The Rhein Borderlands: Neuf Brisach to Breisach via Pedal Power

From Bad Krozingen we swung west across the Rhein and returned to France for a couple of night’s stop at a municipal camp. Bertha needed a thorough clean out and a sunny day meant carpets, coverings, cushions and clothing could all come out for washing and airing.

A much-needed wash day at Camping Vauban

We were camped outside the massive city walls of Neuf-Brisach, constructed by the great architect of France’s defences, Vauban. This Unesco World Heritage site is one of 12 in France selected to represent the work of the 17th century master of fortifications.

The squat star-shaped citadel sits just a few kms from the banks of ‘Le Rhin’ and is entirely contained within gigantic and thick stone curtain walls.

As the afternoon was warm the heat began to build in the centre of sleepy low rise shops and houses. Crackling dry leaves fell from the sycamore trees and water ran into stone troughs in the public squares. A boy racer was pulled over by the gendarme for speeding through the quiet main street watched by a group of elderly men played petanque in the sandy car park.

We sat in the huge vaulted church for a few minutes to escape the heat and enjoy the incense-filled and cool interior. It was bombed to dereliction by the RAF during the Second World War and was rebuilt during the 1970’s faithfully to the original 14th century plans.

We wondered what that must have meant to 20th century builders perhaps wanting to make use of more modern materials but impressed upon by the locals to recreate their beloved church.

Back across the square was a small Carrefour supermarket where we stocked up on bottles of French reds, cheese and baguettes. France again!

On the bikes we cycled back across the wide river ‘Rhein’ into Germany to visit Breisach. This impressively pretty town was founded by the Romans, who used the natural defence and the transportation offered by the river, to establish a busy trading centre.

A Roman Emperor even visited. The town blossomed from the 1200’s with the building of its beautiful cathedral St Stephen, and was then horrifically flattened by the RAF at the end of the Second World War when more than 85% of its buildings were destroyed.

Reconstruction began immediately. It is another powerful and moving example of the collective will of people to rebuild and recreate their lives and their communities along the traditional lines they hold dear.

The beautiful and Romanesque cathedral was faithfully rebuilt and where salvageable original frescoes still fade on its walls. A vivid portrayal of The Last Judgement by the painter Martin Shongauer in 1491 showed graphically the fate of the damned in the fires of hell, which must have felt so real in the town in 1945. Treasures include an exquisite wooden triptych carved in linden wood by the ‘Master HL’ (1525) and a large intricately worked silver reliquary chest (1496) which holds unnamed bodily parts of the city’s patrons Gervasius and Protasius.

We looked across the roofs of the town tumbling down below to the original Roman terraced vineyards and site of their forum built on a natural fortress of rock.

Back down at river level we enjoyed a welcome bratwurst and German beer (we’d only been away for a day!) before cycling back to France to bring the washing in.