People living in developing industrial areas, in expanding cities such as Strasbourg and in increasingly urban environments viewed the mountains tracing their blue line on the horizon and dreamed of escapes to rural idylls where they could recapture an historic rural lifestyle, breathe fresh air and benefit from outdoor exercise. By the early twentieth century, the mountain areas were increasingly accessible and for those in north eastern France or in the territories to the east of the frontier, the Vosges offered beautiful landscapes, snow, space, pure air, a healthy environment and a range of accommodation. Families could choose between hotels, chalets and small establishments whether they were simply intending to explore the Massif privately or participate in great public events.
Organisations dedicated to the pleasures and practicalities of visiting the mountains developed and by the time the Great War was on the horizon, these clubs were flourishing. Ski-club Vogesen-Straßburg was launched in 1896 – the German name was used because Strasbourg was in Reichsland Elsaß-Lothringen, the annexed part of France – and in 1902, the defiantly named Les Vosges-Trotters de Colmar was started by French-minded Alsaciens. Some of these clubs were modelled on the winter sports clubs which were already popular in the Black Forest, on the other side of the Rhine.
The idea of a rural idyll was partly a myth, but it was a myth enthusiastically fostered by travel organisations and tourist literature. La Compagnie des Chemins de fer de l’Est promoted the Vosges with a vigorous poster campaign. Numerous intrepid travellers published works describing the unspoiled romantic beauty of the Vosges, an area apparently populated by simple honest folk who sang as they went about their daily lives and mingled with innocent animals straight out of fairy tales. The shallow, charming portraits almost entirely ignored the fact that the Vosges is a working area.
However, the tourists came. Refuges were built, some by Club Vosgien*, chalets were constructed, farmers saw the opportunity to sell refreshments and their own produce such as cheese.
Visitors tended to gravitate towards their nearest mountain heights. The Ballon d’Alsace drew many visitors from the Belfort region to the south of the Vosges. Several hoteliers set up premises at the summit and one particularly original one is the ‘new’ Hôtel de la Jumenterie. It was built on the site of a small farm and its crenelated appearance deliberately evokes an historic past. The original jumenterie was a stable for brood mares, established by the Ducs de Lorraine in the 18th century. There is still la Jumenterie, now a riding-based holiday centre on the road to St-Maurice, but it does not use the original premises. I’ve been unable to see evidence of these and I think they have been demolished.
Yet, despite the tourists, the Ballon d’Alsace was still a frontier area, and customs officials still had to pursue their responsibilities, even in the bitterest winter, the deepest snows. The fun was a temporary mask; the realities could be extremely harsh, as the soldiers serving in the Hautes-Vosges in the Great War would discover in little more than a decade’s time.
*Club Vosgien, founded 1872, focussed on walkers. It mapped footpaths and provided excellent sign posts through the whole massif of the Vosges. Today they have covered 17000 km of paths. Appealing to the less bourgeois who might not be attracted to the winter sports culture, Les Amis de la nature came to the Vosges just before the Great War, founding branches from 1912-14.
All postcards my own