In the warm sunshine of a summer evening, I am almost alone on the roof of the Vosges. An elderly couple are soaking up the panorama with their two collies, whilst three French bikers in leathers take turns to snap souvenir photos beside the orientation panel. Just six of us in a vast rippling landscape.
So I offer to take some group shots for the leather men and for a few minutes, our disparate band of people unites to share the visual delights of Hohneck, one of the highest points in the Ballon des Vosges Regional Nature Park in eastern Lorraine.
From this bald summit – 1,363 metres above sea level – the ridge falls steeply away to the east, towards the plain of Alsace and the distant Black Forest, whilst to the west, thickly wooded slopes tumble down to the still waters of Longemer in Lorraine’s Valley of the Lakes. Look south and on a clear day, you can even see Mont Blanc.
I feel like we’re in the middle of nowhere, but in fact I’m just a few kilometres from the dual-purpose resort of Gérardmer – a family-friendly ski resort in winter, a bustling lakeside town under summer skies. Visit in April and you might be lucky enough to catch the Fête des Jonquilles, a floral extravaganza of music, marching bands, and floats covered in wild daffodils from the mountain slopes. Held every two years, the next one takes place in 2015.
Tell people you’re going to Gérardmer, however, and most Francophiles will look slightly quizzical. “Is it by the sea?” they want to know. But despite its lakeside position, the town takes its name not from mermeaning ‘sea’ but from Gérard, Duke of Lorraine, who established a hunting lodge – or ‘meix’ in medieval Latin – on the lake shore in the 11th century. By contrast, the smaller, companion lakes of Longemer and Retournemer do indeed take their names from the water.
The first tourists came to Gérardmer in the mid-19th century and in 1875, the town’s Comité des Promenades laid the foundations for tourist offices across France. Soon visitors were arriving from Belgium, Luxembourg and Paris, with hotels springing up to meet demand, and by the turn of the 20th century, Gérardmer was also becoming established as a winter sports resort.
Gérardmer lost most of its turreted lakeside villas during the last war, but today a captivating mix of chalet-style houses dot the wooded slopes that overlook the largest lake in the Ballons des Vosges Regional Nature Park. The town’s permanent population numbers less than 10,000, but the figure can easily triple at the height of the winter and summer tourist seasons.
A further 4,500 people live at Xonrupt-Longemer, just 6km away near Longemer – the ‘long sea’ – and to the south, the bustling small town of La Bresse completes the urban triangle with some 8,000 inhabitants. But the facilities of these three modest communities would put many larger British towns to shame. Gérardmer boasts an indecent number of hotels and chambre d’hôtes, including three 4-star establishments, and an impressive choice of restaurants for all tastes and budgets. There’s also a casino and a cinema, a water sports centre, skating rink, and tennis club.
If you want to give your interior décor a makeover, the bustling town centre is dotted with shops selling the area’s signature table linens and soft furnishings. The local textile industry dates back to the linen weavers of the 18th century and today Gérardmer is renowned for its richly woven and often highly coloured home textiles. Choose from first quality or bargain buys from leading brand names like Linvosges, Garnier-Thiébaut and Le Jacquard Français.
But it’s the great outdoors that really pulls in the visitors, whether you fancy gentle exercise or full-on adrenalin with your clean mountain air. Stay down in the valley and in summer, you can take a half-hour cruise boat excursion on Gérardmer’s pretty lake, walk the 6km waterside trail, or pootle along in a pedalo.
Longemer too offers a lakeside walk, leisurely sailing craft, and café kiosks, whilst La Bresse has been awarded Family Plus accreditation for its child friendly activities, both summer and winter. Like many mountain regions, Gérardmer-Xonrupt also has its fair share of treetop adventure trails, paragliding and bungee jumping opportunities, not to mention 300km of mountainbiking trails.
In winter, the area welcomes a very different clientele. The Alpine ski resort of Gérardmer-La Mauselaine offers 20 pistes that total some 40km, including Les Chevreuils – at 4km, the longest one in the Vosges. A free shuttle operates from the town centre to the slopes at weekends and school holidays, and there is ample parking for private cars.
A snow bus also operates around La Bresse which has been sympathetically updated this summer without losing its mountain, family-oriented character. Expect buildings in local wood and stone with the emphasis on sustainable development. Materials come from the forest, power is provided by mountain rivers, and steam plants supplied from local sawmills. If cross-country skiing is more your thing, the Domaine Nordique of Bas-Rupts offers 30km of trails linked to La Bresse and Xonrupt.
But I visited in early June, and although pockets of snow still lingered in the north-facing gullies, the walking season was already under way along the Route des Crêtes. Undulating for 74km between the Col de Bonhomme and Cernay, this strategic road was built to supply troops in the Great War, but today it is one of the area’s most attractive tourist drives, giving access to a network of hiking trails.
I stayed at the Hôtel Collet, just below the Col de la Schlucht that links Gérardmer with Alsace. From this delightful Alpine chalet with atmospheric, gastronomic restaurant, I could set out on foot or take the short drive to the top of Hohneck to pick up a trail.
Dubbed the Blue Line for the coloured outline they create on the horizon, the rounded peaks of the Vosges are easily accessible to anyone with hiking boots, map and a modicum of outdoor common sense. Go it alone or, for a real insider view on the flora, fauna and history of the area, book a few hours with a qualified guide via the tourist office. Nobody need miss out. I came across a group of disabled ‘walkers’ enjoying a great day out on the mountains with the help of expert guides and mobility equipment.
However you choose to explore, there are plenty of interesting places to visit within easy reach of Gérardmer – goat’s cheese producers and llama farms, clog makers, honey producers, and sweet manufacturers. Head over the regional border into Alsace and a drive of less than 50km will bring you to historic Colmar, as well as the excellent Ecomusée d’Alsace, and the magnificent 12th century castle of Haut-Koenigsbourg.
But for me, nothing can quite top that view from Hohneck along the ‘Blue Line’ of the Vosges with its dense forests, sparkling lakes and the sound of skylarks on a summer evening. Truly a destination for all seasons.
For more information, please visit the Vosges tourist board website