Thursday, April 05, 2007

Strasbourg ctd

So...where was I? Ah yes, the Alsace Wine Road. Just a moment while I get my map, where I made some notes. As I said, we began by going quickly to the south, to Colmar, and then worked our way back north toward Strasbourg on the "Wine Route." We wound our way through beautiful rolling countryside dotted with villages new and old (mostly old) before the bus rolled into the town of Riquewehr. Here's what the map says about Riquewehr: Admirably well-preserved medieval and Renaissance city. Foritifications, houses and courtyards from 13th, 15th, and 17th centuries. Dolder belfry tower (1291) and Thieves' tower (with torture chamber). ...Grand Cru Schoenenbourg and Sporen vineyard trail, Grand Cru wines.

We disembarked and walked up a cobblestone street to the entrance of a vineyard tasting room where we sampled some Reisling, Pinot Gris and Gewurtztraminer. The wine steward poured the girls a couple of Coca Colas and they played with the pebbles that covered the floor of the wine cellar for a bit. I left earlier than everyone else so we could wander the narrow old streets and find them a treat. They wanted to by some candy (natuurlijk!) so we went back to a sweet shop we'd passed earlier. MeiMei picked jelly "Smurts" (smurfs) and JieJie chose an assortment but hovered over the Smurts begging for a handout as soon as she had eaten the items in the assortment that she liked best.

I picked up a book for a few euro called Alsatian Cuisine (in English, though you can click on the link and find your way to the yummy index) and I have a recipe to share with you. It's something our bus tour narrator described that I absolutely had to try--it was on the menu of a place we went later that evening with the girls and Mr. K.

CHOUCROUTE AVEC TROIS POISSONS (sauerkraut w/3 kinds of fish)
500 each of pike, perch, and carp (my restaurant meal had salmon)
1 kg sauerkraut, Alsatian style if possible (very thin cut)
1 clove garlic
1 onion
100 g. goose fat
1 bay leaf
5 juniper berries
25 cl Alsatian white wine
25 cl stock
50 g butter
1 teaspoon cognac
salt, pepper

Scale, gut and clean the fish. Wash, drain, cut into portions. Keep in a cool place. Wash the sauerkraut in cold water and drain. Brown the chopped garlic and onion in the goose fat in a deep saucepan with a thick base. Add the sauerkraut. Add the bay leaf and juniper berries. Season with salt and pepper. Fill to mid-height with the wine and stock. Leave to simmer gently for 2 hours, stirring from time to time. Brown the fish pieces in butter in a frying pan. Add them to the sauerkraut and leave to cook for another 30 minutes, adding a little water. Before serving, add the rest of the butter, heated until it turns to a warm brown, and the cognac.

Mine was served piping hot with a cream sauce on the plate, a skewer of fish alongside a haystack of delicate, delicious choucroute. A meal I shall always treasure! You can use any kind of fish, though I would stay away from anything as strong as tuna or swordfish. A nice white fish takes on the flavors very well.

And the restaurant we went to! There are canals in the Petite France section of Strasbourg, and built right over the canals are beautiful old timber frame buildings. The room where we ate this delicious meal was a glassed-in deck right on the water with views across the canals to the lovely illuminated old places all around, and the bridge just past the restaurant. I was going to remember the name to write down for you...but just go to Strasbourg and wanter the Petite France area. If you find our place, you'll know. If you don't, you still won't be disappointed!

The next day we had a walking tour of Strasbourg and a bus ride around some of the EU administration buildings that are keeping Strasbourg's economy stable these days--especially the hotel proprietors! The EU meets in Strasbourg every so often when they're not in Brussels, even though it's a logistical nightmare. Imagine if everyone involved with governing and lobbying in Washington DC suddenly relocated to Chicago every few months just to be "fair." Ok, it's an oversimplification but still.

After our tearful goodbye to Strasbourg we headed out to the highway en route to The City of Lights, Gay Paree. The girls slept a good chunk of the way--perfect, because we were scheduled to go on a boat tour that night and I really didn't want them to miss it. Better that they nap and then stay up a bit late.

We checked into the Etap Hotel in the suburb of Saint-Mande, just outside of the Paris city line but very much part of the metro area. The Etap is the entry-level of the chain that Ibis is also part of. It's...well, how to describe it? If Ray Kroc from McDonalds and the dude from Ikea got together and designed an ultra-ultra budget hotel, basically a hostel where you are at least guaranteed a safe clean experience, they would've come up with the Etap. And I'm not even complaining. Everything's so well designed and they are so acutely aware of their target market, it's just ingenious, the whole thing.

Each room has a double bed under a bunk bed, max 3 persons per room (so again we had 2 rooms but at least this time it was easier to get one of the girls to stay "not with me" by offering the tantalizing Bunk Bed Option.) Each room has a sink, a desk and chair, a small tv, a small digital alarm clock permanently affixed to the wall by the double bed, a toilet with no seat (no breakage!) a shower in a waterproof closet (no curtain!) three towels, no shampoo, no bath mat, two slivers of soap, and two disposable cups. You want toiletries? Buy them from the vending machine in the lobby.

Breakfast at the Etap is perfunctory. You can have bread, bread, or bread, or cereal. You can have butter, honey, or jam. Milk, coffee, orange juice. You want yogurt? Fruit salad? Buy them from the vending machine in the lobby. Or better yet, ask your wonderful husband to walk to the AMAZING pastry shop across from the Saint-Mande Metro station and come home with mouthwatering croissants, apple turnovers, chocolate-almond

Though I would probably go one step above the Ibis for our family if we were booking the rooms, simply to avoid having to be in two separate rooms, I have to say that if all you're looking for is a place to keep your stuff, sleep and wash up, Etap/Ibis more than fit the bill. It was comfortable and quiet, the two most important criteria.

We ate a quick dinner at a lovely cafe called La Tourelle (we returned the following night since it was so good and so welcoming), unpacked our stuff and headed to the metro for the trip to the Seine for our Bateau Mouches river boat trip.

I wish you could have seen JieJie's whole face light up--I swear you could see her heart swell with joy, and that doesn't happen for just anything--when we came up out of the Metro and she saw the Eiffel Tower sparkling like a giant diamond in the night. She and MeiMei and I decided that fairies were making all the twinkly lights. It was even more beautiful than I expected!

JieJie has this LeapPad book called Anna's First Ballet that has a section about Paris and the Eiffel Tower, so even though she's just turned 5, she knows the name and shape and a few trivia facts about the tower, for instance that it is taller in the summer due to the expansion of the metal. I really saw it hit her, the connection between what she had heard so many times and the fact that this is a REAL place and a REAL thing. I can't know for sure, but I think that was part of her excitement. For me it was really a Magical Moment.

To be continued with: Tour of the Eiffel Tower, visit to Sainte-Chappelle, our visit off the Grand Tour list to Cite des Enfants, and The Morning That Was Not To Be.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Speaking of Strasbourg...

Click on the title of this post for an article from today's International Herald Tribune back page. How timely!

We're off to dinner at City Palace in Chinatown with a letter--in Chinese, thanks to a friend--explaining that we don't want Chinese food translated for the European palate...we want real Chinese food! We'll see if the letter does anything. Wish us luck, and thanks to P.W.!!

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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