Epinal (pop. 35,000) is the capital of the Vosges departement. The Moselle River flows through the town. Surrounded by forests, Epinal makes a good base to explore the Vosges region.
Epinal was founded in the 10th century by Thierry I, Bishop of Metz, who built a monastery, as well as a castle to protect the area from Burgundian looters. The original name of the place was "Spinal" - which has survived in the name of the inhabitants, the Spinaliens.
From 1466 Epinal belongs to the Duchy of Lorraine (based in Nancy). From the 17th century, the town lives on the textile and paper industries.
The 17th century would be marked by the war between Lorraine and France. The plague devastates Epinal in the Summer 1629. Soon afterwards, it is attacked by the Swedish army (1632), then taken by the French field marshal Caumont (1633), besieged by Charles IV of Lorraine (1635), and hit again by plague for 40 weeks (1636). At the end of the epidemy, only 1,000 people are left in Epinal. The recovery took decades.
The Duke of Lorraine recaptures Epinal in October 1636, but cedes it back to France after the Peace of Saint-Germain (21 March 1641) with Louis XIII of France. French troops occupy the town until August 1650, when Epinal is freed by Charles IV of Lorraine. Louis XIV then occupies it again from 1653 to 1661.
In 1670, the French take Nancy, and Duke Charles IV seeks refuge in Epinal. The town cannot prevent being taken again by the troops of the Sun King, who subsequently orders the destruction of the castle.
In 1790, as France was restructuring its provinces into departments, the Assemblée constituante (parliament) chooses Epinal as the new prefecture (capital) of the Vosges.
In 1796, Jean-Charles Pellerin (1756-1836) founds the Epinal prints, printed images depicting historical or religious subjects in bright sharp colours. They were extremely popular throughout France in the 19th century.
After the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1) and the German occupation of Alsace, many industrialists from Mulhouse flocked into Epinal, giving a major boost to the local textile industry. Epinal then becomes one of the four strongholds (along with Verdun,Toul and Belfort) of the Séré de Rivières system of defence aimed at protecting France from a German invasion. In 1913, half of the town's population of 30,000 are soldiers.
Epinal is a congenial, colourful town, although it does not have any compelling sights. The train stations and shops are located on the left side of the river, while the old town is on the right side.
Vosges Square (Place des Vosges) is the heart of the historical centre. The St. Maurice Basilica, on Goëry Square, dates mostly from the 13th century, with some elements from the 11th century, as well as a remarkable 15th-century portail des Bourgeois ("burghers' portal").
The ruins of the medieval castle lie above the old town. The 26-hectare (64-acre) castle park contains a miniature zoo.
How to get there
Epinal is 40 km south of Nancy on the E23 motorway. The narrower E512 motorway crosses the Vosges mountains to reach Alasace near Mulhouse (105km). Colmar is 90km away using the scenic D417 and D11 roads through the mountains, passing by Munster and Gérardmer (40km). From Strasbourg, you can either take the motorway through Nancy (the easiest and fastest), or take the A34 to Barr, then small mountain roads all the way to Epinal passing by Saint-Dié-des-Vosges.
There are hourly trains from/to Nancy (55min), as well as less frequent direct trains to Belfort (1h20min). Most other destinations require a change in one of these two cities. Trains from Paris-Est transit by Nancy and take about 2h45min to 3h15min if using the TGV until Nancy. There are a few direct TGV to Epinal per day (2h20min).
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