So, we had been intending to visit the Strasbourg area since we got to France. Strasbourg is in the region north of Franche Comté. The region, called Alsace, is quite near the German border. In fact, during the various wars, this land has often changed hands between either Germany or France.
The reason we had not gone, as of yet, was that Olivier grew up quite near Strasbourg and had been promising to take us and ‘show us around’. (To all of you who have forgotten, Olivier is André’s boss and the only reason we survived our entry into French life). Well, the opportunity to have him and his family escort us arrived last weekend. It was strange because I am always the travel agent for our little adventures. This summer, while in the US, I was riding in the car with someone (who shall rename nameless to avoid possible lawsuit) who asked what I do with some of my free time. Of course there was a laundry list of items, but, when I mentioned the extensive amount of time I spent researching the best deals and things to do for our next fabulous vacation, a bit of hostility was forthcoming. “Do you know how that sounds??? You spend your time researching vacations!!!” Well, not all of it, not by a long shot – but yeah, quite a bit. This is a huge part of the reason we came to Europe. And you did ask what I do.
But this time, I was going to be following Olivier around. We did decide to stay an extra day, since we would be in the area, and visit Germany for the first time. I had to plan for that, and find an affordable place to sleep on Saturday and Sunday night, and plan our weekend menu, cooking ahead of time to save on food costs and pack for 5 people for 3 days – but in all, no biggie. It was bliss to be able to just get in the car and follow someone. André and I have had quite a few arguments over how to get to places (although now, after so many months of it, we have been maturing rapidly and hardly ever scream any longer) and it was wonderful to follow someone – even when that someone led us down a dead end street where we had to turn around. Who cares? It wasn’t my mistake that put us there – nor our bad driving!
We left early Saturday morning and got to our first stop, Colmar, by around 10:30 or so. Colmar is an ancient city, founded in the 9th century and has quite a storied past, none of which I knew about since I hadn’t done any research. But now, I am looking and find out (thanks as usual to wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colmar) that it was part of Sweden (1632), France (1634-1871), Germany (1871-1920), France (1920-1940), Germany (1940-1945) and finally, France again (1945-current)… How confusing!
It is the driest city in all of France and is considered the capital of the wine region. The Colmar Treasure, hidden during the Black Death, was discovered here in 1863. This tidbit was too intriguing to pass up so I investigated and it turns out that the Jewish people have quite a history in this region of the world…. They have been in the Alsace region since 1000 AD and, unfortunately, were persecuted for much of this time. During the early years of settlement, they prospered and were referred to as learned men in documents. Then, during the 1300’s, the plague came. As Black Death was sweeping Europe, Alsatian Jews were accused of poisoning the walls of the town with the plague and, in 1349, a pogrom was carried out in the area that killed over 1000 of them. They were, henceforth, forbidden to live in the cities and many of them moved away to smaller towns. During this time, Jewish leaders hid a treasure trove of items in Colmar – it was not rediscovered until 1863 and it included this gorgeous wedding ring (thanks to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colmar_Treasure). According to the website, Jewish law at the time required rings to be made only of gold – with no gemstones. I have quite a few married Jewish friends but I never looked closely at their wedding or engagement rings. Does this hold true in some Jewish communities now? Are diamond engagement rings not popular in Jewish culture?
Anyway, back to Colmar - when we went, we parked and first off hit this wonderful sewer grate. I don’t know what it is about kids and grates, but Arnaud and Claire were also fascinated by the grate concept, so I know it’s not just my brood. Then it was over to play around in the spraying water fountain – of course, André started the shenanigans by running through the center at a point when the jets were low. All the kids loved it – except Griffin – he wasn’t going to go anywhere near it.
We wandered through the charming streets and entered the Eglise des Dominicans. This was one of those annoying churches we had to pay to enter. I am always peeved by this. Usually the fee is low, but still – don’t they want as many people as possible to step through the doors, be inspired, and instantly want to convert? This one also had a prohibition against taking any photos. Probably all this fuss was due to the fact that the most famous painting of Martin Schongauer, ‘Virgin in a Rose Garden’ is located in this church. It was a beautiful painting, of course, but I don’t think I’ll ever be an art critic. No clue whatsoever as to why this depiction of the Virgin Mary with the Christ child is ever so much better than the 3,462 other ones I’ve seen in churches. Yes, it was displayed more prominently, and was surrounded by an elaborate gold triptych, but so what?
We continued onward through the streets. The streets of Colmar were mostly filled with pedestrians and the old buildings often had great wrought iron signs hanging from them. I LOVED this one for the butcher – notice how the girl is walking her pig and check out the hot-dog link sides! Then we reached the main cathedral, Eglise Saint Martin. It was beautiful, as usual. The soaring walls were pretty much unadorned and the stained glass windows were crossing over both sides and on 2 levels. It is so difficult to get a good shot in the churches. Usually I am the photographer, but I don’t have patience for shots with tricky lighting etc…. When we walk in the cathedrals, I usually hand the camera over to André! I did take all these shots, however, so that’s why they are a bit dark! The golden thing (icon???) photographed left, was funny only because, for some reason, the artist decided to depict the baby Jesus in a non typical way. Usually, he is sitting on the lap of his mother, or in a manger, looking sleepy and wearing a halo. In this one, he is standing, naked amid his adoring followers and, for some reason, looks like he is doing what the kids would call a ‘funky dance’. Think – walk like an Egyptian… His face even had that flat non committal cool expression you have on when you are showing off your best moves. It was hilarious. It made me want to dance, just like Jesus. Then, as we were leaving the church, I saw this little sculpture in the doorway. It was in a prominent place and pretty low, so I was able to get a decent shot of it. Why, I wondered, was that guy licking that animal? Well, the things I discover when I blog never cease to amaze me! As I was researching Colmar, I noticed a very similar photo on the webpage I was looking at. Turns out, it wasn’t just similar, it was the same sculpture! This, folks, is one of France’s best examples of Judensau (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judensau) or Jew’s sow. The Torah forbids Jews to eat pork, so the depiction of Jews in derogatory or often obscene and sexual positions with a pig was a popular way, for over 600 years, to spread anti-Semitic propaganda. And it’s right on the church wall – right over the door when you walk in! You have to just feel sick thinking about it. Love your neighbor as yourself, unless he is a dirty Jew, of course.
Well, we wandered a bit more through the town seeing lots of typical timber framed houses. The place was packed with tourists, though I didn’t see any other English speakers. Tour guide Olivier told us that the reason that many of the houses were cantilevered out over the street for the second story was that they only charged taxes on the square footqge of the ground floor. People could expand their living area and not have to pay any extra money! We also wandered by a wonderful little Mannekan Piss statue. I’m not sure if that’s what you call it when it is located outside of Brussels, but it was definitely a peeing little boy. The kids thought it was great and spent several minutes daring each other to drink the ‘water’. I guess the city founders weren’t taking any chances since the ‘Eau non-potable’ sign was prominently displayed. This is actually quite unusual. In my experience, you can drink from these public fountains a good proportion of the time.
Before leaving, we passed the court house and the yummy looking macaroon shop. It is still not even noon and all my kids are already whining for lunch. We reach the car and I break out the family-sized bag of Carambar (yummy French candies, kind of like starburst). It is enough to tide them over as we drive on, down the Alsatian wine route, through the Vosges mountains and past the lovely village of Riquewihr. Driving along the wine route is quite an experience. It is hard to imagine that so much wine can possibly be imbibed! As far as the eye can see, covering the mountains, with no farmhouses to interrupt, are acres and acres of grapevines (interrupted only by the occasional roadside shrine, as you can see).
Within about half an hour, we made it to Ribeauville. Entering the village we are excited to see this is one of the official ‘most beautiful villages’ in France. Baume les Messieurs, one of our favorite places from an earlier adventure, was also a ‘most beautiful village’ so I was psyched. It is a walled city, history dating back to 700 AD and also has a nice Jewish back story – turns out there weren’t any Jews there, until 1321. In that year Louis IV., Emperor of Germany, transferred the Jews of Rappoltsweiler to the Sieur de Ribeaupierre as surety for a loan of 400 silver marks
(http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=115&letter=R#ixzz0SmmElWL5) Imagine, people being transferred as collateral! Later, they were all wiped out with pograms and plague and today the Jewish community there is still pretty small.
We really enjoyed wandering around this city, best part for the kids being when we stopped to eat our picnic lunch. Below you can see them running around the little area we were hanging out in. They looked at rainbows, ran around and played follow the leader. It was really nice for them to have other kids to play with – they get bored of all our adventures just being with their siblings!
After lunch we passed by this old fashioned carriage and some wine making equipment. There was an overpowering squashed grape smell in the streets of the town that was not that unpleasant. It is a pretty interesting feature of towns in France – you have the main streets with restaurants, churches, museums etc… and, squished right along side are the wine making factories. So, you are wandering along a cobblestone street and a tractor loaded with grapes drives right on through. The machine at right, squashes up all the grapes and then the stems and skins get spit out into a giant dumpster via the conveyer belt. You could buy lots of types of wine on the street and ‘new’ wine was only a few euros a bottle. But, uncultured person that I am, I was far more interested in the pretzel stands scattered about the streets. Even though we had just eaten lunch, we bought a couple to share. They tasted pretty much exactly like a good Philly pretzel – except where was the mustard??? We wandered on through the streets of the town, passing more beautiful timbered houses. One thing I particularly loved about this entire region of France was how colorful the houses were. In Besancon, all the houses are the same dull beige or white or stone color. Here we saw blue and purple and orange and red and white and green painted houses, both modern and traditional. I loved it! It reminded me a bit of the Rainbow Cabins. These were summer rental cabins they had near the Weiss Ecology Center where I learned to swim. I always loved going past them – the purple one was my favorite. In later years, when I was a teen, they painted them all over a dull beige. I remember crying when I first saw it….and feeling comforted that they had missed one small back corner of the purple cabin. I would seek out that spot with my eyes every time I was forced to walk by the boring beigitude.
We got a bit lost after this but the kids were totally happy running around and it was fun to wander the streets and happen upon old wells filled with flowers and an archway featuring some crazily scripted number – is this 1728??? Finally we ended up at one of the city gates. On the interior this lead to a lovely place with clocktower, shown left, but as you walked out of the town it clearly became a defensive barrier. It is quite amazing to me that so many of the towns around here were once walled cities. Ribeauville is unique simply because it hasn’t torn its wall down! Imagine living somewhere that was so unsafe, everyone needed to be locked inside. Oh…. I guess that’s kind of what really rich people do in gated communities, isn’t it? Maybe they are trying to get back to the good ole days… The kids had a terrific time pretending to guard the castle gate. It was a great old example, complete with drawbridge, portcullis and murder hole above the entryway…. It is great to watch the kids have so much fun with their imaginations. It is hard to balance sometimes, the needs of the kids with our needs. We want them to play and have fun - but after 10-15 minutes of pretending to dramatically die since I was fatally shot, I get bored. (OK, more like after 2 minutes) Plus, the kids sometimes don’t know when to quit. They get too loud and rambunctious, or start tossing real rocks down embankments where tourists are wandering below and we just need to get them to stop, somehow, without being a killjoy. Ah, the challenge of parenting…. We managed to exit the area, promising a castle up ahead. This promise worked better in the early days of our blunderful adventures. Now it’s not enough to say castle – been there, done that, say our jaded trio. It’s a really cool one, kids, I promise! On the way out of Ribeauville we saw some ruins of another castle. Turns out that Ribeauville is nearby the ruins of 3 castles, Ulrichsburg, Girsberg and Hohrappoltstein which were once owned by the lords of the town. Another interesting tidbit about the area,is that it has a long history of protecting the wandering musicians and minstrels of France. Of course, they had to pay a fee for their protection, but still, it was a safe place for them to hang out. Apparently, every 8th of May, modern wandering musicians (these exist?) gather here for a festival to honor their ancient sponsors. Too bad the Jews didn’t pay for protection… But wait! Actually they did, it says (same source as above) that after the 13th century massacres and decrees of banishment… “toward the middle of the seventeenth century they were again allowed to settle in Rappoltsweiler, under the condition that each of the first ten settlers should pay a yearly protection tax of 20 florins, while those that came later should pay,besides the yearly tax, 200 livres for admission.” Hmm…. guess they paid a tax just to exist, no protection stuff included. And hey, as long as we are being curious, why did minstrels need protection??? Everybody loves a minstrel, right?
The last stop of the day was the Castle Haut Koenigsburg (or High King’s Castle), which, you will be thankful to hear, has absolutely no Jewish history (that I know of – thanks for things I do blab about goes to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ch%C3%A2teau_du_Haut-K%C5%93nigsbourg). This is the most magnificently preserved castle we have been able to see. It is absolutely immense and was completely restored (by the Germans – Emperor Wilhelm II, if you must know) in 1900 –and maintained since then. Look at the before and after shot, at left. The thing had been around since the 11th century and they wanted to bring it back to glory. The before shots really remind us of our local treasure, Mont Faucon. Now, after World War II, Haut Koenigsburg belongs to France. I must say all this switching back and forth must be a pain in the butt. Can you imagine, being born German, and then, at age 30 or so, being told you are suddenly French? And hey, how much does it suck that the Germans put all this time, and money and effort into rebuilding this castle, and who is ending up with all those tourist dollars? France, that’s who. I mean, it just doesn’t seem right. And how did they deal with things like schools? Did they tell all the German teachers to suddenly start teaching in French? What if they didn’t speak French?
But, as usual, I digress – back to the castle. The whole thing is built from the rough red sandstone of the Vosges mountains – in this way it reminded me of Belfort and it just goes on and on and on. Within the walls there is a windmill, animal farm and storage rooms with wine, wheat, and other groceries essential for the life of an entire community, living within the walls. Movie buffs might like to know that The Grand Illusion (John Renoir) was partially filmed here. The handiwork in the place was my favorite part. Here are some examples of wrought iron work, functional (GIANT wine barrel) and fancy woodwork, furniture, metal work (on a cannon) and even a tile gryphon (can never pass up a chance for a good photo of a gryphon). I read that they found bits and pieces of smashed tile, twisted metal etc… and had to recreate the rest using artisans. Can you imagine?
And then there was this flying dragon….. It was just poised over the dining table in one of the rooms. I’m not sure what the deal was – there was no sign with it. Is it a modern art installation or did they have some record of a stuffed dragon hanging in this room and tried to oblige? The kids had a great time here – they loved exploring around and especially enjoyed, once again, the chance to pretend to shoot everyone and everything. With so much weaponry around, and moats to cross, who could resist? Olivier told us something cool about the cannons – but I forget what it was. The day, though a nice temperature, was a bit hazy. The castle is perched on one of the strategically placed highest peaks of the Vosges mountains, and offers a spectacular view of the Alsace valley, a view that reaches all the way to the Rhine River which now separates France from Germany…. We were most excited to finally catch a glimpse of the Black Forest – one of the things we had really been looking forward to seeing. It seems vast and glorious – can’t wait to check it out!
We finally managed to dissuade the kids from killing each other and, of course, they switched to a new game, which involved all of them pretending to be dogs and crawling on the floor. Obviously, it was time to leave the venue. We escaped out of one of the many giant doors, that also, as you can see, had a smaller door within it, for, I would think, more every day use. We did stop for a few minutes in the medieval garden where the kids played around and Olivier told us all about this really awesome gourd. It is called the Courge Bouteille and it was grown and harvested during medieval times, for use as a water bottle. It even had the ability, by sweating very slightly, to keep drinks cold all day long. I want one! We said goodbye to the castle wandering back towards the car. I was amused by this sign, right, as we headed away from the gift shop. (FYI – we never enter these) It seems they want us to know they take dollars, francs and deutschmarks…. too bad no Euros! When we got back to the car I was shocked to realize it was only 5pm. This was like, the day that never ended, folks. We hopped in the car and headed towards Schnerschiem, where we would be sleeping for the next two days. It is in a suburb of Strasbourg and only about 10km from Marlenheim, the suburb where Olivier grew up. After a successful drop off, we got back in the car and headed for Marlenheim. We planned to go out to dinner with Olivier and his family. Since nothing in France opens until 7pm, we ended up waiting in Marlenheim for about half an hour. While we were there Olivier showed me his parents’ heating system. It looks like a regular heater, but it is powered by sawdust, molded into pellets – amazing. Also, they have tubes of water on their roof, to be heated, and don’t even need to pay for hot water for 60% of the year. We need to catch up on this stuff people!
It ended up being 13 people for a dinner of tarte flambée. This is a traditional dish famous in Alsace. I had no idea what to expect, but I guess, I thought (for who knows what reason) it would be some sort of flaming calzone…. instead – I can call it nothing more than a strange pizza. It is a very thin crust, made in a wood fired oven and cooks completely in only one or two minutes. On the crust they layer creme fraiche, bacon and onions (traditionally). We started out with this kind, and moved on to other variations. All of them had the same base (creme fraiche and bacon) but then we could have fried onions, or munster cheese on top, or blue cheese or chevre etc…. Zander said, “Why do we keeping on having the same thing?” Guess the subtle difference between fried and unfried onions is lost on an 8 year old. At then end, we tried the sweet ones – blueberry (pictured) and apple. The apple had booze poured on it and then it was lit. Finally – something flaming! It was really great to be able to try something local with locals.
As usual, being in a large group of French speakers was a bit of a challenge for me. It is always exhausting to try to understand and to be understood in a large group – but this time I had the addition of a very, very full day we had already spent touring. Keeping the kids (and myself) from meltdown was hard all on its own. It’s funny how this type of situation has changed for me. I used to just repeat to myself, I’m a chair, I’m a chair, in these situations, so that I could just float along unconcernedly. It was sort of easy to be a chair when everyone around you was babbling gobbledygook (yes, that is a word, it is even on spell check!). Now, unfortunately, French is not gobbledygook to me. I understand it, and I can even usually understand what they are asking André and what he is saying in return to their questions. The problem is, I don’t always agree with what he is saying – but I have NO ability to correct him or put in my own opinion. I end up thinking: “Oh no, now they think that’s what I think about that!” Definitely not chair like behavior and I end up upset.
After dinner, we headed back to Schnerscheim for bed. I think it took me as long to write this blog as it did to actually visit these towns, but I am learning a lot. I really am. I am a total fountain of useless knowledge, people. Two more days to go….