Tuesday, January 02, 2007
I really should write these things up as soon as I get back from them – I keep assuming nothing worthwhile is going to happen after a trip, and so end up getting blindsided by bike thiefs and New Year’s (I suppose New Year’s isn’t a surprise as it usually happens the same time every year, but still….
As my loyal readers may recall, when Jon came to visit here we attempted to hike up to the three castles outside of Ribeauvillé, which are known as Shorty, Spiky and Shambly to the locals. We failed, as the two of us, intrepid outdoorsmen that we are, managed to climb the wrong mountain. You’d think that given a choice between “climbing mountain with no castles on it” and “climbing mountain with castles on it” we would, as a couple of guys who wanted to see castles, would choose the latter, but we didn’t.
Anyway, Amynah, excited by my account of the castles we didn’t see, decided that we should rent a car and go visit them. So, we rented one of those cars that are the equivalent of those dogs leopard-print wearing women carry in their purses, although I would put my money on the dog were the two to collide. In France they’re used mainly for city driving. We took it on the highway.
It was overcast when we left and as we drove south to Ribeauvillé it became increasingly foggy. We made it to the village no problem and I parked behind the basketball courts of the Lycée at the foot of the mountain. As we were gearing up to hit the trail, a German woman came out of the woods (the hills are crawling with Germans here – French people think hiking requires a three course lunch and wine, which tends to slow them down. Germans are more goal focused, marching around the French countryside like it was their job). Although I was sure that I knew where we were going after the debacle with Jon, we asked her which way the castles were. She pointed us to the left into the vinyards. I turned smartly away from the trail to the right that led into the woods – “Of course!”
It was a nice day for a walk – the temperature was hovering around freezing, and as we made our way higher into the hills, the clouds began to clear. The mist had frozen on the upper levels of the hills, covering everything with glinting frost that shone in the winter sun. By the time we reached the first of the three castles that ring the summit, the clouds had flowed down the slopes to pool into the valley below – leaving us with silver hills and a rolling sea of white spread out under a blue sky for as far as the eye could see.
We climbed the tower of the first castle – St Ulrich – where, a sign told us, the famous criminal Cunégonde Giel de Gielsberg had been imprisoned. Cunégonde had, according to my own research, attempted to leave an unhappy marriage by hiring pair of goons to dispose of her husband. The newly single noblewoman got on well enough with her guard - Philippe de Bacharach, (no relation to Burt) – to spring her. She escaped – he was executed for his pains. Shortly after the castle – which had ceased being used as a military post some time before – became a leper colony, with 200 residents in the 16th century. They’re gone now, which made it much easier to enjoy our lunch on the castle tower.
Just across the way from St Ulrich was the Giesberg, a smaller castle that has fallen almost entirely into ruin. There wasn’t much to see there, but it did make for something pretty to look at from the tower of St Ulrich, and –returning the favour - provided a nice the view of the larger castle.
There was a third castle over the hill, but the trail to it was blocked. As this was my second attempt at seeing this thing we weren’t keen to turn back, so we decided to ignore the sign forbidding entry. This castle was over the hill, and the road we were on was going around it on a distinctly downward slope. We ran into a couple coming the other way, and asked them if we were on the right track. They said we could get to the last castle that way, but this road actually led to a monastery. After ascertaining that we were Canadian, they bid us adieu by “enjoy your stay in Alsace!” Thanks – it’s been a good six months so far.
After a wrong turn in the forest, during which my Duracell-glutton camera died trying to capture the enchanted forest we found the monastery. It’s a pilgrimage site, dating from the 12th century, and was founded after the scion of the Ribeaupierre family returned from the crusades. Over time it fell into disrepair, before being restored by the Germans when they occupied Alsace in 1870 (they were big on reasserting the Germanic heritage of the place). There’s an inn there and is still run by Capuchin Monks. The highlight is a carving of Mary holding the body of Christ after the crucifixion, cradling him like he was a baby. Very moving, and apparently plundered from the Holy Land.
We took the pilgrim’s trail back to Ribeauvillé and our car – a narrow defile along the mountainside with the road to St Marie-aux-Mines below. Once we made it back to the car we drove to Frieburg in Germany. We were pretty late in the day, so we didn’t see much, other than their cathedral, which is basically a smaller version of the Strasbourg Notre Dame, only they’ve painted their virtues and vices like skid row tarts, unlike the rather intimidating looking ones they have here.
The next day we headed to Baden-Baden, determined to see a bit of the town. Of course, by this point Amynah’s sick of churches and none of the museums sounded that interesting, so we headed for another castle. Of course, I’ve never driven in Baden-Baden before, but I’m confident that after getting mildly lost in the Blitz-fog the night before I can handle a spa town in daylight. And so, using a decision making process that would be familiar to Jon if he were reading this, I decided to go up the nearest mountain.
This would have made more sense if we knew the name of the castle and could therefore follow the signs. We didn’t, and so, rather than waste our time driving around randomly, I parked the car at a fairly arbitrarily selected side road, and we got off and wandered into the woods, relying on a sign that pointed to something called Ebersteinburg. This could have been the castle, a bar or a blood-drooling man-eating wildebeest for all we knew, but the sign assured us it was only 1.7 km away, so off we went.
Turned out it was a village near the crest of the hill. But once we reached that there was a sign for a nature park which, as with the Vosges the day before, was sumptuously bedecked in raiments faire. The nature park’s chief claim to fame is the giant rock formations that reminded Amynah and I of the Badlands of Alberta, only with more trees and hills, different rocks and less dinosaur fossils. You can see why we’d be nostalgic.
Somehow we managed to trod along through this for another two or three kilometers, me snapping photos of actual wild mistletoe and the frost encrusted holly until we came to a giant rock formation that was a little different from the others. This would be the Burg Hohenbaden, the building of which began in 1102, and at one point included 100 rooms. It’s still impressive today, and there’s a nice little hotel and restaurant next door. We poked around the various rooms – the castle apparently has Europe’s tallest wind harp (14 meters), though I don’t know how much that counts for when it’s broken. We climbed the tower for the view of Baden-Baden below, only to have the clouds roll in below, which though it created a lovely effect, tended to block the view. They disappeared as soon as we climbed back down.
After lunch (potato pancakes) we walked back to the car, only to discover that we had parked 5 minutes away from the castle and then walked a five kilometer loop to get to it (for my Haligonian readers, this makes as much sense as parking on the Dartmouth side of the MacKay Bridge and then walking around the Bedford Basin to get to Halifax).
No matter. All the walking had prepared us for the main business of the day: getting naked with Germans. On to Friedrichsbad!