Starting at the Grotto of Saint Leon our adventure through France continues high up in the Vosges mountains as we voyage towards the Alsace region. On our way to the Strasbourg, we encounter questionable theme park rides, good value restaurant food and a sunset to die for. Read on!
Grotto of Saint Leon
On our second evening in the lake-side environs of the the Walscheid Aire, Lou and I resolved to go skinny dipping. This resolution was preceded by a walk to the infamous Grotto of Saint Leon. Actually, that’s not true. We didn’t make it to the Grotto. The signposted walk was up a road with no hard shoulder. A very steep one. Given the French drive like nutters at the best of times, we decided it was better to surround ourselves in the the relative safety of Heidi, our metallic oblong and drive there the following morning.
One of the most annoying things we have to deal with as full-time van-dwellers is keeping our campervan clean. We’ve all been there: Friday night; dinner party; can’t be arsed to do the dishes. Leave them in the kitchen, ‘soaking’. Except if we do that in our tiny house on wheels, it’s as if you’ve left the dishes in your bedroom overnight. All manner of smells are emitted. Don’t even talk to us about the flies. It is impossible to keep them out. They’re like super-agile-flying-cockroaches, as Mary Poppins might have said.
You can understand how annoying it is when you get woken up at five in the morning by the fly who’s gorged on your congealed, cruddy pan and then wants to regurgitate it on the corner of your left eyebrow and in doing so, tickles you awake. And not the good kind of tickling. That’s the reason we decided to have the night off cooking. We struggle to remember a time we’ve eaten out. It’s true several instances of McDonalds and one Burger King have peppered our ten weeks on the road. (It was just for the WiFi, honest). Not bad considering we got takeaway at least twice a week back in London. Obviously the main driver of this discipline isn’t the desire to hone ourselves into perfectly chiselled waifs. It’s our lack of budget.
Nevertheless, as we about turned on our aborted walk to the Grotto of Saint Leon, the evening sun was slow-roasting the backs of our necks like pigs on a spit and nothing was going to stop us grabbing an ice cold beer at the appealingly named Cafe Le Grotte. We look at the menu. It’s Friday so Pizza is off. Who’d want Pizza on a Friday? Local speciality ‘tarte flambee’ is off too. Guess they get bored of that. Just leaves kebabs then. Deux Doner Kebabs it is… or as they call them ‘Pain’. That’s pain, as in ‘…du vin, du boursin’, (Or, if you never watched TV in the 90s: Rhymes with van).
We’d been told about the Kebabs in this area of France by our friends Tim and Sarah, whom we met several weeks ago in that dingy village Aire by the lake, where someone got there knickers in a twist about us flying a drone, and called the police. Tim’s opinion was, and we paraphrase: “It was like they’d just stuffed a loaf of bread with meat. It was awful”. A traditionalist clearly. Frankly, we thought it sounded great. Or at least a change from the norm of soggy, anaemic pitta found in the most disreputable of London’s Kebab houses.
We weren’t to be disappointed. Although sitting at a table, we had our very own hand-held cone of suspiciously tasty meat, (Pork?) with slices of onion and garlic sauce. Tim was right in one respect. The meat was housed in something that bore a resemblance to a hollowed out loaf of bread. Maybe he had a stale bit. This was like a really fresh white bap, with just a little bit of a crust. Not hard like a French Baguette Much lighter than the breads you get in real Turkish places back home, which in no way should be used as a wrap. No, when the baker baked this bap he obviously did so with pride. Stuffed with meat and great value at less than five euros each. It was just a bit odd watching the group opposite us eat essentially the same thing spread out on a plate they paid more than 8 Euros for. We’re quite happy to lick the garlic sauce off our fingers, thank you very much.
We never did go skinny dipping. Now we’re in the mountains, the temperature dips about ten degrees when the sun goes down. We did however, succeed in getting up early the next morning and making it to the infamous Grotto of Saint Leon. Lesson be learn’t when Google maps offers you multiple navigations: Pick the long one. In France any road without a number suffixed should be considered passable only in a four-wheel-drive. Having got half way up the mountainside and realising it would take longer to walk the remainder of the way up the heavily rutted dirt tracks we turned back and parked outside a chapel where it was a short stroll through the forest to the Grotto of Saint Leon.
Of all the Vosges Mountain’s caverns, the Grotto of Saint Leon is the deepest. This is what we read on the local tourist website before we arrived. Sounded impressive. Was it? The cavern is around twenty metres wide and the same deep and about seven metres at it’s highest point. The ceiling slopes down towards the rear. This isn’t really deep enough to house interesting wild life and although you can see the sandstone strata there are no specific formations of great interest. The overall vibe of the cavern is not helped by the rusty metal bars inserted into the ceiling as some kind of lighting gantry. They perform the nativity here every year and indeed the shape of the cavern is as if God himself designed it specifically for the purposes of relieving local families of their hard-earned cash. Thankfully, it’s actually free. We left rather underwhelmed.
Dabo & Rocher de Saint Leon
It’s actually possible to walk through the hills from the Grotto of Saint Leon to the village of Dabo via a marked trail. Supposedly this takes 3.5 hours. We actually quite fancied it, but the problem of travelling with the van is that you can’t tell it to meet you there, as if it were ‘KIT’ from Knightrider. Although, now we’re heading towards the era of fully autonomous vehicles, this may soon be a reality. The drive took about twenty five minutes, climbing further up into the Vosges along some comfortably smooth but very steep curves.
The further South we’ve moved in France, the hillier and more mountainous it gets. This has resulted in some rather horrendous miles to the gallon figures. Our first tank of petrol, used mostly in the flat lands of Flanders lasted us for 300 miles. On the hilly roads we’re getting just 200 miles to a tank. The extra fuel spending is putting pressure on our already tight budget. We knew this was one of the challenges of heading towards Alsace, before we left. The mountainous regions are always going to be supping away at your fuel. At least the extra petrol spend is being off-set by our new found freedom to stay off-grid for longer, caused by the breakage of our water pump. At the time of writing we’ve survived without plugging in to 240v for a week. This has reduced our spending on campsites and Aires. Although we are using more deodorant, having decreased our access to showers.
The village of Dabo is said to have an elevation of 459 metres. On a Saturday the little town square, dominated by the obligatory church, actually has some atmosphere compared to other villages we’ve been to. There is a young boy squeezing away at this accordion with gusto and the occasional melody. A bar is open and people are sipping on beers or coffee. Lou and I take a visit to the Tourist Bureau, which turns out to be the post office. Having found the correct doorway we picked up some leaflets about the Alsace wine route which we’re approaching and we were excited to discover there was a luge ride nearby. We’ll come back to that.
Our parking spot for the night, the Rocher, (rock) de Saint Leon towers over the village of Dabo, and most of the Vosges mountains. Yep. Saint Leon is big business in these parts. On the crest of a peak, approximately 660 metres high, the chapel is 2 Euros to get in. Pulling in to the car park after a dizzying circular hill climb, we were greeted by a panorama of pine trees, scattered with a sprinkling of villages backed by moody grey skies signalling the impending rain.
The view from the chapel was only slightly more impressive.In case you’re thinking of Googling Saint Leon is it’s worth noting that there was no actual Saint Leon. Leo was actually the name of the Pope elected in 1046AD who was in fact Bruno de Dabo and was took the name Pope Leo IX. Not being of any religious Persuasion, Lou and I have never got our heads round Papel nomenclature. In our opinion Bruno sounds more like a boxer than pope so we’ll run with that reasoning!
Having briefly considered finding a more sheltered parking place because we couldn’t erect Heidi’s pop-top due to strong winds, we were immensely glad we decided to stay the night. It turned out we had a prime spot for what must be one of the most spectacular sunsets in the Vosges Mountains, if not the whole of France. Over the course of several hours we watched the yellow yoke of the sun morph into a flaming red ball of fire, splashing into the horizon, followed by the glowing marmalade embers of of wispy, ethereal clouds. St Leon himself would have been proud.
The view is ridiculous and the sunset pure perfection. We highly recommend hanging around on Rocher Da Dabo for the sunset but take a look at the time-lapse video we made, for a flavour of this awesome phenomena. It’s a shame we had to film it through our windscreen because we couldn’t mount the camera outside due to the strong winds!
Taken for a ride at Plan d’Incline
As we were saying above, Lou and I discovered a luge ride at a place called Plan d’Incline, not far from Dabo. Basically you sit in a cart and slide down an alpine hillside. A ride Lou is familiar with from childhood trips to Austria. We were both excited about the thought of racing through the trees, barely in control, so it totally justified us doubling back on ourselves and causing extra mileage on our way to Wasselonne, our “hopping off point” for getting to Strasbourg. Or did it?
The Plan d’incline, also known as the Inclined Plane of Saint-Louis-Arzviller is a boat lift that replaced a series of fourteen lock gates on the canal connecting the River Rhine and the Seine. Before it was opened in 1969, this would have taken a day to navigate. We were just there for the ‘Alpine Luge’ ride which seemed like it might have been built trying to cover up for the fact the boat lift isn’t really that interesting. We would have investigated the Plan d’Incline at closer quarters but it cost 10 euros each which seemed a disproportionate use of our meagre budget. The luge ride only only cost a few Euros. Was it worth it? See what you think.
The magnificent Chateau Luzelbourg
Rather than head back to Dabo where it would have a relatively quick drive to Wasselonne, we kept up the spirit of our slow travel by opting to take in the scenery. The small town of Phalsbourg was only a fifteen minute drive North and it supposedly had an Aire with some services we desperately needed like a laundry. However, we arrived to a ghost town. The Aire, which apparently held up to 60 motorhomes, (nightmare) only had three vans present, including ourselves. A short walk in to the town square, revealed it had been set up for some kind of festivities where everything was painted red. But no one was to be seen. On a weekend afternoon we were surrounded by closed restaurants with empty patios. Eerie. Then again, we should know by now Sunday in France is a day when you set your expectations to zero.
Having got used to the presence of at least some other life, we headed back to Lutzelbourg, a tiny village we had passed through on the way to Phalsbourg, but had at least one pleasant looking canal-side bar open. This doubling back on ourselves was motivated not only by the chance of a cold drink but by the fact our Park4night app had pointed us towards the Chateau de Lutzelbourg.
Pedal to the metal, we thrashed Heidi up the steep winding road for about 2km and found ourselves perched atop a cliff where the ruins of the castle stood. The Chateau de Lutzelbourg was nearly as spectacular as the Rocher de Dabo in terms of the view and the ruins were certainly a lot more interesting to clamber over than the chapel had been. It was scorchingly hot on top of this rock and there was no shade for the van so having had a good look around, we ambled down the fairly steep but pleasantly shaded footpath to the bar by the canal.
We didn’t quite mean to spend as long in the bar, or rather outside the bar, as we did but it was so hot we were almost dreading being back in the van to make food before sun down. Happily it had some of the best WiFi we’ve found in France and it enabled us to catch up on our social networking and research which wineries we would be visiting on our way through the Alsace.
On the verge of the setting sun we managed to capture some rad aerial footage of the castle with our drone. This is seriously worth watching so take a peak!
Having broken our ‘eating out’ seal (worryingly for the budget), we ordered a couple of really tasty pizzas which we scoffed down before taking the twenty minute twilight hike back to our perch. There must have been epic levels of salt in the pizza as we both had one of those sleeps referred to as “the worst sleep ever”. Awaking every hour with a mouth like sand paper and sticky tape then getting up to go to the toilet every other hour because you’ve drunk so much water.
Strasbourg but not as we know it
Now in need of a campsite, or in other words a good shower, we drove to Wasselonne’s municipal campsite. The price is steep but when you have a good wash as infrequently as we do, can you put a price on hot water and a sparkling clean bathroom? It also affords us to quite literally, recharge our batteries before we spend hopefully the next week off-grid at various wineries.
If the mantra, ‘set your expectations to zero on a Sunday’, has partially defined our trip so far, then a second mantra to keep in mind is, ‘Don’t visit big cities in the month of August’. Whilst we’ve so far avoided the lure of the big city, Lou has fond childhood memories of Strasbourg so we agreed that it might be a day out worth busting the budget for. Conveniently there is a bus immediately outside the campsite that drops you in the town centre. It costs 2.50 Euro per journey and takes around half an hour.
We must have turned into country bumpkins because our first impressions of Strasbourg were not so positive. Everywhere there were groups of unemployed looking men. We’re quite sure they weren’t just youths on holiday. Lots of shops had closed down. One guy was so drunk even his crutches couldn’t keep him upright, as he lurched his way along the pavement crashing into shop frontages. There was definitely a down-at-heal vibe. The visibility of these social problem was a little ironic considering this is the home of the European Parliament.
MAMCS – Strasbourg Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art
Our first port of call in Strasbourg was the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MAMCS). We try to visit the Modern Art museum in every city we go to. Almost missing the entrance completely because it looks more like the back door, when we finally made it inside it was a pleasant surprise to get the reduced rate of entry. Only 3.50 Euros each. Lou mused that they thought we were students. Much more likely was the fact that the upper floors of the museum were empty. We sped round the white washed, boxy rooms typical of a contemporary modern art museum, in around an hour. We presume many rooms were empty due to France being on holiday. This is August after all. Anyway there were still some decent exhibits, including a day to night themed area with suitably wanky works of art. The kind people suggest could have been done by their teenage daughter in a college art class. Hey, we’ve all gotta start somewhere! Anyway, we’d love to go back as we must have missed at least two-thirds of what they could possibly display in the three-storey gallery. August however, is not the month.
Conveniently, we were freed from the shackles of art just in time for lunch and we intended to try some of the local Alsatian cuisine which consists largely of smoked meats, saurkraut and what’s known as the ‘tarte flambee’. Our intended destination, a restaurant we had seen recommended on the excellent 2foodtrippers blog, was closed for the holidays. There was a note on the door confirming this. Despite being packed with tourists it was remarkable how many restaurants in Strasbourg were closed. Primarily those that served local food. Disappointment! On the upside we should be able to find local cuisine at lower prices in less touristy parts of the Alsace.
The third box to tick in Strasbourg was of course the world famous Cathedral. If the term “fugly” (fabuolously ugly) should ever applied to a building. This is the one. It is the tallest medieval built building still standing and it is bloody impressive, with its gothic grandeur towering over the hordes of tourists buzzing around the base. How kind of them to let one enter for free! Of course they’ve offset this generosity by positioning souvenir stalls at frequent intervals around the inside. You are meant to pay 2 Euros to light a candle, or 10 Euros if you want the ones that burn for a few days. Although there’s no one to stop you giving less generously. Except the eyes of the lord. There are even a number of stand-alone machines selling ‘medallions’.
Lou made me laugh when she said, “You put your coin in worth some money, it goes through the machine and when you get your coin back, it’s worth nothing!” Underlining the point, it’s much more valuable to buy experiences, rather than things. In fairness though, the church must have some serious overheads to cover, keeping this gothic masterpiece looking its beastly best. You won’t find any pictures of the cathedral on this blog due to our blanket ban on pictures of churches. Before you say it, the Rocher de Saint Leon is a chapel, not a church. So there.
Historic cellar of the civil hospitals of Strasbourg
For us, no visit anywhere in France is complete without drinking or at least buying some wine. Strasbourg is home to one of the world’s more interesting wine shops: The ‘Cave des Hospices de Strasbourg’. The building of a wine cellar underneath the town’s hospital is not in fact unique. The town of Beaune in Burgundy also boasts a wine cellar in the basement of its hospital. And don’t think that they’ve just re-purposed the basement. Oh no it goes without saying that every hospital should have a wine cellar, for medicinal purposes of course. That was genuinely the thinking in France before the 1800s.
What is special about Strasbourg’s ‘cave’, built in 1395AD, is that it houses a barrel of the oldest known wine on earth. A thousand litre oak container with liquid that dates from 1472! Sadly, we’re not allowed to taste it although it’s fair to say the wine is probably past its best. The last person to drink it was apparently General Charles de Gaulle in 1946. Although, tasting notes left nearby the barrel state that whilst the smell of the wine is complex, it has a flavour of straw. A word usually more associated with colour than flavour in the lexicon of wine tasting.
Also present are a whole host of other wooden barrels, one as large as 26’000 litres. The cellar, unsurprisingly chilly and damp, reminds me of the wine merchant I used to manage. This is also chilling. The Cave des Hospices de Strasbourg was restored in 1996 is used to mature some of the Alsace’s most famous grape varieties, including Riesling, Pinot Noir and Gewurztraminer. Of course, they have all of these for sale in the shop, so we help ourselves to what was a rather over-priced bottle of red (7 Euros). Still a bargain compared to Alsacian Pinot Noir in a UK retail outlet.
We arrived back to our campsite in Wasselonne, happy to find a bottle of Gewurtrztraminer we’d tasted the previous day, chilling in our fridge. Cold wine. A rare luxury! Conveniently the campsite does nightly wine tastings throughout the high season. We are at the gateway to the Alsace wine route and we cannot wait to get stuck in to all the fabulous fermented grape juice the region has to offer. More on that soon!
Thanks for reading ‘Grotto of Saint Leon: Hurtling through the Vosges towards Strasbourg’. We hope you enjoyed it. We would love to hear from you so please feel free to email us on antlou [at] vanutopia.com and don’t forget you can stay right up to date with all of our antics by following us on social media: Facebook; Instagram; Twitter and subscribing to our YouTube channel.
Ant & Lou