Grand vues from the Route des Crêtes
Trip Start Aug 02, 2012
182Trip End Aug 02, 2013
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Where I stayed
Camping Clos Martin
What I did
The Grand Ballon is the highest point in the Vosges at 1424 m. I had originally thought the Grand Ballon was just a viewpoint that you pull over at and take a few photos of (I should have known better because almost none of the sites in France have been like this). I had imagined that it would have an orientation table and that we’d be spending about half an hour at it. Turns out it’s a national park with walking trails all around it and we ended up being there for nearly three hours! We did the longer panaromic route (there was a short one but we decided since we didn’t have anywhere to be right after, might as well see as much as we can).
Once we reached the top, there was a monument in memory of the alpine hunters who fought and died in World War I. There is also a radar station at the top which is in the shape of big beach ball – I thought this was why the site had gotten its name but it turns out that was only constructed in the late 1990’s. Perhaps the name characterizes the rounded shape of the Vosges mountain peaks. Wrong on both counts - it turns out, the name Ballon is derived from Bel or Baal, the sun god of the Celts (we learned this piece of trivia in out handy little brochure that explained the fauna/flora and history of the Grand Ballon). We climbed up to the viewing platform that is integrated into the radar station. We got a 360-degree view of the surroundings as you walked around the platform.
Once we’d made our way around the radar station and checked out all the vantage points (I had to make sure we’d got the best views and photo opportunities), we made our way back down the mountain to the info centre and parking lot where we’d left the van. This is also where the Club Vosgien runs a hotel and restaurant. Before we had walked up to the Ballon, we had seen a sign out saying “Tarte Myrtille – only 2.50 Euro”. We thought that was a very reasonable price and I had been wanting to try something regional (given that Myrtille, or wild blueberry, was in season, I thought this would be very fitting). So having done our several hour exploration of the area, we sat down at the outside tables of the Grand Hotel. The hotel, which is at the parking area of the Grand Ballon, still has impressive viewpoints. I found a table that looked away from the parking lot and over the surrounding mountains. It also happened to be right by the mini bob sled run which many kids were enjoying. Megs went in to order while I held the table. She soon came back out with a tray of goodies- a tarte myrtille, a café au lait (first one of the trip!), and an apricot pie.
We then continued along the route des crêtes with more views of the valleys below, picturesque “ferme auberges” with cows grazing lazily on the lush green grass. We thought we were done for the day but along the way, came across Vieil Armand. The French gave this name to the sites of one of the bloodiest battles on the Alsace front. We hadn’t planned on seeing it but thought that since we were already there, we might as well check it out. What we thought would be a short stop turned out to be a two hour pit stop. It was a really interesting site from WWI that is teeming with trenches, underground passages, shelters and barbed wire – reminding us of the fighting and giving visitors a glimpse of what it would have been like during 1914-1918. We walked through the cemetery and up to the memorial – the whole time walking alongside all the trenches.
We finally made it into our campsite in Ramonchamp around 8pm. The campsite was a small one and nearly all the campers (which seemed like they were permanent fixtures) were all chatting and having drinks at one of the sites. On the way into camp, my keen food-spotting eyes had seen a roadside pizza stand just a little ways from the campsite. We were too tired to cook so I went on bike and ordered the pizza “forestière”.
Today will be a short day to write about – I can sum it up in two words: “We perspired”. It was 35 degrees in the shade and we were pretty much too overheated to move far. We attempted a bike ride into Thillot since it was only 2 km away and even that was too much in the heat. We picked up some brochures at the Tourist Info (I asked if there were any swimming spots nearby and unfortunately there weren’t!), picked up some bread and headed back to camp. We just lay outside on towels, moving from shady spot to shady spot, waiting for even the slightest breeze. For lunch, I tried a new type of cheese which we had picked up a few days earlier in the Vosges. Munster is a creamy cheese, similar in texture to Brie, but way stinkier. The rind has a very strong flavour but the cheese itself was quite mild. By around 6pm, we figured it had cooled down enough (it was still about 25 degrees out) to attempt a longer bike ride. I was determined to go for a ride since one of the reasons we had camped at this particular location was because it was along the riding path, “Voie Verte”.
We left camp around 9:30 am and we were at the Ballon d’Alsace by 10ish (it was a short drive from camp). It turns out that yesterday’s bike ride at mid-day, even though it was short-lived, had not been unfruitful. Megs had dashed into a bakery just before noon (almost all the small stores – and even some large chains – close from noon to 2pm in France) to pick up a baguette. She had thought the bakery was definitely one that I would appreciate and so before we passed through Le Thillot on the way to the Ballon, we stopped at the boulangerie/patisserie that Megs had said I was sure to like. I was excited to finally go into a “real” boulange (real by my definition being one with that has that French finesse for making even their bakeries an exciting place to visit by treating their pastry and bread as works of art).
It was a steep climb to the parking lot and we saw lots of riders along the way – this would’ve been a good warm up for the alpe d’huez ride but oh well, I was going to the top the easy way this time (and plus my bike was still making all sorts of funny noises that needed to be fixed first). We stopped by the TI (as we almost always do) to see what was of interest in the surrounding area. We picked up a really informative, full color hiking guide for the hike we wanted to do (“La Balade des Points de Vue” – Walk of viewpoints) around the Ballon for a whopping 1 Euro (they really do encourage tourism here in France!). We liked viewpoints and it was only 2 hours long so we decided to go for it. Turns out that all the viewpoints were within the first 40 mins and the remaining 80 minutes we spent descending down to tiny lake that was cute, but definitely not worth the 425 m elevation gain that awaited us in the sweltering heat. It actually would’ve been a decent hike overall if it wasn’t for the heat.
Anyhow, I’ll only describe the first part of the hike as it had worthwhile viewpoints. It started with a short climb from the parking lot to the summit of the Ballon d’Alsace itself. It culminates at an altitude of 1247 meters at the point where the three regions of the France-Comté, Alsace and Lorraine meet. As I mentioned earlier, the term Ballon is derived from the name of Celtic sun god. From the Ballon d’Alsace, you can see the sun rise directly above three mountain peaks at various equinoxes (as far as the Black Forest in Germany, the Swiss Jura mountains, and the Petit Ballon). It is thus believed that the Celts used the summit as a solar observatory. The path to the summit follows the old Franco-German border of 1871.
By the time we got back, it was mid-day and a fête was in full swing at the grassy park next to where we had parked. There were lots of people milling about now and we strolled around from stall to stall and sampled various goodies from local producers.
Having explored the Ballon d’Alsace, we made our way to our next campsite. Since it was still in the mid-thirties, we decide to find a campsite with access to a swimming area. We found a great little campsite in Masevaux that was right next to the community pool. The pool was packed with people of all ages who had the same idea as we did but we didn’t care. We spent the next few hours between cooling off in the pool and lying out on the grass reading our books. As we enjoyed our downtime from sightseeing, we both agreed that we needed to take the time to just “do nothing” a bit more often.