Lying at the foothills of the Vosges mountains in north-eastern France, on the border with Germany, the Northern Vosges Regional Nature Park is a treasure-trove of rich woodland, wetland, farmland and historic sites.
Towering sandstone cliffs have been used for shelter and building in the region for hundreds of years. These houses built into the rock can be found at Graufthal, in the south-western corner of the park.
This cliff-face once supported part of the now-ruined château du Grand-Arnsbourg (Burg Großarnsburg), first built in the 12th century. Like all place names in the region, there is a French and a German language version. Sometimes a mixture of the two.
The atmospheric remains of these ruined fortresses, like this Château de Vieux-Windstein (Bergruine Altwindstein), make for wonderful exploring.
Other castles, like the Château de Lichtenberg, still stand today but bear the visible signs of having been ruined and rebuilt many times over centuries of border conflicts. The castle was last bombarded in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War. In the 1990s it was transformed into a cultural center and exhibition hall.
The spectacular views from the top of these sandstone spurs reward the steep climb. Here at Lutzelhardt, close by the border with Germany, the dense woodland is home to the region’s population of lynx. The park became a designated UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1988.
For those less taken with steep climbs and panoramic views, there are the gentler pleasures of strolling alongside the park's many lakes and wetlands, like here at Haspelschiedt.
Meadowland (with occasional sandstone boulders and outcrops) are home to many wild plants. Among the park's protected species are bog arums.
Some fields are deceptive, though. Are those more sandstone boulders on the horizon? No, these are gun turrets from one of the park's most surprising historic sites: Fort Schoenenbourg.
Known as the Ouvrage Schoenenbourg, this underground system of passageways, barracks and combat blocks was built as part of the Maginot Line of defences against Germany. It successfully withstood more enemy ordinance than any other position in the 1940 Battle of France. The ouvrage was supplied via an electrified narrow-gauge railway that carried stores and munitions along the 3000m of interlinked galleries.
Not far distant from Schoenenbourg, but a world away from its embattled history, are the vineyards for the eastern edge of the park. This field lies just outside of one of the region's prettiest wine-making communes, Cleebourg.
Cleebourg, like many of the park's towns and villages, seems to belong to a different era. The half-timbered houses still follow the medieval street plan and every year the grape harvest is celebrated with a festival. Whether raising a glass of local wine, investigating subterranean or high-perched fortresses, or losing yourself in the depths of lush green forest, there is so much to enjoy in this beautiful corner of north-eastern France.