Last week, we went on holiday to Alsace.
Set out from Oxford on saturday morning at 4:30am.
Several long hours later we’d crossed the channel and were trundling through France.
We didn’t do much on arrival in Orbey, packed our bags, ate dinner, and went to bed. It was one of those strange nights, where I was extremely tired after getting up so early, but also physically restless after having spent the whole day sitting in a car. I still slept alright though.
The following morning we got our first proper look at Orbey.
It’s a medium-sized village, with a population of around 4,000 people, clustered around two roads and a river in the valley. Given its size and population, it’s a surprisingly active little place, and punches above its weight in terms of community services. I counted two garages/petrol stations, a large church (more on this later), a post office, a newsagent, two bars, two pharmacies, a medical clinic, a small convenience store, three banks, a school, a town hall, a library, a cinema, and a music hall.
I could easily imagine any village of that size struggling to make do with half of what Orbey seems to have. Perhaps they get a lot of visitors from the neighbouring valleys, and a few curious tourists.
Here’s the frothy stream (the Weiss) passing by the municipal park.
After doing a little tour we went on a short walk up to this balancing rock on a hilltop.
We sort of lost our way coming down, and it started raining, and it was cold. I was glad to change into dry clothes and relax when we reached the VVF.
On Christmas Eve, the morning, I went to take another look at the church.
This is Orbey’s 4th church, it’s catholic, and it was built in the 1860s (it underwent renovation in 1930, and again through 1950-57). For historical reasons, Alsace-Lorraine has a special legal status. One of the consequences of this is that the 1905 law separating church and state doesn’t apply here.
It was a bit gloomy inside the church. Some guy inside (the priest?) offered to turn on the lights for me but my eyes were already adjusted to the dark at that point and I told him not to bother.
He asked if I would come back later for the christmas service and I sort of mumbled yes. But of course, I didn’t go back. There’s probably a rule in the bible about lying to priests.
There was an exhibition in the town hall with these creepy mannequins. I guess this is supposed to be a traditional diorama?
There’s also a Santa model! He looks jolly, with his axe, and… the light glinting off his spectacles.
I hurried out of the hall without looking back.
In the afternoon we walked up to this memorial tower, above the village of Trois-Epis.
Here’s Matthieu on top of the tower.
In the base of the tower there were concrete structures, what might have been an observation post. A monument built on top of a bunker.
Further down the path there were more bunkers.
We didn’t linger too long around Trois-Epis. It has a large hospital, an abandoned town hall, and the French headquarters of a fancy bicycle company.
From there we bundled into the car and set off for Colmar, stopping briefly at Turckheim on the way.
Turckheim has these little streets with houses with awkward disneyified houses. It confused me, because it genuinely is an old village, but it’s been somehow rendered fake. It like they’re trying too hard to make it look authentic; it’s too clean. It would almost be more real if they’d let the plaster crack, let the buildings crumble a little.
There’s also a massive advent calendar, which reveals paintings every day.
From there, we went to Colmar. Colmar was a disappointment, it was the christmas market so there was lots of activity, large crowds, but aside from the stalls there wasn’t anything there. You might as well spend Christmas Eve walking around a large supermarket.
I tried to find a copy of Distinction by Pierre Bourdieu, looked in three bookshops and none of them had it.
I didn’t take any photos of Colmar, because there really was nothing to see. Matthieu took this pretty picture of the Chalutier fish market.
Then we shuffled through the crowds back to the car park, then drove in pitch darkness up into the mountains.
On our return to the VVF we sat through the long Christmas Eve feast. The dinner is a marathon affair, each course taking over half an hour to arrive, and it’s difficult to judge at what point it would be polite to leave.
On Christmas morning we opened our presents - I got a box of comfy bamboo socks from Matthieu, a book on the Belt and Road project, a pair of cheap (£10) trainers, and a
jumper t-shirt. My family are lovely.
More importantly, nobody got cologne/perfume/deodorant as a gift, and I’m going to take that as a sign of improving personal hygiene.
I got Matthieu an Anthony Horowitz book which he impressively finished in under a week. As a family gift, we got a card game called Citadels (the 2016 edition, by Bruno Faidutti). I highly recommend this by the way, if you’re looking for family board game suggestions.
In the afternoon we headed to the Memorial of the Linge, near Schratzmaennele. Here are the parents next to a rebuilt shelter for French troops.
We walked up to a bare plateau, dotted only with thin spindly trees.
You could see the fog in the valley.
A bit further along we came to the trenches. A small stretch of ground on a ridge, riddled with trenches and fortifications. Some of the opposing trenches were only a few metres away from one another.
Around 17,000 people were killed here in 1915, and in the end neither side broke through. Diplomatic negotiations after the war pushed the Franco-German border all the way back into the valley and up to the Rhine. Technically the French side ‘won’ in that they held the mountain, but the massive loss of life on both sides means it’s difficult to speak of anything here as a victory.
Here’s the view looking out from the german side of the trenches.
We tried to walk down from that point, there was a path on the map but we couldn’t find it.
After walking in a long circle we came back to the memorial and walked on the road down to the Col du Wettstein. The sun was low in the sky and as we moved into the shadow it was starting to get extremely chilly.
On wednesday, we walked up the Tête des Faux. Here’s the first summit we came to, more of a sub-summit.
Soon afterwards we reached the real summit.
We posed for a family photo.
Then walked down in the shadow, on patches of snow and ice. Here’s Christine carefully treading her way through the rocks.
Further down there was another bunker, still decorated with rusty barbed wire. Here’s the inside, where you can see the floor has caved in.
We had to check and recheck the map a few times, but eventually we rejoined the path going back the way we came.
In the evening we got back and broke out Citadels.
The game sort of plays on legalised cheating, various abilities allow you to trade cards with another player, steal their coins, peek at their cards, assassinate them, buy or destroy their buildings, impersonate them. There’s a lot of scope for breaking the rules, but in a way which makes the game more complex, and more fun for everyone.
- Being king means you theoretically have a 7/8 chance of knowing which characters are in play. At the beginning of the round, you have all the cards in your hand, so you can work out which character is discarded face-down at the beginning. The only other player with this power is the person who goes last, and picks one of the last two cards, they are the only ones to know which character is discarded at the end.
- If you’re second-last to pick your character, you have a 1/2 chance guess as to which character the last person will choose. In one game, Peter consistently came last, and this allowed me to plan all sorts of tricks on him. For example, I could set up strategies to combine character abilities across rounds - firstly I spied on Peter’s hand, and was then ready to steal his cards/coins in the next round.
- The ordering of thief and assassin also works in a careful balancing act. If you’re assassin, you can kill another player, but you always strike first revealing yourself to… the thief, who comes second. So, if you know both the thief and assassin are in play, you can pre-emptively choose to kill the thief first.
Peter looked up a strategy guide online. He has secret ways of winning, although he never actually won a game.
The cards are also quite well-drawn.
On Thursday morning I went out to visit the little valley museum, which was closed. Instead I went for another wander around the village. Here’s another clip of the Weiss stream, trickling through what used to be a small mill.
In the afternoon, we went to the Col de la Schlucht. If there was more snow it would be a busy ski station, in the meantime we were there to walk a little windy path jutting out from the mountain. Here’s Christine and Peter on the ledge, looking out at the mountains.
Matthieu leaning against a rock and looking very cool.
The path was icy, and sometimes the ice was thin enough to cover the rocks with an invisible slippery coating.
Here’s Matthieu and Peter walking across an icy waterfall.
The path turned into the mountain, through the rocks.
Here are the parents going past a running waterfall. Peter stops to admire the water.
At the end we came up and out onto the plateau at the top. A large sloping field, which again would have been perfect for skiing, if there had been a bit more snow.
From there it was a relatively easy walk back to the starting point.
On the last full day in France, we visited Kaysersberg.
It’s much like Turckheim, very neat houses, everything a little too perfect. More interesting than the little houses were these apartments.
See how the gablet balconies protrude from the building, as if they were fortified parapets. It’s contemporary architecture with traditional motifs, I like it.
In a similar style, I saw this anachronistic France Telecom booth, next to an old public telephone sign. France Telecom was privatised/merged into Orange/rebranded a few years ago.
We strayed out of the centre, up the hill to see the castle.
There were no tourists up there, nothing to buy.
I climbed up the tower.
Here’s the view of the town from above, unfortunately it’s shrouded in fog. I imagine the view would look brilliant on a clear day.
Still, it was atmospheric enough. We clambered down through the vineyards, onto a blocked-off path, then through the town wall into a courtyard with another strange exhibition.
More creepy mannequins! The lady’s black headdress is a typical Alsatian traditional costume. Here’s a better drawing of what the costume looks like.
Otherwise, Kayserberg was identical to any other tourist playground. There was a shop selling large gingerbread men.
I have the same obscene fascination with these as I do with large gummy bears and oversized toblerones. They’re far too big for one person to eat, so they’re no longer really food as such, they become this object of gratuitous consumption.
There was also a shop selling embroidered hearts.
I don’t mean to dismiss the creative skill behind these things, clearly there’s some craftwork involved. However, the embroidered hearts are only the worst example of the kind of stuff you find in Kayserberg: expensive, frivolous, looks pretty but doesn’t have any obvious purpose.
There were also some nice clocks. They were not for sale.
As we were leaving Kayserberg I noticed this graffiti in front of a burned down farm shop. The graffiti reads ‘yay, soon this will be a house of the gilets jaunes’ - I asked a shopkeeper across the road what happened to ruined building. Apparently it set on fire ‘in suspicious circumstances’, they didn’t explain any further.
Other than the frequent graffiti, and a few sightings of the hi-viz protesters, we didn’t see much of the ongoing turmoil in France. I wrote a brief report on what was going on with regards to the PCF, noting that it was likely the movement would die out soon. As of writing this, it hasn’t died out (yet).
I never had any illusions about Macron, from the very beginning he was a right-wing figure, and this hasn’t changed. However, it was shocking to see the crowd of concerned middle-class liberals, lining up behind the riot cops, egging them on to discipline what Macron calls the ‘hateful mob’. Was nobody scandalised seeing schoolchildren lined up? The students, the ones walking out onto the motorway, the ones being shot and gassed and beaten, those are your children.
I find this attitude disturbing: the protesters do not understand that they must accept personal sacrifices, they are impolite, they do not know their place. No, we cannot reintroduce taxes on the rich, we cannot raise the minimum wage, it is unthinkable. It is Christmas, you should not be barricading streets, you should be in the shopping malls, buying presents.
I’m not saying critics of the movement are wrong, there are unhealthy elements which need to be excised and dealt with. There are also questions of political leadership to be addressed, and confrontation is not always the answer. But it is interesting that those who gaze into this movement and see the tendrils of the far-right, are the same people who constantly oppose anti-fascist mobilisation, always demanding dialogue and freedom of speech for the enemy.
We also see supporters of Macron rejoicing at the deployment of armoured vehicles on the streets of the capital; champions of liberal democracy rush to the public arena openly calling for the army to intervene. Of course you cannot be apolitical in your approach to this problem, in the face of a fascist threat, the first thing to do is hold your nose and vote for Macron. However, if people in ‘En Marche’ are genuinely worried about the rise of anti-democratic (if not ‘authoritarian/far-right’) tendencies, they would do well to look critically at their own ranks.
That’s pretty much all I want to say about that.
In the evening we got back and had planned to go to see the new spider-man film at the Orbey village cinema. It was cold in the village.
We bought our tickets, got in, and after about half an hour the cinema manager came in to announce that they had trouble downloading the film. Our tickets were reimbursed, and we went home.
I made arrangements with Matthieu to watch it another time… but once we were back in Oxford I launched into essay-writing and the cinema trip never happened.
The following morning we packed everything up, piled into the car, and drove down out of the mountains.
Perhaps next year we’ll go to a VTF in Brittany, or we’ll take the train to Chamonix. Anywhere which doesn’t require an exhausting day-long car journey.