Built along the banks of the Meuse River, a major river that flows into the Rhine, it has all the facilities and services of a larger city, but on a smaller scale. There is a good, if small, fine arts museum that is surprisingly well endowed. There is also the ancient factory, now museum, of what is called the Images of Epinal. These were engravings, in color, carved first on wood and then on metal plates, that depicted typical scenes of life and stereotypes; the pages were used for books and for advertising, even as far back as the 1790’s.

Epinal is also one of the stops along the Eastern Canal. You can rent a boat or just make a day long stop here as you travel on the Canal.

To the west of Epinal, in the middle of the valleys and pastureland, are four thermal stations that have been known about and used since the time of the Romans. Two are also famous for providing mineral water that is very well known; Contrex and Vittel. The springs that provide the water for the thermal baths is the same that is used for these bottled mineral waters. There are two other thermal stations; Plombières les Bains, and Bains les Bains. All of them are still active and you can stop and visit or stay and take a cure there!

It was thanks to these baths that in the Middle Ages a kind of tourism developed. Written documents talk of the “cures” that rich people took in the Vosges area even as far back as the 1500’s. And in the 1700’s the famous essayist and philosopher Voltaire wrote about the great virtues of these baths.

But the real advent of tourism began in the 1800’s. Thanks to the popularity of the baths, several local enterprising people wrote guides for walkers. These guides were surprisingly for both men and women because it was a distraction for the rich or as they were called, the leisure class, to have a healthful outdoor activity. This was the beginning of a rich history of outdoor activities and attractions that have made the Vosges popular ever since. The first “guide for walkers” was published in Epinal and by 1904 there were several walking guides.

Starting in the early Middle Ages, the Vosges was also a wonderful place for groups of monks or friars to set up a monastery far from civilization. In the densely forested areas, of which there are many, these monasteries were left undisturbed by society for centuries. Their ruins dot the countryside and are part of the historical tourist trail you can follow (in a car).

The Vosges Mountains are a chain of low mountains covered with dense forest and criss-crossed by rivers, streams, lakes and small villages. It is here that there is a very well-developed infrastructure for outdoor activities. The center for all these is the town of Gerardmer, a small city of 6000 people built along the banks of a large lake. This is the starting point for all the hiking trails and it is here that there is the ski school and many forms of lodging.

The mountains are a natural border between the Lorraine and Alsace. From the crest of the mountains there are places where you can see both sides, the western forested area and the sloping hills and low valley of Alsace. High up in the mountains is the Fortress of Chatel-sur-Moselle, dating from the 11th century, one of the largest fortified castles still standing in Europe.

As tourism developed more and more in the 19th century, the Vosges mountains became a major attraction and Gerardmer opened the first ski station which attracted people from all over the north of France and the surrounding regions. Now there is an enormous amount of skiing there, both cross-country and downhill.

In the 20th century the concept of Remarkable Garden was invented and there are 5 of those in the Vosges, one that is at 1,200 meters high, and that is all about mountain vegetation and trees. The Vosges are known for the enormous number of different birds of all kinds and is a favorite place for bird-watchers. Several species of hawk and owl live only in the forests of the Vosges. Since the end of the 20th century the lynx and the wolf have come back to the forests there and the Vosges has a huge nature center with an educative program that is great for children and families.

To visit the Vosges, you can go from Paris via Nancy, which is 74 km to the north or go south from Metz, both of which are on the bullet trainline. If coming from Alsace, the center of the Vosges (basically near the thermal baths or Epinal is 91 km from Colmar. The mountains and Gerardmer are about 50 km from Colmar and the wine country of Alsace. The thermal towns are in the western part of the Vosges, in the valleys, and are about 45 km west of Epinal.

The Vosges is a wonderful area to visit in the Springtime when there are wildflowers everywhere, in the summer for the green but not too hot environment, for the freshness of the lakes and streams too. It is a relaxing outdoor experience, and in the Autumn when the colors are magnificent everywhere it is magnificent to see. This is a wonderful area to visit with children and there is something to do for everyone in the family.

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Category: Alsace and Lorraine