France

DestinationsEuropeFranceWestern Europe

Debauched in the Alsatian vineyards

IMG_0916

The bloody fickle internet connection is perhaps the only failing of Chez Leslie – a quiet pension on a residential street off Colmar’s train station – since we’ve arrived 4 days ago. I’ve been relegated to sitting by the door in a lonesome chair like a errant child being punished just to get 1 small bar of connection. There’s even Fluffy, the house cat for occasional entertainment. Beyond that, Colmar has thus far, defied all expectations.

IMG_0788

IMG_0764

Visiting Alsace is like getting an insider’s tip to travelling in France; there are many Europeans here (most are German it seems, and even more from the other parts of France) and I’ve hardly seen anyone with a face resembling mine. Perhaps the unfair complaint that I have is the lack of the sun-dappled fields which have so ensnared me in the brochure in last year’s wine fair, which is in any case, unfounded because I’m here in winter where vines are brown, twiggy and skies are perpetually grey and foggy. But coming into this narrow strip of Northeastern France is nevertheless, like a step back into autumn’s red hues after Iceland’s brutal winter.

We plonked ourselves in Colmar for the next 3 days, a village with a brilliantly medieval core built within a canal system that gives it the name “Petite Venice” – just as many tight-knit villages along La Route des Vins typically are – minus the canals.

After a brief embarrassing incident along Champs du Mars involving TC’s failed attempt on a bike on our first day, we abandoned the thought of visiting Eguisheim and settled for a tamer stroll around the old city centre. Little did we realise that every meal turns into the stuff feasts are made of not just due to the constant presence of the wines (the signature Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Muscat and Pinot Gris/Blanc varieties that made TC run mad) but also the portions of the Alsatian specialties that are roll-out-of-the-country-worthy.

IMG_0889

IMG_0923

We made quick visits to the cute town of Ribeauvillé on line 106 and hiked 5km along bicycle trails through the wines and forests to pretty Riquewihr after a Munster Tarte Flambée and some Onion soup. Passing several aged people slowly making their way down the meandering slope en route like they’ve been doing it all their lives, I wondered how just much these people had just seen or experienced since Alsace had been a highly volatile space in the World Wars.

Kaysersberg was next on the list on Line 145 and like most medieval clusters in this entire stretch of the Haut-Rhin, is just as picturesque and surrounded by miles of hilly vineyards as far as the eye can see. It was, all things considered, incredibly interesting to see how often the tiny towns in Alsace had changed hands over millennia and this is reflected in the hybrid language (and parts still read like Middle German), the hybrid cuisine and quite possibly the hybrid behaviour of its inhabitants.

IMG_0953

IMG_0979

Christmas markets abound and they are the draw for most tourists from around the region, but seeing any more of those just now might perhaps be a case of familiarity breeding contempt. But as those storekeepers hawk their wares on the heavily -lit streets, for some strange reason, my mind constantly drifts back to the lit-stillness of Reykjavik; I see on that gentle uphill road the path to the foreboding tip of Reykjavik Hallsgrimkirkja, the empty streets and the constant companion that’s snow and ice.

read more
DestinationsEuropeFranceWestern Europe

La Petite France

IMG_0728

It seems everyone is captivated by Paris, but I’d fancy a more romantic notion of Strasbourg as a miniature model of France, even though the actual Petite France occupies merely a corner of the old city.

Sitting at the German border and several miles west of the Rhine, metropolitan Strasbourg hums with activity always, combining the whimsical nature of the French and the precision timing of Germany – even the trams glide smoothly on every couple of minutes! Accommodation is near impossible to get when the European Parliament is in session, but even all the more so when an influx of European tourists (many predictably hail from the right side of the border) descend on the alarming clusters of Christmas stands.

IMG_0700

IMG_0596

We started the day as late as we could – a hard-won luxury so we rationalised after the gruelling week – and wandered into the Old Town after breakfast with no fixed itinerary but to seize the only day that we had in this place. Strong afternoon sunlight burned through the early morning fog, and it made me happy for no other reason than the pictures would turn out nicer.

IMG_0680

IMG_0716

In the end, we trawled through routes and tram stations multiple times, walked along the river to Petite France (a popular corner of  river is divided into a number of canals, and rushes through a small area of half-timbered houses), ate unhealthy food, marvelled at the grand Notre Dame de Strasbourg, took lots of pictures in the wrong places, and embarrassed ourselves mightily at high-end stores. It’s probably what we’ll be doing for the rest of the trip in French-speaking regions and we did did until the sun went down and  the partying began.

IMG_0723

Strasbourg’s streets serve up quite the potent mix of the old and new, but only after sunset did the illumination of the Christmas lights and decorations bathe the paths from Place Broglie to Place Kléber in hues of blues, reds and golds. But even TC’s deflating words (“it’s just cheap lighting!”) weren’t quite enough to spoil the fun.

read more
DestinationsEuropeFranceIcelandScandinaviaWestern Europe

From the Blue Lagoon to the Alsatian flats

IMG_0525

A 12-hour journey that began at 4am in the morning in Grindavik, Iceland’s Blue Lagoon clinic ended on a whimper (literally) in Strasbourg, a city sitting at the edge of the German border, tiring enough to erase a near-perfect day yesterday spent in the Blue Lagoon and soaking up the silica mud.

We joined busloads of tourists for the 45-minute shuttle from Reykjavik, driving to snow-covered lava moss with the distinct advantage of staying over at the clinic for a night – which simply meant we got free entrance into the Lagoon and more time to dally. Situated 5-10 minutes walk down a winding path from the actual building through flammable (!) moss-covered lava fields, it was quite the adventure trudging through the snow when it turned dark.

Set up so that the changing rooms lead out directly into the lagoon, it proved quite a shock to see women of all ages, sizes and various states of hairiness starkers, as nonchalantly as the day they were born, sauntering, squatting, towelling and gossiping simultaneously. TC and I exchanged our experiences and found that pretty much the same happened in the men’s dressing area.

IMG_0530

IMG_0542

I couldn’t help my personal hedonistic streak from surfacing when bathing in Iceland’s sub-Arctic location; its unusual contrast of glaciers and constant volcanic activity meant that we were dipping into geothermally heated water tinted a milky Curaçao blue because of the silica mud – the very same mud that you can dredge up with your foot from the uneven ground and apply onto the face! As the perpetual misty swirls arose from the lagoon, it was like descending a few steps into a cheery, bluish, mild-climate version of Valhalla – only littered with chattering tourists holding up glasses of beer while they waddled slowly around. If that was hell, it had never felt or tasted so good. In that steamy, atmospheric pool, I held up TC’s more portable camera instead, and wandered around with a hand out of the water the entire time clutching it like a trophy.

IMG_0543

That very good thing came to an abrupt end when we needed to depart Iceland in an early morning flight but I had truly underestimated just how tiring the entire day would turn out. TC was suitably impressed by the beauty of the city but I found my own command of French entirely too new and too shaky to make a proper impression (or even getting the locals to understand). It was pure torture navigating our way in the deepening dusk to Les Artistes – our accommodation in the quiet residential area of Elsau in Strasbourg. Dinner at Hippopotamus was an equally stilted affair but hilarious to see snooty french waiters living up to their reputation.

read more
DestinationsEuropeFranceGermanyIcelandItineraryPlanningScandinaviaSwitzerlandWestern Europe

Exhausting defiance

plan

My travel planning process typically runs across 2 veins: juggling foreign, captivating landscapes from which the instinctive need to explore arises (the heady rush is really quite intoxicating) and the harsh reality of cost-cutting after realising that the reckless planning is potentially busting the humble budget.

It’s a common sensibility that probably fits me squarely into the peg called “budget travel” but the penchant for seeking out strange itineraries such as this upcoming one that crosses that oh-so-fine line into “luxury travel”. I’m also quite certain that the travel companion (TC) – who had initially agreed rather enthusiastically to another jaunt in Europe after my sales pitch – is regretting just how much it is going to cost, as I am too.

wzf

route_vins

So far, it looks like this: Frankfurt – Iceland – Frankfurt – Strasbourg – Colmar – Freiburg – Basel (maybe) – Luzern – Berner Oberland – Montreux/Lausanne/Geneva. Essentially, a flight out to the near-Arctic, back into the Alsace Bas-Rhin region to explore the “La Route du Vins”, followed by a small dip into Germany’s Black Forest and then onto an ambitious alpine route across Switzerland.

switzerland-admin-map1

To be accomplished within 2.5 weeks, I’m anticipating that it’ll be quite a trek.

Working out the itinerary across 4 countries is admittedly daunting, but throw the accommodation and the transportation into the mix, and the sheer number of variables capped by a price ceiling is overwhelming; it leads nowhere except a melodramatic soap-opera that ends with TC’s dystopic vision of eating street food costing only a meagre $2 for the next few months to compensate for the massive drain we’re about to incur.

But witness the craziness of this plan, and then consider the nicely packaged tours that are dime-by-a dozen; I’d insist on the former anytime.

read more
DestinationsEuropeFranceThe NetherlandsWestern Europe

An accidental Tourist in Amsterdam

DSCN1530

I missed the flight back back because of a delay in the Paris airport having something to do with radar failure that caused all planes departing CDG Paris to be delayed by 2 hours.

Incompetent fools.

I reached Amsterdam cursing and swearing hard after seeing the word ‘departed’ for my flight status – more infuriatingly so, the KLM/Air France service desk refused any more help other than rebooking the flight back home 24 hours later, stating baldly that it was the fault of the Paris Airport and not theirs. Realised that there were 3 other people (unfortunately French) who also missed the same plane, and like unwilling stragglers who needed to bond quick, we now had to move ‘as a herd’ with the language barrier. Everything had to be on our expenses including transport, hotel bills, and meals – and nearly cash-poor, we wondered what to do for long moments.

The service desk sent us on our way with an excuse for a care package that contained everything but shampoo and soap. At the last moment, we got a measly 10 Euro for airport meals. I wonder how they deal with the constant stream irate passengers (and there were many who missed their flights because of the Paris delay) who insist they ought to do more.

We ended up at Hotel Barbacan that looked forbidding in the night when we arrived; the creaky stairways and isolated rooms are atmospheric enough to force re-play scenes of zombie/slasher B-grade movies.

DSCN1545

DSCN1535

The morning dawned bright yet dreary – it is drizzling as I type and I’m about ready to check out with the bulky things in my backpack.The only positive bit of the flight delay had been the chance to catch Amsterdam yet again for a day and it is as pretty (and liberal) as I remembered.

But bathed but in dirty clothes and looking like a barbarian, I truly look the part of the vagabond.

read more
DestinationsEuropeFranceWestern Europe

Paris Revisited

DSCN1474

The ticks on my list indicate that all that I think are necessary sights have been ‘covered’; it is naturally the most artificial (not to mention superficial) of lists a visitor of a place can make.

At every turn, there are tourists; nearly everyone gets caught up in everything French. Even the Americans attempt to say Bonjour, Bonsoir and Merci reasonably well before lapsing into the familiar curled r’s.

The city spirals out in a roughly circular fashion, and I walk for a long time, only to get the Eiffel tower back in view again after crossing one of the numerous bridges. The sunny day makes the scene more inviting; I take out my camera, snap, and grunt in frustration that the pictures I take will never resemble the postcards.

The steamier side of Paris materialises in the infamous Montmartre/Place de Clichy area, a street on which I admittedly passed through on purpose after climbing up to gawk at the Sacre-Coeur. At 7 pm in the summer, the area is crowded with panting tourists, street performers and immigrants. Prettily known as the painter’s hill of Paris, Montmartre was a buzzing hive artists and other bohemian activity at the turn of the century but has since degenerated into an area for seedier activities – even bohemian living and irrational French sensibilities had to bow low to rising cost.

Today, the only paintbrushes I see belong to painters who work solely for the tourist trade.

DSCN1485

DSCN1461

I walked halfway across the city from the Latin Quartier to the Bois de Boulogne, crossed several bridges, passed the various neighbourhoods and was accosted in the middle of the road by an middle-aged Parisian who spoke little English and said many things to me in French at the roadside.

He tried to wish me a good time in Paris and offered me to show me around (I declined politely with a bit of alarm), though I suspect that was not all that he actually mouthed in French.

Many times I thank God that the bookshops carry only French books – they prevent me from spending time and a lot of money in them as I had done in London.

Parisian fashion that has been celebrated as haute couture for so long remains alas, inaccessible for the working class. Street fashion however, is now no different from the rest of the fashion that exists circumscribed in Europe; translating runway fashion to streetwear however has resulted in the mass production of cloyness rather than class. I am amazed that women with walking aids, still shop in them nonetheless.

The last full day in Paris is for last minute shopping, circling the main streets one last time, and cheese-buying. My limited French becomes embarrassingly obvious when I wish the cashier Bonjour instead of Au Revoir when paying. She looks at me pointedly, and tosses a curt Au Revoir before turning to the next customer in line.

I return with legs like jelly after a rather distasteful time in spent in the Metro, and not long after, a demonstration complete with French flags and some weird costumes happens along the Rue des Carmes where I am staying, and everyone, including me, rushes for the camera.

The photo is taken, and then I turn to an effeminate young man slouched on the side of the street watching the activity with a bemused air.

“Oh…it’s just a show, not for real,” he smirks gaily in a rather high-pitched voice. “They all pretend to hate Sarkozy, and the strike is…well…I don’t know, just not real.”

DSCN1517

The crowd that is part of the strike, plays to the media, and shouts even louder as they amble downhill. Loud voices now float up to my window; some passionate argument is taking place outside.

The famous idiosyncrasies to which the world universally responds is of course, probably one of the few shared understandings around, only known as a harrumph with a roll of the eyes that sounds suspiciously like – “Ah, the French”.

read more
DestinationsEuropeFranceWestern Europe

Going Au Naturale

DSCN1371

My place on the TGV to Nantes is next to a French lady who teaches English to high school students, and we abruptly fall into conversation after I stutter a nervous “Anglais?” while stumbling into the seat.

The 2 hours fly by La Loire en route to Angers St. laud and Nantes; soon enough we arrive in Nantes with a neck ache acquired from the awkward chatting position on the train.

The French lady helpfully translates the conversation that is going around us – a man a few seats in front speaks loudly on his mobile, predicting wrongly that we would arrive early; a woman travels for the first time in great astonishment at her well-behaved terrier; a group of suit-donning executives discuss animatedly the difficulty of ironing shirts.

It is good to know that the French can be as comfortingly nonsensical as mere mortals.

For the longest time, I was under the impression that Nantes was my last stop in France, and Stephanie had been rather vague about where she and her family actually stayed. I have 2 hours in Nantes, and take off for the town centre after hurriedly stuffing my all unnecessaries in the train station lockers.

The Familie Guery meets me at the Gare SNCF in Nantes, but only a family member speaks English. The rest is communicated through primitive gestures and single words that rival the vocabulary of toddlers.

Only half knowing what the actual itinerary was, I sit in the back seat while we race past vineyard after vineyard, and end up for a short while in the Clisson Valley that sits on the edge of the Loire-Atlantique, Vendee and Anjou regions. The medieval village itself is architecturally mimetic of Italian and Britannic styles, and celebrates its 600th anniversary this year; it would have been a stronger tourist magnet if not for its relative inaccessibility.

DSCN1366

The Clisson Valley disappears behind us as we take to the road again, this time to their home in a village that is not even found on the map. Under today’s azure sky (read: hot weather), I realise that the French countryside experience is authenticated not by the number of rolling hills and haystacks but by the impassable language barrier.

DSCN1376

In the village of Jallais (approximately 45 minutes drive from Nantes, so small that it is unmapped) where virtually no English is spoken, lives the Familie Guery on the narrow Rue du Grand Pre, my hosts for today and tomorrow. The family is at present, experiencing a flurry of activity: Stephanie has taken ill for a while and stays with her parents until she recovers, her sister Sabrina returns tomorrow night for an impromptu 10-day visit, and by the strangest turn of events, I find myself plonked in the midst of an unplanned family reunion.

We get mauled by the uber-excited Rudy (dog) as we step in. Exhibiting rather alarming French traits, Rudy eats cheese and likes to play with bread.

The practicalities make themselves known in no time – I need to do laundry and only then, realise belatedly that I have forgotten to bring extra clothes – the only ones I have are wet ones.

Roger, Stephanie’s father, is both a supporter of Arsenal and Formula One. The cornerstone of the conversation is oddly enough, Thierry Henry and rumours about his move to Barcelona to help fund the new Emirates Stadium.

Her mother, Anne Marie, is constantly at the stove, mostly with the greens harvested from her large garden.

I made a foregone prediction that dinner was going to be beyond words and was filled with belated horror at the amount they piled on my plate, and with even greater horror, I managed to eat them all.

In this order, we had:
1. Bread, Butter with slices of baby radish
2. Cold cuts of ham
3. Salad greens with a dressing mixed with mustard, 8 different oils, several types of vinegars, shallots and garlic.
4. Zuchini Scrambled Eggs

I ask curiously about the salad dressing, to which Roger Guery replies proudly that only the men in the family mix them. He quips that it is a secret blend but immediately takes out an array of oils that I never knew existed and recoils when I suggest supermarket salad dressing.

Is the best way of protecting a secret recipe not to render it as difficult as possible to obtain the ingredients so that one gets intimidated sufficiently to not try one’s hand at it?

The dinner spread was not yet complete. Dessert consisted of:
1. Rhubarb Pie
2. Eggless Chocolate Mousse
3. Strawberries and Raspberries in Chantilly

The quasi-farming lifestyle has produced the salad greens, radish, zucchini, rhubarb, and the berries. For the first and hopefully not only time in my life, my taste buds encounter raspberries that are outrageously sweet.

In reply to my rather embarrassed enquiry halfway through the meal if her mother cooked like that much only for guests, Stephanie confirms with amusement that this happens nearly daily. Mealtimes are still hallowed in the countryside. I confess openly that it was the best I’ve eaten in a long time. The compliment is dutifully translated for the chef, and Anne Marie takes a small bow.

We trade stories with quite a bit of difficulty; post-meal times revolve around an incomprehensible barrage of words which I assume to be a recount of Roger and Anne Marie’s recent holiday in the French Riviera, Monaco and the Pyrenees. Ridiculously picture-perfect postcards that are meant solely for the consumption of the tourist gaze nevertheless shake my lingering prejudice that France is much more than poor English communication, croissants, Lancôme, Audrey Tautou and snooty chefs.

Photograph albums are next in line and their intimate nature prompt anecdotes every couple of flips. Some stories behind the photos are hilarious: they contain pictures of various family members posing next to unknown women for reasons that range from lecherous to more lecherous – from taking a photo next to 2 pretty blondes graduating girls, to capturing an unsuspecting woman’s mini-skirt by a public telephone. There is another photo of Roger sitting nonchalantly in the London Tube looking over someone else’s newspaper, pretending to understand English perfectly.

Cloistered in her sister’s room, the quiet that is found here is suddenly unsettling after my jaunt through the large cities. It is the thick silence of the countryside that defers only to the flora and fauna, and cannot be replicated – or so I think, until some stranger’s extraordinarily bad singing outside my bedroom awakens me.

We eat yet again – thankfully breakfast was simple. But the lunch menu was:
1. Fresh greens with rice, tomatoes, kiwi, basil and palm fruit with crusty bread
2. Beetroot and some salad dressing.
3. Chicken in Soya, cream and herbs, with 3 different kinds of mustard sauce to choose from.
4. Baked potatoes, Flat beans and carrots.

Out came the Emmenthal and other soft cheeses after we finished the main course. Last night’s berries with Chantilly and Chocolate Mousse magically reappeared as well.

I learn that the Christmas tradition involves 13 different kinds of dessert.

We say goodbye and goodnight all at once – my train leaves for Paris at 7am the next morning, and the drive to Nantes takes a good hour. Stephanie reminds me for the umpteenth time that there are essential places on the map I have missed this time around.

“You will need to return to France,” she tells me rather seriously.

“Or you just have to visit me,” I quip back cheekily.

read more
DestinationsEuropeFranceWestern Europe

Viva la France

DSCN1510

I arrived in the touted “City of Lights” by the Eurostar in the mid-afternoon heat engulfed by an all-encompassing smog which made it a bit hard to breathe. So goes the secret of the shrouding mist that creates the accidental romantic ideal of Paris – it does make for good photos though.

DSCN1433

Just as it is daunting to write about London, it is no less for Paris. What can be said that has not been said in countless novels and other travelogues?

DSCN1308  DSCN1476

Paris is massive, dirty and sprawling (tourists crawl every available space unfortunately) – it is as though the French Kings competed to build palaces after palaces using the large space while encouraging their citoyens to dump their rubbish everywhere while they build their empires. It is easy to caught up in the ornate architecture, only to be stunned into seeing a supermarket or something else complete modern at its base. Specialty stores – the heavenly bakeries (boulangeries), boucheries, fromageries and all, abound however, as there is still a stratum of traditional Parisians who don’t believe in mass consumerism.

read more

Pin It on Pinterest