Sunday, September 30, 2012

Strasbourg – September 25th

The Hotel Le Rapp is nicely located near the center of Colmar, but in a quiet location. It’s a good size room with lots of hot water and the bed is firm yet comfortable. All good things, but sleep still escaped me. So, up early to take the train to Strasbourg with the plan to be onsite to see/hear the cathedral chimes around 12:30.

Gare de Strasbourg
At the Colmar train station, small and compact, we decided not only to get our tickets to Strasbourg, but also see about the tickets to Basel, Switzerland (Bâle in French). The woman who assisted us with tickets, figured out we were old enough for discounted train tickets to both locations. I guess becoming an old fart has its advantages. It is interesting to note that even with the discounts, the Prem 1st class TGV ticket purchase was less than the 2nd class tickets to Strasbourg. Right before we turned away, she also suggested that we wait to take the second train, as it was faster.  What a delight she was, so much for the old “rude French” adage.

Ride to Strasbourg was quick and uneventful. Strasbourg train station is a big bubble.  It was a gloomy, gray day, which did nothing to help the city stand out. It certainly doesn’t hold the charm of Colmar, but then again, it is a much larger city. The star of Strasbourg is its cathedral (Cathédrale de Notre-Dame), a perfect example of delicate Gothic architecture. Its pink/red sandstone coloring is almost as famous as the Cathedral.

However, it is the height of the structure that is most imposing. The Cathedral was begun in 1176 and finished in 1429.  It was the tallest Cathedral in the world at its completion. Can you just imagine what the impact of this imposing structure might have been on its medieval visitors?  I found it overwhelming even surrounded as it was by other tall structures.  The Cathedral still holds the position of third tallest Cathedral in the world today.  Which is pretty amazing considering it has survived – the French Revolution, the Franco-Prussian War, World War I, and World War II.

As I stood in front of this imposing structure on the Roman square that fronts it (at over 2,000 years old it’s spectacular on it’s own right), and look left, a dark, half-timbered building caught my eye.  It’s actually quite hard to miss given the light coloring of all the other buildings that surround the square.  It was the home of a wealthy merchant in the 16th century.  The building has been left intact, as citizens of the city believe it symbolizes the capitalism on which the city was built and still prides itself.  Located at the crossroads of Europe and the Rhine River, Strasbourg took advantage of its medieval location by taxing goods passing through.  This robust economy helped pay for the cathedral.

We made our plan to be at the Cathedral in time for to see the astronomical clock chime.  According to our friend Anne, it was not to be missed.  But as we were gazing at the Cathedral and the merchant’s home time was moving along as it has tendency. Unknown to us, they close the cathedral at 11:45A and shuffle everyone out.  If you want to see the l’Horologie, you must pay for the privilege.  Well, before we made it inside they had shut and latched the doors. Frustrated we stood back pondering our approach to this dilemma when we saw a young man wait for the exit to open and dashed in after the people had exited.  Heartened, we thought “why not?” and off we dashed. It worked; we made it inside; granted for a short time before we too were escorted somewhat unceremoniously out.  But enough time to gather pictures of the gold-leafed organ that hangs off one of the columns, the elaborately carved pulpit, beautiful stain glass windows, and, yes, a quick shot of the infamous clock.
The Organ

The Pulpit
However, as I said, our success was short-lived and out we went.  We were trying to decide if it was worth spending another 4 euros to witness the clockworks and thought better of it (4€ can buy a glass or two of wine you know). So we wandered about the church taking pictures and enjoying the beauty of its Gothic exterior.

Stain-glass Window

Since Strasbourg is situated along the Rhine River we thought a stroll along that waterway the next best thing on our agenda. As you recall, Colmar has an area called the Petit Venise, well, Strasbourg’s answer is Le Petit France. A pretty canal/lock system that is adjacent to the Rhine. We wandered this area enjoying the flowered window boxes and bridges until the sky opened up.  Weather has been hit and miss rain this trip and this was a hit, major hit.
Homes along the Rhine

The Petit France intrigues Betty
We determined this was our cue to head back to Colmar for some lunch, wine, and, hopefully, better weather.  The train ride back was interesting.  An elderly French woman kept asking me all sorts of questions in French, which for me was another “deer caught in the headlights” moment.  Luckily a young French fellow provided the needed assistance.  However, this situation brought me to an observation, more on this trip than ever, the French are speaking English, especially the younger among them. Accordingly it has been a much easier when asking for assistance. Well, unless you are an elderly French woman requesting assistance from a less than capable American woman…sigh.

Back in Colmar the rain had found its way here as well. We decided to take a very late dejeuner (lunch) at a Wistub on the canal in Petit Venise. We enjoyed – Tarte Oignon avec salade verte and a glass each of Edelzwicker.  Our lunch was lovely. At the end they brought a couple of candies. Popping them into our mouths we were taken back – eucalyptus cough drops had nothing on these things.  But we were informed they were a digestif (the Alsatians are quite focused on how things move out of the body apparently).

We took a stroll in the rain that was much lighter than in Strasbourg and finally ended up back at the hotel.  Since the weather wasn’t cooperating, we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon in the room catching up on work and the blog.  We did pop out later to the Monoprix (grocery store) and picked up wine, a couple of Alsatian cheeses (tome & muenster), honeycrunch apples, bananas, and a ciabatta with green olives.  Took it back to the room for our evening repast.

And so ends the Strasbourg day...

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Paris to Colmar, Alsace – September 24th

Travel to Alsace

The day began with lots of rain; an expensive taxi ride to Gare l’Est, and a very sad depart of Paris.  But we knew that new adventures awaited us in Alsace!

The Gare l’Est is very nice. It has clearly been remodeled and train schedules automated and plentiful.  We were early, so we stopped at Paul (bakery) and bought lunch – our favorite the sauvonneaux (salami, cornichon & butter) and also purchased a couple of café crèmes to get us moving.

The TGV ride was interesting seated backward to the direction of the train. I could see where we’d been, but missed seeing where we were going. It was also quite fast. As a direct train to Strasbourg, once it got going, it flew!  We think as we observed the speed of the trees passing, that we were moving at around 250 kilometers per hour, but we didn’t confirm with the conductor.

Speeding by the cornfields
Travel through the countryside from Strasbourg to Colmar consisted of tall dried corn stalks.  We saw very few vineyards, but in all cases – vineyards, corn & cabbage fields, the harvest was in full swing.  Sadly, since we were on the lower deck of the train, our views were limited. However, we could see tiny tractor tracing interesting patterns in the cornfields and worker bees buzzed their way through the vineyards.  The greenish silver and light greens of the cabbage highlighted the yellow/browns of the corn; it was a brilliant color palette.

Arrival in Colmar – what a beautiful village! We trundled our way bags and all to our hotel – Hotel Le Rapp – passing through a lovely garden rich with hydrangeas and which held a massive fountain with 5 statues.  After checking in and dropping off our bags, we began our investigation.

Colmar is simply a beautiful place.  Half-timbered homes gaily decorated with baskets upon baskets of flowered window boxes. The white, browns pink, red, and blue colored homes with their dark wood frames and brilliant flower boxes would seem to overwhelm, but your response is just the opposite.  Oooos and Ahhhs were common exclamations from both of us.

Some homes were made of stone, generally those of the wealthy residents of the town. While the half-timbered homes are also built on stone bases, it was done to ensure they didn’t sink into marshy ground.  Another fascinating element of the houses is the cantilevered levels. This worked as a structural support, but had a very subtle primary purpose.  Taxation in Colmar was based on the square footage of the ground floor of the homes.  So when they built the attempt was to limit the footage of that level. By cantilevering each of the upper floors, they were able to increase the square footage of their homes, but pay much less in taxes.  Pretty clever combination of tax evasion and architectural development don’t you think?

Around the corner from our hotel we found Voltaire’s residence during a stay in the mid-1700s.  He was in Colmar to do research on his Annals of the Empire, after fleeing from the Prussian court.  A beautiful wooden gallery connected to the Voltaire house has been kept intact since 1598.

The area of La Petit Venise (the Petite Venice) – a romantically lovely canal system along the Lauch river, is a slow moving waterway highlighted with small, flowered bridges spanning the flow. A very touristy area of the city, it houses some of the most expensive of the hotels and restaurants.  At night it is a fairly land of lights reflecting off the water.

The Tanneurs and Marchands districts (tanners and merchants respectively) are collections of very differing architectures. The Tanneurs is populated with tall houses with extremely slanted rooflines.  It was on those roofs that the tanners would lay their skins to dry. The waste from the drying skins would roll off the roofs to the ground or river below. [let me just say “ick” and continue on…]

On the other hand, the rich Marchands class whose members built marvelous homes dominated Colmar. Over the ages, the city was relatively untouched by the many wars that ravaged much of France. So this area still contains more than 40 houses built between the 15th and the 17th centuries. I marveled at how well the historic half-timbered houses had survived through the centuries.

Colmar is also the home of Frederic Auguste Bartholdi who sculpted the Statue of Liberty (and for the purists among you, yes, Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel (Eiffel Tower engineer) did assist with the engineering needed for our Lady Liberty).  The museum dedicated to Bartholdi was his family home and has been well maintained. As we wandered the streets we found many examples of his work throughout the village.

All this walking made us a bit thirsty, so some Alsatian wine was definitely on our minds.  At Le Bistrot du Koïfhus (the Koïfhus was the old commercial and economic focal point of Colmar) we dived head first into wine – Pinot Blanc and Riesling are top contenders here so we began with those. The Riesling was bone dry, crisp and delicious. The Pinot Blanc was, while not fruity, was not anywhere near dry as the Riesling.  Soft with peach and pear aromas that evolved after the wine warmed up a bit.  They definitely serve the wine chilled…a bit too much for me, but…when in Alsace…

Back to the hotel to freshen up, wash a few “things”, and work on the blog before heading out to dinner.  Our friend, Anne Schiedel (you’ll hear more about her when we visit Basel) suggested we try Chez Hansi for dinner. Set right in the heart of the Marchand district, it is a delightful combination of French and German cuisine…that Alsatian style we’ll come to know in the days to follow.

Dinner at Chez Hansi was a fun event. The server was delightful and helped us with understanding our selections, but in a mix of French and English…Frenchlish perhaps we should call it.

Here’s the menu:

Demi-bottle of 2011 Haut-Rhin Riesling Réserve - nose – d’agrumes et fleurs blanches, frais et racé  (citrus and white flowers, fresh and racy); 12% alcohol

Betty:  Quiche Lorraine & Salad; Poulet Riesling avec Spaetzle; fromage muenster
Deb: Assiette Alsaciennes; Poulet Riesling avec Spaetzle; fromage muenster

The Quiches were wonderful, the meat plate (assiette) reminded me of a lot of the lunch meats I had as a kid. However, the salami was accompanied by a jellied saline something that we both thought interesting and added to the salami.  The cheese plate was an aged muenster that they served with a bowl of cumin seeds on the side. We looked at each other trying to understand that reasoning. Having no success looking at each other blankly, we asked. Our server, explained in a very visual way (since language for this wasn’t in our favor), it was a digestif.  In essence, muenster will “block” you, cumin will help you “flow”.  If we could we’d have been rolling on the floor laughing, as it was she (and we) were chuckling pretty hard. So, watch out, we’ll be serving cumin with our cheeses from here on out!

So “ends” the first day in Colmar…tomorrow Strasbourg…bon nuit.

Paris in Pictures - Jardin du Tuilieres

After reviewing the picture postings of the Tuilieres, Betty wondered where the flower pictures might be...oops.  So, before we head off to Alsace, here are the last of the garden pictures...les fleurs du jardin Tuilieres.

And last, always stopping to make notes...

Friday, September 28, 2012

Paris in Pictures - Betty's Benoit

We must end with the collection of pictures from the evening at Benoit.  It was a wonderful dinner...

Saumon fume

Pintade avec peche et pommes de terre

Carafe du St Emilion

Fromage - Chevre et vieux Brie

Bon Appetit!

Paris in Pictures - Food

Just to make you drool...a few pictures of various repast.

Chanterelles on the Rue Cler

Chinois on the Rue Cler
Mussels from Brussels
Saumon fume salade
Salade Italienne

Paris in Pictures - The Gardens

Our tour of the gardens as was noted in a previous update, took our breath away. We hope these pictures help you understand we present Les Jardins de Paris.

Rodin Museum & Gardens

Les Invalides & Rodin Garden


Victor Hugo

Le Penseur - The Thinker

Le Place des Voges

Square Recaumier


Square du Temple (Jewish Quarter)

Fete de Jardin - Teaching the Young

Ping Pong Installation

The Tuileries

Bets in the Tuileries Position

Art is for Children

Tired feet with a Jardin view