From Brussels to Grenoble

10 Apr

It’s been a long and exciting journey so far. Belgian waffles, giant cathedrals, real skeletons, a treacherous 16-mile walk through 9 villages, a 35€ taxi ride, and a 357 mile per hour French train… But we resume in Amsterdam.

Given my limited timeframe, it was impossible to see everything in Amsterdam (i.e. windmills), but I probably saw enough (if you catch my drift). It was time to say goodbye to the cute Dutch accents and the lovely canals:

To see all of my photos from Amsterdam, click here.

(Note: it looks like I won’t be able to upload the pictures from the end of my Wales trip until I get back to England. My apologies for the out-of-orderness.)

Anyway, it was time to finally make use of my $500+ Eurail pass, so I hopped on a train heading for Brussels. The Dutch / Flemish countryside was as flat as the name Netherlands suggests, but it was cool to see some of the big windmills. Nobody in wooden shoes, though.

The hostel in Brussels was quite nice…certainly one of the best so far. It was very clean and while the rooms had an authentically old feel, the lounge downstairs was very chic and modern. The people at the reception automatically addressed me in English. Brussels is mostly French-speaking, but there is also a large Flemish population so English is kind of a lingua franca…in fact, English is the lingua franca throughout Europe it seems.

One of the best features of the Brussels hostel was free Internet access…except it wouldn’t let me access http://sussex.facebook.com because the browser had a filter that blocked the “sex” portion of the URL. Lol.

The city itself also had an interesting mix of old and modern. When I left the train station, I walked into a district filled with modern glass skyscrapers…while a man played the accordion nearby. Ah, the accordion players. That classic feeling of being in French-speaking Europe…priceless.

Brussels was actually quite walkable, so I had time to see all of the main attractions. Mannekin Pis is such an odd little monument for a city, and yet it’s constantly surrounded by tourists taking pictures of it. The Atomium was cool to see as well. The architecture around the Grand’ Place was awe-inspiring, during the day and at night. Actually, being in the Grand’ Place reminded me of Les Bonbons. There was a Jacques Brel Place somewhere too, I believe.

When I visited the Colonne du Congres, there was some kind of film crew there (maybe for a commercial?). I could see a camping tent and a boy scout, which made little sense in the middle of Brussels. I don’t think I was ever actually in the frame, unfortunately. I’ll never be famous in the Belgian cinema. 😦

Trying to find affordable food in Brussels was difficult. It’s been pretty much the same across Europe: menus from at least 10€ at every restaurant, and usually more expensive. The only affordable meals are at small sandwich places, usually run by non-Europeans, but good nonetheless, or at fast food places. Admittedly, I did go to a fast food place for lunch in Brussels: Quick, the Franco-Belgian version of McDonald’s. Not that the food was any better, although the bun seemed slightly healthier and the cheese was noticeably tastier.

Later on, I decided to eat something more authentically Belgian. The heavenly smell of the waffle stands filled the air. And my own decadent Belgian waffle:

Mmm, mmm, good.

To see all of my photos from Brussels, click here.

The next stop on my journey was Strasbourg, in France. The 5-hour train ride brought me into Wallonia, the French-speaking southern half of Belgium, which in terms of landscape was also a sharp contrast to Flanders. The flat Dutch farmlands were replaced by rolling hills and dense forests (see: The Ardennes) housing scattered ancient hamlets. The landscape was perhaps the most similar to New England that I’ve seen here so far.

The train also passed through the tiny country of Luxembourg…admittedly, there wasn’t anything particularly interesting to be seen, but at least I can add it to the list of countries that I’ve been to!

When the conductor on the train asked for my ticket, he looked at my Eurail pass and then started addressing me in English, since my nationality is listed on it. Considerate, but annoying since I was trying to use French as much as possible. When he asked me, “Where are you going?”, I replied “Strasbourg”, but with a ridiculous American accent. Since he had asked me the question in English, my brain automatically switched into “English mode”, and so I adjusted the phonology of the pronunciation. Funny how that happens.

For some reason, I had always imagined Strasbourg as a bland, modern city. Boy was I in for a surprise. Indeed, Strasbourg was the most pleasant surprise of my trip. I was blown away by the charm and beauty of the city. Every corner offered a photo opportunity (terrible for someone trying to conserve memory card space). Lovely old Alsacian buildings everywhere. A very small sample:

The coup de grace…or the piece de resistance of Strasbourg was undoubtedly its cathedral, which impressed me in a way that no other cathedral has, including Notre Dame de Paris. The cathedral is enormously tall, and constructed of a striking red stone, giving it a very awesome look. I wanted to make the strenuous climb up the steeple for a panoramic view of the city, but the steeple was literally in the clouds.

In fact, my only complaint about Strasbourg was the weather…it was a bit cloudy so my pictures weren’t as good as they could’ve been. However, seeing more trees with the leaves fully blooming, I started feeling like it was actually spring. And what better place to experience spring than France?

The hostel in Strasbourg was…interesting. The room door required a very complicated manoeuvre to open. Actually, it was quite nice, but for some reason it was fiilled with 14-year-olds from Australia. Well, not all from down-under, but it wasn’t the typical 20-somethings hostel I was expecting (and the exact opposite of the “Youth Hostel” / geriatric ward in Bangor). Actually, I’ve been amazed by the number of Australians I’ve come across (well, heard) during my trip. For a small country they sure do get around.

Anyway, Strasbourg in general seemed to be a very “youthful” city…not in the rebellious Amsterdam kind of way, but in a more innocent, magical way. That’s what Alsace was for me: pure magic. Straight out of a fairy tale.

All of the people I came across were very friendly…perhaps friendlier than the English, actually. But really, I can’t generalise. It frustrates me that people make such broad assumptions about “rude” French people when they’re no different from anyone else. Everyone in Strasbourg was smiling and laughing. ‘Twas a jolly good time.

Once again, in the search of reasonably priced food, I was forced to eat at Mac-Do’s in Strasbourg. It was an interesting experience. Beer at McDonald’s. Heh. I got a “Royal Bacon” (Pulp Fiction anyone?), which also came with something called “Pommes Frites Sauce” – kind of a spiced-up mayonnaise.

To see all of my pictures from Strasbourg, click here.

I wish I could’ve had a bit more time in Strasbourg, but it was time to continue my Alsacian adventure in the small city of Colmar. Colmar was even more fairy-tale-esque than Strasbourg, and perhaps more staunchly Alsacian. I heard elderly people use the language occasionally, and there was quite a bit of German to be heard (although in large part spoken by tourists). However, I did overhear one woman say, “Ja, oui,” which I found quite amusing.

Beautiful Colmar:

I had lunch at a local “Winstub”, where I decided to try an Alsacian specialty, tarte flambee (actually, it was the cheapest thing on the menu). It came with delicious ham and gruyere cheese, making it almost like a thin pizza. Tres bien.

The restaurant was run by a very friendly family – the hostess’ mother and the hostess’ little daughter (the resemblance between the three was very clear) were eating at an adjacent table, and the grandmother would occasionally interrupt her own meal to check on me. I did have to wait for a while before I realised I should ask for the bill – no one rushes you in France.

Also, an interesting Franco-American connection: Colmar was the birthplace of Auguste Bartholdi, the sculptor who designed the Statue of Liberty. There’s a mini replica in Colmar in the middle of a roundabout.

I stayed at my first hotel in Colmar, the “Hotel Primo”, which was kind of a dump. Not repulsive, but I guess you get what you pay for. At least I had my own room with a TV. I watched “Le Maillon Faible” (The Weakest Link) – sadly, the French host isn’t nearly as mean as the British lady.

There was also a “friterie” near the hotel, which miraculously was open at 9 pm on Sunday when I wanted to get food. It seemed to be a very lively place, where everyone knew each other…and the woman doing the cooking was quite the character. I ordered an “americain”, which consisted of a hamburger cut in half and placed in a baguette, then smothered with French fries. It’s a popular sandwich in France although it has different names (and “un americain” can refer to other types of sandwiches, too).

To see all of my photos from Colmar, click here.

The next day was undoubtedly the most adventurous as well as the stupidest day of my voyage. I departed from Colmar on foot in search of “La Route des Vins d’Alsace”, a path which traverses the vineyards around Colmar and goes through several picturesque villages. I knew it would be a long walk so I packed as much water as I could and got going.

Unbeknownst to me, “La Route des Vins” was not a pedestrian footpath, but rather an automobile route. I soon found myself walking along the edges of vineyards, as well as on the side of the road…which turned out to be an idiotically dangerous affair, especially when I was forced to walk between a guard rail and a steep drop towards the River Weiss.

I managed to survive the most difficult portion of the journey unscathed, and arrived at my first destination, the village of Kaysersberg. It was indeed very picturesque. Also, the weather couldn’t have been better…perfectly sunny (“pas un seul nuage” as the family sitting next to me at lunch remarked). There was a small castle that I climbed to for a good view of the village.

At this point, I had to decide whether to continue trying to follow the Wine Route or whether to walk back to Colmar and call it a day. I decided to attempt to see the other villages that I really wanted to see, and then catch the train back to Colmar from the last one.

Unfortunately, the path still wasn’t very straightforward. I found markers for a hiking trail through the Vosges that would take me to my next village, but after walking for a while, the path split and there was no clear indication as to which way went where. Rather than getting lost in the forested mountains of Alsace, I turned back and eventually found a cycle path that I followed with the hope that it would lead me to the next village.

Fortunately, it did, and it even intersected something called the “Sentier Vinicole d’Alsace” or the “Sentier Viticole des Grands Crus”, which really was a footpath crossing the vineyards. I rejoiced when I arrived in Riquewihr, which was charmingly beautiful and, once again, straight out of a fairly tale…but it was getting late and I would need to hurry to Ribeauville, my last stop, if I was to catch the train back to Colmar on time.

I found the sentier vinicole again, but after entering the village of Hunawihr, I lost it. I had to walk alongside the road to Ribeauville (I didn’t walk along the edge of the vineyards for fear that I might get yelled at – fortunately that never happened). I knew I was close when I could see the “Trois Chateaux”:

By the time I got to Ribeauville, it was looking like I wouldn’t have time to walk to the train station, which was quite far from the village centre (and after walking 16 miles, I wasn’t exactly up to it). At this point, I started panicking (worse than I did after falling in the mud and almost getting lost on a certain Welsh hilltop).

I eventually decided that the only way to get back to Colmar would be by taxi, but I had no idea if a small town like Ribeauville would have a taxi service. I eventually went into a restaurant to ask about taxis, and fortunately the hostess was able to give me a card for a taxi service.

Unfortunately, my cell phone wasn’t working and the pay phones required a “telecarte”, which I didn’t have. I ended up going into a different restaurant / inn, where I asked to use the phone. The hostess gave me an incredulous look (after all, most people have cell phones these days), but the proprietor was kind enough to call the taxi for me. It really took a weight off my shoulders.

Unfortunately, the taxi ride cost 35€. But at least I got back to my hotel that night.

I asked the taxi driver whether tipping was customary in France for taxis, since I had no idea, although he didn’t understand me when I asked about “le service”…apparently it’s not customary. Good thing, too, because I wasn’t about to dish out more money. He didn’t seem to care, because he even gave me his cell phone number…and told me how to call it from outside the country.

Either he was a very friendly guy, or I’m very naive… (*shudder*)

To see all of my photos from the Alsace Wine Route, click here.

Although Alsace was pure magic, I was happy to leave that particular adventure behind me when I headed for Metz. Metz was simply a stopover on my way to Reims, and I intended to visit Verdun nearby, but the trains didn’t run frequently enough to merit a visit. I believe I was in the train station at Strasbourg between Colmar and Metz when the loud-speaker announced that the TGV had broken the record for speed on rail: 574.8 km/h (roughly 357 mph).

Unfortunately, Metz was an utter craphole. The only upside was that I was able to get a filling dinner at the hostel (which also housed young workers…). The place was big on energy conservation, so the hallways were always completely dark unless you pushed a button which turned the lights on for a short while (this was most frustrating in the toilet). I did have a room to myself, though, which was good.
I met a couple of girls who asked where I was from…when I told them I was American, they got all excited and wanted to practice their English. When I told them I was from New Hampshire, they gave me a look of complete confusion. So, I simply said, “c’est pres de Boston”, which cleared it up for them. One of them has a cousin in Boston. (And since then, whenever someone asks me where I’m from, I simply say “pres de Boston”, unless they ask me to specify the state).

I also heard “Le temps des fleurs” playing in the hostel…I love hearing French songs that I know and singing along. 🙂

My next stop was Reims, which was a nice little city, famous for its cathedral. Since I had a lot of time there, and there wasn’t much else to do, I spent quite a bit of time in the cathedral, admiring the architecture and all the stained glass:

Cathedrals are really enchanting places.

I had a good deal of time before my friends Emeric and Virginie came to pick me up, so I decided to go to the cinema (for the first time in Europe). At first, I found a theatre with movies all marked VF (for “voix francais”, meaning that they’ve been dubbed in French)…I certainly didn’t want to watch a dubbed film, and although some of the French films looked interesting, I might not have understood everything.

So I found another cinema with films marked VO (voix originale), including “300”, but unfortunately it was playing too late (I’ll have to wait until I return to England). I ultimately decided to see “La Cite Interdite”, the French title for “Curse of the Golden Flower” (a Yimou Zhang film). There was something awesome about watching a Chinese film with French subtitiles. The movie was great, and it was a good way to spend the afternoon.

I also tried a Fanta “Citron Frappe” in Reims, which is probably one of the best soda flavours ever invented.

To see all of my photos from Reims, click here.

I eventually met up with my friends at a pub at 8pm…unbeknownst to me, they were meeting other friends there, too. Lots of French conversation ensued. I had been a little surprised at how easily I could get around in a foreign country with my French, although the sustained conversation was different. It was definitely an exercise, and made me wish that I could be in France instead of England in order to develop my fluency completely.

Eventually the question was posed, “Where would you like to eat?”, but I had to explain that I had already eaten and that it was rare to eat after 8pm in the U.S. and in England. Sharing cultural comparisons was very interesting.

Emeric and Virginie took me to their house in Thin-le-Moutier, a hamlet near Charleville, in the Ardennes. It was a pretty area and their house was nice, albeit old. It had been occupied by the Germans in both world wars. Very fascinating.

The weather was sunny and warm…true spring weather, so I enjoyed a walk with Virginie after she showed me the village church, and later Emeric took me to the Ardennes War and Peace Museum nearby (although it was mostly about war ;)), which was really interesting too. The world wars have always interested me, but to be where they were actually fought…it was something else entirely. There are numerous monuments to the wars throughout the northeast of France, both French and German. I saw the end of the Maginot Line, too.

WWI French uniforms (and an American one on the right end):

Later in the day, we made a visit to Charleville, mostly so I could see Rimbaud’s house and all the other things that Monsieur Borer talked about so much last semester. I’ll have to send him my photos.

To see all of my pictures from the Ardennes, click here.

For supper, Emeric and Virginie served me three croque monsieurs, which were very good but very filling. Afterwards, I watched their copy of Notre Dame de Paris on DVD…man, I need to get one for myself. Awesome musical.

And I would be at the real Notre Dame de Paris the very next day! Paris was even lovelier than I remembered it to be. I found the metro much more convenient than the tube, as well.

I met up with Rachel (from USC) and we headed to some of the places that I hadn’t seen during my first trip to Paris: the Catacombs, which were incredibly eerie, and Sainte-Chappelle, which was beautiful, except there was some restoration scaffolding in the upper chapel. Boo.

Photos:

We also visited the Jardin de Luxembourg, which was quite crowded on a sunny Saturday afternoon, but a very nice place to relax for a while. All of the trees were fully in bloom. For dinner I had a Quiche Lorraine (should’ve tried it in Metz), and for dessert a delicious Crepe Sucre / Citron. Mmm mmm.

Later, we found a small store in the Village St-Paul called “Thanksgiving”, which was stocked with American imports. Most of it was much too expensive (clam chowder for 6.90€? No thanks), although I did buy a can of A&W root beer…oh, root beer, nectar of the gods…how I’ve missed you!

Nearby, in the Place des Vosges, there was a string ensemble playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. That made my day.

On Easter Sunday, I attended mass at Notre Dame. Although the music at the morning mass was less impressive than the full ensemble in the later mass (I went back just to listen to it, despite the crowds of people everywhere), the experience was amazing. Just to be in Notre Dame…wow.

At night, I went to see the Eiffel Tower once again. I got off the metro at Trocadero, recreating my first encounter with lady Eiffel. And she was just as beautiful as I remembered:

Yesterday, I managed to find my way through the crowded Gare de Lyon and get on the TGV to Grenoble. A ridiculously quick ride through beautiful countryside, and here I am, in Grenoble, at an Internet cafe. Two girls from Quebec are sitting nearby (I also took a picture of a woman from Quebec in front of the Alps for her earlier today). The Alps are amazing, and I’ve only scratched the surface. Tomorrow I’m heading to Annecy. Photos will be forthcoming.

Actually, I realised that I never linked to my photos from Stonehenge and Bath on here. England feels like light years away right now, but here are the albums:

Stonehenge

Bath

Sorry once again for the length of this post, although I hope you appreciate it, considering it cost me 11€ to write. 😐

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3 Responses to “From Brussels to Grenoble”

  1. Frisko 9 May 2007 at 01:12 #

    Perhaps this was the commercial they were shooting?
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    “Thuis in de stad” means “At home in the city”
    It’s a campaign by the Flemish government where people can nominate their favourite (secret) spots in any Flemish city.

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