Thursday, July 26, 2007


I could tell you tell you that we got to the theater the day after it opened and only 10 minutes before the start time and still got good seats, but I won't, because I'm nice.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Okay, lets wrap up this France trip so we can get on to more current events shall we? Driving back up north we stopped in Nancy and were blinded by what was either the glaring white stone of the main square, or perhaps the surface of the sun. We probably ate lunch somewhere--I forget.

Anyhow, our last night was in Sedan which is near the Belgian border. We stayed in a castle--the Chateau Fort. It was a bargain we found on the internet probably because Sedan is kind of a crappy town. The woman at the front desk gave us our key and told us we were on the top floor. We were surprised when we got off the elevator and we immediately greeted by a flight of steps. We joked how it was a good thing we were able bodied and not lugging a bunch of bags. Then we opened the door to our room only to see...more steps. These went up to the, ahem, first floor of our room then up another level to the actual bedroom. After going back down to the courtyard we realized that our room was actually like a tiny house perched on the very top of the castle. Not too shabby for under €100.

On the way back to Brussels we made one last stop in Dinant, Belgium which is home of the Leffe abbey and this cool onion-domed church.


Monday, July 16, 2007

The next morning we went south to Riquewihr. Depending on which guidebook you looked at, either Riquewihr or Ribeauville held the title for most touristy, but I think Riquewihr wins (Jack disagrees, however). It was smaller, so the same amount of tourists were crammed into tighter quarters. And there didn't seem to be any activities not associated with tourism. And there were more purveyors of macaroons, wafting their magically delicious aromas to tempt passersby.

Riquewihr was about 2.5 miles away because the road wasn't very direct. Shortly before we left Hunawihr and got into the vineyards, a black lab came out to greet us. He was friendly and accompanied us for a time. We named him "Chouette" (pronounced "schwet"), which means "female owl" and "cool" or "awesome" in French. Once we got about halfway there, the vineyards stopped and forest began, and we decided it was time for Chouette to go home. Only he wouldn't agree to those terms. The only thing that made him pause, momentarily, was when Jack said "Arrete!" But it didn't last. Finally we lost track of him at the city gate, merrily acquainting himself with a Jack Russel terrier.

By this point, all the towns started blending together in my brain. I believe there were homes built directly in the city wall, there were barn swallows flitting from their mud nests under the eaves and pooping all over the place, some charm I would guess, and tarte flambees for lunch at a place called La Dime in an old tithing house--get it, tithing, dimes, 10%?? Riquewihr had the neatest coat of arms of all the ones we saw, primarily because it looked more homemade than most.

The guidebook suggested a nearby restaurant called St. Alexis as hard to find, but worth the trip. Given that there was only one road exiting town to the west, which was the one we had walked on, we thought our chances of getting there were nil without help. We asked at the tourist office, and they gave us some vague directions that didn't exactly inspire confidence.

After lunch we returned to Hunawihr to pick up the car and go on another driving tour. Had Jack and I learned anything from our last drive? Not much more than trying not to carp when things didn't go as planned. We set off from Ribeauville and stopped at the summit of a mountain for a short hike to a view spot. I'll be danged if there weren't five trails originating from the starting point. The book said "to the right of the gravestone"--there were two! So we picked one.

Right off the bat things started to get weird when we encountered a partially buried bunker facing inwards towards France. The book didn't say nothin' about no bunkers. Raggedy trenches, larger bunkers and manmade caverns followed. At the top of the mountain was a picnic table with a view, although not the one we were supposed to see, and some I-beams sticking up out of a semicircle of masonry. It was all very strange. What we wouldn't have given for a flashlight to explore the dark recesses more thoroughly!

We meandered through more charming little towns on the way back to home base. As we were passing Riquewihr we decided to see if we could find the way to the hidden restaurant. We found a narrow, rain-slicked road that we hadn't seen by the route we took on foot. It climbed steeply up the mountainside. There was no room for error and really no room for a car coming the other direction--would we have to back down the hill if we encountered another vehicle? Finally the road opened up a bit and a sign directed us onto a muddy track descending into the woods. We questioned whether we'd be able to get back up if we went down. We paused on the verge of the road for a bit, weighing the pros and cons, and decided to go for it.

At the bottom the trees opened up to a clearing consisting of a church, the ivy-clad restaurant, and another building in the back. They were connected by a lovely large kitchen garden growing a variety of colorful herbs. The terrace looked inviting, or it would have been if it hadn't been damp and cool. A hiking trail ran through the clearing, and it looked like a fabulous place to rest one's feet in the midst of a strenuous excursion.

Although it was billed as a popular place, we discovered only one other table full on that Thursday evening. There was one cozy room complete with a tiled fireplace and kitchy items on the walls. There were a variety of set menus available ranging in price and number of courses. Jack and I each picked one, and got some wine to share. The first course arrived: a tureen of soup for us to each ladle into our bowls. Very comforting. Jack's next course was a meat pie surrounded by lightly pickled shredded vegetables, followed by a plate of hams. I got the choucroute garni, sausages and hams on a bed of sauerkraut. One of them was The. Most. Delicious. Sausage. Ever. I don't know what was up with it--I kept thinking at the time that it tasted caramelized, but that's not exactly right. It had a crispy skin, a medium-coarse texture, and a well-balanced flavor. Thinking back, perhaps it was slathered in butter or some other flavorful fat and then baked or something. I don't know. It was danged near perfect, though.

Then, dessert of two tarts each: one bearing a passing resemblance to a cheescake, and the other consisting of green rhubarb in a custard. That rhubarb pie just topped things off perfectly . While we were there, the one couple left and another entered. A slow night, surely brought on by the bad weather. If I lived in the area, I'd eat there all the time. Did I mention that all this food was for under €20 per person? I didn't think I'd ever eat again.

Another rainy day presented itself to us on Friday. Fortunately, we had anticipated this and come up with a list of small museums in the area we'd like to visit. Our first stop was to Selestat for the Bread Museum. The concept was interesting: the local breadmakers funded the museum, housed in the building that formerly held the guildhall. It didn't seem to be that old, and we enjoyed the informative displays that showed us how 4" tall women in sexy cavemen bikinis ground grain to make bread thousands of years ago (they used stones and stuck their butts out). We learned how much bread people in various countries ate, how bread is actually healthier than most other foods, and so on. A lot of it was propaganda, but it was interesting (as much as we could glean from the French, anyway). Did you know a loaf of bread painted the Mona Lisa? Or that the talking bread on the Muppet Show was originally wild, but was broken and taught to speak by wranglers out West? The original post and beam from one of the larger rooms was still in place, and it featured carved scenes from bakers' work. Their symbol was the bretzel. With all that knowledge packed in our brains, we went back down to the starting point and sampled some breads and then purchased various starched-based goods (including a bretzel, naturally) to get us through the next 1.5 days. I don't think the cookie lasted more than about five minutes, just long enough for the "window to deliciousness", as Jack called it, to develop on the paper bag. The woman who rang us up complimented my French. I don't know what kind of crack she was smoking.

We killed some time in Kaysersburg before heading to our next destination, the Museum of Wine and Winemaking in Kientzheim. The highlight of Kaysersburg was a small graveyard that looked like a neglected sculpture park and the adjacent ossuary in the basement of a chapel. The pastry-wrapped sausage we bought nearby was too cold to be tasty, although the truffles we got at the same place were amazing. Perhaps the store owner should have specialized in one or the other, but not both.

The wine making museum was pretty interesting as well, but not as hands-on as I would have liked (no samples). The museum was run by the organization that tastes the Alsatian wines and determines their quality. They get together periodically and wear outfits like they're old-school academics: black and red robes and giant hats. A few years ago they met for an anniversary and opened some wine that had been in their cellar for more than a century. Does wine that old even taste good? Or is it just the prestige of owning it, like any other antique? And if it was bad, would I have the guts to speak up? They had old-school grape processing equipment; a letter from an 18th century wine manager, noting what a horrible winter it had been, causing cellars to get cold enough to freeze the wine and resulting in numerous deaths of wealthy people who had been on route to buy wine in their horse-drawn carriages when a storm came up and trapped them; and photos of happy young women with huge cans of poison on their backs, ready to start another day of pesticide spraying. But still--the museum was a bit dry. Not as lively as the bread place.

Our last stop of the day was to Lapoutroie to visit the Eau de Vie museum. It was free, and as you entered, they made a brief attempt to show how liquor is made. That was quickly abandoned, and the rest of the place was packed to the gills with tiny bottles. Virtually anything that wasn't beer and wine qualified as eau de vie, if the displays were any indication. It was kind of fun, as it was clearly an attempt to get you in there to buy the house brand, but there was a lot to look at before they gave you the soft sell. We eventually made our way into the tasting room and marveled at the varieties on offer. One thing we had seen before in the grocery store in Wissembourg and been intrigued with was a liquor made of hops. It was nas-tay! We tried a couple of other things and settled on a bottle of ginger liqueur, sweet but with bite, and a bottle of absinthe.

It was our last night in Hunawihr and we felt an obligation to do what we came here to do before we left: taste and buy some wine in a rigorous fashion. So we parked the car at our place and walked up the hill to the wine cooperative. The woman manning the counter looked seriously displeased to see us at 15 minutes to closing time, and really wasn't very interested in helping us select anything, since we clearly didn't look like we were going to buy a gross of Grand Cru. But we tasted a handful of varieties and picked out a few to take back.

We had dinner at the local winstub, Suzel. Another good, hearty, Alsatian-charm-y, pork-filled meal at a place with friendly staff. After we ordered a large pack of Germans entered and proceeded to put tables together to accommodate their multitude. They pretty much walled us off from the rest of the restaurant. They joked to us (in English--how did they know?) that they hoped were weren't planning to leave. They were having a good time though--lots of toasts were made--and generally created a convivial atmosphere. We took the long way back to our place and Jack captured this lovely photo.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Ribeauville was our charming neighbor about 1.5 miles to the north. We visited the town briefly and then left to go visit the castle ruins visible from our bedroom.

The first point of interest on the route was life-sized stations of the cross, colorfully painted and in high relief, nearly leaping out of their backgrounds. We kept encountering groups of young kids as we climbed the mountainside, and we discovered at the top that they were on a pilgrimage to the Notre Dame de Dusenbach church there. We had to squeeze around groups of singing schoolchildren to check out what that they were venerating: a statue of Mary and Jesus where Mary actually looks her matronly age.

We continued further up, now completely alone on the way to the first castle, Haut-Ribeaupierre (named, like the town of Ribeauville, after the founding family; on the top of the mountain in the photo from the previous entry). It was mostly rubble, but rubble you could climb around on if you ignored the no trespassing signs posted around. We cut across the earthworks that rippled the landscape in front of the castle to exit the area. We had to do some bushwhacking through an area full of rocks that formerly belonged to the castle walls hidden in the underbrush. About when we were ready to despair, and I was testing out the blueberries (or whatever they were) to see if they were ripe enough to survive on until we were rescued, we found a short, steep drop that lead back to the trail.

Chateau St. Ulrich (to the left in the photo in the previous post) was not far off, and was in much better condition. Although there were signs saying something to the effect of "enter at your own risk", it was clearly well kept up. The high tower at the top afforded great views of the surrounding countryside. This castle I could see being defensible, at least from the southeastern direction towards the Alsatian plain. There were some architectural elements remaining such as decorative stone window frames that gave it a more castle-y appearance than the other ones we had visited.

We returned to Ribeauville, toured around the town for a bit, came across a place that specialized in beers and stopped in for a drink. The nice thing about living in Belgium is that we've tried all the Belgian beers that restaurants and bars typically offer, which allows us to concentrate on other brews that would normally be overshadowed by the Belgians.

Eventually we made our way towards the other end of town in the direction of the restaurants. We had overheard some English folk earlier talking about a restaurant that their hotel had recommended, so we went there. I got a salad with 3 kinds of baked cheese: chevre, real Munster and one named after the first family, Ribeaupierre. The Munster was so different from the Muenster which is served in the US that I didn't know which one it was. (NB: It turns out they're not the same cheese.)

We each got a glass of local wine selected by our waiter to accompany our main course: trout almandine for me and beef cheeks for Jack. But wait--don't fish have cheeks, too? Why yes, they do, and they're reputed to be the tastiest bit of the fish. I scooped mine out to test them, and my verdict was that they tasted exactly like the rest of the fish. It was an all-cheek meal, and quite tasty to boot. Thanks, English dudes!

Our bellies full, we headed back towards Hunawihr, passing a stork lovingly tending to its brood as dusk fell. Jack took this awesome shot that also shows the two castles we visited earlier in the day.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

We checked out of our hotel Tuesday morning for the drive south. The staff didn't seem to like us for some reason (perhaps because of the communication barrier), but it was an interesting place to stay nonetheless because it seemed to be a gathering point for the community, so there was always something going on. During the breakfast hour, citizens would be sipping a coffee at the bar. At dinner, the outside tables would fill with locals and passersby would stop to converse. We felt like we were in the midst of a vibrant small town, somehow defying the odds in that it was neither dying or completely relying on tourism. Good ol' Wissey.

Because the German border was right there, we decided to take the long way round to our next destination via Baden-Baden. Jack and I had both gotten the mistaken impression that this was an industrial center, but in reality its history going back to Roman times was as a resort town, even taking its name from the baths located there. We drove east from Alsatian charm to Black Forest charm.

We gave up on a driving tour of the principal sights of the city due to bad signage (and possibly a short stint through a pedestrian thoroughfare). It had been raining off and on, and I was frustrated with the demands of navigating, so we parked and went to find someplace to have lunch. We entered a car-free zone of high-end shops near the baths, and we despaired finding any quality cheap eats. It was then that we encountered the Löwenbräu lion.

What could me more German than a beergarden? It looked a little fakey, like it was going to be the equivalent of a Cracker Barrel, but we couldn't resist. The food was very tasty, the staff pleasant, and the beers not at all resembling that crappy brew in the States. These were full-bodied and flavorful, and hit the spot after a morning of driving in the rain. They were also enormous. Jack got beef kidney meatballs with sauerkraut for lunch. The meatballs didn't really disguise the fact that one was eating beef kidney, so they didn't do the trick for me. I had beer soup with fried garlic croutons on top and some cheese spaetzel. We also split a bretzel. Healthy!

We had some walking around to do to work some of the beer out of our systems before we could start our driving again. We strolled around the shopping area, checked out the steep streets connected to each other by staircases running up the hillside, took in the views of the River Oos that flowed through town (Jack commented that it looked like a foamy beer as it passed over a small dam--the water was an unappealing brown). Nearby was a loggia called the Trinkhalle filled with murals depicting various allegorical scenes, one of which was being repaired by a couple of painters. It really was an attractive little town.

We went back to the shopping district and decided to buy some cake for the road. They wrapped the slices (one of which was Black Forest cake) carefully for our trip. I took advantage of a nearby piece of scenery to get my groove on, then we headed out.

The plain spreading out below the Black Forest had the advantage of facing west, so whereas things were just starting to come to fruition in Alsace, it was the height of cherry season in the state of Baden. There were numerous stands selling them as we made our way south and then west back towards France.

We got to Hunawihr in the late afternoon and checked into our place. It was owned by a vintner, as were many of the lodgings in the area. For future reference: I can't imagine a time of year when you wouldn't be able to find a place to stay here. This town of around 600 souls had numerous establishments listed on signs throughout town, and I'm sure there were more available if you knew who to ask. Being the people that we are, though, we like to make reservations. And the place we ended up with was nice, although not quite what we expected.

Hunawihr is one of the many towns on the Route des Vins, which winds through the foothills of the Vosges south of Strasbourg. It's not very long from end to end, but if you visit each town en route you could spend days or weeks there. We didn't have much of a plan for the route aside from knowing we liked wine. I picked a locale about halfway along so we could do some touring up and down the road, but as so often happens, reality intervened. At any rate, Hunawihr was a sleepy little town, a better option than the more touristy ones directly north and south of us.

We got to our room and found it to be enormous, with a bed area, toilet room, separate sink/showering room, couch, dining room table, microwave, fridge, private patio and a panoramic view to the north with vineyards covering the hills in the foreground and three castle ruins providing the backdrop on the mountainside. It was very lovely.

After getting settled, we puttered around the small town a bit. It was mostly residential, sprinkled with a more than a few vintners, but other than a couple restaurants there was no commerce. A well-fortified church sat on a hillside overlooking the town, and we went up there and took in the view (the church is on the left in the photo below). The church was used for Catholic and Protestant services and was therefore fairly plain compared with some of the ones we'd seen, but Jack did manage to gain entrance to the pulpit and do some speechifying.

We then got it in our minds that we should get some wine, as that's just kind of what you do there. Most places were already closed since it was almost 7 p.m., but one place was still open. We walked into the courtyard and then through the doorway on the other side, and there was a guy putting the plastic sleeves on the necks of bottles using a machine. He went off to get the proprietor/salesperson, who was able to communicate with us a little bit and gave us a taste of some of their wines. We got a Gewurtzraminer and a Cremant d'Alsace, the former being a sweet and fruity white and the latter a dry sparkling white. For dinner we had Cremant and cake. We watched a little CNN (Jack was disappointed about the TV options...he thought the German stations would not dub like the French ones do) and then hit the sack.