Alsace 2013

One of the most difficult sides of setting up an international trip for Scouts and Explorers is finding somewhere suitable to stay. This trip had initially been pencilled in as Austria or Germany, but the more we looked at the accommodation the fewer options we had. One Pfadfinder Group in the Black Forest had accommodation the right size, on the shores of Lake Constance and within easy reach of some fantastic experiences, but… it had only one shower, a single dorm, and only had cold water.  Another in Hesse was in an old castle complex and looked fantastic, but the charity running the facility had two other operations on the same site. One was a home for unmarried mothers, the other a drug rehab centre. Such were the challenges we faced finding a place.

Then, Karlsruhe based VCP Land Baden, another grouping of Scouts, had Haus Oberlin available, it was the right size, it had the right sort of accommodation, and it was in our price bracket, but instead of being in Germany, it was in Alsace, across the border in France.

So, since we knew the area quite well, we decided to take a chance and booked Haus Oberlin in La Vancelle.  It was a long drive down to Alsace and we decided that we would break the journey in both directions with a stop at Tournai on the way down, and at Bruges on the way back.

We hired MPVs, and drove overnight to Dover, arriving at our overnight stay in Tournai about lunchtime on the Friday. It was hot, very hot, the thermometer in the MPV read 40 degrees. We couldn’t get into the hostel till 5:00pm, so we spent some time in the town , some of the Explorers cooling in the fountain, before we walked off to a park to sit and chill out. It was way too hot to do anything much. A few folks bought chips, but it was too much for most of us.

Later in the afternoon we climbed the Belfry in Tournai, said to be the tallest freestanding Belfry in Belgium. Here we learned that the origins of the Belfry were not as a bell tower, but as wooden siege engines used to storm town walls. Later used as lookout towers, then converted to stone structures over the years.

Come the evening we were ready for a meal, and with options limited by price, we chose between a Chinese or Italian, and Italy won the day.

We drove down through Belgium, arriving at Arlons for lunch, and eventually arriving at La Vancelle about 4:30 in the afternoon.

We were delighted to find that not too far from us in Selestat there was a Leclerc, where we were also delighted to discover that prices were closer to Aldi than Sainsburys, and we stocked up there several times.

From the balcony in front of Haus Oberlin, we could see Haut Konigsburg across the valley, our first scheduled visit on Monday. However, on Sunday we started out at the Stork Sanctuary in Hunawhir, where we spent a good two hours viewing the storks and the otters. However, the wildlife show didn’t start till the afternoon. So, we were given a pass and we popped down to the ancient town of Riquewhir, where we had a wander around, bought Christmas decorations, yes, Christmas decorations, and chilled out before going back for the wildlife show, where we saw how different species caught fish in different ways. The commentary was in French, but most of us got the gist of things, including the information that there were only five breeding pairs of otters in the wild in Alsace. A fact that is al the more disturbing when one considers that it has the Rhine, and the Ill, as key waterways, a huge marshland area, plus many mountain streams. As we were later to discover, the Rhine is actually quite clean, certainly compared to the Calder! The main culprits for the decline in otters have been, as here, hunting and pollution and the loss of habitat, but also the expansion of the Rangolin, or Coypu.

In the afternoon we dropped in to the picturesque town of Ribeauville, which had a Pink Festival on. Now, in the UK a Pink Festival would be quite clearly a gender related event. In Alsace it was just an excuse for everyone to party on the street and there were no political axes being ground.

Monday, we started out early with a visit to Haute Konigsburg, the castle restored by Kaiser Wilhelm I to put the new Germany’s mark on its newly annexed territory in Alsace. Unlike many period restorations taking place across Europe at this time, Haute Konigsburg was undertaken with good reference to the past and in the main part is believed to be a reasonably accurate restoration, although the castle windmill has been put in the wrong place, and the gothic staircase is clearly an invention.

In its heyday the castle was rented out to robber barons, who were supposed to protect the countryside from invaders. Instead they robbed and ransacked the local towns, all of which were themselves fortified at the time and all capable of mustering their own troops. So, when they had had enough, they pooled resources and laid siege to the castle, undermining its walls and causing it to fall. The castle was eventually ransacked by the Swedes it was built to defend against.

After the castle, we headed up to Le Struthof, this was the serious part of our visit, Le Struthof or Natzwiller, was the only Nazi death camp in France. Prisoners from both occupied and Vichy France were arrested across the country and held in local prisons, those deemed to be untermenshen or political opponents, if they survived local internment, were transferred to Le Struthof, where they worked in engineering plants repairing equipment from the Luftwaffe or the Wermacht, or quarrying stone from the pink granite quarry for grand construction schemes across the Reich.

The museum gave an idea of conditions, the chilling morgue, torture rooms, and the assassination room left a chill, not taken away by the camp’s central heating system, fuelled by human remains.

A modern interpretation centre has recently opened, and after a visit to the camp, and the equally chilling Kartoffel Keller, where absolutely no-one knows what the Nazis had planned, there was an opportunity to use the interpretation centre. We could have stayed for longer, but we were running out of time to get food, and to complete our plan for the day, a climb up the Donon.

The Donon is a hill above Smirneck, with views west into Lorraine and East towards Le Struthof and the direction of the Rhine. It tops out at over 900 metres, and the climb from the roadside parking to the top takes about an hour and a half. Thankfully, there is a radio transpitting station close to the top, served by a tarmac road, so we could freely climb the path to the top without fear of breaking any Scout Association rules, otherwise this would be classified as dangerous as Ben Nevis (which it isn’t).

At the top of the Donon there is an archeological dig of a Celtic hilltop village, and right at the summit, a recreation of a Roman temple. The rocks around the temple carry graffiti that tells the tale of the various occupations of Alsace, Austrian, French, German, French, German again, and finally French. Even today there are still people carving their names in the rock, but they neither have the time nor the skills of the past and sadly they detract rather than add to the story.

Tuesday we went on a canoe trip on the River Ill. More like a mystery tour. The instructions and the maps we were given bore little resemblance to the river we paddled, it was only when we came to a sluice gate that we realised that without making any of the turns we were told to take, we were where we were meant to be.

As we came off the river the rain started, and it turned to a real downpour, making our vist to Colmar pointless. So we headed back to base before popping over the Steige to visit the Nussbaumer Distillery. The tour has been professionalised with a video presentation and a detailed tour of the plant since we last visited. After the visit we popped into the shop/ museum and the adults were offered samples of whatever liqueurs took their fancy. Before we could stop him, our guide was dishing out samples to the Explorers too. Oops!

Wednesday was our day in Strasbourg, we drove up and took a Park and Ride Option, it was much cheaper than going by train. In fact, the train would have been 17 Euro per head, plus parking at Selestat. The Park and Drive was 10.50 Euro for three vehicles and 19 occupants. In Strasbourg we wandered around the narrow streets, the riverside, Little Venice and the bridges before having lunch at a riverside tavern. Then we gave a little freedom to roam, which seemed to confuse the Explorers and Scouts, who lingers around the square outside the Cathedral. They only went in for a vist when we told them to.

Thursday we had scheduled a visit to Freiburg in Germany, the computer said it was a 45 minute trip. The Sat Nav took us the scenic route and it took just a bit longer! However, we arrived on market day, and the Scouts and the Explorers wandered around the market and spent some money, some on gifts to take home, some on food.

We then took the Schollsburgbahn half way up the Schlossburg and then hiked up the rest of the way to the Scholssburg Turm, a spiral staircase into the skies above Freiburg supported by some rather large pioneering poles. It was one of those affairs where if you looked down you could see through the grid all the way down. Not everyone as happy. However, the braver souls climbed right to the top of the viewing platform.

We then tried to get to the Motor Museum in Mulhouse, but our Sat Nav and the completely illogical German traffic signs confounded our plans, and when we got there, there was a huge queue and we had to cancel that visit so that we could get to the white water rafting at Huninge.

The white water park  is a small stretch of man-made white water on a branch of the Rhine. It is separated from the Rhine by a sluice gate.  Just a few yards from the parc is the border between France, Germany and Switzerland.

The two hours of rafting at Huninge was probably voted as the most fun part of the trip. The water was at 28 degrees, and once the instructors realised that there were no problems with us chaos ensued. At one point there may have been more people in the water than on the rafts. Even the instructor got pulled into the water.

Friday was a quieter day, we visited Obernai, so that Fiona and Ewan could visit their favourite wine shop, and then down to Ribeauville for a mediaeval event where we saw jousting, apple crushing, sword making, weaving, and several other crafts. We then slipped into Ribeuville for a wander and a chill out.

Friday night after our meal out, we cleaned the house so that we could make an early departure.

On Saturday we drove up to Bruges, via Bastogne, where we stopped for lunch at La Mardasson. In Bruges we gave everyone the freedom to wander and explore. In the evening we ate at a restaurant in the market square and as it was the last night of Klinkers  some of the party tried their hand at the Roller Disco, before they all went on to the live stage in the Burg square, where they watched the live music through till 11:30 when we sadly had to call it a night.

We had time on the Sunday for shopping, and those who wanted to climbed the Belfry in Bruges. Then it was the long haul home again.

Needless to say, we had driven through France, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany, France, Luxembourg, Belgium and France without a hitch. It was only when we got to Calais that the UK Border Control created a huge queue. Had we arrived the suggested 1 hour before the ferry, we would have been stuck in France. Then at Dover, it was a crawl out of the harbour, as customs were busy checking as many as they could. Lord save us if they build more customs halls!  Then we got to Dartford, and again there were queues as there was only one tunnel open. Welcome home to the land of queues.


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