France: to Lyon

Day 6  June 7, 2012

Au Revoir, Colmar! Bonjour, Lyon!

We were lucky to be in Colmar for at least one morning farm market. After our breakfast, we hurried over to the old section of Colmar to see what they were selling at the market. The first things we saw for sale were mattresses. Go figure. Anyway, we bought cherries, goat cheese (no surprise there), fresh bread, garlic and bean spread, and olive sausage. The sausage was sort a leap of faith since it wasn’t even closely related to sausage you would find at a grocery back home (an explanation is required here – it is dried sausage that has been aged; rather strong tasting and a bit “gamey,” but delicious nevertheless). We also stopped at “local” pastry shop a few doors down from our Colmar home to say goodbye and get a pastry for the train trip.

The TGV was lovely. The seats were very plush and comfortable. The train made so little noise that we had to look outside now and then to be certain we were moving. As we darted through the countryside, it was striking to find every parcel of land was “touched” by humans. If there is “wild” France someplace, we haven’t seen it. The countryside was lovely and the crops seem to be doing well.

Lyon is a BIG city. We pulled into the station and had to navigate the crowd from the TGV station to the local trains. We did really well and managed to follow our host’s directions for the two train stops and transfer. We did especially well with her directions that said when we got out of the subway to look for the big statue and “walk in the direction the horse’s tail is pointing.” Our home for the next two nights is in a third floor apartment on a wide pedestrian shopping street. It is just lovely. We feel like locals already.

http://www.lachambredhugo.fr/

Follow that tail!
Follow that tail!
The view from our apartment
The view from our apartment

After getting settled we headed out for what turned out to be not what we expected. We thought we’d take a boat tour to get oriented to the city. The fact that it was rather sunny and warm made being on the water seem very appealing. We sat in the second row and were thinking that we were going to be pretty much alone on our lower level of the boat. Moments before we were to pull away, we were joined by a wedding party of about 25 men, women, and small children. The bride, in her wedding gown, was African American French and the groom, in his tux, was African French. About two-thirds of the way through the tour, the bride got up and was given the mic and led us all in “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” One of the bridemaids then led us all in a rousing rendition of “Down by the Riverside.” It was a hoot.

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The first real rain of the trip so far caught us by surprise and drenched us on our way back to the hotel. We dried off, changed clothes, and headed out to dinner. We found a lovely street with nothing other than open-air cafes. We chose the one we were standing in front of when another downpour came. It was fine and we were grateful to have avoided ordering some type of organ meat by accident. The menus in this part of France are riddled with parts of animals we don’t normally choose to eat. I’ll not go into more detail on that.

We have a full day in Lyon tomorrow. It is the gastronomic capital of France, so we should have a great time – barring downpours!

 

France: Equisheim and Colmar

Day 5  June 6, 2012

Charming to the Max

Colmar is feeling like our hometown. After our morning croissant and fig yogurt, we headed across town to the covered market where we picked up some fresh fruit, veggies, and goat cheese for a picnic lunch later. We then stopped by the Unterlinden Museum to see the Isenheim alterpiece. http://www.artbible.info/art/isenheim-altar.html They had very helpful audio tours in English. I know Jim will cringe when he reads this, but I’d describe it at a giant 16th century pop-up book (Arghh – this is Jim, cringing). The whole thing folded open in various ways.

Unterlinden Museum
Unterlinden Museum

We headed over to Equisheim (pronounced here as Eggies-hime) – one of the local wine villages – for a little walk around and our picnic lunch. At last! Storks! The little town had four stork nests with watchful parents and growing chicks. Equisheim takes charm and really works it. The town is built in concentric circles and every place you look is more charming than the next. We assume this is where Disney came for ideas when building the France section of Epcot.

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Storks. Storks. Storks.

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After a little rest, we headed out to the center of Colmar in search of Hansi signs. Hansi created metal signs over some of Colmar’s shops in the early part of the 1900s using delightful pictures to explain what the shop does. This search was really just an excuse to walk around the city again.

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After walking for a long while we stopped to have some tarte flambeé, one of the local specialties. We ate at Schwendi Bier Winstub. The tarte is a VERY thin round crust pizza-like concoction with crème fraiche, ham, onions, and cheese. Mighty nice.

Flammekueche
Flammekueche

We’re going to miss Colmar and it’s winding maze of streets. It has been a good home for us. Tomorrow we head to Lyon on the TGV bullet train.

France: Strasbourg and More Cheese

Day 4  June 5, 2012

We Love Strasbourg!

We have become very proficient at this train stuff. After a lovely breakfast here at Chez Leslie chezleslie.com, we walked the couple of blocks to the train and were on our way to Strasbourg. We are getting so spoiled by the fast, silent, clean, comfortable trains. Cindy is also in love with the little tune that is played in the train station before an announcement is made. We arrived in Strasbourg in less than 30 minutes. Why would anyone want to drive?

Isn't it lovely?
Isn’t it lovely?

We walked from the train station toward the cathedral and on toward the river. We were lucky enough to get two of the remaining tickets for the next tour boat. The running commentary was done in about ten languages over headphones. There were also children’s channels in several languages. Jim listened to the adult channel. Cindy, of course, chose the kid’s version. The kid’s commentary involved the voices of two children, a pirate captain, and his parrot, Coco. They followed the first rule of tourism, which is — when in doubt, add a pirate. It was great fun and after comparing notes, the kid’s version had been more informative.

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We got off the boat in just enough time to zip over to the cathedral to see the astronomical clock from 1838 do its thing. The clock chimes at 12:30 each day, even though the clock thinks it is noon. Our favorite part was the rooster that flapped its wings and crowed several times.

http://www.cathedrale-strasbourg.fr/

If you squint, perhaps you can see the rooster.
If you squint, perhaps you can see the rooster.

We then took a quick spin around the church and headed to a place of worship that was more in line with our theme for this vacation. We went to Le Cloche a Fromage, the temple for cheese lovers in Strasbourg.  http://www.fromagerie-tourrette.com/ At the front of the restaurant was a glass dome about five feet high and five feet in diameter containing three levels of spinning platforms holding cheese of every sort. Was that a choir of angels we heard? Anyway, we ordered the cheese sample and dropped the name of our good friend, Bernard Antony from Ferrette. It was if we had said the secret password. Words were spoken among the staff and people nodded in our direction. A while later the cheese steward came over with the cheese he had chosen especially for us since we were “such lovers of cheese who had come from America.” He told a story about each of the dozen cheeses and the fresh accompaniments he recommended for each. He kept coming by to check on us. The stories involved monks who made cheese so good you were left speechless (that didn’t work on us) and cheesemakers gathering freshly fallen chestnut leaves to wrap around their best goat cheese.

Le Cloche
Le Cloche
Oh my! Just pause and take it in.
Oh my! Just pause and take it in

Following our cheese adventure and conversations, they wanted to talk more. The cheese steward wants to visit the United States and his brother told him that Chicago was the place to visit. The head waiter brought over complementary chocolate truffles and special Calvados for us to try. He told us all about their family cheese business and invited us to visit their caves outside of town. Thank you, Monsieur Antony, for the power of mentioning your name. One final aside about Le Cloche a Fromage — they has the most delightful restrooms. The four walls were covered completely with floor to ceiling, life-sized photographs of cows looking at you. The ceiling was a photograph of clouds. There was audio of mooing cows and singing birds. Going to the bathroom in the middle of a cow pasture has never been so fun.

We walked off the lunch with an “independent walking tour” of the Little France district of Strasbourg. Our “independent walking tour” was similar to being lost, but without the stress. One of the interesting sites found on the roof of a building and looked like a candelabra with a wagon wheel in the center. It was a stork nest frame to try to attract prospective stork parents. It was empty so I guess the storks didn’t like the neighborhood.

House Hunters International: Stork Edition
House Hunters International: Stork Edition

On top of it all, the weather was delightfully sunny and cool today. Not a hint of rain. We have been lucky with weather, schedules, transportation, and mostly the kindness of people to welcome and help us.

France: Wine Tour of Alsace

Day 3  June 4, 2012

Walks, Wine, and Windows

We slept with the windows open last night in the heart of Colmar. Either we were very tired or the city falls into a coma at night. This brings me to my first French wonderment of the day. They don’t put screens on the windows here. People just open up the windows and whatever flies in, flies in. We almost shared the apartment in Ferrette with a curious bird. While there haven’t been lots of flying insects visible, we still find the complete lack of screens to be a curiosity.

We walked around this morning trying to choose a bakery/pastry shop for breakfast. We certainly picked a winner. (Have I mentioned that the diets begin June 17th and not a minute before?) We selected four pastries: a chocolate and almond croissant, a raisin “snail”, a hazelnut pastry of some sort, and a chocolate éclair with chocolate filling. We couldn’t decide which was the winner and decided to award a tie to all four. We also spent some time observing the storks on the top of the church. Both parents were there tending to two young. We can see why Alsace loves them so.

Storks — as the brochures promised
Storks — as the brochures promised

Today was the day that we accompanied a guide (a Dutchman, transplanted to France) on a tour of the “wine road” – the Route des Vins – that lies immediately next to Colmar. He had a car, which was very necessary, as the distances along the Route des Vins are hilly and not generally traveled by public trains or buses. Immediately upon leaving Colmar we plunged into a sea of grape vines. For miles and miles it seemed that every arable inch of land was being used for viticulture. And the results are seen in the delightfully cute small towns along the route, all with an air of great prosperity and joie de vivre.

VInes everywhere
VInes everywhere

We went to a total of four tasting rooms – one was a small, independent producer who gave us a tour of his cellars and explained the production process to us (in flawless English). These folks may be kind in part because they’re trying to sell wine, but there is also a sense of great pride in what they do and – I think – knowledge that they live in a pretty special corner of the world – one that they enjoy sharing with outsiders.

Just a taste
Just a taste

We stopped for a lovely lunch of a salad with white asparagus and smoked prosciutto, followed by fish and potatoes, and then a layered ice cream dessert that gave us another chance remind ourselves that the diet starts on the 17th. There was a perfect view of the vineyards covering the hills nearby. It was all mighty close to perfect.

Okay. We'll eat it so you don't have to.
Okay. We’ll eat it so you don’t have to.

At another tasting room we got our closest view yet of a stork nest and young. A crow was taunting them and the adult storks started clicking their beaks together to make a clapping sound. It was remarkable. We wish the storks were as ubiquitous as the emblazoned coffee mugs, but seeing them at close range was thrilling.

No need to search too hard
No need to search too hard

We headed back to our new home at Chez Leslie in Colmar. She is an ex-pat American who has opened a B&B in a lovely neighborhood. There is a bakery/pastry shop on the corner. Yes, we had to stop in. We wanted to be neighborly, after all. We bought a macaroon, which is very different here from the coconut things at home. This is made with two ground almond cookies with filling between them. This one also had fresh raspberries all around the edge.

We were willing to absorb the calories so you wouldn't have to.
We were willing to absorb the calories so you wouldn’t have to.

Can we just say that living the good life really is very good? We walked into town to pick up supplies for a picnic dinner of two cheeses, apricots, fresh bread, hams, and a couple of small dessert items. (I’m too ashamed to describe them in greater detail.)

Just a little picnic dinner in France. Ahhhh.
Just a little picnic dinner in France. Ahhhh.
There are no words
There are no words

Tomorrow we will tour the city of Strasbourg, about 30 minutes by train to the north of Colmar. Vive le France!

 

France: to Colmar

Day 2  June 3, 2012

The Kindness of Strangers

We awoke to the sounds of rain falling and the birds singing. The birds sing with accents. We’re in France! It was great to get a good night’s sleep and get adjusted to the time change. We went to the B&B for a breakfast of kugelhopf, fresh bread, delightful fresh fruit, and homemade jam made of yellow plums and vanilla. We met the father and daughter from Canada whose visit had caused us the get to stay in the beautiful apartment across the street. The father lives in Montreal and the daughter lives in London. They both spoke French and English and we had a fine meal while sharing traveler tales.

The conversation turned to how we planned to get to Colmar today. Wafa’s parents were dropping by for a visit so our planned ride to the train station sort of disappeared. It looked like a taxi ride was going to be the way to go. After a long back and forth in French that completely confused us, the lovely Canadians told the innkeepers that they would love to drive us to the train station in Altkirch because they were going that direction on their travels today. That was the first act of kindness and first happy accident of the day, but not the last.

We took the non-direct route, to say the least. We stopped in a small village because the Canadians wanted to see a church built in the 12th century. We were delighted to join them for that diversion.

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After looking inside the church and admiring the stonework, we all took a detour to see the cemetery next door. As we headed back toward the front of the cemetery to exit, I glanced over and noted the name on one of the headstones—Anne Walch. Cindy’s maiden name is Walch. What a strange coincidence.

A long-lost relation perhaps
A long-lost relation perhaps?

They drove us through several more villages with colorful half-timbered houses and window boxes that each tried to outdo the other. It was a beautiful drive that we certainly didn’t plan but we were grateful to take.

We arrived at the train station in Altkirch and our new friends took us to the machine to help us buy the tickets. We’d still be standing there staring at the strange machine had they not turned the dials, pushed the buttons, and made the tickets pop out somehow. They asked the station manager to watch our luggage for us while they took us on a little tour of Altkirch. We drove to the top of the hill and they told us about the park and church. After giving us directions for the walk down the hill to the train station, we said our goodbyes and merci beaucoups and they headed off to tour some other towns in the area. Thank you, kind strangers.

We saw a TGV train go past while we waited for our train. Holy cow, that thing is fast! Luke, we thought of you and how much you would enjoy seeing the TGV when you get to Paris. We traveled via the train to Colmar as if we were locals. Upon exiting the station in Colmar we hiked toward our hotel, again like locals. As we passed through the park we noticed a sign with an adorable dog pictured on it. The sign was tell people that their dogs needed to go to the bathroom within this tiny enclosed area that contained bare dirt, a large rock and a post. Poor puppies. The flowers in the park were beautiful — cause and effect, perhaps.

Poor doggies
Poor doggies

We took a little guided tour once we go settled to give us an overview of the city. Bartholdi, of Statue of Liberty fame, was from here and did quite a few statues of the locals for various parks and buildings. Colmar has a very large historic area and many cobblestone streets. So far Cindy has remained vertical. The symbol of Alsace is the stork and you see them everywhere, if by everywhere you think of puppets, stuffed animals, refrigerator magnets, decorations on mugs, and embroidered on hats. I was getting very discouraged until Jim spotted a real stork on a nest on top of the cathedral down the block. There was even a young stork in the nest. Success at last.

Colmar. We think we're in love.
Colmar. We think we’re in love.

We had a lovely Alsatian dinner near the hotel and are settling in for a quiet night. What a lovely day, and many thanks to the kind strangers who made it all possible.

 

France: to Ferrette for CHEESE

Day 1  June 2, 2012

The Celebration of Cheese and Being in France

Our plane from foggy London reached the shores of France and the clouds began to part. It was a sign that foretold of a wonderful day and what we expect to be an amazing vacation. We flew right over Paris and sent word that they needed to wrap up their preparations for the Webers to arrive. You could tell that the city was abuzz with excitement for the pending visit. What struck me as we flew over a good cross-section of France, from the northern coast toward our landing in Zurich, was that so much of the land was “touched” by people with roads, cities, villages, farms, factories, and every sort of “human and environment interaction”, as the textbooks would say. There was a carpet of very small patchworks of cultivated land of varying shades. I really looked for large single-crops farms and saw none. This says a great deal about the culture of France.

We took the “worked like a Swiss clockwork” train from Zurich to Basal. For the birders on the list, our first bird for the trip was a Mute Swan, not bad.

Our hostess, Wafa, picked us up for the drive to Ferrette. At one point she asked why we had decided not to rent a car because most of her American guests wanted to have a car. The drive from the train station to her house with hairpin turns, turns where there were no signs at all, and a maneuver to back into a parking spot on a steep hill, all reminded us why we made that wise decision.

Ferrette feels very real. Sure, it has the ruins of a castle on the hilltop overlooking the city, but it doesn’t seem at all like a tourist destination.

Every French hamlet needs a castle on the hill.
Every French hamlet needs a castle on the hill.

Ordinary folks are going about their lives in this beautiful setting without making it all seem like a movie set. After a short visit for a cool glass of juice at her home, Wafa told us that the room in her home where we had expected to stay was going to be taken for the night by the daughter of their other guest. She was going to need us to stay in one of her apartments across the street. What a happy accident for us! This place is amazing. The ceilings are twelve feet tall and there is a very modern kitchen and bath, and the windows in the living room and bedroom so tall that they make you want to open them and start singing.

http://www.maison5temps.com/en/

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Our little slice of Ferrette
Our little slice of Ferrette
Thw living room of our apartment
Thw living room of our apartment

The decision to come to this tiny village began a year ago when we read about Bernard Antony, France’s best affenieur. A affennieur is a person who ages cheese. He selects cheese from the best small producers across France and ages and tends them to perfection. He sort of adopts these infant cheeses and raises them to become kings, rock stars, prizefighters, and scholars. He has thank-you notes posted in his shop from the Queen (yes, the Jubilee girl herself), the Prince of Monaco, and presidents from around the world, and is the supplier for the best restaurants in France and Asia.

http://www.fromagerieantony.fr/?lang=en

Bernard Antony's home and shop
Bernard Antony’s home and shop

Three nights a week, he hosts The Celebration of Cheese in his home/shop/tasting room. We decided to walk from our lovely apartment to his place after getting directions from our hostess. The walk down the steep hill on the cobblestone street made me send thoughts of gratitude to Manci and the other therapists at Lake Country Physical Therapy.

When we arrived at Antony’s place, the man himself greeted us at the front door and led us into the tasting room. The windowless room with five tables is about the size of a living room in a small New York apartment. The walls held some of his many awards, menus from occasions at which his cheeses were served, and photos.

The dining room
The dining room

Rather than feeling small, it felt like being seated in a jewel box. Have I mentioned that Bernard Antony speaks no English? Jim did a masterful job of navigating the night with the words he knew, but most of the descriptions of the cheese were lost. There were 15 people there for the evening that began at 7:30 and ended at 11:30. One of those 15 was a lovely woman who translated some of what Mr. Antony said for one of her tablemates. We listened in intently.

We ate cheese, and cheese, followed by cheese. We ate small pieces of about 25 cheeses. Each cheese was perfection. Even the cheese that smelled like a sheep wearing stinky socks had walked through cow poop tasted like perfection (and that one was shockingly mild and smooth).

 

 

A cheese-filled night to remember
A cheese-filled night to remember

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One shocking highlight of the cheese adventure was a small cast iron pot of marble-sized boiled potatoes topped with amazing salt served with butter that was like no butter we’d ever had. It may sound ridiculously simple, but the best potatoes with the best salt and the world’s best butter was so mind-blowingly fabulous that when Antony’s daughter offered us more, all I could do was nod and start to weep. DSCN0027

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Mr. Antony was as warm and friendly as I had dreamed he might be. He took a liking to us and signed my DK book of French cheese that I had brought along, gave us a picture, said he would email us the names of all the cheeses, and gave me a little booklet in English that told about some of the cheeses in the various regions of France.

The Man
The Man

I asked the lady at the next table to translate for me, and I told him about how long we had been planning to come to his place and that imagining The Celebration of Cheese had helped me through some painful physical therapy sessions. His daughter kindly gave us a ride back to our apartment—a perfect end to a perfect day. We’ll dream of cheese.