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 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.

 

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.

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.

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.

 

 

 

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

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.

 

The Joys of Slow Travel

I discovered the joys of slow travel mostly by necessity.

Several life changes – becoming empty-nesters, my cutting back on work days, and my husband becoming a self-employed web developer who could work from anywhere – enabled us to act on our desire to make travel a bigger part of our lives.  We chose Italy, a country we had never visited, for our first trip in this new life stage.

Choosing the country was easy; deciding how many cities to visit was not. I wanted to see as much as possible, and my husband, who needs to be accessible each day in case a client has a problem, worried that if we were in a city only a few days and he had a major issue to resolve, he might miss the whole experience. He wanted to visit two cities and I wanted to visit four, so we compromised and visited three.

That was one of the best compromises I ever made. We learned there was so much to experience in each location that the longer we were there, the longer we wanted to be there. When we quit rushing from one “must-see” spot to the next, we discovered how delightful it was to wander little side streets, observe what was going on around us, explore obscure places, talk with the locals and get more in tune with the culture.

That first trip to Italy almost ten years ago started our love affair with slow travel. The Art of Slow Travel defines slow travel as “a mindset that rejects traditional ideas of tourism and encourages you to soak in your environments and keep yourself open to new experiences.”

Having the time to be open to new experiences is key to our enjoyment of slow travel.  Some of our favorite experiences occurred while wandering side streets with no agenda. One time we noticed a flyer for an Irish dance and music performance on the door of a small pub in Galway. We decided to check it out and found ourselves in an upstairs room with about a dozen Irish people enjoying traditional music and dance performed by incredibly talented teenagers.

What I love most about slow travel is experiencing the culture, connecting with locals, feeling like I am living in another country, escaping the crush of tourists and discovering off-the-beaten-track experiences.

Transitioning to slow travel is easy. It starts with a desire to experience rather than observe a local culture and then adjusting how and where you spend your time. A number of websites-Smarter Travel, Slow Travel, and Slow Movement-offer great advice and resources for slow travel.

Over the years we have discovered some slow-travel guiding principles that work well for us.

  1. Stay in apartments booked through Airbnb, VRBO or one of the other home-sharing sites where we are more likely to live like locals. Landlords are often the first locals we meet and great resources for local events and information.
  2. Keep most of our time unscheduled. We balance scheduled visits to attractions with open time to wander and observe.
  3. People watch. We love to sit on a park bench or at an out-door café and observe life going on around us.
  4. Spend extended time in each location, much more time than guidebooks recommend.
  5. Seek opportunities to visit with locals and ask them for recommendations-where they like to eat, what they like to do, where are the hidden gems.
  6. Eat like a local. Food is such an important part of the culture. We go to markets and eat at restaurants frequented by locals. A menu without an English translation is a good indicator the restaurant is for locals. If we have trouble ordering, there is usually someone at the restaurant who can help us.
  7. Take a chance on local experiences that we know nothing about. Some of the time we are underwhelmed, but most of the time we are delighted. And all the time, we enjoy having an experience with the locals. One time we followed a huge group of people walking in the opposite direction from us and ended up watching a thrilling Gaelic football match between Dublin and Kildare with 80,000 boisterous fans.

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  8. Learn at least a little of the local language and use it. This one can be hard when I am unsure about correct pronunciation. However, most of the time, the locals appreciate my efforts even when I feel like I am murdering the language.
  9. Download one of the many apps that help navigate a new city. We especially like City Walks whose maps and guided walks help us find new places to explore.

Two years ago, we returned to Florence, one of our original three Italian cities, for five weeks. Our goal was to live in Florence, not just visit it.  After living in Paris for a month the previous year, we were pretty sure that five weeks would not feel too long.  We took cooking classes, hiked rural areas outside the city, took day trips to neighboring villages, visited with locals and made return visits to our favorite restaurants.  By the time we left, locals were calling us by name in the piazza and stopping us on the street to go for a coffee.

We know that staying longer in one location limits the number of places we can experience, and we have many places on our “want-to-experience” list. But after almost ten years of enjoying slow travel, we realize that the joys of really experiencing a new place outweigh the allure of visiting more new places.

 

Farewell, Ireland

For my last day in Ireland, Paul, Bob and I played Spanish Point Golf Club, a little nine-hole course on the Atlantic coast in County Clare. It is quite informal- pay your green fee and play the nine holes as many times as you like.

Paul and Debbie

We played twice.  Although we couldn’t always see the green for our hole, we could see lots of other golfers on this cozy little course, and by the second time around we recognized a number of other groups.

My golf buddies, Paul and Bob

It was a hilly course, fun to walk, and just like all the other Irish courses I have played-had lots of rough to hide your errant shots.

Paul and Bob looking for lost golf balls

It was the windiest round of golf I have ever played, with gusts reaching forty mph-so windy that Paul was sporting a new “do” by the end  of our round.

We ended the day in typical Irish fashion with a pint and trad music.

Three trips to Ireland now, and I find this enchanting country more magical each time I visit. Wild Atlantic Way, a new web site and app that charts a route and highlights along nine coastal counties, was a great resource. I loved seeing the road signs that alerted us that we were on the Wild Atlantic Way; I knew it would be beautiful.

Dear, Ireland, I will return.

Ennis Solo

Paul picked up our friend Bob at the airport today, and they golfed at Ballybunion, so I got a solo day in delightful Ennis. Everything I wanted to see and do was walking distance from our B&B.

First stop-the Clare Museum, a wonderful little museum that documents the history of County Clare from the earliest days to the present.

I explored the little streets in the town center. One shop had a wall of fascinators, the little headpieces often seen in the United Kingdom.

I found two shops I had read about. Craft Works sells local products, hand made within thirty miles of Ennis.

Seoidin sells handmade jewelry that is designed in Ireland.

I ate lunch at the Souper Cafe and had a wonderful roasted vegetable soup that was so creamy without having any cream. My waiter told me it took them a long time to get the right consistency.

My final stop was the Ennis Friary. Established in the 13th century as a Franciscan friary. it is pretty much a ruin today.  After learning about the history of the powerful O’Brien family in County Clare, I was not surprised to learn that they had established the friary.

The guys got back early evening.

Bob having his first pint in Ireland