30 June 2017

Road Trip: The Cradle of E.Z.

Although for >20 years I've spent part of nearly every summer at the intersection of three European countries (Germany-France-Luxembourg), I have pathetically few photos to show for it.  Largely this is because the purpose of those trips has been to visit family and not the landscape, but still, you'd think I'd have something to show for it.

To fill this gap, therefore, we took a day in May off from power-washing, hedge-trimming, and caulking to explore the region.  We began atop the nearest hill, with a lovely overlook of the village in which E. was raised, in the German state of the Saar ("Saarland").  Although the roots of Schwemlingen stretch far back into time, the 1960's development we stay in is just to the left of center, toward the front, with a corn field for a neighbor (still brown here, but filled with 18" corn by the end of the month).  The hills are covered in robust managed beech forests and the valleys dotted with clustered houses surrounded by agricultural fields of adequate, but not great, productive capacity.
From there it was a paltry 3 km (<2 miles) to the border with the French region of Lorraine.  Although the landscape is not fundamentally different (wooded hills, clustered villages), the lower population density of Lorraine (~1/4 that of Saarland) allows for much larger fields.  Further, because this easily forgotten border region far from the spotlight in Paris has only 2/3 the GDP of neighboring Saarland, it is rife with shockingly dilapidated villages.  The roads are in worse shape, many houses are abandoned and decaying, and if we passed any shops at all in the first few villages, I missed them entirely.  The broader landscape pattern is largely agricultural.
As we penetrated a bit deeper into the country, however, things picked up a bit.  Near the Hackenberg installation of the doomed Maginot Line lies the village of Veckring, which benefits from tourists like us who stream in to view underground tunnels and rusting gun turrets unfortunately fixed to shoot in only one direction (who knew those tricky Germans would come up behind it?).
We looped northwest back to the Moselle river where it forms the border between France and Luxembourg (and later Lux and Germany), pausing in strategically located Sierck-les-Bains to visit the ruins of the 12th century castle of the Dukes of Lorraine (not to be confused with their palace in Nancy).  Although German at the time, the region was coveted by the French and thus frequently conflicted, even after the castle was destroyed in 1643.
The town is certainly >1000 years old, wedged between cliffs and the banks of the river, and profits enough from visitors to the castle to maintain at least a few buildings, although those just out of view are literally falling apart.  Although the village and castle have fantastic touristic potential if only they were fixed up a bit, like so many areas in France it does not appear to be capitalized upon.
What a contrast, then, to slip into tiny Luxembourg, which has about twice the population density of this region of France (and thus 1/2 that of Saarland) and >3 times the GDP (~2X of Saarland)--largely thanks to being an EU banking center (that hopes to further benefit from Brexit).  The countryside around central Luxembourg City reflects the regional pattern of wooded hills, clustered impeccable villages, and small agricultural fields (connected by excellent roads).  Along the Moselle river, however, the banks are often lined with vineyards.
We had come full circle, crossing the river back into Saarland and windmill country (wind provides 10% of electricity in Germany).  Although outsiders love to point out that, because the territory of Saarland flipped back and forth between Germany and France 8 times in the past 200 years (!), there is a 'strong' French influence in this region of Germany, I personally am not so sure.  The extent of the French language peters out after about a dozen words and the local bakeries use margarine instead of butter for their croissants (which probably would--and should--incur corporal punishment in France).  However, to be quite sure, I should probably do blind side-by-side croissant taste tests in this three-country corner for another 20 years or so.

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