Monday, October 27, 2008

Cunegonde's revenge

Chateau St Ulrich; Cunegonde lies in wait

I swear to God, I will eventually write about something other than hiking here soon. Right after this one.

When Amynah and I first arrived here in France, some of our earliest social events were visits to the countryside. Julie (another post-doc in Amynah’s lab) and her boyfriend Sebastien, a couple recently arrived from Bordeaux via England, took us out to visit some of the prettier villages on the Wine Route that winds its way through the Vosges near here. Shortly thereafter Dom, another colleague of Amynah’s, invited us to join his family and their friends on a hike near Saverne, an experience I was able to spin into my first story for the Globe and Mail.

These experiences meant a lot for us: not only because we were being made to feel welcomed in our new country, but also because we were able to familiarize ourselves with the local geography. Once the deluge of visitors we have hosted over the last two years began, we were confident in our ability to show people around Alsace, a confidence that has gone a long way to making us feel at home here.

Some of the local geogrphy

What proved to be the biggest boost for us, proved to be my former French teacher, Danielle. Danielle is one of those people that makes friends the way other people breathe. Together, she and her husband David are one of those couples who have an innate ability to spread the wealth of friendship around: if you meet a friend of Danielle and David’s, chances are very good that you will have made a new friend in the process.

Danielle would occasionally organize outings into the countryside (usually in the Black Forest, across the border) for her pupils from Amynah’s institute. All were foreigners like Amynah and I, and came from all over the world. Though those outings, Amynah and I have made some of our best friends in France, (including the famous Sami the Finn).

Sadly, Danielle and David have since moved to England. However, since Amynah and I have, thanks to Sami the Finn, our many guests, and Amynah’s lab-mates, traveled extensively through the Vosges, we felt we had the wherewithal to duplicate Danielle’s magic, and organize a hike of our own.

Ribeauvillé. This is as close as I would get

I picked the three castles hike near Ribeauvillé, which is about 80km south of Strasbourg. I had done variations on this hike a few times before. The first time, I took the wrong path and wandered aimlessly over the mountain, failing to find any of the three castles. The second time, I found St Ulrich and Girsberg, but was thwarted in my attempt to ascend to Haute Ribeaupierre by an “access interdit” sign at the beginning of the trail. The third time, we ran out of time to tackle the third castle. All of which has led me to conclude that the trail is cursed. Events would bear out my theory.

I look healthy, don't I?

I invited a number of people from my French class, and the beginner’s class – they, in turn, invited their friends. We ended up with 14 people – Germans, Spaniards, Romanians, Argentinians, French, Chinese and Australian, all depending on my questionable trail-guiding skills.

We set off a little later than planned – the time change was this weekend, and one of the drivers thought the clocks needed to move an hour ahead – but still made it to Ribeavillé by about 11 AM.

Qi is not supposed to be up there

It was very busy on the trail to the first castle, and the trail was very steep. I had woken up that morning feeling extremely stiff and poorly rested for some reason, and as I struggled up the trail, I began to break out into a cold-sweat as well. By the time we made it to Chateau St Ulrich, I also began to develop a cast-iron headache.

I should point out that St Ulrich is quite possibly haunted: it was famously used to imprison Cunegonde of Hungerstein, a noblewoman who had decided to end her marriage through the unorthodox but not-yet-legal means of murdering him. Prison life not agreeing with her, she seduced her guard, who helped her escape. She was never seen again – especially not by the guard, who was executed for his complicity shortly thereafter. Other possible specters in residence include the scion of the Ribeaupierre family, whose construction of a monastery nearby was unlikely to outweigh, in St Peter’s book, looting the Holy Land of holy artifacts during the Crusades, or possibly even the poor souls from the colony of lepers isolated here in the 17th century.

In any case, one of those candidates obviously had it in for me, because by the time we stopped for lunch, I was full-blown sick – unable to ingest more than half a sandwichm - meaning I missed out on Amynah’s cake, Qi’s cookies, and the strange Argentinian “matas” tea that Carolina and Danilo had brought.

I'm not sure not drinking this was such a loss

Cunegonde and her ghostly cohort may have had it in for me, but I had numbers on my side this time. Nothing was going to stop us from reaching our final destination: Chateau de Haute Ribeaupierre, the giant castle atop the mountain that I had missed on my three previous attempts.

It was, of course, barred by a thin wire fence and a sign warning us that entry was forbidden, due to the danger of falling medieval masonry. Carolina, having no particular use for anyone telling her what not to do, especially some vandalized French sign, simply climbed up a ruined wall next to the gate and hopped over. Soon, the barbarians were swarming the walls of Ribeaupierre, and it fell to our onslaught. Amusingly, another group arrived at the castle as we were doing this. One of them looked at me an said – “I’m a guide.” I stopped, thinking that we were going to get ratted out to the French-ruined-castle-police. “Are you a guide?” she asked me. “Sort of” I replied. She then turned and told her charges that it must be ok to enter.

Barbarians at the Gate

The third castle conquered, we set back down the hill to where we’d parked the cars. I was feeling increasingly worse, but everyone else was chattering, making new friends, and enjoying the near-perfect Autumn weather. On our arrival at the cars, it was decided that a celebratory coffee was in order, and so we paraded into the village. Or rather, they did: I was too sick at this point, and elected to stay in Carlos’ and Merixtell’s car for a nap. Matters were even worse on the drive home: we had to make an emergency stop in the parking lot of the Ribeauvillé casino, so that I could inspect the ground behind the bordering hedges.

However, everyone else had a great time. Perhaps I should just skip the next one of these things I organize.

NB: All the photos, except the one in which she appears, were taken by my friend Qi

1 comment:

David Beeson said...

Great piece! Sorry to hear about your troubles.

Clearly, uneasy lies the belly of he who wears a hike organiser's crown.