Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Where was I? Oh yes, the bretzel. Buttery, knot-shaped, remarkably similar to the American "pretzel", but more Alsatian-y. Most bakeries seemed to carry them, so we took advantage multiple times on the trip with varying amounts of success.

Monday, the Pentecost, we went to Strasbourg, which houses a number of the European government buildings. Every so often, the whole Parliament moves from Brussels 4 hours to the southeast, an incredible waste of time, energy, and money. Almost everyone objects to this process, aside from possibly the French. We carefully scheduled our trip to France so as to miss this migration, because traffic expands, prices shoot skyward, and Strasbourg generally becomes much more uptight.

We had only two things to tick off our list: the cathedral and the Petite-France, which is the name of the historic district. Having seen pink sandstone churches and Alsatian charm over the past several days, I can confidently say that there's no real reason to go there. But it was another gloomy day and we wanted plenty of ducking in options, and cities are good for that.

After parking and getting to the touristy area of town, we found a lunch spot and got out of the drizzle. It was unremarkable restaurant aside from the fact that they brewed their own beer. Jack got a tarte flambee. Thus fortified, Jack was hell-bent on getting a rain jacket, having forgotten his at home and never having liked it in the first place, although it served him well on past trips. Remarkably, the first store we went in was a camping store having a sale, and he managed to find a jacket that was reasonably-priced and nice-looking (as much as rain jackets can be). The brand name was "fusalp", and there was a small tag on the exterior with rubbery raised letters. By the end of the day the border and three of the letters fell off, and only "usa" remained. Coincidence???

The church was quite nice, though, and it contained a lot of fancy stuff, such as this elaborately-carved base of the pulpit. They had this amazing clock in the cathedral that knows the date, time, position of the sun and moon in real time, which week on the ecclesiastical calendar it was, when the next Easter will be, and much, much more. Besides this, there's all kinds of moving figures. We got to see some of them wheel around and death strike a hammer to a drum-shaped bell to mark the hour. But don't set your watch by it; for some reason it's 15 minutes slow. I believe there is some kind of technical explanation for this discrepancy, but probably what really happened some young priest was trying to set it for daylight savings time and saner heads prevailed upon him to stop, and they've never adjusted it back for fear of breaking the thing. Naturally they had the friar excommunicated for his offense.

Vauban, that genius of military engineering whose handiwork we encountered in Luxembourg, decided that what Strasbourg really needed in order to be protected was the ability to quickly shut off the Ill River's flow through the city thereby flooding the surrounding lowlands to, presumably, drown attackers. How could this have possibly worked? At any rate, because of this there were a number of interesting bridges built over the four channels that the river flowed through to enter town, and buildings on the thin strips of land between them. And there was a quaint old town area. We had hoped to go to the Alsatian Museum to look at some traditional items and get out of the weather, but much to our surprise there was a line out the door. Apparently we weren't the only ones who had the idea of checking out a sleepy museum on a rainy day.

We stepped into a tiny tea shop to enjoy a warm-up. The place had no more than a dozen seats on two floors, so we were lucky to get a spot. We took our time sipping our tea: mine a Russian caravan, and Jack's gunpowder.

Eventually it was time to head back to Wissembourg. When we arrived around dinnertime, we found that most restaurants were closed for the holiday, and those that were open were full. The one place I had wanted to check out was shuttered, so it was looking like we were going to stuck eating gyros at the carnival. On the way there I saw a place that looked friendly and generally unoccupied, so we stopped in. It ended up being a bad choice, and everyone else in the world (the three happy beer drinkers excepted) seemed to know not to go there. My tarte flambee crust came out of a cellophane packet. We should have just called it off right then, but we bravely held on. Eventually we got out of there, full but not satisfied, and grumbled our way over to the big finale of the festival: the son et lumiere.

It began to rain. We hung around with all the other chumps under soggy skies and damp umbrellas for the thing to start. The organizers seemed to be waiting for a break in the weather to begin, so we were tortured with almost an entire album of Phil Collins live. It did let up a bit at one point, so they called in the choir, who were to perform on a stage set up over a branch of the Lauter. Naturally it began coming down again as they got ready, and I thought for sure someone was going to get electrocuted.

And then...the son! The lumiere! There was music flowing from the speakers all around us as lights danced on the buildings and fireworks lit the sky. I didn't even think you could do fireworks in the rain--why on earth do they put it off in the US on account of weather? Perhaps because during the summer it's frequently accompanied by lightning. But no matter...My mood was rapidly improving, although I did manage to fire off a sarcastic comment to Jack instructing him to take some pictures of fireworks. He always does this, and they always turn out terribly. But he dutifully complied, and he got some lovely shots.

And so the Wissembourg portion of our journey came to a close with a bang, if I may be permitted to use the cliche.

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