We drove due west out of Germany, heading into France to avoid the German snow-tyre laws. All good, roads dry, everything calm, lots of solar farms along the way - on motorway embankments and the steep slopes of hills. It makes such sense to soak up the sun's free energy wherever possible. Why don't we do it properly like this in England?
Lunch - in the town of Pforzheim at a cool place (part of a chain?) called Dean and David - sandwiches and salads of extra-special quality and hi-tech self-service, and very delicious too. 'We' bombed Pforzheim in 1945 as we thought they were making precision instruments (historically they made watches and jewellery, and they have a good railway line. If it was me, I'd have bombed it too, under the circumstances). This is all part of the Black Forest area, and very pretty.
We weren't sure where to cross the Rhine, and where to head for in France - the borders are not simple, and we were trying to avoid the German side and snow laws, but not taking too big a detour and also avoiding heavy industrial areas. All our maps and atlases are effing useless for this kind of decision, as the coverage for German maps ends ruthlessly at their border, and the French ones have a similar jingoism - and this crucial crossroads of borders (Germany, France, Belgium, Luxemburg) is covered with a box showing distances between cities - so you cannot easily see what cities are where, what roads lead where, which bits of border could trip you up, or anything useful. With Andrew driving and me navigating, I ended up wanting to throw the maps and books out of the window and scream.
In the end we crossed at Rastatt on a massive rusty iron bridge, dating back to 19th century, and with railway/tram lines in the middle of the carriageways. The border lies along the west bank, so even across the river you are still in Germany. Once you do get into France, the change is immediate - house styles, cafes, signposts.... It was lovely to get into the Vosges - marvellous hills and valleys - so pretty, and restful. Worth coming back for. And here we are at Bitche. Never heard of it before, sniggered at the silly name when we were heading east last week, but since the map showed a citadel we thought we'd take a look.
OMG! Not only Vauban (a fave) but MASSIVE!!!!!!! The town itself is sad and down at heel, with a little Aldi replacing a bigger shut-down LeClerc - and lots of closed-down shops. However, we are installed in le Relais des Chateux-Forts and have taken a tour of the bloody great defence works which dominate the whole town. The thing is colossal. Utterly amazing looking. I am ashamed to say I had never heard of it, nor its pivotal role in world history....
Now - Vauban built it for Louis XIV in 1680 - finished in 1697, but because of the Treaty of Rijswijk Louis was forced to leave Lorraine just one year later, so in order to prevent enemies getting such a strong fortress, the place was demolished along with all the other fortresses. Then in 1738 the French began to rebuild it according to the original plans - and that is what is there today. In 1870, when Louis Napoleon declared war on the Prussians (at the whim of his Spanish wife Eugenie?) to protect the Spanish succession, this massive fortress became an isolated place of resistance to the Prussian onslaught. The French armies were routed, Paris fell, but Bitche decided to hold out. Losses were horrific and of course in the end the French commander negotiated an honourable withdrawal - leaving the citadel and the local people to the mercy (!) of the Bavarians.... Lorraine/Alsace passed to the Germans. The overall death-toll in this region was so dreadful that everything festered, and helped to fuel the Great War of 1914-18, and then also the Second World War.
The fortress is so massive, so deep, so powerfully constructed, you can't help wondering whether if in some way it generated war all by itself. Any warlord, or Kaiser, or general, would want to set up in it and resist his enemies. Any passing King or Prince would want to take it. It encourages lordly feelings - yes, I think we'll have that - and sod the peasants......
The modern experience, on a bitter cold day, and with barely another tourist in sight, is entirely based on extracts from a rather good and very graphic film made in France about the 1870 war, and filmed within the citadel. You wander through the deep corridors wearing earmuff headphones which are supposed to give you the commentary and extracts from the film on transparent screens as you reach each new area - but of course the infra-red triggers don't all work. Most of the visitors are Germans, not surprisingly, as it was a place of victory for them, and it's not far from home.
We have visited quite a few Vauban castles - all amazing, geometric and powerful, rather beautiful in some ways, and this is the scariest. It reminded me of the Secret Nuclear Bunker at Kelvedon Hatch in Essex, which we visited by chance for a birthday party just 10 days ago - another utterly paranoid, expensive, deadly, masculine fantasy building, a monument to rage and power, a final refuge and to hell with everyone else - even if that is the whole of the rest of the world.
All I can say is, I am PROFOUNDLY grateful not to have lived through a war myself, personally. 'Our' wars are now fought somewhere else, far away. The people who make the arms and the control systems also make a lot of money, and probably think they make the world go round. Yet, they are not more powerful than the weather - flinging these blizzards across northern Europe and chasing us into France. Nor are they more powerful than the sun - and the solar farms springing up all over the place here. Maybe there is some hope.