We unexpectedly found ourselves on La Route des Crêtes yesterday. It was a golden late autumn afternoon and I’d taken us for a Sunday post-lunch drive. Motoring in Alsace is a pleasure. The roads are well maintained, the scenery is stunning and the numerous scenic routes lead you through one charming, tidy town after another.
So, while there’d been a misunderstanding between me and the GPS (I call her Henriette) and we’d ended up not quite where I’d expected, it had been a delightful drive. We’d driven all the way up the valley, following the river Thur. There’d been a few turns but it had been a relatively relaxing drive compared to some of the huge up and down circuitous mountain roads I’ve been tackling lately.
After a wander around the town we’d unexpectedly landed in, I punched in “Geishouse” into the GPS and set sights for home. I’d thought we’d be sent back the same way, but “Henriette” had decided to take us the high way. Back along La Route des Crêtes.
Originally constructed by the French as a strategic passage for troops during World War 1, today La Route des Crêtes is a scenic tourist drive that runs the backbone of Les Vosges mountain range. Dotted along its length are countless starting points for rambles in the alpine wilderness of the Parc Naturel Régional des Ballons des Vosges as well as a couple of ski resorts. It’s not a drive for the faint-hearted. The road reaches around 1 350 metres at its highest point as it passes by the aptly named “Grand Ballon” (Big Ball). For the most part, it’s winding and narrow, with sheer drops just metres from the road’s edge.
We’d traversed the Route the week before. I’d wanted to get it under my belt before the road closed for the year. It usually does so in mid-November at the first sign of the snow. So I thought I’d ticked that one off my list. But Henriette insisted and so off we went.
Higher and higher. There were plenty of cars coming back in the opposite direction and this seemed reassuring. But I did notice the temperature dropping. 4 degrees, 3 degrees (automatic warning from car: risk of “verglas” – black ice) 0, then -1, then -2. And then, wintery magic. Fragile trees covered in a dusting of snow, white powdered road, crystal sunlight. We’d left autumn and arrived in winter.
I was shocked. I wasn’t ready for winter yet. I definitely wasn’t ready for winter driving – and not on this sky-high alpine road. But there was no turning back. So with gritted teeth and both hands firmly on the wheel, along we went. Winter regressed to autumn and then advanced once more to winter as we dipped in and out of gullies, which welcomed winter early, and then back to hillsides still kissed by autumn’s glow. It was a seasonal dance of ducking and weaving.
Some of the natural magic was somewhat dissipated, however, by the chorus in the backseat. Silas and Delphine, bored of the long drive, had regressed to a loud repetitive recital of bodily fluids – mostly in English, but with the occasional French. At least they were working their bilingualism.
It was distracting but I couldn’t afford to let my attention wander. Certain sections of the road are precipitous. A mere arm’s length between the side of the car and a terrifying drop. I tried to occasionally glance sideways to glimpse the stunning view but between “poo!” and “wee!” and the prospect of impending doom, my priorities were clear.
But I couldn’t resist the Route’s parting gift to us as we peaked at le Grand Ballon and began the descent down into the valley: a hazy pink sunset behind the layered Vosges mountain range. I pulled the car off the road, admonished the children to stay put and ducked out of the car to snap a few shots in punishing wind.
What beauty! This place is gently but relentlessly wooing me. Even a gastroenterological soundtrack couldn’t take the pleasure from that picture. Time and time again, I wonder why this enchanting part of France isn’t better known outside of Europe. But what a blessing to be continually surprised by splendour.