Of Alsations, casseroles, villages and storks

Colmar is a pleasant city, ….

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Little Venice is probably an ambitious name, but it is a particularly scenic area of Colmar
Little Venice is probably an ambitious name, but it is a particularly scenic area of Colmar

‘it is situated on a fertile plain, far from the mountains, an hour along the track, with large quantities of wine and grain on either side, and the land is good for wheat, onions and other fruit of the garden. This city is the centre of Alsace and is a single league away from Kiesersperg, Ammersweiler, Rechenwyer and Rappoltzweyer, towns that make most excellent wine, the finest of all Alsace’ in the words of one Sébastian Münster in 1552. Yes, 1552! Unfortunately Messieur Münster lived many years too early to be treated to the delicate tastes of Messer’s Pierre Jourdan, Danie de Wet and many more who produce those fine ‘tranquille’ Cabrières, Chardonnays or Sauvignon Blancs way way down south at the tip of Africa. Judging Messieur Münster’s praise for the Alsace wines, I am very sure he would have approved with great satisfaction the younger South African products.

However, he was justly accurate in his description that Colmar is a pleasant city, even beautiful with its stunning, be it slightly confusing architecture. This is France in 2014, but the German Tudor style is in abundance, and beautifully restored, maintained, decorated and neatly painted sitting there just waiting to be photographed or painted. I can’t paint, though. To understand this slightly confusing ‘look’ of this treasure of a French city, I had to ask Google for clarity.

Cafe in the beautiful Colmar
Cafe in the beautiful Colmar

Colmar is first mentioned in 823. Roughly around 1226, Colmar was made an imperial town (city formally responsible only to the emperor in the Holy Roman Empire) by Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, a Roman Emperor. In 1278, King Rudolph of Habsburg gave Colmar its civil rights. Rudolph was originally a Swabian count, but was the man who sort of started the Habsburg dynasty, who ruled much of Europe for nearly 600 years from the 1200s out of current day Austria. Thus, this is the first mention or reason for the German architecture and place names so evident in French Alsace.

Ever since those days, there was a tug of war (pun intended) between the Germans and the French for this beautiful little town. In 1648 the Treaty of Munster handed part of Alsace back to France. In 1871 the Treaty of Frankfurt sees Alsace come under German rule again and a German ‘kommisar’ replaces Mayor Peyerimhoff. In 1883, French is banned from all official documents. On 23 August 1914 a French cavalry rides into town, but hesitantly retreats back into the mountains when the confrontation gets too hot! ‘Zeez French were lovers, not fighters!’ However, on 18 November 1918 the French troops moves into the city and the Tricolor once again is hoisted. It was still not the end, though. June 1940, those dark dark days in European history dawn on Europe and the German troops again annexed Colmar and Alsace. They take it so far that everybody between the ages 14 and 18 is forced to join the Hitler Youth! Then, five years later on 10 February 1945, General Charles de Gaulle marches into Colmar after the battle was one a week earlier.

May 29, 2014, my family and I ride into Colmar after a relaxing full-day road-trip of a mere 440km from Köln through some tiny little roads which included parts of the Mosel Valley, and unpack our weekend luggage. Colmar features as the second town in the recent article ‘The 23 Most Quaint Small Towns You Must Visit Before People Find Out About Them’ on sfglobe.com. So, maybe this post of mine will spoil Colmar for a few future visitors since I can now, after my visit actively promote Colmar as a worthy visit.

‘Quaint small town’, however, is a very loose term for many of these gem towns we so enthusiastically seek out. Europe is really old, as can be seen from the time-line above, which means for a destination such as Colmar, the ‘quaint small town’ is purely the centre old part of town. The village is surrounded by a large busy modern and often ugly outside city which does distract from the experience. In the ‘quaint small town’ of Colmar, we bought our groceries in one of the largest modern supermarkets E.LeClerq I have seen. The E.LeClerq chain is widely spread across France, and I always wonder whether it is the successful result of Messieur Le Clerq, the ‘often disguised as a secret onion seller’ in Allo Allo’s venture.

 

That centre ‘quaint small town’-part is definitely worth a visit though. It provides ample awe-inspiring old-Europe architecture, the beautiful buildings, people watching, fine cuisine and photo opportunities galore. I often regard the highly spoken of ‘flammekueche’ also known as ‘Tarte de Flambee’ in these parts as a lame effort to copy a pizza and hardly ever order that. This weekend though I was pleasantly surprised by the excellent cheeses the Colmar chefs use to dress their ‘flammekueche’ and I thoroughly enjoyed the local ‘potjiekos’ dish (its more a casserole) called ‘baeckeoffe’

My Baekeoffe
My Baekeoffe

or ‘baker’s oven’ (see the German in this French province). It consists of sliced potatoes, onions (bought from Mssr LeClerq, no doubt), carrots, cubed meat, predominantly beef and pork, which have been marinated overnight in Alsatian white wine and juniper berries before being slow cooked in a traditional sealed ceramic casserole. The taste is further enhanced with leeks, parsley, garlic, marjoram, thyme and time.

As I tend to do, I did drive to the real quaint towns too with a day-drive through the likes of Neuf-Brisach, Breisach, Riquewihr, Hunawihr and Eguisheim. Under the title ‘the most quaint towns’ Colmar can never be visited in isolation. To complete the experience, one has to visit Riquewihr, the fortified church in Hunawihr and the quaint Eguisheim too. Neuf Brisach is a nice to see due to the fact that the town in its entirety is still walled and moated off, but the other three are pristine examples of the feudal medieval towns where the town was build and walled off around the church and market square. Nowadays there are plenty of little bistros, cafés, bars and restaurants lining the streets amongst the ‘vinstube’, cheese merchants and in general typical local merchandise aimed at the tourist market. To complete the picture, these little villages are nestled in the midst of the famous Alsatian vineyards, which prompted me to make a note to visit the area in autumn again.

The streets of Riquewihr
The streets of Riquewihr
Still Riquewihr
Still Riquewihr

Riquewihr

An environmental feel-good story in this part of Alsace is for sure the breeding of the storks. I remember reading a book in primary school translated from Dutch into Afrikaans as ‘Die wiel op die skool’ (the wheel on the school), which was a story about the school providing nesting to a stork. Well, that is all I remember of the story, or maybe not even. I suppose the name gave me a hint. Nevertheless, I have now seen it with my own eyes. Many a roof in Alsace, even in the centre of towns, have a wheel of some sorts on its roof, with a breeding stork happily returning the stares of the tourists in the streets below while caring for their young.

Stork happily nesting in Eguisheim
Stork happily nesting in Eguisheim
Hunawihr
Hunawihr
The fortified church in Hunawihr
The fortified church in Hunawihr

As a dog owner, the term Alsatian obviously rings an inquisitive bell. I found the explanation rather interesting. The name German Shepherd, for the Deutsher Shäferhund, a breed which obviously originated in Germany, was changed by the UK Kennel Club after World War 1 due to the belief that ‘German’ in the name would harm the breed’s popularity due to the negative sentiment towards the Germans at that time. Thus, the UK Kennel Club officially changed the name to ‘Alsatian Wolf Dog’ after the name of the French German border area of Alsace. Many other international kennel clubs used this name. The name was officially changed back to German Shepherd in 1977, though ‘Alsatian’ is still often used in parenthesis.

 Colmar1

The camping scene in Europe is a curious but very healthy industry, which covers a wide range of different vehicles and tents. I was pleasantly surprised to find a real stove-like fireplace in our pitched tent, complete with wood and chimney through the canvass. Novel touch by the French! The most popular camping for the Europeans are definitely the motorhome (various shapes and sizes) and normal caravan. However, tiny tents, from one consisting of only a stretcher bed with a meter high tent on the stretcher to old-timer restored VW Kombis (as we know them in South Africa) and completely fitted Land Rover camper vans grace the lawns with their presence. I wonder if that Swiss Land Rover has ever put rubber to a dirt road. A number of people cycle, others travel by motorcycle and a few hitch-hike with their rucksacks if not using conventional transport. But the travel and sightseeing scene is truly alive and well in the rural areas of Europe.

The camping scene
The camping scene

So, yes, I agree with the article in http://sfglobe.com/?id=908&src=home_feed regarding Colmar. Incidentally I have also visited Annecy and can vouch for that too. And where they state in the article ‘We advise you to plan a trip before they become too crowded!’ I sincerely hope my blogpost regarding Colmar doesn’t make your planned trip too late. However, feel free to contact me for advice when you need advice or help or a chauffeur!

I am so looking forward to our summer tour to Italy in a few weeks.

Eguisheim

‘In Bruges’

Of ‘Bloemen, Dijken en Brugge’

The next morning was Sunday; Easter Sunday, the day of The Resurrection. We started the day with a magnificent sunrise sermon on the banks of the river Rhine, feeling the Good News and seeing His great works in nature. Pastor John and Amos were their brilliant self and fed us spiritually before the men fed us with pancakes, bacon and syrup, the way the Americans have breakfast.

 

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Ryn

Then we hit the road.

 

It was mid-April and the ‘Tulips from Amsterdam’ were standing tall, flowering in their full splendour and we were in the mood for some iPod ‘Ek-en-jy-en-die-highway’-family time on the road again. Thus, westward bound we took off with an initial stop logged as Lisse, the hometown of Keukenhof and the Tulip. We’ve been there before and were not interested in doing the entire garden walk again. We just needed a reason to drive a few 100 kilometers, see some Dutch ‘platteland’ (pun intended) and then see where the road will take us after that.

Keukenhof is beautiful (see my post ‘Tulips from Amsterdam’ dated 19 April 2012) but it is so crowded that one visit somewhere in your life is probably enough. However, do that one visit, if you’re in the area.

'Flower child' at Keukenhof
‘Flower child’ at Keukenhof
Blomme1
Keukenhof

This trip was one of those ‘drive in a general direction’ type trips. No specific destination in mind, just see what you’ll find to see. And for this, you need to get off the highways and tread on ‘de smalle weg’. The thing is, we’re in Europe. Its been decadently civilised for many years. Even ‘de smalle weg’ here is a tarred road, with plenty of civil engineering ingenuity to ease up the going! And that’s exactly what we found at Deltapark Neeltje Jans.

However, before reaching Neeltje Jans, I felt quite at home with the day’s drive. We missed Amersfoort but passed Utrecht, Dordrecht, Breda, Roosendal and Middelburg. Dundee was unfortunately over the channel in Scotland.

Neeltje Jans is an artificial island halfway between Noord Beveland and Schouwen Duivenland in Oosterschelde. It was constructed as part of the Oosterscheldedam, which is actually built as a storm water surge protection. After the mega floods in 1953, this well-known civil works construction was necessitated. ‘Most of Zeeland is at or under sea level. In 1953 the dikes were in poor condition and too low. In those days the chance of flooding was once in eighty years. Thanks to the storm surge barrier, this risk has now been reduced to less than once in 4000 years. Take the opportunity to visit this construction inside and outside. You will be surrounded by concrete with a 200-year guarantee, 45 meter wide steel doors are raised to let the tides rush through below them. A must to visit – a must to have seen!’ (www.neeltjejans.nl).

 

Wind turbine at Neeltje Jans.
Wind turbine at Neeltje Jans.

We were just in time for a stunning sundowner photo-shoot, amongst those monstrous wind turbines that nowadays spoil the entire European skyline. Sometimes I believe the scenic pollution of these monsters is worse than burning a few tons of good quality Waterberg steam coal. Unfortunately, we were too late to visit the museum and construction sites, which gives the added incentive that I’ll have to go there again, with better time management this time. Though we wandered (and not all who wander are lost!) through the beautiful little town at Vrouewenpolder (I’m not sure if the town’s name is actually Vrouewenpolder), we couldn’t find accommodation that late on the Sunday evening of Easter Weekend, and had no other option than to push on.Wind2

 

IMG_7565

Most of the times traveling without a plan and just driving is fun. However, we were now dead tired, it was late and dark and we still had no accommodation for the night. Only option, and I dread to admit that, was to head for the Formule 1 70km southeast on the outskirts of Ghent. Formule 1 hotels are not to be recommended as accommodation. However, if you arrive there after 23:00, need a shower and a bed and plan to hit the road by 08:00; it enables you to see places. In that case, its fine, if you can bare the smell of smoke in the carpets and duvets.

Bruges is beautiful, its clean, its fascinating and has great architecture with the prominent Belfry of Bruges being the most famous. It was famous long before Collin Farrel were even born, as this fascinating bell tower was originally constructed in 1240.

The Belfry of Brugge
The Belfry of Brugge

The ‘little red brickwork’ architecture in this part of Europe must be extremely inspiring for an architect to visit, photograph, copy or simply just admire. I loved our morning ‘in Bruges’. I just hate those plastic silly traveling merry-go-round fun park junk Europe allows on all its magnificent old town squares. No proper angle to take photos, the magnificence of the square spoiled completely by plastic clowns and little bumper cars with irritating continual music sounding worse than those ice-cream Combis from the 70s. I cannot believe in this day and age that there are still people who spend money on those.

Bistros, coffeeshops, restaurants galore
Bistros, coffeeshops, restaurants galore

 

And fancy that, being served at the restaurant, by a Belgian waiter who grew up in Rwanda and spent his first 35 years there. We were so intrigued with each other’s stories and political commentary that the poor man was in trouble with a few of his other customers. Here was a man who saw serious genocide and had to escape it himself, but who also saw and experienced that magical natural beauty and splendour of the African bush to such a level that he does speak fondly about the place. But, it’s the politics he hates.

1000km in 1 day 6:22 hours and a successful sightseeing family bonding weekend behind us!

Life is good.

 

Roundtrip route from Köln. 1000km in 1 day 6:22 hours. There's just so much to see
Roundtrip route from Köln.
1000km in 1 day 6:22 hours.
There’s just so much to see

So, where do you go to, my lovely

Could it be as clichéd as ‘to a fancy apartment, in the Boulevard St Michel?’

The Boulevard Saint Michel

Yes, for sure, that’s exactly what Heleen organized for us as a celebratory weekend away after we returned from a three-week visit to South Africa. How cool is that? to go away to celebrate that you’ve just returned!

‘Tell me the thoughts that surround you’

I’m still in awe that, for the same effort and distance that we used to apply back in South Africa to enjoy a weekend away to say, Bloemfontein (for something special, I must admit such as the England vs Germany 2010 Worldcup soccer game) I can now see Paris, Berlin, Prague, Munich or Amsterdam.

Heleen found us a ‘fancy apartment on the Boulevard St Michel’, as well as pre-booked entry to the Eiffel Tower and tickets for the pre-season game between Paris Saint Germain and Barcelona at the Parc des Princess. Just the return to Parc des Princes after our previous visit in 1994 was a lovely sentimental experience, though that day it was 5 Nations rugby and the Irish being hammered.

Parc des Princes, line-up before kick-off

This time around it was soccer, summer and most of the great names of Barça graced the pitch, as well PSG’s newly signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Attending sports events in Europe poses great new insights into how perceptions may often skew reality. The Parisians showed great ‘gees’ (South Africanism meaning ‘spirit’) with plenty of interactive singing and chanting between the two stands at opposite ends of the pitch, as well as great supporting song. However, I can proudly state that Europe is still miles behind South Africa as far as no-smoking rules and non-smoking courtesy goes and though these guys often have reason to ‘look down’ on Africa, this is definitely one instance where they can learn a lot from Africa.

‘When you go on your summer vacation’

Paris in high summer is bustling and queues at the major tourist venues are obviously intimidating. With a little bit of homework and the Internet, one can pre-book entry to the Eiffel Tower for a specific timeslot and this we did. Amongst the irritated looks from the people standing in the standard queues taking the shortcut entry initially poised a slight feeling of moving ‘in high places’ until the ‘high places’ struck me straight in the guts.

Looking up isn’t half as scary as looking down

I’m afraid of heights! I had to bail out on level 2, 115m into the air while the brave three of my family headed all the way up to level 3, 274m from the ground level. I think I’ll attempt Level 3 in the winter, as the tower shrinks 15 cm in winter! I used the opportunity to take my eyes off the height by focusing them through the camera lens with satisfactory results, as well as into a strong Café au Lait to sooth the nerves.

Did you know that there are 2,500,000 rivets in the Eiffel Tower, its 320m high, weighs 7,000 tons and has 1710 steps. It was designed by Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923), a French engineer and was completed in 1889 for the Paris world exhibition. It was built in two years by 132 workers and 50 engineers and was sold twice for scrap by a con-artist in 1925. When it was completed in 1889, it was the tallest building in the world.

The view from Level 2 towards the Trocadero
And the view to the other side

The other notorious Paris queue is that of the Louvre, but for the informed there are short cuts as well. While most people flock to the famous and controversial glass pyramid main entrance, there are no-queue-at-all side entries as well. I know, not being an art fundi, that the idea of visiting an art museum can seem to be a waste of people-watching-while-having-a-glass-of-wine-time, especially if it means crowds of other people will compete for space. However, I have found that there is great personal satisfaction in wondering the corridors of renowned museums such as the Louvre, staring down the works of greats such as Raphael, da Vinci and many others and simply lose yourself in the paint brush strokes or perfect chiseled sculptures which are obviously in abundance.

 

One should never become blasé about traveling and should tick those mainstream tourist destinations when they’re on your doorstep. It should be just as an important item on your bucket list as those exotic, adventurous, far-away-from-mainstream items we all seem to pursue

A view from the Louvre towards Eiffel

 

‘with your carefully designed topless swimsuit’

Europeans love the sun.

Beach scene on the Rover Seine

The banks of the Seine in summer is a very popular venue for leisurely sitting around and enjoying the sun, to such an extreme extent that they have actually established a beach, complete with sand, deck chairs and a beach bar, on the concrete river bank. Having grown up in Durban, with its many sandy beaches, these man-made beaches in Europe at first seemed very sad and pathetic to me, but having experienced the weather and city living in Europe for nearly 10 months, I start to understand the method in the madness.

Enjoying the sun in Jardin de Luxembourg

 

‘I want to look inside your head, yes I do’

Knight Ulrich von Becks, our wirehaired dachshund is rapidly becoming a very well traveled dog with cities such as Amsterdam, Berlin, Munich and Firenze already behind his name.

Becks at the Notre Dame des Paris

He accompanied us to Paris this weekend and though Quasimodo was not at home when we visited the Notre Dame, Becks did enjoy many of the other sites and eateries. Traveling with dogs is fairly common in Europe and restaurants have no problem at all to allow dogs; most even have permanent water bowls for the four-legged customers. Where South Africa is one up on Europe as far as non-smoking goes, this certainly is an area where Europe is miles ahead. I must admit that I have on more than one occasion wished that I could read Becks’ mind while we drag him along on a river cruise, cathedral or into another street café.

 

 

‘and you sip your Napoleon brandy’

I have often referred to eating as part of the travel experience. I remember ‘where we came from’ when we were younger and travel was just much less affordable than now, 20 years down the line.

Fondue Bourguignonne and Fondaue Savoyarde

In those days we use to live mostly on picnic dining in parks with baguettes and take away beer, while saving up for that one treat of sitting down for a ‘plat de jour’. We are not really into the Napoleon brandy style when traveling, as café dining and local wine in my mind makes up a large portion of the explore component of travel. I do enjoy the ‘plat de jour’ (menu of the day) concept as these mostly include home cooked style dishes such as stews of which I am a huge fan. On Friday evening we found a stunning little French restaurant specializing in fondues in Rue Gregoire de Tours where we shared the Fondue Bourguignonne (meat) and Fondue Savoyarde (cheese) while Heleen preferred the lamb ‘côtelettes’ in the company of the delightful Greek lady restaurateur who shared her lovely and hugely amusing animated views on topics from European politics and economy to German impersonation with us.

‘and remember just who you are’

And then its Sunday, the weekend is rushing to its end and we need to start thinking of returning home. It will be a week at home before our summer vacation arrives. A summer vacation of two weeks driving down to Spain’s northern areas with focus on inviting names such as Cantabria, The Asturias, La Rioja, Basque Country, Navarre, Cataluña and Aragon. We need the week to fresh out for the next travel leg of the kids’ summer extended break.

To kick-start the day