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to locate a good laundromat, make change in a foreign currency, decode cryptic directions and get what is most likely outdated equipment to work, all without ruining everything you have to wear.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And of course, it all played perfectly with a bottle of Alsatian Riesling.
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!
Stay tuned for the continuation of our explorations in Alsace!