Category Archives: France 2017

The Trip That Started With a Cheap Flight

We bought plane tickets for our September trip before we knew where we were going. Unlike other trips where we choose a destination, book flights and plan our trip, this time a great deal on air fare enticed us to buy plane tickets and then decide where to go.

Husband Paul discovered Scott’s Cheap Flights, a great resource for bargain air fares on reputable airlines. Whenever he got emails about new destinations, he would announce something like, “Want to go to Bejing for under $600?” I would always say, “Let’s go.” And we would fantasize about our next trip. When he found round-trip tickets from Orlando to Amsterdam for $381, we decided to take a chance on this too-good-to-be true airfare.

Since we were in Amsterdam last year we wanted to go somewhere new. Amsterdam is a good hub for travel to a lot of places, so we knew we could plan a great trip from there.

We chose our first destination, Colmar, France, thanks to a serendipitous visit to a new French cookie store . The delightful owners told us about their charming home city of Strassbourg, France and offered to help us plan a visit. They showed us beautiful pictures and convinced us it would be a great place to visit. Rather than staying in Strassbourg where it would be hard to park our rental car and drive out of the city for day trips, we decided to stay in near-by Colmar for the first week. Located in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France, Colmar is close to Germany and Switzerland.

For week two we decided to go to Lille, France, a little French city near Belgium. Our Paris landlady recommended it to us a few years earlier, so we thought it would be a great home base for next week. We rented an apartment right off the Grand Place in the center of the city.

Tomorrow we leave for the trip that started with a cheap flight. Flying out of the country for less than I spend for most tickets in the US opens up all kinds of travel possibilities. I love thinking about all the places I could go.

Hurricane Irma’s impending arrival threw a bit of a wrinkle into our plans. Our flight is scheduled to leave the day before Irma is projected to arrive, so we should be able to leave on schedule. We put up the hurricane shutters, moved every loose outside object inside, plotted a route to the airport that avoids major highways, set our alarm so we can leave way earlier than originally planned and are packed and ready to go. My brother called this trip our “super evacuation.” We are excited to begin our trip but will be leaving with thoughts for the welfare and safety of our friends and family in Irma’s path.

 

Welcome to Colmar

Arrived in Amsterdam at 7AM this morning, secured our rental car, drove eight hours though the Netherlands, Germany and France and arrived in quaint Colmar, France this evening. After expecting traffic jams and airport congestion due to the impending arrival of Hurricane Irma, we were surprised by the eerily light traffic on the highway and the small crowds at the airport.

Laurence, our landlady, welcomed us to Colmar and gave us an orientation to the city.  Her English and my French were at about the same level.  In spite of the fact that the words she knew in English were pretty much the same words I knew in French we communicated just fine.

After getting settled, we explored our neighborhood and enjoyed tarte flambee, a specialty of the area, for dinner.

Tarte Flambee

Alsace Wine Tour

White wine is the star of the Alsace wine region, and thanks to Albaero of Ophorus Wine Tours, we spent the day tasting delicious wine in charming villages and enjoying spectacular views.

Beautiful flowers adorn villages in the Alsace region, and villages compete with each other to get 1,2, 3 or 4-flower ratings in the same way that restaurants compete for stars.

We visited wineries in the villages of Pfaffenheim, Eguishiem, Zellenberg and Riquewihr on the Route des Vins d’Alsace. By 11:30 AM we were at the Pfaff winery drinking wonderful cremant, the name for sparkling wine made in the Alsace area. Cremant is produced the same way as champagne but is often more economical.

In Eguisheim, our second village, we tasted more great wine and ate lunch. I enjoyed wonderful chicken with Riesling sauce, an Alsatian specialty.

Our third stop, the Jean Becker Winery, an organic winery in business since 1610 in Zellenberg, was my favorite. Martine, descendant of the winery founder, conducted the winery tour and tasting. She charmed us with her knowledge and stories about wine history, pairings, and culture.

Just when I didn’t think the villages could get any cuter, we made our final stop at Riquewihr, the loveliest village of the day.

Our final tasting stop was at the Madison Zimmes Winery in a building that dates from 1679. A German group provided unexpected entertainment when they started singing each time they tasted a new wine.

I learned a lot about Alsation wine today. Riesling wine can be dryer and tastier than I thought. and the little green wine glass at the restaurant last night is a traditional Riesling wine glass.

 

 

 

Exploring Colmar

After a little trip to the market and boulangerie, we started the day with my favorite French breakfast-the tasty little melons I find only in France and Italy and pain au chocolat.

We eat breakfast in our kitchen by a window that overlooks a building that looks as old as the 500-year old building where our apartment is located.

Colmar continues to impress me with how absolutely adorable it is. As we strolled the darling cobblestone streets of the old town today, we discovered one beautiful spot after another. I feel like I need to get a thesaurus to find more ways to say “cute.”

A little canal that connects Colmar to the Rhine river flows through the village disappearing underground and reappearing in beautifully landscaped areas.

Historic districts dating back hundreds of years comprise the old village. The tanners’ district is a uniquely decorated area where tanners lived and worked in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Lovely little homes and restaurants sit right on the water in the Little Venice area.

After exploring the charming Colmar streets, we visited the Bartholdi Museum, birthplace of Auguste Bartholdi, sculptor of the Statue of Liberty.

One of the most fascinating rooms in the museum was a recreation of the dining room in his last apartment in Paris. Porcelain hung from the ceiling, which was a popular decorating trend of the time.  A very helpful museum worker gave us an English copy of the guide to take with us.

Making dinner reservations was an unexpected delight.  When I am in a non-English speaking country, I try to avoid making phone reservations because important details may be lost in translation and my French is, at best, limited. But when I called this afternoon to make dinner reservations at La Romantica (106 route de Rouffach), the maitre d’ told me I spoke perfect French.  Even though I knew he was being generous because he had kindly corrected my article/noun agreement earlier in our conversation, I appreciated his encouraging words.

Hiking in the Vineyards

Hiking is one of our favorite ways to explore a new place. Today we spent a wonderful morning hiking in the vineyards around Riquewihr, one of the Alsatian villages we visited on our wine tour.

Once we left the village, the vineyards seemed to go on forever, and the views were amazing.

Harvesting had been going on for awhile, but there were still luscious Riesling and Pinot Noir grapes on the vines.

We hiked to a residential area of Zellenberg, another village we visited on our wine tour and noticed some very creative yard decor.

After hiking back to Riquewihr for lunch, we drove to Ribeauville, a village Paul wanted to visit. It was larger than the other villages we visited and so cute.

Dinner tonight came from our shopping trip to the covered market in Colmar. Located in a large brick building just a few blocks from our apartment, it offers products from local farmers, bakers and butchers.  At the market, the friendly French proprietor of the boulangerie helped me, in the nicest way, improve my French with a gentle correction to how I ordered meringue, a local treat. We got baguette, cheese, artisan butter and yogurt, fruit, and some beautiful pastries. One of the cheeses we got is Munster, the smelly, strong-tasting local cheese. Our market bounty went wonderfully with the creamant we got on our wine tour.

Day Trip to Strasbourg

With great navigation tips from Juliette and Jean Claude, owners of Only France Cookies in Sarasota, we were able to easily drive from Colmar to Strasbourg, park on the edge of town and take the tram into the city.

First stop was the beautiful Strasbourg Cathedral.  Completed in 1439, the cathedral’s spire was the highest of all Christian churches until the 19th century.

Our timing was perfect to be able to go inside to see the procession of the apostles on the Astronmical Clock, which occurs every day at solar noon, approximately 12:30 PM.

The beautiful cathedral is known for its stained-glass windows and suspended organ case.

We strolled through Gutenberg Square and saw the statue of Johannes Gutenberg who invented the Gutenberg press in Strasbourg.

Albearo, our wine tour guide, told us we had to go to La Cloche a Frommage to eat when we were in Strasbourg. Cloche is French for “bell”, and the first thing you see when you walk in is a giant cheese bell-the largest in the world according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

The restaurant owner is a cheese master who buys all of his artisanal cheese made from unpasteurized milk and ages it in his own cheese cave.  Needless to say, the menu was all about cheese. We chose raclette, which is a cheese from the Jura region of France that is usually melted and scraped off. Our half round of cheese was placed in a special warmer and as it melted, we scraped it onto our plates.

We could move the warmer closer or farther from the cheese depending on how much cheese we wanted. Our meal consisted of fingerling potatoes, dried meat, pickled vegetables and various breads.  Lunch was a cheese-lover’s delight and paired wonderfully with the Riesling recommended by our waitress.

After our very substantial lunch we explored some more of the city. We walked through La Petite France, a lovely area of 16th and 17th century houses and on top of Le Barrage Vauban, a dam that was built in the 17th century to fortify the city. Floodgates could be closed and the southern part of the city flooded, protecting it from attackers.

 

More Colmar and a Touch of Lebanon

We started our day with the best pain au chocolate we have had in Colmar and cappuccino at a cafe around the corner from our apartment and looked out the window at the cozy, drizzly day.

The streets in Colmar are hard to navigate, and it is easy to get off track. I appreciate the Saint Martin Collegiate Church by our apartment which serves as a landmark for me when I get lost.

We spent the afternoon in the Unterlinden Museum which is housed in a former13th century convent and 20th public bath house.  The Isenheim altarpiece is the highlight of the museum collection.

We enjoyed a special exhibit of the works of Rodtchenko, a Russian 20th century artist, sculptor, photographer and graphic designer.  It was surprising to learn that he moved from art to graphic design to support Soviet industry and propaganda because I think of artists as opposing repressive regimes, not supporting them.

Oil on canvas, Rodtchenko

 

On the way back to our apartment Paul tried a new beer that he loved, Leffe Royale, and I enjoyed another cremant.

Dinner tonight was one of our best ever! Gordon and Noah, a father and son we met on our wine tour, recommended a Lebanese and Syrian restaurant when we saw them the day after our wine adventure. Tonight we followed up on their recommendation and ate at Restaurant Palmyre.

The food was amazing and our waiter was charming. When I asked for a wine recommendation, he brought out three Lebanese red wines for me to try. I have never had Lebanese wine before, and they were all wonderful.  We ordered one entree and three starters, so we could have a variety of tastes and loved every bite.

Day Trip to Freiburg, Germany

We had a few challenges planning our day trip from Colmar to Freiburg (pop. 230,000) – neither of us speaks German, parking is very limited in Freiburg, and we didn’t know any natives who could advise us like we did for our Strasbourg trip. But after finding a helpful article that provided parking resources as well as the names and locations of the four “park and rides” on the outskirts of town, we had a plan.

With our plan and a lot of luck, we found our way. After just one wrong turn, we located the lot, parked in the last spot, and boarded the correct tram for Alstadt, the old town, and the TI where we planned to get a map. A very helpful woman on the tram explained to us that we had gone too far and needed to go back a few stops. She spoke no English, but we communicated well enough to get to where we needed to be.

We found the TI, got our map and saw a very German scene as we walked outside – a wedding party with men wearing lederhosen, German leather shorts, posing for a picture in the square.

Guided by our map, we explored the points of interest in Alstadt. One of the first buildings we saw was the massive and beautiful Munster Cathedral, one of the few Gothic churches built in the middle ages to survive a number of wars unscathed.

We enjoyed a very popular farmers’ market that is held Monday to Saturday in Munsterplatz, which surrounds the cathedral.

The most popular item at the market was the Munsterwurst or “Lange Rote” sausage. It smelled wonderful and looked a lot like a foot-long hot dog at the Minnesota State Fair. Everywhere we looked, people were eating them.

So, of course, we tried one. it was amazing!

Well fortified from our sausage, we continued exploring beautiful Freiburg.

Konviktstrabe, one of the most beautiful Freiburg streets

On the side of many Freiburg streets, I noticed tiny canals. Called “Bachle, these little canals were originally used to provide water for fighting fires. Now children float toy boats and people dip their feet in the clean water.

Larger canals provide beautiful settings for dining and strolling.

I couldn’t leave Germany without trying one more traditional dish, so we found a lovely little outdoor cafe and ate spaetzle (German egg noodles) and drank  German beer. It was the best macaroni and cheese I have ever had.

Champagne

Today we spent the most delightful time in Hautvillers, a traditional village in the Champagne area known as the birthplace of champagne. In researching where to visit, I discovered the Champagne Joseph Desruets winery, a small, traditional winery founded in 1888.

I emailed them for an appointment to visit and at our scheduled time, Elena, our most helpful guide and wife of one of the owners, met us and gave us a personal tasting and tour of their winery.

After tasting each of their champagnes (which were fabulous), we walked across the street to their winery. They are the only winery still using a traditional press, which takes more time than the new models. The oak in the top part of the press is the original wood from four hundred years ago. The wood in the bottom part of the press is replaced every fifty to sixty years.

Elena took us into the room where the first fermentation occurs. The harvest was completed the week before, so the juice had not been fermenting long. We had to enter and close the door quickly so the warm temperature was maintained. The pungent scent of fermenting wine filled the air, making it difficult to stay in the room for long.

The next stop was the cellar where the champagne is aged in oak barrels.

Champagne Desruets is a small winery, producing 25,000 bottles a year from three hectares (there are about 2.5 acres in a hectare) of grapes. The sixth generation of the Desruets family now runs the winery.

We greatly appreciated the time Elena spent with us; educating us about champagne, showing us the winery and recommending other points of interest in the area. By the time we left, I felt like we had a new friend.

Before leaving Hautvillers, we visited the Abbey of St. Peter of Hautvillers, where Dom Perignon, a 17th century French Benedictine monk, is reputed to have invented champagne. Although he didn’t really invent champagne, he contributed much to improving the refermentation process and methods for growing and harvesting grapes. He is buried in the church.

The abbey was the former home of the relics of  Saint Helena, Empress and mother of Constantine.The relics brought pilgrims and revenue to the abbey which allowed the abbey to purchase vineyards in the areas. During the French Revolution, when the abbey was destroyed, the relics were hidden and then moved to Paris in 1819. The reliquary is still on display in the abbey.

We loved walking around the beautiful little village and enjoying the spectacular views of the Marne valley.

When we first drove into the champagne region I was surprised by how vast and open it was. I had assumed it would be all vineyards and charming wineries. The region also grows barley, alfalfa, beets and other produce.

 

 

 

Welcome to Lille

We arrived last night in Lille,a lovely town in northern France with an urban population of about a million people. The view from our living room window looks over the Place Gilleson and the Lille Cathedral. Tables and chairs were set up in the square this morning, and when we returned from our walk, people were enjoying the beautiful day drinking and watching circus performers.

Lille Cathedral is an interesting mix of Gothic and contemporary. Inside the Gothic interior is adorned with contemporary fixtures and outside the Gothic building has a contemporary facade.

We visited the Wazemmes market, one of the largest in France. It was difficult to move among all of the people.  Sellers were yelling out the cost of their produce and seemed to be competing with each other to get people to come to their stand.

We ate lunch on the Grand Place, the main square of Lille.

Paul had the mussels and frites he had been looking forward to and I had a great salad.

We weren’t going to have dessert, but the people next to us had the yummiest looking crepes; we changed our minds. The chocolate sauce was perfect.

We noticed that many of the statues had mirrored boxes on their heads. I think I translated the information about this next to one of the statues correctly They are an urban installation that transforms commemorative statues with mirrored heads to invite the public to question their own identity and look at the statues in a new way.

We spent a leisurely first day in Lille, exploring the area around our apartment.