Monday, April 02, 2007

Our Week in France

Wow, what a whirlwind! I had never been to France before, but now that I've dipped my toe in the pool, I know I'll be back, maybe soon. John feels the same way, and JieJie bought herself a scrapbook with her own money and has filled it with stick-people smiling, arms wide, atop the Eippel [sic] Tower.

Monday: Bus trip thru Luxembourg City on the way to Strasbourg, France. I wish I had more to say about Luxembourg, but it just didn't ring my bell. We had a nice pizza lunch off one of the public squares that was surrounded with chain restaurants from "Old MacDonalds" as JieJie calls it to ChiChi's and beyond. Then we had a 45-minute bus tour across beautiful gorges with views down to the old villages along the river far below. Our guide explained that the fencing on the bridges is for "suiciders" as he put it, since there are houses down below and the potential for grisly interruptions to family dinners is certainly there. The bus drove us past building after building associated with the European Union administration and -- perhaps most significantly for Luxembourg--finance. Luxembourg's EU specialty has earned it the nickname "the treasury of Europe." Something I didn't know, definitely.

Then we got the stroller out to follow along the walking tour of Luxembourg City. It's very pretty, very quaint, quiet, and our guide (not a native) said he decided to retire there because it's just so nice and quiet and boring in all the best ways. If someone told me I had to live the rest of my life there, I'm sure I'd grow fond of it, but it just didn't capture me the way other places have (including my home state of Virginia, which still takes my breath away regularly!)

On to Strasbourg. To be honest, I had been so focused on Tackling Paris with the girls, I didn't put any time at all into reading about Strasbourg and what it's known for. Just as well--it had the chance to spring all of its charms on me at once. John and I fell in love with this amazing city almost from the moment we looked out of our hotel room to see 21st century trams gliding past 17th century apartment buildings - and that's not even the old city!

We stayed at the Ibis hotel. Ibis is part of a chain of hotels with ever-ascending levels of service. In the same way that an Applebees is above a McDonalds, the Ibis is slightly above the bottom of the barrel. We had a nice couple of rooms (rooms are for 3 people max, so a family of 4 like ours needs two rooms). Sometimes I think in terms of toiletries when I think of the grade of hotels. The White Swan in Guangzhou, China--without question the most posh I've ever stayed in--not only had shampoo AND conditioner AND body lotion, but the turndown service included a chocolate on the pillow and everything. At the Ibis, no conditioner, but no matter. NICE breakfast. Croissants and bread with nice fresh butter, some fruit, some cereal, yogurt, that kind of thing. I pocketed an apple and an orange both days we ate breakfast there, which came in very handy for the girls' midmorning snack.

The first night in Strasbourg we ate at a microbrewery that makes a local Alsatian specialty (Strasbourg is the capital of Alsace), Tarte Flambee. Mr. K called it "Alsatian Pizza" and the nickname is certainly apt, but it was a subtler sort of taste. Some are plain with onion, some are topped with sauerkraut, also a trademark Alsatian ingredient.

When the girls got tired and the students got rowdy (a student in another group mooned our students, all in good fun, and JieJie said, shocked, "that was NOT PROPER!") it's a testament to Stasbourg's accessibility that I was able to find my way back to the hotel so easily, just by keeping the river to my right. The Ill River winds its way through Strasbourg past palaces and cathedrals and taverns, under bridges new and old, and it's part of what I found so enchanting about the city. Martin Luther studied there long ago. I wonder if he ever wrote about what it was like there.

The next morning we got to see Strasbourg's main attraction, its spectacular pink sandstone Gothic cathedral. Of course we've seen many cathedrals since coming here, but this one was up there among the most impressive we've visited. My favorite thing about it was the elaborate clock in one of the side chapels. It's a union of Christianity, humanist philosophy, astronomy, astrology, and mechanical arts. At the top is Jesus. The next level down is a series of images depicting a baby, youth, man, and old man, which turn as the day goes along. There are cycles depicting the phases of the moon, what day it is, which saint's day it is, the rotation of the earth, astrological signs, and of course the current time (which almost seems beside the point when confronted with one's minute place in the grand scheme).

It made me realize how far the church must have come by that point. Ten years ago we visited the church in Pisa, Italy where Galileo worshiped before he was excommunicated for daring to suggest that the earth revolved around the sun. Here we were with a timepiece accurately representing the movements of the universe contained within the walls of the very church that had condemned such thinking a few centuries earlier. Pretty amazing.

After the cathedral, it was time to board the bus for the main tour of the day, a lovely ride through the famous winemaking region of Alsace. Absolutely beautiful. At first it even reminded me of the Shenandoah Valley as far as the topography, but the villages nestled in the folds of the green hills were so picturesque, each with its church spire surrounded by homes and farms and occasionally a castle or fortress.

We made our way to the smaller city of Colmar, south of Strasbourg. I'd never heard of it, sad to say. What a charming spot! And the flowers weren't even in bloom. Mr. K, who accompanies so many tours to this region, said that in summer, every window has a flower box with blooms and vines cascading down toward the canals that run through the picturesque little town. We had lunch (quiches all around--the girls LOVE quiche!) and went on a nice walking tour of Colmar. Among the pieces of trivia we learned: the chef at New York's very posh restaurant Lutece is from Colmar and has a restaurant back home too--put that one on the "to-do" list, eh? Can you imagine the combination of culinary genius and the best local ingredients? The possibilities are mouthwatering.

By the end of the day, John and I were wondering how much summer rentals cost, either in Alsace or in Strasbourg itself. It's really a fantastic place, I can't say it enough! And is it any wonder that this town, with its red, pink, and yellow sandstone buildings giving it such a warm and cozy feel, is also a university town? Makes sense that we would like it I guess. There are three universities there, about 48,000 students in all. Our 30 students seemed right at home there as well.

Tomorrow: Our tour of the Wine Road and a great dinner in Strasbourg--recipe for Choucroute avec Trois Poissons included! Thursday's entry: The City of Lights, Paris...aaaah.

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