Out and about in France: Alsace

10 Mar

Once again, I’ve neglected my blog. Allow me to recount the past month — specifically, my travels to Alsace and Provence.

A few weeks ago, Madeline and I went off to Strasbourg for the weekend. Having already been to Alsace (and falling in love with the colourful, fairy tale architecture), I was mostly eager to show the region to someone else. Tour guide is my dream job.

After an hour train delay due to a fire somewhere along the eastern route out of Paris, we TGV’ed it to Strasbourg in 2 and a half hours or so. Upon arrival, we enjoyed a walk through the ridiculously picturesque Petite France quarter before arriving at the cathedral — still one of my favourite cathedrals in Europe (certainly #1 in terms of the exterior). The Strasbourg cathedral is the tallest in France, and dominates the city (it’s hard to get lost with such a visible landmark).

There’s something a little creepy about this cathedral, though. The red sandstone and Gothic design give it a rather… Satanic appearance, ironically enough. But the sheer size of it makes it one of the most impressive buildings I’ve ever seen.

We even hiked the spiral staircase inside to the viewing platform, which offered a great view of the city as well as the distant, snow-covered Vosges.

Our couchsurfing hosts had a large apartment in a residential neighborhood near the university (which was on strike — one of two protest marches we saw in Strasbourg). When we arrived, they greeted us by playing small instruments and then giving us toy dart guns for a battle. I was a bit worried we had stumbled upon some total crazies.

They turned out to be pretty friendly guys. At any rate, we got a nice big room with two beds. They even put us in touch with another couchsurfer in the city to have dinner at a traditional Alsacian restaurant — I was eager to try the regional specialty, tarte flambée, for the second time.

The guy who took us to dinner (and his own couchsurfing guest) seemed nice enough at first, but the evening quickly deteriorated. He explained to us the menu options: either everyone at the table could pay for an all-you-can-eat tarte flambée serving with a pint of beer, or everyone would have to order individual tartes. Since Madeline and I didn’t want to pay for the beer, which we wouldn’t have drunk anyway, we hesitated a bit. It was clear that our host wanted the all-you-can-eat dinner with the beer.

After talking about it for a few minutes, we asked the guy if it would be all right if we ordered individual dishes, and he essentially flipped a switch. He was visibly upset and complaining that we had spent “30 minutes” discussing our choice. His reaction was completely irrational and reeked of social ineptness. He rather rudely suggested that we get separate tables, but at that point we happily complied. We didn’t want to eat dinner with him. He was still upset because he had to wait longer to be reseated, but that’s what he gets for being an asshole.

At any rate, that was my only remotely negative couchsurfing experience to date. Good thing he wasn’t our actual host. And the dinner made up for that awkward moment – the tarte was delicious, and dessert (a dame blanche sundae) was out of this world.

The next morning, we awoke to a Strasbourg covered in a beautiful dusting of snow.

We hopped on a train towards Sélestat, with the ultimate goal of the Chateau du Haut-Koenigsbourg — a mountaintop Medieval castle, restored by the Germans at the turn of the century, with incredible views of the Rhine Valley below. During the warmer months, a shuttle runs from the Sélestat train station to the castle, but we had to get a taxi. It was a bit pricy (and I was afraid of dying a few times while zooming up snow-covered mountain roads), but Madeline and I agreed that it was definitely worth it.

It was the only place in Alsace on our itinerary that I hadn’t already seen, but it was easily my favourite part of the entire trip. The castle was covered in snow, and it was snowing gently outside — everything was so quiet, peaceful, idyllic. The feeling was absolutely wonderful. The views of the Vosges and the Rhine Valley were also more impressive than I’d imagined. We topped off the visit with a stop at the castle restaurant for a light lunch, where I had the best Quiche Lorraine of my life.

The chateau:

After our castle excursion, we took the train a bit further to Colmar, probably the best example of colourful charm among the Alsacian cities. During the train ride, it was fun to watch the countryside go by — the countryside that I traversed during my epic 16-mile, 10-hour walk back in April ’07. And Colmar really is a beautiful little place.

At any rate, after returning to Strasbourg, we realized that there wasn’t much else left to do there. In fact, we ended up going to the movies twice during our visit: first, to see “LOL,” a French movie with Sophie Marceau (<3) that was essentially incomprehensible without subtitles. Way too many young people and too much slang. It was a corny chick flick, actually, but there was a pretty funny segment poking fun at the British. The second film we saw was Revolutionary Road (“Les noces rebelles” in French), which was incredibly depressing.

To lighten things up a bit, during our last day in Strasbourg we decided to take the train to Germany and spend the whole time making fun of the German words we saw on signs and stuff. We couldn’t make it to a big city or anything — just a quirky little town called Offenburg. On our return trip, our train was invaded by a horde of ridiculously costumed Germans going to a festival or something (including some drunk teenagers with an open bottle of champagne). We agreed that Germans are incredibly weird.

One of the highlights of our brief Germany excursion was a large building that we passed on the train. It seemed to be a big factory or something, and the company’s name was posted along the wall facing the train. As the train passed by the building — which seemed to go on forever — we laughed at the interminably long German word we were seeing. It was something ridiculous, like:

APPENHEIMERSPLATZENBERGHAUSERSCHNITZELDEUTSCHEVONBAHNSCHWEIZ….etc. etc.

That’s just an approximation.

Here are my photos from Alsace (and Germany):

Strasbourg – Part I

Strasbourg – Part II

Chateau du Haut-Koenigsbourg

Colmar

Offenburg

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