An epiphany in Alsace

Yesterday was Epiphany. While this is a purely religious observance in Australia, here in France it’s taken on the same broader cultural significance as Christmas. That is, there’s a cake on offer, a surprise for the children, and you don’t need to be Christian to play along.

The cake is called a galette des rois, and it’s kind of a cross between a cake and a sweet pie. There’s pastry on the outside that surrounds a dense frangipane filling of almond meal in which is secreted one little fève– a small hard object. The fèveplays a role similar to that of a silver coin in a traditional English Christmas pudding. But in this case, the person in whose slice the fève is found, gets to be the king for the day and wear the crown that is generally provided along with the cake.

I’d decided to follow local custom and had resolved to buy a galette des rois at our regular Saturday market. I wandered around the stalls and spotted a mound of rounded tomes accompanied by a stack of gold paper crowns. This had to be it. I confirmed with the shop owner that these were indeed for l’Epiphanie and handed across the euros. He placed it in the bag and, glancing at Silas and Delphine, observed that we’d soon be having a little king or queen at home.

As it turns out, I’d made a bit of a mistake and had actually bought a gateau des rois instead. This is round and comes with afèveand crown too, so my confusion was understandable. But this version is made of brioche and sugary icing. It was a mistake but not an unhappy one. We all agreed that in its buttery, doughy goodness, it was delicious.

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The next morning we travelled down to Thann for church, or “temple” as it’s called here to distinguish it from the Catholic kind. We had the usual readings for epiphany – where Jesus is baptised by John the Baptist and God’s voice resounds through the clouds pronouncing his divinity – but we also had a guest speaker of the more visceral kind. Someone who brought a different kind of epiphany for me.

Our speaker works for the regional government to promote inter-religious dialogue and he’d come to speak about his work. It turns out that Alsace is one of the most religiously diverse regions in France. There are practising Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians of all sorts here, including many more protestants than is generally the case in the rest of France.

He was passionate about his work, and an unrepentantly proud proponent of the depth of inter-religious tolerance in Alsace. He spoke of how the respectful interaction here extends beyond just the larger cosmopolitan towns to also be found in country villages such as our own. Newly arriving rabbis, imams and priests are regularly invited to the worship places of the other faiths to be welcomed to the local community. Perhaps, he opined, this religious diversity and respectful interaction, has been made possible by the openness of Alsace’s geographical location, sharing borders with multiple countries. He imagines Alsace as a “corridor” through which people of many backgrounds have passed over the centuries, and even millennia.

He closed his presentation by clarifying that he didn’t believe the objective of inter-religious interaction was to generate one shared belief system. “Inter-religion is instead a question of dialogue between different faiths. The point isn’t to create one unifying religion, but to build bridges between them all.”

That night, we finished off our gateau des rois. I cut a chunk off for each kid and retreated to the kitchen to do the washing up.

Silas called out, “Mama, I think she’s found it!”

Delphine rushed to explain “I found it in my kouglof.”

Wrong cake, right region.

“I dug in. And I found it.”

“And now I can wear the crown.”

She posed it on her head “I’m King Louis!”

Wrong king, right season.

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Car city

I knew many things about Alsace before we came, but one thing I didn’t know is that it’s the home of automobile manufacturing in France.

10 years ago the Peugeot factory in Mulhouse (40 minutes down the road) produced its 10 millionth car. Today, it makes the car that we’re driving around in – the Peugeot 2008. But it all started much earlier.

The Mulhouse Peugeot factory only dates from the 60s, but Peugeot has been making cars in Alsace from almost the beginning of automotive history. And of course, its location here on the German-French border has complicated the story. In the late 19thcentury, Alsace was under German rule and so, although the Peugeot factory in this area was geographically close to Alsace, it had to send the Phaetonnet Type 8it produced to the Daimler factory in more central France from where they were then shipped back to Alsace for sale.

This long history of car manufacturing is celebrated at Mulhouse’s flagship museum “cité d’automobile” – Car city – which claims to be the largest car museum in the world.

Knowing Robert’s appreciation of cars – an avid “Wheels Magazine” reader and passionate enthusiast of electric cars – I decided that his visit was the perfect occasion to make the trip downtown and check it out.

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It is immense. A huge hall filled with rows and rows of cars greeted us as we crossed the threshold. They’re mostly a selection of cars that were once ordinary in their day, with just the occasional supercar to spice things up. Robert was delighted to come across his parents’ first family car in the line up – a Peugeot 404.

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His father had been a true Peugeot faithful right up until he was taken from us too soon. I remember him driving us as newly weds from the church to the reception in his burgundy Peugeot. The car’s glossy sheen his reverent acknowledgement of the significance of the day.

The old family chariot of my own family – a Datsun 180b – was not present. This was a French museum after all. But my own father wasn’t far from my thoughts either. How enraptured my mechanical engineer dad would be by these rows and rows of engineering innovations. By the steady evolution from “horseless carriages” that really did look just like a cart lacking a horse, onto the long-bodied roofless numbers with their sweeping wheel arches, right through to the space-aged Martian-like experiments of the 70s aiming for maximum aerodynamics.

The historical motoring through car models seemed to end there, at that era of bellbottoms and big hair. As Robert observed, from the 1980s onwards, cars took on the shape that now characterises almost all vehicles on the road today. Evolution has definitely slowed. But not completely. In the far corner of the hall, like a full-stop to the seemingly endless rows of cars, was a car on a pedestal: the Bugatti Veyron – the world’s fastest car.

It looks like a bullet and goes at 407 km/hour. I watched my own father-child moment taking place as Robert, Silas and Delphine stood mesmerised by the video image of this car reaching top speed. It was of course impressive. But apparently, unsustainable. As we walked away from the display, I overheard Robert telling Silas that after 15 minutes at this speed, the Veyron would explode. But there’s a failsafe, at this speed the car will run out of fuel at 10 minutes. Detonation avoided by 5 minutes.

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The cars were beautiful and such a testament to human beings’ scientific skill. But what I was left with at the end of our visit was a mind full of images of the voyages that we take in these cars: the seaside excursions, the family holidays, the trips home from the airport, the first time behind the wheel, a kiss snatched in the backseat. For me, it was these human moments that really populate our car cities.

Inns of the high country

Today we celebrated New Year’s Day in the mountains behind our home. Last week’s rain had washed away the snows and, with them, our hopes of a New Year’s ski. But when there’s no snow, there’s a ramble to be had instead and so as the day dawned mostly clear, I decided we’d bring in the New Year with a walk around our local ski resort of Le Markstein. We could familiarise ourselves with the resort before snow’s arrival made the terrain harder to interpret and we could also get out in the fresh mountain air.

It was also a chance to finally peer inside the doors of an Alsace institution – the ferme-auberge. These farm-cum-inns dot the landscape of the high Vosges mountain range. According to the glossy coffee table book tucked under the television, there are at least 68. I find the text difficult to understand, the author couldn’t resist literary flourishes in his nostalgic and poetic description of their history and present day reality. But the photos tell it all – flower bedecked in summer, snow-iced in winter, these family-run hostelries combine farming activity with offering a warm welcome to mountain visitors, including hearty meals for hungry walkers, skiers and snow-shoers.

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So my eyes lit up when I noticed our proposed walking route led right past one of them. And I was thrilled when, after a quick phone call, I could confirm that it was open on New Year’s day and serving lunch. We had a reservation for midday.

With the rosy sun touching le Grand Ballon, we headed off, backpack bulging with all the essentials for high mountain walking: jackets, overpants, drink bottles, snacks, beanies, gloves, map. Our preparations were necessary. As we arrived into Le Markstein the weather closed in and we all layered up in respect of the changeable mountain weather.

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A few backtracks and map re-reads later, we found ourselves moist and mist-haloed at our destination: Augberge S. Before pushing open the door, I read the sign “90% of all our meals are home made with our own or local ingredients. So, understand that our menu changes regularly.” Encouraging.

We stepped immediately into the dining room: true Alsace. Solid wooden chairs, red and white patterned table cloths, wood beamed ceilings and a Christmas tree in the corner awaiting the 12thday of Christmas. Our hearty host welcomed us and gave us the menu in verbal form. No need for a written version when it changes daily.

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Robert couldn’t resist the offer of escargots – snails. So I had to choose the equally French option – onion soup. For mains, we chose another local speciality of a potato and cheese dish featuring the local Munster cheese, from the eponymous town just 45 kilometres down the road.

We chatted happily with our hearty host as our meal was cooked by his wife, who came from Geishouse. And yes, he knew our neighbour, who just happened to have been president of the committee that runs Le Markstein. We talked about our neighbour’s generosity and how we had found that to be characteristic of the Alsaciens in general.

“Up in the mountains we’re all solidaire: we share, exchange and help each other out.”

“Alsace is known for its warm welcome but also for its good food and wine, beautiful countryside. That’s why it’s such a popular tourist desitnation here in France.”

Then he added with a cheeky grin: “We say that the French come to Alsace for their holidays, and the Alaciens go to France for theirs.”

It turns out that he and his small team had worked for 24 days straight. I expressed my surprise and said that sounded pretty exhausting. He shrugged and replied “but that’s what we’re here for: to serve people in the mountains.”

Our meal was tremendous: Delphine couldn’t get enough of the snails, soaking up the last remaining juices with her chunk of baguette.

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Everyone had a go at my basin of onion soup. And in the end the Munster potatoes defeated us, despite their rich, cheesy flavour egging us on to eat just another mouthful.

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It was with warm tummies and even warmer hearts that we walked away with a happy wave to our host.

“Au revoir – perhaps we’ll see you in Geishouse the next time.”

“No, I don’t think so.” He said resolutely, very much the proprietor as he stood at the entrance way to his own personal kingdom. “But I’ll always be very happy to have you back chez nous.”

‘tis the season: celebrating Ecole Steiner style

Steiner schools know how to celebrate Christmas. It’s all in the build up. Rudolph Steiner was a big fan of marking the seasons – partly as a way to imbue children with the wonder of the world around them, and partly as a way to help them understand the passage of time.

The season of Advent (the period marked by the four Sundays before Christmas) provides a rich supply of material. The first sign at Ecole Steiner Haut-Alsace was the appearance of the Christmas couronne in Delphine’sJardin d’enfantskindergarten room. Not the “crown” that I’d thought when I’d first heard the term, but instead a table decoration: a Christmas wreath adorned with the four candles of Advent.

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Each morning in the dim light of wintery morn, early arriving children would sit around the couronne watching the warm flame and singing Christmas songs. Once experienced, I was enchanted. For the whole month of December I set my alarm clock a little earlier to get on the road a bit sooner and arrive at school in time to enjoy the whole tender tiny ceremony.

An important waystage on the way to Christmas here in north-eastern France is the celebration of St Nicolas on 6 December. Of course the school celebrated. For days before, we’d added songs about St Nicolas to our traditional Christmas ones. This child-loving gent is known to secret bon-bons (sweets) into children’s slippers to greet them on 6 December. In the jardin d’enfants, little children arrived on the day to find tissue-paper parcels bound with fine silver thread stuffed into their “inside shoes”. Excited fingers discovered walnuts, mandarins, a spiced biscuit and a little bell inside. Delphine wore hers on a string around her neck for days afterwards. My own little reindeer.

The excitement lifted another notch with the arrival of the school’s marché de noel – the first in the school’s new building. In fact, the building itself looked like a Christmas present, beribboned as it was in its red bunting and green pine boughs. I’d helped out with the decorations the previous day, working alongside my fellow craft group parents.So it was with a feeling of belonging and a faint proprietary air that we turned up on the big day.

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It was a cold, overcast morning but nothing could dampen the mood. The whole school was there to celebrate its achievement of moving into their new school building, as well as opening their doors and warmly welcoming the local community into their new home. We ate enormous amounts of home-made cake, watched an exquisite puppet show, ventured into the magical “grotte des lumières” (cave of lights) and perused stalls of lovingly-made objects – including the most delicately detailed beeswax candles I’ve ever seen. I even managed to buy Delphine’s Christmas present with the quick understanding of the stall-owner of my hand-gestures and pointing.

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But last night was the turning point. In so many ways: The last day of school for the year. The winter solstice bringing with it the darkest day of of the year. The official beginning of winter in this part of the world. And the school’s nativity play.

Apparently this is an annual tradition that had been postponed for two years running as the school was relocated from temporary home to temporary home during the purchase and then elongated restoration of their current home. But last night, it was back on. In this school, it’s the staff who dress up as all the usual characters. There was a bubbly air of expectation as we walked into the hall, proper stage-lights illuminating the stage setting of decorated pine tree, manger and hay bales. Windows flecked with rain drops adding another wash of stars to those hanging from the ceiling.

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I looked around the room as families and children filed in. So many familiar faces now. I knew at least a third of the children by name. I could match them with parents, whose names I mostly didn’t know but whose personalities were now warmly familiar. It suddenly hit me. I’d looked at so many of these faces for over a year as I’d poured over the Facebook page of this school, steadily falling in love with the spirit of its community. And now here I was, in the midst of it all. I felt doors sliding. A sensation of having stepped out of reality and into the pages of a beloved book.

So although Delphine squirmed on my lap and later sclathed on the floor, and Silas had to be relocated away from an irresistibly chatty neighbour, I could feel the magic of Christmas shot through the fabric of pragmatic parenting like golden thread in silk woven from warp and weft yarns.

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Chateaux on plateaux

As we drive around on our explorations, they watch over us like sentinels – ancient castle ruins high in the hills.

They are many in number and diverse in their degree of decay. I knew nothing of their existence before arriving here. And so, yet again, I’ve been surprised by another delight of Alsace – it’s home to the largest number of mediaeval castle forts in France.

They started being built from around the 12th century. The weakening grip of the Holy Roman Empire left a power vacuum in the region and local lords were keen to protect themselves from the disorder. They built great chateaux forts to be their home and safe hold, both for their family and their followers. In time, some became the central administration for the region, which is why some towns here are still centred around their chateaux today.

Silas loves castles. So he’s been thrilled at their regular appearance on the skyline. He’s enchanted by stories of knights jousting, sharp-eyed archers perched atop ramparts and the possibility of dragons lurking in the dungeon. So he was begging to visit one soon after we arrived.

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The first castle we visited was Chateau du Hohlandsbourg. It’s been fairly recently restored from an overgrown sleeping beauty state to a pristine semi-ruin.

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The view from the ramparts was astounding: to the west, the Vosges mountain range rippled all the way to the horizon and to the east lay the city of Colmar below. We could hear its church bells pealing at 11am to announce the 100thanniversary of the end of WW1. It felt fitting to be in this place, once a site of ancient combat but today a peaceful place of gentle pleasure, on this day of remembrance.

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Our second chateau was closer to home and lesser in remains. But its story made up for the lack of apparent castle. L’oeil de la sorcière – the eye of the witch. This castle had been deliberately rendered a ruin, and by King Louis XIV no less, who had ordered it to be destroyed in 1673. The walking notes from the tourist office in Thann hadn’t explained just why Louis had felt so inclined, so I was left to ponder with Silas and Delphine what could have possibly made the King so angry. What ever might have been the cause, the result is, a-hem, eye-catching. The explosion caused one of the towers to break apart and fall on its side, becoming a great ring of stone jutting out from the side of the hill. As we approached it in the late autumn afternoon sunlight, it was eerie in its beauty.

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Castle number three came after a visit to Kaysersburg Christmas market last week. At the last minute, we had decided to continue by foot through the village and up the walking path to its hill-top castle. I was feeling tired. I’d skipped our usual lunchtime rest and refresh at home, and had instead picked up the children from school and headed straight out on the one-hour drive to Kaysersburg. I hadn’t expected to do a bushwalk and so had said yes to Delphine when she’d asked to go in the stroller for our wander around the town. But here I was, half-way up a mountain path, folded stroller on one shoulder, camera slung on the other and marching up the stairs in my heeled boots. My eye was caught by two laminated plaques attached to a rock by the side of the path. I stopped to read:

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“Out of breath or not… You are in !

The effort engaged – important or not in your eyes – nobody would have done it in your stead, and nobody else other than you will reap the benefits…”

The message from French philosopher, doctor, musician, and native of this village, Albert Schweitzer continued on for several paragraphs. It spoke straight to my heart. To that part of me that had decided to embark on this three-month long Alsace adventure.

Something settled inside me. I resolutely straightened the pram strap on my shoulder, reached out my hand to help Delphine up the rocky stair and followed my castle-loving son to the summit.

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All Christmas Markets Great and Small, but which is the fairest of them all?

One of the reasons I chose to make Alsace our home for the northern winter is its famous Christmas markets. And it had delivered. In fact, I’m overwhelmed. There is a dizzying number to choose from: everything from high-production value events featuring multiple differently-themed markets in the one town, through to a few craft stalls in a local community hall.

I dropped by our local tourist office in Thann last week to pick up some information to help me navigate. There was a rack groaning with brochures. With Delphine about to pull apart the Christmas decorations, I gathered a random armful and made a speedy getaway.

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But glossy brochures aren’t the only source of information. I’ve also been gleaning the details from posters and flyers pinned up on telegraph posts as I fly by on the way to school. These are for the more local, low-key numbers. But I’ve actually found this type of market to be more charming and approachable than the larger scale stunning kind.

Take the Christmas market at the Kruth Ski Club. It was held on what I consider to have been the “opening weekend” of the Christmas market season: the weekend of 24-25 November. I’d already had to make a choice between at least five other village markets that weekend, but the appeal of a Christmas market in a ski lodge had been irresistible.

Up, up into the mountains we went following the occasional sign. I was grateful for the directions I’d received the night before from my neighbour’s friend. We’d been invited around to eat Baeckeofe cooked in our honour. Over the steaming plate of three types of meet and tender root-vegetables I’d mentioned my plans for the morrow. “Ah,” she’d said, “it can be hard to find. You need to turn left at the church in Kruth, follow the road up the mountain, turn right at Frenz then pass on through the village.” Her instructions were spot on, and we arrived to a fanfare: a quartet of musicians playing the long wooden alp horn.

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It was a delightful market with local ski lodge volunteers serving up tarte flambée, crêpes with nutella and presiding over a steaming cauldron of vin chaud (mulled wine).

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The following week’s excursion to Colmar was a completely different affair.

Last year Colmar won second best Christmas Market in Europe. It is indeed beautiful. And big. There are five separate markets spread out over the historic centre of the town all with different themes: artisans and antiques, land and tradition, children’s delights, specialities of the region. The multi-coloured, cross-beamed mediaeval houses make for a charming backdrop to the cluster of wooden cabins in which all these various delights are found.

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But on a Saturday morning, it was mayhem. As the French would say, there was the world. And indeed there was. After a month of living in France, I finally encountered tourists. In the café where we escaped for morning tea, we listened to a group of Spaniards singing happy birthday. Stepping out the door we encountered a bus-load of Chinese tourists and pushing through the crowd I heard the unmistakable twang of Aussie English.

I thought with Colmar we’d seen the worst of the crowds. I’d been asking for it going to such a famous market on a weekend. So I didn’t think twice about going to another one that was in a village, rather than an internationally ranked town, on a Saturday. And how could I resist the call of a mediaeval Christmas market? So in all innocence, we set off early the following Saturday morning for Ribeauvillé.

I started to get a sense of what we were in for when I noticed roads lined with parked cars kilometres out from what “Henriette” (our GPS) said was the market’s location. The closer we got, the thicker the traffic became. We circled around the village looking for a car park. Gendarmes in evidence at roundabouts and event staff everywhere. Eventually we found a spot in the local sport’s oval that had been requisitioned for the weekend as a public car park. We had to walk 20 minutes up the road.

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An oh, mon dieu, we couldn’t move! A slow moving snake of people was jostling along, pushing their way through the canyon of mediaeval buildings leaning towards each other over a winding cobblestoned passage. At times we were completely at a stand still. The pram was not an asset. Even the charming mediaeval garbed performers and the surprise arrival of a flock of geese following their fowl pied piper through the crowd couldn’t entice us to stay. I found a side road and we made fast our escape.

Driving back home in the car, I reflected on how wrong first impressions can be. I’d been disappointed when we’d gone to our very first Christmas market. It had been the small kind in a community hall: local crafters were selling their lovingly-made wares, small-scale farmers were selling their best cheeses, yoghurt and dried sausage, and there was a small “restauration” in the hall’s kitchen where you could pick up a plate of choucroute and sausage with a glass, of course, of vin chaud. It had all seemed a bit low-key. After all, I’d come to the Christmas market capital of the world. I’d expected more.

But now I’ve come to recognise these types of market for the true gems they are. What you see there is real. Made by the people in the room, with love and care. In Colmar and Ribeauvillé I saw the piles of merchandise that is immediately recognisable as products designed only ever to be souvenirs. Bought in the moment, discarded when the suitcase is too full.

I cherish the things I’ve bought at the three local markets I’ve been too: a chocolate butter paste I bought from the young women whose mother proudly told me her daughter had made them all herself, a spiced fruit compote that I’ve been eking out on my breakfast cereal each morning, and the gorgeous hand-made Christmas card that is destined for a lucky recipient at home. My only regret is that I didn’t buy more of these cards. At all those glossy large-scale markets I’ve been to, not one Christmas card have I see. So that’s it. I’ve decided to frequent the big end markets no more. Because now I know which type of market is the one where I feel the true spirit of Christmas.

A frosty surprise

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Driving home on Monday afternoon, I was momentarily distracted by white specks suspended in the air. It took me a moment.

“It’s snowing!” I said

“Really?!” asked Silas

“Yes, look in the air. The floating white specks. I’m pretty sure it’s snow.”

For the second time in two days I was very thankful I’d already changed to winter tyres.

I gingerly drove up the winding road to our mountain village, quickly revising the plans I’d had in mind for the afternoon. Best to stay at home for this first snowfall of the season.

Once home and out of the car, Silas and Delphine performed a snow dance on the rapidly whitening lawn. The snow fall became heavier.

We bustled into our ski gear keen to get out for a walk around our snowy village. I put tomorrow’s drive back down the mountain out of my mind, closed the door resolutely behind me and gambolled in the snow like a child.

First snow on La Route des Crêtes

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Commemorating 100 years

Military cemetery at Moosch

Military cemetery at Moosch

Today in France it’s the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI. As a British-Australian, it’s a poignant time to be here.

In the lead up to Remembrance Day today, I’ve been listening to Richard Fidler’s series of Armistice “Conversations” on ABC radio. He tells the story of Australian troop experiences in the north of France through a series of interviews with relatives and local French people, and through reading excerpts from soldier’s writings. The diaries are particularly touching. So understated in their depiction of courageous and selfless action. 53 000 Australians died in France in WW1.

But Australia isn’t part of the war story in Alsace. Here, theirs is a different tale. It’s a complicated and painful history. Alsace was occupied by Germany for most of the war. Overnight, school children were taught their lessons in German not French. Alsacien men were forced to fight for the Germans against their own French countrymen. I can only imagine the complicated emotional legacy.

On our drive to school each morning, we drive past a cemetery with hundreds of little white crosses. It only dawned on me yesterday, as I saw uniformed “pompier” (fire fighters – but they have a broader community role here) making preparations for today, that these crosses were for those who’d fallen in war. The pompiers were preparing for the arrival of an eternal flame that was to be brought by foot from the neighbouring town to its final resting place here in Moosch. I realised what it was that I had encountered earlier that day, when I had had to manoeuvre around four pompier jogging along the mountain road flanked by flashing lights of the companion car.

Later on that day, I sat in the dining room of a lovely German family whose son is in the same class as Silas. We chatted together in French as we watched our children playing in the garden. Beyond the backyard fence, in the distance, we could see the famous Black Forest of Germany just over the border. Our conversation was that of parents the world over. Concern for our children, hope for their future. French, German and English mixed as we talked to our children and to each other.

Such an ordinary scene.

I sat there, watching our two boys playing at being chevaliers in the backyard, trying to make sense of this contradiction of grand geopolitical affairs and lived reality. It might be state leaders who start and end wars, I thought. But sitting in that living room, I felt how our common humanness transcends all this and how in sharing our lived experience, true peace between nations is found.

An ode to autumn in Alsace

All the locals say we’ve been lucky. It’s a particularly spectacular autumn. It’s been perhaps the biggest surprise: this mountainous landscape of golden hues.

Yesterday, Delphine and I drove up a winding mountain pass where we stopped half-way, high up on the saddle, to eat elevenses of fresh bread and cheese bought from a local market. Sitting on Delphine’s upturned jacket crunching baguette and gazing at the view, for that one moment, I was content simply to be.

First impressions

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I drove past it once, twice before the photos in my mind and the reality before me merged. There it was, the stairway tucked just below the level of the road. I parked the car, turned off the ignition with relief and sent up a quick prayer for safe arrival. We’d done it! And 1.5 hours earlier than I’d predicted.

It was also 1.5 hours earlier than I’d informed my hosts, and they were still readying the chalet for our arrival. We exchanged apologies between expressions of delight at finally meeting.

Our host ushered us into our new home: sunny, charming, homey and a koughloff on the table. We were truly in Alsace. I’d expected a tiny chocolate box of a chalet, but instead, I discovered a small cottage fit for a little family. Separate kitchen equipped with everything needed for a long stay, combined living and dining with a view right out over the valley. Then a curved stairway upstairs to a delightful find – a landing area with a wooden chest full of toys. The children rejoiced. I did too as I wandered into my bedroom and took in the view: a village clinging to the side of a hill, graced with a church spire and behind it, the “grand ballon” mountain with its dusting of snow. The children’s bedroom was gorgeous too. Tucked under the eaves with a large ceiling window and children’s pictures on the walls. We were home.

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I felt the full warmth of an Alsace welcome as our enthusiastic host shared a little of her native region with us. Seeing us begin to droop, she solicitously asked whether we had had lunch. I’d forgotten my plan to buy something at the airport, and explained I intended to go back down into the valley to buy supplies.

“No, but you’ve only just arrived. Do the children like pasta? I’ll bring some. And then you can write a list and I’ll send someone down to do the shopping for you later.”

I was beginning to feel truly blessed. And then Delphine lost it.

She collapsed into the inevitable tantrum that I’d just been holding off for so long. Our host diplomatically left and I sat with Delphine as she cried out all the tension of 30 hours of change, challenge and sleep deprivation.

Once the tirade had passed, we lunched on koughloff and tea, and then stepped out in the fading autumn sunshine to explore our new home.

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Back along our street, down to a little gully with a shrine to Jesus and Mary, across a grassy path and up to the church where we chatted with a volunteer gardener in the old presbytery garden. Then up to the local school and Mairie, and follow the road around back home.

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I’d taken a gamble that this little hamlet in the hills would be the right place. But I hadn’t been sure. There’d been previous experiences where a perfect-looking place had not turned out to be a home for a happy holiday. But this time, if felt good. Immediately.

I’m trying to keep my expectations in check, but it’s hard not to feel that our time here might be a trip to remember for all the right reasons.

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