Shooting Journal: Shooting Alsace Lorraine

My recent visit to France, with my husband, was as a traveler, a photographer, and an amateur genealogist.

After a week in a Paris apartment, we drove across France to the small town of Ste. Hippolyte, about half an hour from Strasbourg, for another week in Alsace and Lorraine. The area is, culturally and linguistically, a mixture of French and German. The provinces have changed hands between the two countries a number of times in the various European wars. During WWII, they were occupied by Germany and citizens were forbidden to speak or even teach French in the schools. Over the centuries both languages have been spoken in the area but there is also an Alsatian dialect that is a hybrid version of both. The quaint and charming villages and towns in the provinces reflect this dichotomy in the place names, the architecture and the food. We visited places called Haut Koenigsbourg, Kaysersburg, Bousseviller and Walschbronn and dined on quiche, baguettes, choucroute and sauerkraut.

Ste. Hippolyte is a small town on the Route des Vins, the wine road, flanked by fields of grape vines and with many vineyards eager to have you stop for "degustations", or wine tastings. Weather during this trip was overcast or cloudy much of the time with occasional drizzle - not enough to keep us indoors but enough to make me glad I had packed a Rainsleeve for my Nikon. Clouds often provided drama in the scenes of grape vines, rolling hills and pretty villages tucked in the valleys.

There is a castle atop Stophanbach Mountain, in the Vosges Range above Ste. Hippolyte, called Haut Koenigsbourg. It was built sometime during or before the 12th century and has been undergoing restoration since 1899. After being damaged and rebuilt in the 15th century, it was looted and burned during the 30 Years War. Kaiser Wilhelm was responsible for starting restoration and it remains a work in progress. We noted construction crews working around the tourists and school groups and there were areas blocked off due to restoration. It was a damp day and the forests below were masked in mist. This made for atmospheric photos but the views of the towns and plains were blocked. On a clear day, the views would be stunning. We opted out of the guided tour to wander on our own for a couple of hours, getting a sense of what it might have been like to live there. We were high enough in the structure that I could get some good bird's-eye shots of the battlements and grounds below. Interior details were appealing and we noted a Man of LaMancha style windmill atop one of the towers. Historically, the castle combines artifacts and styles of the various eras it encompasses and was visually and architecturally interesting.

Small towns dot the landscape of Alsace Lorraine, most within a mile or so of one another. The area is quite prosperous in appearance due to the wine trade and everything seemed well maintained. There was no litter and there were very few properties that were unkempt or neglected. Ribeauville was the nearest town of significant enough size to boast a gas station and a full sized grocery. Restaurants and shops are geared toward tourists and the beautifully restored buildings, complete with storks' nests, invite photography. Nearby Hunawirh, equally charming, also boasts the Centre de Reintroduction, a wildlife conservation area that focuses on maintaining local species that are endangered or threatened. I had been frustrated by the difficulty of getting shots of the storks in the villages - they always seemed to go on break when I was around. This problem got well at the Centre which boasts about 200 white storks in its population.

In the 1983, there were only 3 breeding pairs of storks in Alsace. Due to the Centre's work there are now about 600 pairs and many villages boast at least one of their own. Within the park, huge nests are located close to observation towers and the nesting birds appear unfazed by the proximity of people, even those pointing big cameras at them. It was possible to get good close-up shots and to enjoy the many large birds flying around the grounds including one, oddly, walking along the path ahead of us. European river otters are also bred at the Centre. A 500 ISO helped catch these fast-moving mammals in motion. There are a wide variety of ducks, geese, swans, turtles and cormorants. I was surprised to notice both Mandarin and wood ducks swimming in a stream beside the path. The Centre does a show each day featuring seals and penguins but it was never clear to me exactly how these relate to the area and this seemed more geared toward families with children.

Every town we visited was pretty, charming, quaint. I admit to "cute overload" toward the end of the trip but I never tired of the flowers. Wistaria seemed to bloom everywhere and I'm pretty sure there's some sort of law against windows without flower boxes. Horse troughs, lacking horses to water, are overflowing with colorful plantings. Riquewirh was probably the prettiest town but Kaysersburg ran a close second due to the Weiss River which runs through the center of the town.

While we enjoyed the beautiful scenery and great food and wine, to me the highlight of the trip was the day we drove around the area of northern Lorraine where my father's family - maternal line - has lived for centuries. This area is in the Northern Vosges Natural Park above the town of Bitche - pronounced "beach". I've already heard all the jokes, thank you. We stopped in the towns of Haspelscheidt, Bousseviller, Waldhouse and Walschbronn, visiting churches and their adjoining graveyards. It was a very moving experience to be able to visit churches where ancestors had been baptized, married and laid to rest, to be able to photograph the graves with the all the family names in that branch of my father's pedigree. In Walschbronn, the church has a very old baptismal font. In Bousseviller, a lovely small village, there is a display on the green of antique farm implements that might have been used by my family. The cemeteries are very well kept, all with expensive-looking monuments that often have only family names - "Famille Jung", for example- rather than individual names and dates.

These days, bicycling, hiking, and trout fishing are big activities and the scenery is photogenic. During the years my ancestors emigrated to America, however, the countryside was embroiled in war after war, with families losing many of their children to fighting, famine and illness, with armies conscripting the young men to fight against their own people, with homes taken to billet troops and fields and livestock used to feed them, leaving families to starve. It's easy, looking at the scenery and the well kept towns to forget how difficult life had to be for families to leave their homes and travel across the ocean to a new and uncertain future.

Overall, on this visit, there were no rude French people, the wines were light and dry, there was no litter, grocery stores did not provide bags, and restaurants did not give doggie bags. I love the learning experience of seeing the way other parts of the world live and deal with issues we struggle with at home. While I will never quite get their tiny cups of coffee, there was nothing hateful about heading to the village boulangerie each morning to get freshly baked croissants and pain chocolat or watching the world go by from a sidewalk cafe with a glass of dry white Riesling and a tarte flambé to help pass the time.

Bousseviller

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Gaggle

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Haut Koenigsbourg

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Hunawihr, Alsace, France

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Kaysersberg, Alsace Lorraine

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Orange Cat

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Riquewihr, Alsace, France

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River Otter 1

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River Otter 2

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Ste. Hippolyte Building

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Ste. Hippolyte Vineyard 1

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Ste. Hippolyte Vintner

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Ste. Hippolyte Watercolor

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Stork

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Stork Pair

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Walschbronn

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Wistaria

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Wistaria in Ste. Hippolyte, Alsace, France

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