Tag Archives: Alsace

A Full Day in Strasbourg

Strasbourg definitely deserved at least one whole day of exploration. After another amazing Alsatian breakfast, we hopped on a tram and headed downtown.

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Notre-Dame de Strasbourg.

We had a coffee on a café terrace just in front of the cathedral, giving us ample time to take in the full splendor of its intricate facade.

And the side view…

After we felt we had gawked at the cathedral’s exterior long enough, we decided to actually go inside. The interior was just as incredible as the exterior.

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Inside the cathedral.

Mozart once played a concert on the organ, which seemed to hover between the delicately fluted columns like an enormous gilt bird’s nest.

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You can see why the Reformers accused the Catholics of being over-the-top.

The Strasbourg cathedral is famous for its astronomical clock, which dates from the 14th century. Besides being very old and very intricate, its other claim to fame is its animated Procession of the Apostles. For two euros, we stood and waited with a crowd of tourists just like ourselves, mostly adults, speaking many languages, all with sore feet from standing around on the concrete for half an hour, waiting for a clock to chime.

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The Astronomical Clock.

At 12:30, the crowd fell silent, and every face turned upwards and expectant toward the clock as it began to chime, and we all became childlike with wonder. The crowd was almost as magical to watch as the clock.

An ancient wooden rooster at the very top crowed and beat its wings three times as the Apostles began to proceed in front of the Angel of Death. The figures’ legs moved with astonishing articulation, considering their clockwork dates from the 1800s. Two cherubs rang two little bells, and it was done. The crowd filtered back out into the cathedral or into the hazy sunlight.

For once, we stuck to our plan of having a light lunch: a salad without two pounds of cheese and sausage on it, and spaetzle with wild mushrooms. Jazz musicians busked on the corner, perhaps in town for the festival that would start the coming week.

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Petite-France seen from the “covered bridges.”

We strolled along the canal to what are known as the Covered Bridges, really the remains of 14th-century ramparts that have since lost their roofs (apparently a lot was going on here in the 14th century). Flowers trailed over the railings, reflecting the fanciful colors of the half-timbered homes that led right down to the canal, many with kayaks or rowboats tethered to their front steps.

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The cute factor was strong with this town.

We spent the afternoon being proper tourists for a change: browsing the boutiques, buying ice cream, having an afternoon drink on a café terrace. I even bought some postcards.

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A whole shop devoted to foie gras, which we somehow did not actually go into.

By late afternoon, it had grown oppressively hot and humid, so we did the only logical thing: find a bar with cool drinks (to hope for air conditioning would be asking for too much). The bartender even thoughtfully put ice in my glass of water without me asking, a rare and kind touch in Europe.

Not long after we ensconced ourselves in a booth, groups began to filter in and inquire about reservations. Turns out that the World Cup quarterfinals (I think that’s what it was, anyway) were about to begin. We sat quietly and observed as the barman turned away group after group wanting to sit in the booths next to ours because their view would be blocked once a large group was seated at the high table in front of the TV. We were happy to have a spot at all, and as the bar filled up, we just sat in the windowsill to see over the crowd.

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An excellent view of the game.

As if on cue, a huge clap of thunder burst just as the game was about to begin. A pounding thunderstorm followed, but was not enough to drive away the crowds forming outside to watch through the window. The national spirit was strong enough to get even a confirmed non-sports-follower like yours truly cheering along. The atmosphere was especially intense since France was playing Germany, and we were at the very epicenter of the French-German rivalry.

France lost, badly, but the people of Strasbourg were gallant about it, and no cars were burned or even overturned.

Drew was on a mission to try one last traditional Alsatian meal, coq au Riesling. In this local twist on coq au vin, chicken is slowly braised in Riesling wine instead of in red Bourgogne. We were lucky enough to get a table at one of the most famous restaurants in Strasbourg, la Maison des Tanneurs.

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The Maison des Tanneurs.

This restaurant is housed in a historic building hovering over the canals at the entrance to the picturesque Petite-France quarter. It may have looked like a tourist trap, but the food, wine list, and service were all sublime.

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Riesling paired perfectly with our coq au Riesling, bien sûr.

Since it just so happened to be the house specialty, we both ordered the coq au Riesling with spaetzle. The meat was just as tender as in the coq au vin we had in Bourgogne, but the Riesling sauce was even more delicate and creamy.

It was a good thing we had a light lunch. Once again, we ate everything.

The proprietor met us at the door and asked how our experience was. There was only one word for it: extraordinary.

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Strasbourg streets.

The next day, we were headed for Paris. To us, Strasbourg was just as fascinating as the City of Light, perhaps even more so since it was new to us and so completely different from the rest of France.

There was only one place to go when we did get to Paris: over the top.

And oh, did we ever.

I will tell you all about it tomorrow!


Colmar and Alsatian Wine Country

On our first morning in Strasbourg, our hosts delivered breakfast in a giant market basket. Inside was a note tied up into a scroll detailing the contents of our traditional Alsatian breakfast: fresh-squeezed orange juice, a whole baguette, Quetsch jam made from a local variety of plum, fresh white cheese, granola and honey, Comté cheese and Black Forest bacon.

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A hearty Alsatian breakfast.

Fully stuffed and ready for the day ahead of us, we headed south about an hour to Colmar, a charming town in the heart of Alsatian wine country. Along the road, towering hop fields gradually gave way to neatly-ordered vineyards.

Colmar was a fairytale village, with colorful half-timbered houses leaning over shimmering canals and flowers trailing over every railing and windowsill.

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Outside the wine shop.

One of the most-decorated doorways was coincidentally a wine shop, so we went in o”just to look.” Once the shop owner realized that Drew was in the wine industry, he started pulling out bottle after bottle of local wines for us to try.

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A primer course in Alsatian wines.

Each wine was even better than the next, some dry and lean, others rich and sweet but with long, complex finishes. It was an excellent introduction to the range and quality of Alsatian wines, so different from the production of other French regions.

We found a winstub with a sunny patio for lunch, and ordered a salade alsatienne again, because why not, along with a flammekuche, a thin, savory tart with bacon and onions.

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Not the most photogenic of salads, it’s true.

After lunch, we had a tasting appointment at Domaine Marcel Deiss, a ground-breaking Alsatian producer. We met with winemaker Marie-Hélène Cristofaro, who explained the vineyard philosophy in lovely metaphor.

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Traditional oak fermentation barrels.

“The grape is like a pen that writes, but cannot decide what to write,” Marie-Hélène said to emphasize the importance of terroir in Marcel Deiss’ wines. To showcase the unique terroir of each individual vineyard, the grapes are hand-harvested and slowly gravity-pressed, with nothing filtered out or added in. All the elements needed to create an outstanding wine exist naturally in the grape; all they need is time.

What is most unusual in the approach at Marcel Deiss is that multiple grape varietals are co-planted in rows and then harvested and fermented together at the same time. This “field blend” approach was actually not permitted in the Alsatian appellation until just recently, with the greater emphasis traditionally being placed on the grape varietal rather than the vineyard. But to the current proprietor Jean-Michel Deiss, terroir is king.

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A geological sample showing the unique terroir of a Marcel Deiss vineyard.

As she poured each incredibly unique and rich wine, Marie-Hélène explained how the variations in soil type and history affected the wine each vineyard produced. A vineyard with Jurassic soil, rich in plant and animal fossils, might show a haunting petrol character along with exotic fruit varieties. Lighter limestone soils formed during glacial eras produce leaner, crisper wines with higher acidity and brightness. Volcanic soils result in rich, smoky wines, the memory of lava and fire. Terroir is geological history you can taste in a glass.

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Marcel Deiss tasting room.

Our master class in Alsatian wines completed, Marie-Hélène suggested that we visit Ribeauvillé, a nearby village famous for its 14th-century ramparts.

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Ramparts of Ribeauvillé.

As the hot summer sun started to dip below the nearby mountains, elderly ladies leaned out over their windowboxes to chat with the neighbors and to eye the wandering foreigners.

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Medieval home.

It was so picturesque, even Drew took a picture (not this one).

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The cuteness was off the charts.

Dinner (much later) that night was in yet another winstub. We ordered the marrow bones and a jarret de porc alsacien (pig knuckle in red wine sauce).

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We wondered…what kind of beast produced these giant bones?

Alsace was proving even more dangerous than Burgundy: singular wines, epic food, fairytale scenery, and an interesting nightlife were fast making Strasbourg our new favorite city. So much so that we decided to concentrate our whole last day in Alsace just to exploring Strasbourg. Read all about it in tomorrow’s post!


On Our Way to Alsace

Our last morning in Beaune, we had to take time out for an essential: laundry. One of the wonderful things about travel is that is makes even mundane tasks into an adventure. Laundry is a perfect example. You have to be able to locate a good laundromat, make change in a foreign currency, decode cryptic directions and get what is most likely outdated equipment to work, all without ruining everything you have to wear. I suppose you could just drop it off at a full-service place, but where’s the fun in that?

While our clothes were spinning, I set off to check out the Beaune market. Calling a French marché a “farmers’ market” doesn’t really do it justice. Most American farmers’ markets are destination shopping; you go because it’s more fun than Safeway. Yes, you can find fresh, decently-priced produce, but mostly what you find are expensive organic offerings, overpriced hummus, and maybe a couple of local cheeses. A French market is an institution. Although more and more French people are starting to stock up at supermarkets American-style, it is still traditional to frequent the local market for the majority of one’s produce.

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Whole black truffles at the Beaune marché.

A French marché is a full-on sensory experience. Every imaginable item is available: the most beautiful fresh seasonal produce in every shape, color, and variety; artisanal meats and cheeses; rows upon rows of little pots of spices you’ve never seen before; hundreds of different kinds of olives; animal parts you didn’t know could look so delicious. But there is also clothing, hats, bags, households items, gifts…it can be overwhelming. You have to jostle with the crowd and speak to the vendors, since they don’t like you to fondle their produce. Ask for a couple peaches, and the vendor (most likely an adorably toothless older gentleman) will ask you when it’s for. Say you want it for today, and he will carefully select a peach that is so perfectly tree-ripened that it practically oozes its sunny aroma right through its little paper bag. It bursts with flavor and juice and is the most delicious thing you’ve ever tasted.

I need to go back to France now.

Once we dragged ourselves away from the stall with the melt-in-your-mouth Spanish ham, we loaded up our sparkling-clean laundry and hit the road for Alsace. We decided we might as well stop in Dijon for lunch, since it was (kind of) on the way. We settled into the terrace of a bustling bistro and decided to give some traditional Dijonaise cuisine a try. Let’s just say this: Dijonaise food is not light. This was the first meal to actually leave me in physical pain, and we hadn’t exactly been slacking in the food department. I blame our starter (which we shared, for the record!): a soup of escargots and croutons in a broth which was essentially a half-gallon of whole cream. And that was just the beginning.

We limped back to the car and decided it was for the best that we weren’t spending more time in Dijon.

Our “gîte” in Strasbourg was in fact a beautiful one-bedroom apartment recently renovated by its sweet owners who lived around the corner. The apartment was like an Ikea model home: everything new and sparkling clean and color-coordinated. I never wanted to leave. But there was a whole city to explore! We hopped on the tram and headed into town, not really knowing what to expect.

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Place Kléber, Strasbourg.

We landed in central Strasbourg right at the “golden hour,” that moment when the sun is just hitting everything at the perfect angle and everything is glowing. We wandered through narrow streets lined with half-timbered houses until we hit the canal that frames the city, and then we turned and wandered the other way.

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Bridges in Strasbourg.

Strasbourg, and Alsace in general, has a complicated history which involves being squabbled over by France and Germany for as long as anyone can remember. The result is a unique culture which is a blend of French and German influences. The architecture, food, and even the regional dialect are all distinctly different from the rest of France. Alongside the rich history and traditions of Alsace, Strasbourg is also a thoroughly modern city, with lots of Art Deco architecture as well as contemporary structures that somehow manage to flow neatly with the city’s medieval heart.

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Notre-Dame de Strasbourg (all the cathedrals are named Notre-Dame, in case you were wondering).

We walked around a corner and the cathedral popped out at us, seemingly out of nowhere. I will always have a soft spot for Notre-Dame de Paris, my first cathedral; but honestly, Strasbourg’s is truly amazing. Built out of pink stone from the Vosges mountain range, it looks like a stalagmite fell in love with spun sugar. The intricate details, as delicate as lacework, are especially impressive when you remember that its construction began in 1015 and was completed in 1439. Over four hundred years went into the creation of this masterpiece, a baroque organ concerto in stone.

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Half-timbered homes in Petite-France along the canal.

We could have wandered the streets of Strasbourg all night, but eventually we were ready to sit and attempt a “light” dinner, for reals this time. We found a winstub, a traditional Alsatian wine-centric restaurant, and decided to “just” order an onion tart and a salad.

To be fair, we had been warned about la Salade Alsacienne.

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La Salade Alsacienne, in all its glory.

We had, in fact, been told emphatically *not* to order what is essentially a huge ball of grated Gruyère and sausages on a minimal bed of greens. But we figured, pourquoi pas?

It was surprisingly delicious, and somehow not as heavy as it looks. The tarte à l’oignon was heavenly and also on the lighter side, caramelized onions and a flaky crust accompanied with some spicy greens.

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Tarte à l’oignon (onion tart).

And of course, it all played perfectly with a bottle of Alsatian Riesling.

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Alsatian wines don’t have to be sweet.

We closed out the winstub and rounded the evening off at L’Academie de la Bière, before hopping back on the tram for “home.” Strasbourg had already exceeded our expectations, and we had only just arrived!

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If we look a little puffy, well, that’s because we were. I blame Dijon.

Stay tuned for the continuation of our explorations in Alsace!