A U G U S T 8, 2011

Some of our news are no news at all and have nothing to do with modern art. But now that we have written about the 800th anniversary of the Reims Cathedral, why not celebrate the 7000th anniversary of another architectural monument? Any day will do because nobody will give you the exact date anyway.

Travelling along the wine roads of France some time ago, we visited Alsace to get to know local products. After enjoying the beautiful slopes overgrown with vines, we decided to stay away from cities and drive through the mountains. A travel guidebook suggested several curious spots, one of which attracted our attention – a Celtic temple dating back to the 5th millennium B.C. Half a page of unintelligible text, a small photograph of a heap of stones and no directions were at variance with the general concept of the guidebook, which focused on the best there was in Alsace. Thorough scrutiny of a road map showed that next to the italicized Le Grand Donon there were several signs for landmarks of national importance. We decided to look for that spot.

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Le Grand Donon

The 90-minute drive on a mountain road was a pleasant trip. A shut-down hotel and dingy houses bore evidence of the fact that it was mostly the valley that did well in Alsace. We were obviously heading away from civilization. After reaching our destination, we parked the car at a nice small restaurant. A pedestrian path led from the parking lot across the field, with rare people trudging along it that Sunday. We were nearly there. Some 15 meters down the path a roadside sign informed us there was a large army cemetery ahead. After strolling around the town for a while, we moved on into the mountains.

The following six paragraphs are for those who would want to visit the Celtic temple on their own.

Soon we came across the Le Petit Donon eco-sign. We took a dirt road. A couple of cars were parked at a tinyparking lot in the wood. A small group of Frenchmen resting at a parking lot table eyed us with interest. We jumped out of the car and read another eco-sign on a tree, barring cars from going any further: the Small Donon was just ahead and the Large Donon 9 km away. The sign thoughtfully advised us that the walk would take three hours one way. Road examination showed that it was indeed impossible to go any further even in a rented car.

We could only walk forward. The Frenchmen, who had hiking boots on, looked disapprovingly at our canvas loafers. Distrustful of the sign, we walked on for about 100 meters. The tree sign offered to climb up a mere 700 meters to the Small Donon. The hill was rather steep and looked lifeless, as if after acid rain. To judge by German speech resounding cheerfully from above, there were people there. The suggestion that we go up to where there was only a TV tower for sights and call it a day was received with indignation. My wife balked, saying that we wanted the Large rather than the Small Donon, and would go on looking for it.

We got back into our car and aimlessly drove through the hills for half an hour, after which we silently moved down towards the valley. We came across a small parking lot, where a solitary peddler was selling mountain honey. Just in case we were about to ask him where the landmark of national importance was when we noticed an inconspicuous path leading into the hills, to the left of which was an eco-plate the size of an A4 sheet of paper at the height of one meter, with three vertical sticks topped by a horizontal stick soldered on it to denote an ancient temple. Eureka! We’ve made it! Further on among the trees there stood a small information board which stated that our destination was 2.5 km away, but judiciously omitted the estimated duration of the walk. Hurray for the Frenchmen, who take such good care of their landmarks!

The path led across a lovely meadow, slightly uphill, and then into a pleasantly shady grove, through which the sun shone softly. Encouraged, we resolutely strode ahead. Soon the path went steeply upwards. Rather, it was something like stairs made of heaps of broken rock, each 30 to 70 cm high. From time to time people passed by us silently, looking like some conspirators. Our footwear indeed was inadequate for the occasion.

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Both sides of the path were thickly overgrown with bramble, and as there were no Russians there apart from us, the berries were in place. We could have a boost if the going got really hard. More than half way up we could not tell whether it would be easier to climb up or to go down. We felt like asking someone to just get us down. My wife remembered that in her bag she had an umbrella, a cosmetics kit and other things of little use at the moment and was about to start throwing them out one after another, but the grove was so clean that she changed her mind. Circumspectly, I had left drinking water behind.

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A wonderful asphalt road that we crossed after covering two-thirds of the route seemed to mock us. Other hikers were just as shocked to see a passing truck. During that walk we met no more than 30 or 40 people, mostly Frenchmen and Germans, with a few brother Slavs, but no Russians or Japanese.

We were, of course, rewarded when we finally reached the top. The plateau had prehistoric housing foundations at various levels. Rock plates stood vertically in a semicircle, looking like high-backed armchairs that were apparently used for ritual purposes.

What we saw at the very top surpassed all expectations. A stunning view opened from the height of 1009 meters, making you feel that you will live forever. This is what they mean when they say “Over Eternal Peace”! Souls leave bodies and soar up! Sheer Surrealism! (Note: Surreality is a state bordering on dream and reality.)

Inspired by the powerful charge of that spot, the French decided to enhance the effect, and in 1869 Louis-Michel Boltz, a local architect hailing from Colmar, built a temple in Greco-Roman style on the initiative of medical doctor Bedell. A well-proportioned structure of huge rock plates of regular shape is placed on a small flat plateau. The overall impression is absolutely staggering! The plateau itself is brimming with mostly late-19th-century messages to descendants. Especially heart-rending are messages of August 1914, when the Vosges Mountains were a scene of gory battles. In the five months of fighting altogether 301,000 Frenchmen and Germans lost their lives there. The place itself, known already in the 19th century, revealed the “mountain treasures” after the German Army artillery fire in WWI, which unearthed objects of Jupiter and Mercury adoration rituals. The finds went to Strasbourg and Epinal museums.

The Donon is unique in that its rocks formed in different prehistoric periods: small wonder that old Celtic tribes chose that place for their rituals.

Needless to say, we felt elated and not at all tired the following day. We observed similar things after mountain walks to other cult places, which are where they are for good reasons.