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.

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