The Vosges mountains have definitely been the highlight of this trip so far. If you like hiking in the forest this is the trail for you. I had really been looking forward to this section but my expectations were even surpassed. And this was about time as this hike so far had not been the greatest hike and I had not been too enthusiastic so far. For year I had wanted to hike the Vosges and had already bought the relevant French topoguide guidebook when I was still a part of the German workforce. Now it came in very handy.
The nice part already started in the Southern Palatian Forest, where I was surprised by fantastic huge rock formations on the French-German border. But most impressive was the forest: Continuous old growth forest for days on end! One third of Germany is forested, too - but in Germany it is mostly bigger or smaller patches of forest interspersed with farmland and villages. In the Vosges it is forest wherever you go. Very little meadows or farmland and not too many villages. In Germany you will find a lot of spruce plantations that can be quite boring to look at (albeit good for camping...) whereas in the Vosges you will mostly find very old mixed forest. Especially in the Southern Vosges there are a lot of Douglas firs, a tree that is native in North America and has only been introduced into Europe in the 19th century. There were so many of those majestic trees that I felt like hiking in California. The smell of those trees was so familiar that I felt like on the PCT.... It must have helped that all of a sudden summer had come back with nice temperatures in the mid 20s!
But the forest was not the only nice thing. After the rather ugly German Eifel villages I was now back to beautiful romantic little villages with timbered old houses. Plus around every corner seemed to be the ruin of a medieval castle or fort. Every mountain top (and there are lots of mountain tops believe me!) was crowned with some ruins. And of course the trail had to visit every single one of them.... My daily amount of climbing skyrocketed - and my interest in medieval ruins plummeted. I must say that after a while they all tend to look the same... Some of them like Haut Koenigsbourg have been completely restored but I always happened to be there outside their opening times.
The same happened at Struthof, a former German concentration camp. I arrived after hours and missed the documentation centre, but at least could see the former installations. Scary, to say the least. German history was everywhere as the Alsace was once German and changed hands between Germany and France various times over the centuries. Almost all villages and towns have German names and even most family names sound German. A lot of bloody battles took place here during WW I and therefore I came across several war cemeteries and old military installations that had survived a hundred years by now in the middle of the forest. It was hard to believe that here in the peaceful beautiful forest incredibly bloody battles had taken place a century ago - now only placques and some concrete installations are the only reminders.
Monastery St. Odile
The most impressive sight for me was Mount St. Odile. This 763 m high mountain is dedicated to St. Odile, the patron saint of the Alsace. In the 11th century a chapel and monastery was erected and the relics of St. Odile are still kept there. This is a place of "eternal adoration" meaning that the chapel is open 24 hours and pilgrims are praying there around the clock. I visited over the long Pentecost holiday weekend and the placed was teeming with tourists. In fact it felt more like a zoo than a pilgrimage place. I arrived around midday determined to find a place where to recharge my phone and cook same food. I then found the pilgrimage hall that turned out to be a huge cafeteria with cheap food. I immediately decided to give up on cooking Top Ramen Noodle soup and treated myself with chicken and vegetables for 5,80 EUR. I situatued myself in a corner with an electrical outlet and recharged my phone with electricity and myself with food and rest. It was interesting to watch the masses of people, half of them Germans. But the most impressive sight at Mount St. Odile was the Stations of the Cross, huge terracotta reliefs put high up on the rock faces of the mountain.
The further North I got the higher become the mountains. Soon I was hiking above 1,000 meters which was very nice for impressive sights, but very exposed and tiresome when you had to descend into a valley only to have to climb up again. As long as the weather was nice this was ok, but in the end this deteriorated greatly. It became very windy which was a real problem on the sometimes exposed crest and when it started to rain the situation became very uncomfortable. I had decided to take a rest day once I got into the vicinity of Belfort and two days before the weather became unbearable. One morning I woke up and could hardly see 50 m due to fog. Unfortunately this was the day were I was supposed to hike across Ballon d Alsace, one of the highest points in the Vosges. The forecast was for wind and continuous rain. No thank you! Luckily I had the Garmin topo maps on my GPS and found a low altitude alternative route. Instead of the GR 5 I detoured on the GR 592. It was a bit weird to hike only with a GPS and now paper map whatsoever. It was difficult to estimate distances and judge were you are. But the weather was so bad that I was glad of not being on an exposed ridge and I even arrived in Belfort half a day earlier than expected.
From Belfort I had decided to take a trip to Basel in Switzerland and have a rest day there. As there were a lot of Couchsurfing hosts in Basel I did not expect any problems, but it turned out the be the hardest quest for a CS host I had ever experienced. I had sent out 11 requests but half of them declined and the other half did not bother to answer. The night before I still had not found a place where to stay and I had already resigned to the idea of staying at a hostel. I set up my tent in the pouring rain and checked my smart phone a last time. Unfortunately I had very bad internet connection at that place.... It took more than 5 minutes to download a simple email that contained the redeeming message that a lady had taken pity on me and agreed to host me the next day. Hurray!!! Of course I wanted to respond immediately and confirm that I am coming - but internet coverage was not on my side. I tried for half an hour but could not send out a message. Finally I put on my wet and muddy boots again and walked around in the forest in the dark in order to find a place with better reception until I could finally send my message. I fell asleep very relieved.
Snow on Grand Ballon
It had stopped raining over night but of course it started pouring again the moment I had put down my tent. I still had to find out where and when to meet my CS host so I was desperate to find a place with good reception. So I was walking along the muddy trail staring at the reception columns of my phone - and promptly slipped in the mud. Naturally I wanted to rescue my phone and fell flat face into the muck onto my trekking poles that promptly bent. I saved my phone, but the whole situation must have looked like straight out of a slapstick comedy. In the end everything worked out great. I quickly arrived in Belfort where I found a nice cemetery with running water to wash up, took a train to Basel, went shopping for some outdoor stuff and met my CS host. After having a shower and washing my clothes life was good again. And today I am having a lovely day off with internet access!