Tag Archives: neuf-brisach

A wayside worth falling by

Alsace flowers

“Alsace flowers” by missusdoubleyou on Flickr (click image to view source) (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND)

Yesterday two friends and I made our first foray this year into France by bike, travelling the by now well-worn route that goes from Freiburg-Umkirch-Bötzingen-Wasenweiler-Ihringen-Breisach and on into Alsace over the Rhine. It was the first really warm day we’d had for weeks, following a period when it rained A LOT; not surprisingly, the arable fields, meadows, orchards, vineyards, riverbanks and woods we passed (through) were looking in fine form, extremely green and lush – all in all, a great advert for nature’s astounding range of fertility, which I have enthused about before here.

Most of the route was in Germany – our actual destination, a supermarket near Neuf-Brisach, may be 35km from Freiburg, but it’s only about 5-6km beyond the Rhine border. You always do notice quite profoundly that you’ve crossed into another country – quite apart from that fluvially based feeling of crossing over to the other side (via several bridges, I might add), the road markings, signs and cycle paths immediately take on a different quality, and the style of building is also rather different.

What bowled me over on this occasion, though – and I suspect this means that we haven’t done this tour at exactly this time of year before – was the sheer variety of wild flowers to be seen in the waysides and verges on the French side of the border. Yes, just as much land (if not even more) is given over to organized agriculture over there, but they obviously don’t trim the edges as assiduously (at least in Alsace – I don’t know whether this is “départemental” policy or a general French thing) as the Germans (or, I would venture to say, the British) do. And it really does make a difference. On the German side, my heart did soar when I saw the poppies dotted among the barley fields – clearly no farmer is going to go through an arable field removing them summarily and selectively – but THIS explosion of hip-high random colour and variety west of the Rhine was beyond compare.

I’m a little sorry to say that we didn’t take the time to stop and actually examine the flowers, but I did look as carefully as I could and spotted cornflowers (in blue, pink and dark red), dog daisies, something (white and frothy) akin to meadowsweet or cow parsley (I will probably never learn the difference), calendula (orange and yellow), not just red poppies but orange and yellow ones two, and a proliferation of other pink flowers that my flower book suggests were probably crown vetch (I’d never seen this flower before so didn’t recognize it at first). If anyone recognizes any of the other varieties that can be seen in the picture I’ve used here, please let me know so that I can look out for them next time…

The whole experience has left me feeling rather thoughtful. I had rather come to assume that floral displays of this kind were largely the preserve of the past, childhood memories, old photos, kitschy films, far-away places, idyllic hidden oases, or of cottage gardens sown with “mixed meadow flower” seeds from a pack to make them look quaint and rustic. The discovery that they are there to be seen in such natural abundance so close to here fills me with wonder and gratitude on the one hand, but on the other hand with disappointment that this biodiversity has been so widely suppressed by policies of orderliness or environmental “control” in so many areas that would not so very long ago also have boasted such a rich variety of native flora.


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Exploring Neuf-Brisach

Plan of Neuf-Brisach (c. 1697) (image via Wikimedia, out of copyright)

I’d whizzed past the fortified town of Neuf-Brisach (New Breisach) in the car on numerous occasions many moons ago, on the way to Colmar, but I’d never managed to actually stop and take a look at it. This changed on Tuesday when it became the destination for a cycle tour.

The name, Neuf-Brisach, might seem misleading to some as the town in fact dates back to the years around 1700, but it distinguishes the location from the ancient city of Breisach over on the other – German – side of the Rhine. Neuf-Brisach is, today, in Alsace (France), but it owes its existence partly to Austria.

In the 17th century all of this area, also including Breisach and Freiburg to the east of the Rhine, was under French rule, but according to the terms of the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697, the now German areas were to be surrendered to Austria, which was under Habsburg rule back then. The French king, Louis XIV, felt the need for a new fortification close to the Rhine border and commissioned his military engineer, the Marquis de Vauban, to build Neuf-Brisach. The plan shown above dates from this period.

Vauban upgraded and built a great many fortifications and military harbours during his lifetime, including Freiburg, Besançon, Maastricht and Dunkirk. A cluster of these were awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2008. He favoured the star fort design, not because it looked baroque and pretty, but for the military strength it offered. Unlike most older round or rectangular types of fortress, the walls of the star fort did not present easy perpendicular targets for attackers. From older designs it was hard to open cannon fire on potential infiltrators who had come close to the fortress walls, whereas the star fort offered defensive firing options from a range of different and overlapping angles, again not just perpendicular to a main wall. In other words, there were no dead zones. The diamond-shaped points allowed no hiding places for attackers, while an elaborate system of walls and ditches lured them into so-called “killing grounds”.

It’s odd thinking about all this today when you walk around the outside of Neuf-Brisach. There was a herd of sheep fenced in and sheltering from the sun next to one section of the walls, some sort of playground-cum-modern-art thingy on another side, and the only noise came when one approached one of the four city gates, which provide the only road access to the town.

Inside the walls, the chessboard layout of the original street plan has largely been preserved, and the central square, once a parade ground, is now a spacious market place in the centre of this now sleepy, quaint little town. The square’s vastness and the plain gritty surface do serve as a strong reminder of its original purpose, though.

Neuf-Brisach may not be the most monumentally impressive or best known of Vauban’s works, but it’s a wonderful destination for a day out and it’s given me a great excuse to delve a bit further into the history of this area.

Outer wall detail, with pigeon flypast

Epilogue: One interesting thing I found out while researching this entry was that Michaelangelo engineered the building of a star fortification for Florence in the sixteenth century. Who knew?


Filed under History, Out & about