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Do you know what Strasbourg Cathedral, the Lion of Belfort, Haut-Kœnigsbourg Castle, the Main Post Office in Metz and the Imperial Cathedral in Speyer have in common? Vosges sandstone!

An emblematic material of Alsace and the Upper Rhineland, pink sandstone can be found in the landscapes of the Northern Vosges and on the facades of many buildings such as the famous Strasbourg cathedral. Indeed, the pink or red colour and its very fine grain make it an admirable building stone. Let us explore the sandstone deposits and its presence on the most beautiful monuments in Alsace and elsewhere!

 

What is sandstone or Buntsandstein?

According to Wikipedia, sandstone is a detrital sedimentary rock, resulting from the aggregation of mainly sandy grains (0.063 mm to 2 mm) and consolidated during diagenesis.

The grains constituting the sandstone are derived from the erosion of pre-existing rocks which largely determine its composition, mainly quartz and feldspar.

In German, Vosges sandstone is known as Buntsandstein, which means coloured sandstone (bunter Sandstein). As early as 1835, the term was translated into French as grès bigarré or Lower Trias.

 

The etymology explains everything!

The word sandstone derives from the Low Latin gressius, gresum, the High German griez, grioz, and the modern German gries, which means “sand, gravel”.

Thus, the unconsolidated equivalent of sandstone is called… sand! (sable in French)

 

The pink Vosges sandstone

Thanks to their contrasting geological configurations, Alsace and Lorraine have a wide variety of materials. These include granite, schist, limestone (Euville stone) and clay.

All these materials have long been used in construction.

However, Alsace has made use of a material that is characteristic of the region: Vosges sandstone, in French, grès des Vosges.

  • Pink sandstone is found in the Vosges, especially north of Barr. It is mainly a characteristic stone of the northern Vosges. You can easily recognize it on picturesque rocks and in ruined castles.
  • However, some deposits of pink sandstone appear in the Haut-Rhin département, notably on the sub-Vosgian hills between Guebwiller and Colmar, in the Munster valley and east of Ribeauvillé.
  • On the Lorraine side, in the Vosges department, pink sandstone outcrops between Epinal and Saint-Dié-des-Vosges.
Pink Vosges sandstone, church of Sigolsheim, Alsace © French Moments
Pink Vosges sandstone, church of Sigolsheim, Alsace © French Moments

 

The Two Vosges!

The Vosges are usually divided into two parts:

  • The crystalline Vosges (les Vosges cristallines) are mostly made of granite. These are the Hautes-Vosges whose rounded peaks are often called “ballons“.
  • The sandstone Vosges (les Vosges gréseuses), north of the Bruche Valley. This is the domain of the pink Vosges sandstone, with a very fine grain. Erosion has done its work to give them shapes that are often unexpected, but always picturesque (rocky bars and peaks). Since ancient times, man has used these natural foundations to build fortresses whose walls are one with the rock.

 

The Northern Vosges sandstone

The landscapes of the Northern Vosges (Vosges du Nord) are characterised by the presence of rocky bars near the summits. Here, the sandstone favours the emergence of abrupt reliefs and rocky spurs and outcrops.

The soils are acidic, sandy, filtering and dry, forcing the vegetation to adapt. Thus, only the Scots pine and a few deciduous trees such as the sessile oak grow.

Typical landscape of the Northern Vosges © Jessie Emslie - licence [CC BY-SA 2.0] from Wikimedia Commons
Typical landscape of the Northern Vosges © Jessie Emslie – licence [CC BY-SA 2.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Sandstone outcrops can be found along the valley floor roads or in the form of blocks emerging from the summits. These small cliffs reveal the surprising pinkish colour of the subsoil. They give a “mountain” appearance to the Northern Vosges whose highest peaks do not exceed 600 metres.

 

When the ruins of castles merge with the rock

The great tourist monuments of the Northern Vosges were built in pink sandstone. The picturesque ruins of the castles on the rocky escarpments contribute to the postcard image of the region.

The colours of the sandstone stones and the protrusions of the ruined walls have attracted tourists since the 19th century. To discover: the castles of Fleckenstein, Falkenstein, Hohenbourg, Lichtenberg, Lutzelhardt, Windstein.

Vosges Sandstone - Lichtenberg castle © Getüm - licence [CC BY-SA 2.0 de] from Wikimedia Commons
Lichtenberg castle © Getüm – licence [CC BY-SA 2.0 de] from Wikimedia Commons
Falkenstein Castle © Motherly - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons
Falkenstein Castle © Motherly – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons
 

Also worth seeing is the site of Graufthal. The famous whitewashed troglodyte houses of the hamlet are dominated by a huge sandstone escarpment, like a gigantic bastion.

The troglodyte houses of Graufthal © Ralph Hammann - licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons
The troglodyte houses of Graufthal © Ralph Hammann – licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Sandstone in the Palatinate

The Northern Vosges does not stop at the French-German border by magic!

The massif extends into Germany under the name of Pfälzerwald (in French: forêt palatine). The cross-border massif forms the Vosges du Nord-Pfälzerwald biosphere reserve, recognised by UNESCO in 1998.

Map of the Vosges du Nord - Pfälzerwald biosphere © GH-NC - licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons
Map of the Vosges du Nord – Pfälzerwald biosphere © GH-NC – licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Unsurprisingly, the geological composition of the Pfälzerwald is identical to that of the Northern Vosges, namely the presence of pink sandstone (in German: Buntsandstein). This explains the importance of the forest cover in both territories, dominated by three species: Scots pine, beech and sessile oak.

Some places of interest in the Palatinate Forest:

 

The Dahn region

The rock formations of the Dahner Felsenland (Dahn region) are very popular with tourists and hikers:

  • the famous Teufelstisch (Devil’s Table) near Hinterweidenthal, a kind of rocky mushroom 14 metres high,
  • the Jungfernsprung,
  • the Hochstein,
  • the two rock towers Braut and Brautigam and
  • the rocky reef of Lammerfelsen
  • the Altschlossfelsen near the French-German border

The famous Teufelstisch rock © Frédéric Haag - licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons
The famous Teufelstisch rock © Frédéric Haag – licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons
The Jungfernsprung rocks © Rüdiger - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons
The Jungfernsprung rocks © Rüdiger – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons
Altschlossfelsen © H. Zell - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons
Altschlossfelsen © H. Zell – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons
 

In the Annweiler region

  • the Asselstein,
  • the Luger Friedrichsfels,
  • the Hundsfels and Rödelstein near Vorderweidenthal
The Asselstein rock in Annweiler am Trifels © Steffen 962 - licence [CC0] from Wikimedia Commons
The Asselstein rock in Annweiler am Trifels © Steffen 962 – licence [CC0] from Wikimedia Commons

 

The Black Forest Sandstone

The eastern counterpart of the Vosges mountains, the Black Forest massif in Germany, also has deposits of variegated sandstone, which was used in the construction of numerous monuments on the right bank of the Rhine (Heidelberg castle, Freiburg im Breisgau cathedral, etc.).

 

The exploitation of Vosges sandstone

Vosges sandstone rocks (especially variegated sandstone) have been exploited since ancient times for their excellent properties.

Today, 17 Vosges quarries extract nearly 200,000 tonnes of sandstone. The stone is then shaped by 7 operators grouped together within the Union of Vosges sandstone producers.

Thanks to the easy cleavage, people have built prestigious buildings in the Upper Rhine region. These include cathedrals, churches, castles and bridges. A brief overview…

 

Vosges sandstone in castles and palaces

Vosges sandstone was mainly used as a building material in castles.

Haut-Kœnigsbourg Castle

The Haut-Kœnigsbourg castle seen from above © French Moments
The Haut-Kœnigsbourg castle seen from above © French Moments

 

The ruined castles of the Northern Vosges and the Pfälzerwald (Fleckenstein in France; Trifels in Germany)

The ruins of Fleckenstein in the Northern Vosges © French Moments
The ruins of Fleckenstein in the Northern Vosges © French Moments

 

The splendid Rohan Palace in Saverne

Vosges Sandstone - Castle of Rohan in Saverne © French Moments
Castle of Rohan in Saverne © French Moments

 

The Haut-Barr castle in Saverne

Vosges Sandstone - The rocky spur of the Haut-Barr castle © French Moments
The rocky spur of the Haut-Barr castle © French Moments

 

The Lutzelbourg Castle near the Saverne Pass

Lutzelbourg castle © Gzen92 - licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons
The ruins of the Lutzelbourg castle © Gzen92 – licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

 

The old castle of Epinal

Castle of Epinal © French Moments
Castle of Epinal © French Moments

 

Vosges sandstone in cathedrals and churches

The pink sandstone of the Vosges can be found in many sanctuaries in Alsace and Lorraine.

 

In Lorraine

The cathedral and cloister of Saint-Dié-des-Vosges

The Vosges sandstone façade of Saint-Dié-des-Vosges Cathedral © Florian Pépellin - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons
The Vosges sandstone façade of Saint-Dié-des-Vosges Cathedral © Florian Pépellin – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

 

The abbeys of Senones, Moyenmoutier and Etival-Clairefontaine

The Abbey of Moyenmoutier © Ji-Elle - licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons
The Abbey of Moyenmoutier © Ji-Elle – licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

 

The Saint-Maurice basilica in Epinal

Epinal © French Moments
General view of the Saint-Maurice basilica © French Moments

 

The church of Saint-Quirin

Saint-Quirin (Photo: public domain)
View of Saint-Quirin (Photo: public domain)

 

The chapel on the rock of Dabo

The Rock of Dabo © Gzen92 - licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons
The Rock of Dabo © Gzen92 – licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

 

The Saint-Jacques church in Lunéville

The Saint-Jacques church in Lunéville © French Moments
The Saint-Jacques church in Lunéville © French Moments

 

In Alsace

Strasbourg Cathedral, a jewel of Gothic architecture in the Rhineland.

Strasbourg cathedral seen from the Palais Rohan © French Moments
The cathedral of Strasbourg © French Moments
Strasbourg cathedral © French Moments
Strasbourg cathedral © French Moments
The façade of Strasbourg Cathedral © French Moments
The façade of Strasbourg Cathedral © French Moments

 

The Saint-Pierre le Jeune church in Strasbourg

The Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune church © French Moments
The Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune church © French Moments

 

And, on the other side of the river Ill, the Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune Catholic Church in Strasbourg

Saint-Pierre le Jeune Catholic Church, Strasbourg © French Moments
Saint-Pierre le Jeune Catholic Church, Strasbourg © French Moments

 

Saint-Thomas church in Strasbourg

Saint-Thomas church, Strasbourg © French Moments
Saint-Thomas church, Strasbourg © French Moments

 

The Saint-Paul church in the imperial district of Strasbourg

Strasbourg Cruise French Intensive Course 2012 45 © French Moments
St. Paul’s Church, Strasbourg © French Moments

 

The Sainte-Foy church in Sélestat

Sélestat © French Moments
Sainte-Foy church © French Moments

 

The Hohenberg Abbey at Mont-Sainte-Odile

Mont Saint-Odile © French Moments
Mont Saint-Odile © French Moments

 

The church of Rosheim

The Romanesque church of Rosheim © French Moments
The Romanesque church of Rosheim © French Moments

 

The abbey of Murbach

The abbey of Murbach © French Moments
The abbey of Murbach © French Moments

 

The church of Gueberschwihr

Gueberschwihr Central Square © French Moments
Gueberschwihr © French Moments

 

The churches of Guebwiller: Saint-Leger and Notre-Dame

Vosges Sandstone in Guebwiller - Church of Saint-Leger © Ralph Hammann - licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons
Church of Saint-Leger © Ralph Hammann – licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons
Vosges Sandstone in Guebwiller - Church of Notre-Dame © Ralph Hammann - licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons
Church of Notre-Dame © Ralph Hammann – licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons
 

The Saint-Etienne protestant church in Mulhouse

Mulhouse Old Town - Temple Saint-Etienne © French Moments
Mulhouse Old Town – Temple Saint-Etienne © French Moments

 

The abbey church of Marmoutier

Vosges Sandstone in Marmoutier © French Moments
The Romanesque church of Marmoutier © French Moments

 

The abbey church of Wissembourg

Vosges Sandstone - The abbey church of Wissembourg © French Moments
The abbey church of Wissembourg © French Moments

 

The churches of Neuwiller-lès-Saverne: Saint-Adelphe and the abbey church of Saints-Pierre-et-Paul

Saint Adelphe church in Neuwiller-les-Saverne © French Moments
Saint Adelphe church in Neuwiller-les-Saverne © French Moments
Church of Neuwiller-lès-Saverne © French Moments
Abbey church of Saints-Pierre-et-Paul, Neuwiller-lès-Saverne © French Moments

 

The cathedral of Saint-Christophe in Belfort

Belfort Cathedral © French Moments
Belfort Cathedral © French Moments

 

Vosges sandstone was also used for religious sculptures in Alsace, especially Romanesque ones:

Tympanum of the church of Kaysersberg © French Moments
Tympanum of the church of Kaysersberg © French Moments
Alsace Wine Route - Andlau © French Moments
The romanesque portail of Andlau church © French Moments
Statue of St Richarde in Andlau © French Moments
Statue of St Richarde in Andlau © French Moments

 

 

In Germany

The Imperial Cathedral of Speyer

Speyer Dom © BlueBreezeWiki - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons
Speyer Dom © BlueBreezeWiki – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

 

The Protestant Stiftskirche in Landau in der Pfalz

The Stiftskirche in Landau in der Pfalz © Tilman2007 - licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons
The Stiftskirche in Landau in der Pfalz © Tilman2007 – licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

 

The Stiftskirche in Neustadt an der Weinstrasse

Neustadt: the Stiftskirche © AnRo0002 - licence [CC0] from Wikimedia Commons
Neustadt: the Stiftskirche © AnRo0002 – licence [CC0] from Wikimedia Commons

 

Pink Vosges sandstone in other monuments

The use of Vosges pink sandstone can be found in the following sites:

 

The “pagan wall” of Mont Sainte-Odile. The 11-kilometre long mysterious enclosure is made of sandstone blocks.

Pagan Wall of Mont Sainte Odile © Dietrich Krieger - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons
Pagan Wall of Mont Sainte Odile © Dietrich Krieger – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

 

Many medieval city walls and city gates in Alsace

Châtenois on the Alsace Wine Route © French Moments
The Witches’ Gate in Châtenois © French Moments
Niedertor, Wangen © French Moments
Niedertor, Wangen © French Moments

 

The town hall of Wissembourg

Town Hall of Wissembourg © French Moments
Town Hall of Wissembourg © French Moments

 

The Aubette along the Place Kléber in Strasbourg

Place Kléber, Strasbourg © French Moments
Place Kléber, Strasbourg © French Moments

 

Strasbourg’s central station

Strasbourg Central Station © French Moments
Strasbourg Central Station © French Moments

 

Mulhouse railway station

The Vosges sandstone façade of Mulhouse station © French Moments
The Vosges sandstone façade of Mulhouse station © French Moments

 

The citadel and the Lion of Belfort

Lion of Belfort © French Moments
The Citadel and the Lion of Belfort © French Moments

 

The Citadel of Bitche (Moselle)

The citadel of Bitche © V.degouy - licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons
The citadel of Bitche © V.degouy – licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

 

The post office and several buildings in the imperial district of Metz

The central Post Office of Metz © French Moments
The central Post Office of Metz © French Moments
Place Raymond Mondon, Metz German Imperial District © French Moments
Place Raymond Mondon, Metz German Imperial District © French Moments
Avenue Foch, Metz German Imperial District © French Moments
Avenue Foch, Metz German Imperial District © French Moments

 

The merchants’ house in Lunéville

The Vosges sandstone façade of the merchants' house in Lunéville © French Moments
The Vosges sandstone façade of the merchants’ house in Lunéville © French Moments

 

Vosges sandstone in Alsatian house

Hard, waterproof sandstone was often used as foundations and basements for Alsatian houses. It can also be found in window sills, door sills, window frames, lintels, acroteria and stair treads.

Beblenheim, Alsace © French Moments
The St. Nicolas fountain in Vosges sandstone © French Moments
Kaysersberg July 2015 10 copyright French Moments
Window frame in Vosges sandstone, Kaysersberg © French Moments
Kaysersberg Springtime 13 copyright French Moments
Gargouille in Vosges sandstone, Kaysersberg © French Moments
Riquewihr 38 © French Moments
Winegrowers’ houses in Riquewihr © French Moments
Alsace © French Moments - Kientzheim 31
Winegrower’s house in Kientzheim with a sandstone base – note the sandstone planters too! French Moments
Detail of the sandstone oriel of the Maison des Têtes in Colmar © French Moments
Detail of the sandstone oriel of the Maison des Têtes in Colmar © French Moments

 

In Bergheim as in several other places of the Alsatian vineyard, the fountain is made of Vosges sandstone…

Bergheim © French Moments
Place du marché © French Moments

 

… as well as the famous Lack’mi which has been showing its backside to passers-by since the Middle Ages!

Bergheim © French Moments
The “Lalli” of Bergheim © French Moments

 

Bridges in Vosges Sandstone

  • Many of the bridges linking the Grande Île in Strasbourg are made of pink Vosges sandstone (including the famous Corbeau Bridge).
  • The Stanislas Bridge in Mirecourt (Vosges department) has crossed the Madon River since its reconstruction in sandstone in 1747.
  • The fortified bridge at Kaysersberg, is a 16th-century military structure unique in Alsace.
  • The Pont de la Caille between Annecy and Geneva in Haute-Savoie (1839) was built with a whitish limestone. However, it includes some Vosges sandstone since its restoration in 2007.
Kaysersberg Springtime 5 copyright French Moments
The fortified bridge of Kaysersberg © French Moments

 

Black Forest sandstone

In Germany, it is perhaps difficult to know the origin of the sandstone used in the construction of buildings because the builders of the Rhine plain had access to two deposits:

  • the Northern Vosges-Pfälzerwald
  • the Black Forest

In general, all buildings on the right bank of the Rhine used the variegated sandstone of the Black Forest. This is particularly true of famous monuments:

 

Basel Cathedral (Switzerland)

Basel Christmas Market
Basel cathedral © French Moments

 

Basel City Hall (Switzerland)

Basel's Renaissance town hall © GabrielleMerk - licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons
Basel’s Renaissance town hall © GabrielleMerk – licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

 

Freiburg im Breisgau Cathedral

General view of Freiburg im Breisgau and its cathedral © H. Helmlechner - licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons
General view of Freiburg im Breisgau and its cathedral © H. Helmlechner – licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

 

Rastatt Castle

Rastatt Schloss © Gerd Eichmann - licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons
Rastatt Schloss © Gerd Eichmann – licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

 

The Palace of the Prince-Bishops of Speyer in Bruchsal

Bruchsal Schloss © Tilman2007 - licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons
Bruchsal Schloss © Tilman2007 – licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

 

Heidelberg Castle

Heidelberg Schloß © Pumuckel42 - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons
Heidelberg Schloß © Pumuckel42 – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

 

Imperial Cathedral of Frankfurt am Main

Frankfurt Imperial Cathedral © Mylius - licence [GFDL 1.2] from Wikimedia Commons
Frankfurt Imperial Cathedral © Mylius – licence [GFDL 1.2] from Wikimedia Commons

 

Bonus: Vosges sandstone in Paris

To my knowledge, only one building in Paris has incorporated Vosges sandstone. It is the Sainte-Odile church (17th arrondissement), built to welcome the Alsatians of Paris. Completed in 1946, the building was designed entirely in reinforced concrete. However, its pinkish colour indicates the addition of fragments and slabs of Vosges sandstone on the façade.

Sainte Odile Church Paris © Mbzt - licence [CC BY 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons
Sainte Odile Church Paris © Mbzt – licence [CC BY 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

 

Find out more about the pink Vosges sandstone

The examples of constructions made of pink sandstone of the Vosges listed above represent only a tiny part of the existing buildings and edifices in Alsace and Lorraine. If you know of others that deserve to be mentioned in this article, write their name in the comments below!

 

Vosges sandstone on Pinterest

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Vosges Sandstone Pinterest © French Moments

About the author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. He has a background teaching French, Economics and Current Affairs, and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations, and a degree of Economics and Management. Pierre is the author of the Discovery Course on the Secrets of the Eiffel Tower and the Christmas book "Voyage au Pays de Noël".

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