Sunday, April 25, 2010




The Alsatian village of Meisenthal nestles in a deep valley amid the mountains of the Vosges du Nord. Meisenthal, famous for its crystal glasses and art works, served as the second part of our weekend theme of regional artisanal industries. Like Sarreguemines, Meisenthal had grown as a one-company town--in this case the Meisenthal glassworks--that had lost its industry in by the end of the 20th Century.

Meisenthal was one of the original sites of the Alsatian glass industry. As early as the 15th Century, semi-mobile glassmakers were at work here. The main glassworks was founded in 1704, producing lead crystal ware of high quality and superb craft. The workforce--glass makers, glass blowers, glass cutters, and glass painters--maintained high levels of skill from generation to generation.

In the face of competition, especially from mechanized production from Belgium and Germany, the Meisenthal glass works closed on December 31, 1969. Indeed, many other glass works in the region closed over the years--Montbronn in 1957, Lemberg in 1997, Harzviller in 2004, and Goetzenbruck in 2005.

Former Meisenthal workers lead tours of the Museum of Glass and Crystal, housed in one of the former factory buildings. The museum showcases some of the highlights of Meisenthal's work and explains, through two films, how the crystal was produced by hand, from start to finish. One of the guides, pointing to a cut-glass goblet (identical to one shown in one of the films) that retailed for $260 per glass joked that he could get us a great price if we bought a dozen.

During its apogee in the early 20th Century, the Meisenthal factory was a key center for Art Nouveau glass. Émile Gallé, one of the most famous members of the Nancy School of Art Nouveau, designed many pieces produced at Meisenthal, such as this vase.

And here's a contrasting style of vase from the same period.

A large factory building across from the museum has been repurposed as a performance space, the Halle Verrière de Meisenthal. The huge building, some 34,000 square feet, retains some of the factory's most interesting features, such as a central raised platform from which supervisors could survey the workers. The building had been abandoned with the closing of the plant at the end of 1969, and stood unused and neglected until a local artistic collective spearheaded its renovation, which was completed in 2004.

The International Center of Art Glass, housed in another, adjacent building of the old factory, seeks to preserve the memory of the Glass Country and to trace the perspectives of contemporary art glass through its roots in the glassmaking tradition. Contemporary artists come to Meisenthal to create new works at the Center. Some artists send their designs to the Center, where the Center's craftspeople produce the new pieces.

Two of the glassblowers gave a remarkable demonstration from the start to the finish of creating a contemporary art-glass piece. We could observe them working from a balcony that surrounded the studio. Here the glassblowers are transferring the partially finished vase from one pole to another, so that they can work on the vase's mouth.

The vase they created before our eyes was identical to one of the vases for sale in the Center's shop.

After the glassworkers completed the vase, they talked with us for a little while. In response to questions from Susie, the man in the white shirt explained that he became a glass blower because his father and both his grandfathers were glass blowers at Meisenthal. He said that he learned his skills as a child who spent many hours under the factory's tables while his father and fellow glassblowers worked.

Even if the glass ovens at Meisenthal are limited to demonstrations and works of art, Alsace still has some active commercial glass producers. As you travel along the roads of the Vosges du Nord, you pass numerous large glassware stores and even some factory stores.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Le Chateau de Schoeneck

One afternoon during Susie's and my visit to the Vosges du Nord, I hiked to the ruins of the Chateau de Schoeneck. Even at a fast clip, the walk was pretty much 15 minutes of steep climb, through a mixed forest.

As I neared the top, through the trees I could begin to see the castle, built on top of the red sandstone that is typical of the region.

The original castle at Schoeneck appears to have been built by the 12th Century. In the 13th Century it traded hands between the bishops of Strasbourg and Lichtenberg. By the 16th Century, the castle's lords were adapting it to artillery, and during the Thirty Years War it served as a refuge for the residents of three neighboring villages. By the mid-17th Century the garrison had dwindled to four men. And in 1680 French troops occupied the castle and dismantled it. So by the 19th Century, the castle looked like this--a romantic ruin.

Schoeneck looks much the same today. It has the same towers, walls and ramparts, in the same state of ruin.

A dedicated group of volunteers is working to preserve the Chateau de Schoeneck. Their Web page describes the castle's history, shows pictures, explains the parts of the castle, shows how to get there, and describes their restoration work. When I visited, two volunteers, accompanied by an exceptionally large dog, were restoring the foundations of one of the artillery bastions.

Here's the castle's main gate, from the outside, where people seeking entry would cross a draw bridge.

The northern end of the castle has the seigneur's residence. Even in the castle's ruined state, you can make out important elements of daily life in the Middle Ages, such as fireplaces.

To me, Schoeneck's most remarkable aspect involves the staircases carved directly into the rock on which the castle was built. This the north staircase.

The double window, visible from below, is another striking feature, with its twin arches and window seats. You can easily imagine the residents of the castle looking out.

From the highest point of the Chateau de Schoeneck you can appreciate its strategic position. Trotting down the path takes you back to the parking lot, and from there the road takes you down the valley to right, toward Niederbronn-les-Bains.



Friday, April 23, 2010

The Northern Vosges Mountains

As you drive east from Metz, you first start skirting the German border in about 35 miles, around the village of Hombourg-Haut. Continuing east for 20 miles, with the border meandering to your north, you reach Sarreguemines. And then, turning southeast, in another 12 miles you've reached the northern Vosges mountains, the wild but somewhat lower counterpart of the Vosges mountains to south, near the Route des Vins.

I've already written about Sarreguemines, so I'll write just a little about Hombourg-Haut, which lies along the road from Metz to the Vosges and, as its name suggests, perches on heights. The city used to be surmounted by a castle, built starting in 1245. You can gauge the height of the castle above the lower city from these steps, which I did not take!

In the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, Hombourg-Haut was spared from the region's endemic wars and developed into a prosperous village with beautiful religious buildings. But in the Thirty Years War, the French occupied the village and in 1634, under the direction of Richelieu, dismantled the castle. Little of the castle remains, save the base of a remarkably stout tower and some vestiges of the walls that now line an elegant way along the side of the hill.

Looking southwest from the the site of the castle, you can see the church and some of the houses of the upper city, part of the lower city, more houses on the hills across the way, and the forested hills that characterize this part of the Moselle. Indeed, the city of Hombourg owns one of the largest communal forests in the department.

The most rugged part of the Moselle lies within the boundaries of the Parc Naturel Régional des Vosges du Nord. It's not a national park or national monument in the American sense, but rather an area that includes mountains, villages, forests, cultural sites. It's also a UNESCO biosphere reserve. Within the park lie castles ruined and restored.

The park has hotels and inns scattered across the mountainscapes. I think that it would be relatively easy to put together a series of forest hikes from inn to inn. The park also contains urban areas. Bitche, is both large and spectacular. Niederbronn-les-Bains, the "pearl of the Vosges du Nord," is a more elegant spa city, a mountain getaway for health and recreation. Niederbronn had a beautiful synagogue in the Moorish style; the building is now a hall for the local Catholic parish.

The forested mountains of the Vosges du Nord remind me of Oregon's lower Cascades, the older, densely wooded slopes above the McKenzie and Willamette rivers.

The views from the edges of the Vosges compel me the most. Here the landscape consists of hills covered with fields. A country road winds back toward the mountains, linking the bright sprays of cherry blossoms with the mountains' slopes, distant and dark.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Faience Museums in Sarreguemines

Sarreguemines offers a Circuit de la Faience, a series of points of interest exploring the history of the faience pottery industry in the city on the French-German border. The circuit includes the last remaining "bee-hive" kiln in Europe and, of particular interest, two museums. The first museum, the Moulin de la Blies, is housed in part of one of the old factories and presents the story of the how the factories produced faience. Most of the factory is in ruins, now part of an interesting garden where the buildings serve as, for example, a "maze."

This factory was built on the banks of Blies, which here is the border between France and Germany. The river provided power to operate the machinery, at first through paddle wheels and later through turbines. Looking through a factory window across the river, you can see how close Germany is.

An intact factory building houses the museum. The ground floor had space and machinery for preparing the materials and molding the clay into pottery. Here's the crusher--two enormous stone wheels, powered by the river's flow, that transformed big chunks into small chunks.

The rest of the ground floor contained other preparation machines, presses, molds, dryers, and kilns.

The upper floor was where the pottery was decorated--by hand--and fired. Stations where workers painted the faience designs stand as if the workers had gone to lunch and just never returned. The clash of the humanity of the workspace and the finality of the interruption struck me as poignant. We actually have some beautiful pieces of Sarreguemines pottery at home, and it's sad to realize so completely that no more will ever be produced.

Sarreguemines primarily produced dishes for everyday use--popular products in a great range of styles. Some special pieces, such as tiled murals or elaborate sculptures, were also produced as works of art.

Materials and finished products were transported within the factory on small carts, something like mine cars. In the ruins, you can see the tracks for these carts.

Raw materials coming into the factory were, I think, transported by railroad. The museum has two small locomotives that served the factory. I was able to climb into the cab to look at the locomotive's controls.

Back in the center of Sarreguemines, we also visited the Jardin d'Hiver de Paul Geiger, which is the city's museum of faience. The museum occupies a house that was the residence of Paul Geiger, whose family owned multiple factories in the region and who himself directed the Sarreguemines works from about 1880 until his death in 1913. The museum contains a beautiful collection of Sarreguemines faience, ranging from early pieces of dinnerware, to popular humorous mugs with molded human faces, to one-off works of art.

The museum's name of Jardin d'Hiver comes from its most splendid room, the large, luminous and richly ornamented winter garden. If this room is perhaps overdecorated for contemporary tastes, it nevertheless impresses. Some of the decorations include large tiled murals, of Sarreguemines faience, of course that reflect the style of the turn of the 20th Century.

Some of the murals, particularly those inspired by Asian art, are more timeless. The galleries of the museum display some engaging large murals, along these lines, that continue to delight visitors.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


The city of Sarreguemines, which borders Germany at the confluence of the Sarre and the Blies, once ranked as the second-largest city in the Moselle, after Metz. Like Metz, Sarreguemines was part of the German annexation between 1871 and 1918, and then again between 1940 and 1945. Every single person we met in Sarreguemines--including our city bus driver--was warm and welcoming. Often people would want to know about the U.S.

Sarreguemines grew as an industrial town, in textiles and, especially, faience pottery, which started there at the end of the 18th Century. By the early 20th Century, factories producing faience ware filled the city's center. Sarreguemines was prosperous, and the workers benefited from a socially aware, if paternalistic, approach to employment. Today, the factories are shuttered, gone, or repurposed. The banks of the Blies are now less industrial and more bucolic.

Downtown Sarreguemines has some interesting streets, including pedestrian areas. Near the marché square, locals sat outside for drinks in the afternoon sunshine. At night, the city rolls up the sidewalks awfully early, although a few scattered restaurants cater to guests seeking dinner.

A steep walk up takes you to the heights overlooking the city center. A castle once stood here. But the railroad tunnel runs under this hill, and when the local railway bought the hill in the 19th Century they tore the castle down. The Place du Chateau still has great views, though, looking across the main part of the city and across the Sarre.

Sarreguemines's faience industry, which was famous across Europe, began to decline following the Second World War. By 1979, competition from mechanized factories led Sarreguemines to abandon pottery to focus on tiles. By 2002, the thousands of workers had been reduced to 29. Despite the efforts of employee-owners, the last factory shut down in 2007.

The river once served as the artery of commerce and industry. The faience factories, in particular, needed water and water-power. But the river also supported--and still supports--city life. The "casino"--built not for gambling but for faience workers' recreation--still stands, with its striking style reflecting in the ripples on the Sarre.

The Sarre's banks also now play home to people playing petanque.

The home of a former owner of the faience factories provides a glimpse of the wealth of Sarreguemines in its heyday. This building, now the city museum of faience, includes a second-floor winter garden that showcased Sarreguemines's artistry in faience.

Our time in the region of Sarreguemines and northern Vosges mountains turned into something of an industrial-history weekend. Further posts over the next several days will cover the Faience museums in Sarreguemines, the crystalware museum in Meisenthal, the villages and landscapes of the northern Vosges, the ruined chateau of Schoeneck, the citadel at Bitche, and the Maginot Line and the American military cemetery in St. Avold.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The View from My Window

I'm surfacing from work just long enough to brag that a picture I'd taken at the abbey in Pont-a-Mousson (and not included in my previous blog entry on Pont-a-Mousson) has just been included as today's "View from your window" in Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish blog. The direct link to this posting is here.

Saturday, April 17, 2010



Things That Do Not Translate Well

Actually, Bitche turned out to a really interesting place. I'll post about it next week.


This weekend has a little bit of travel and a lot of actual work, so blogging will be light through the beginning of next week. In the meantime, I'll add a couple of items that will, each in a way, preview the posts to come.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Fort de Queuleu

This afternoon Susie and I went for a longer-than-anticipated walk in the woods and countryside just southwest of Georgia Tech-Lorraine. We started out by visiting the Fort de Queuleu, which the French started building in 1868 as part of a system of detached forts on the periphery of Metz. After the Moselle department became part of Germany in 1870, the fort was completed by the Germans. Today, the Fort de Queuleu is a municipal park.

The fort's layout recalls the designs of Vauban from 200 years earlier, with successive concentric fortifications. Some of the structures are typical of what Vauban would have created--high walls with dry moats; the moats, like the rest of the fort, are now pretty much overgrown with forest.

Most of the principal structures are fully or partially underground. In recent years the doors to these underground spaces have been systematically blocked because they were dangerous.

The saddest years for Fort de Queuleu were 1943-1944. The Nazis converted part of the fort to an internment/interrogation center, called SS Sonderlager. Between 1500 and 1800 members of the French resistance were imprisoned and tortured here; those still alive were shipped to concentration camps in Germany as the Allied army advanced toward Metz.

Today, these buildings house a memorial museum. An excellent unofficial Fort de Queuleu Web site has extensive pictures of the fort, including the museum. Here's a view of the other side of Casemate A, where the members of the resistance were held.

At the entrance to the fort stands a 1977 monument to France's martyrs of the resistance and deportation; from the monument the visitor has inspiring views to the northwest into the valley of the Moselle.

The current version of the fort as a city park is a happier place. For children there are playgrounds and fields.

And for adults there's a fitness walk that loops through the fort. Fitness stations with instructions and, where appropriate, equipment are distributed along the paths. We saw runners and fitness walkers.

After visiting the fort, Susie and I extended our walk by heading around the fort, then south and east, to the village of Grigy and then along a stream, called La Cheneau, back to the Technopole and GTL. Our route started out in the forest of the Fort de Queulue, with occasional open views to the west.

As the trail wended south and east, we passed through groves of flowering trees.

Eventually our route left the forest and emerged into the open fields of the farmlands west of Grigy. This area is high--adjacent to the high ground on which the fort was built--so there are nice views back toward Metz and the Technopole. We could see the GTL building, as is clear from this telephoto shot.

We talked for ten minutes or so with a woman from Grigy who was taking her own stroll, although in the other direction. She expressed her delight to meet a couple of Americans out in the countryside near her village. With her family she was evacuated to Gourdon, in the Lot, at the start of World War II. She remembered her feelings at the liberation, and particularly remembered that the GIs handed out chewing gum. Our impromptu cultural exchange took place in front of the Ferme de Haute-Bevoye, a very old farm complex with turrets, an elegant residence, and a huge stone barn.

Our village friend said that the Ferme de Haute-Bevoye had been a going concern, working the fields near Grigy, until World War II. She thought that the farm had been abandoned for a while but that now at least someone was living there. Indeed, shortly later we saw a man open the gates and drive his car through. (An update has definitive information about the farm.) About the same time, the sun likewise started to drive through the clouds that had hung around all day, with great rays that fanned out toward the farm.