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.

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