Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Alsace region: Strasbourg, Baden-Baden, Colmar, Ribeauvillé, Riquewihr, Kaysersberg, and Eguisheim

If you really want to laugh, try bringing a vegetarian to Alsace.  The food is...hearty.
Speaking of, the heart motifs in this comic are an understatement.  Really.  In that department, Alsace is rivaled only by this concept art on Victoria Ying's blog for the "Love town" in Frozen.  It was delightful. xD

Now without further ado, here's my post about visiting Strasbourg, Baden-Baden, and the Alsace region for the first time!

The TGV train from Paris to Strasbourg takes about 2 hours and 20 minutes, and costs anything from €30 - €80 (before discounts) depending on when you book.  The train I took had a speedometer for curious travelers, and I was shocked to see that we were traveling 315 km/h at times.  Apparently, the average speed for TGV trains is 279.4 km/h (173.6 mph) and they regularly hit 320 km/h (200mph).  That'll get you to the eastern edge of France pretty quickly, alright!
If you're coming to Strasbourg from far away, flying in directly is also an option.  Strasbourg-Entzheim International Airport is just outside of the city with a shuttle train rapidly taking passengers into downtown.  This was the route my mom took, as she came all the way from Portland to meet me in Alsace.

Like many regions of France bordering other nations, Alsace has changed hands several times and offers unique blends of French and German language, culture, cuisine, and architecture.  Note that the most recent change of hands was German occupation during WW2.  Tread carefully with comparisons to Germany as this can be a sensitive subject.  These days, Strasbourg is tranquil, lovely, and multicultural, housing the European Parliament and considered the legislative and democratic capital of the EU.  There are several universities in Strasbourg, with many international students.  The historic center of Strasbourg, "la Grande Île", is an island formed by a split in the Ill river .  It is lovely, and the whole island is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The Petite-France area downtown was definitely a highlight for us. The half-timbered houses on the canal are particularly striking.
At the end of April there was gorgeous wisteria blooming all over Alsace.

Specific recommendations:
  • We stayed with Régis & Héloïse via Air BnB, and wholeheartedly recommend them for anyone traveling in Strasbourg!  Régis works for Michel et Augustin, and he sent us on our merry way with tons of tasty samples.  Yum!
  • We were only in town for one night, and we took Régis and Héloïse's dinner recommendation: Binchstub.  The restaurant has a lot of organic options and an emphasis on local foods.  A bit of an indifferent hipster vibe, but we ate well.  After a chilly day I was happy to nestle up to the counter, bump elbows with the other customers in the tiny restaurant, and eat a warm meal.
  • Strasbourg Cathedral - uh, WOAH.  The cathedral is giant and impressive now; I can only imagine how slack-jawed people must have been in 1439 at its completion.
  • Astronomical clock - a mechanical marvel you have to see to believe.  There's a daily spectacle at 12:30 PM when the clock puts on a show (arrive early!), but even on the hour we saw impressive movement accompanying the chimes.
  • River boat tour - I can go either way on boat tours, but I'm almost always glad when I decide to take them.  This one was notable because it allowed us to breeze around the European Parliament building, which I get the impression is not a fun trip on foot.  We also traversed the canal system around Strasbourg and went up and down locks, which I'd never seen up close before.
Nettle soup at Binchstub

Our time in Strasbourg flew by.  Before we knew it, it was time to leave for Baden-Baden, the spa town 30 minutes away in western Germany.  I thought we could take a local train, but a rental car turned out to be much more practical, so once again I found myself nervously adjusting my mirrors and locating the gear shifts in a manual French rental car.  Surprise twist: the route to Baden-Baden included a German autobahn! x_x WOW.  I have never in my life a) driven that fast or b) seen cars fly past me that fast.  It was awesome, not going to lie.

We really only went to Baden-Baden to visit the Roman thermal baths at Friedrichsbad, where I could not take photos for obvious reasons, so for visuals I'll link you to the city's website.  The baths consisted of 17 "steps" that we progressed through--everything from hosing down in public showers to massages to soaking in hot and cold thermal tubs.  I wasn't expecting the baths themselves to be so pretty--there were exquisite tile walls/floors, recreations of Greek statues, and domed ceilings.  It made a nice atmosphere for relaxing and getting comfortable with group nudity.
We entered the Black Forest to get to Baden-Baden.  I really found myself flashing back to a trip I took with my mom years ago to Hakone, a mountain town outside of Tokyo that's peppered with onsen. In my mind I had imagined pulling the car over somewhere to hike a bit, but we spent too many of our daylight hours seeing the last of Strasbourg, renting the car, and getting a little lost in a suburb near Baden-Baden.  Oh well--another trip another time maybe.  I did feel extremely blessed to see a full, yellow moon rising over the Black Forest as we left Baden-Baden for our next stop: Colmar.
Maison Pfister, which made an appearance in Howl's Moving Castle!

Colmar is a small city about an hour south of Strasbourg, still in the Alsace region of France.  It was founded in the 9th century, and you can see lovely buildings from many different eras as you walk the town.  We enjoyed the Musée d'Unterlinden, which was small and under construction but offered close looks at some really exquisite metal work and everyday objects like doorknobs, sleds, and business placards from centuries past, as well as reconstructed rooms (from the Napoleonic age if I'm remembering right?).

One funny thing about our trip--we were in Alsace during Pâques (Easter), and apparently it's a biiiig thing there.  MANY services/shops were entirely or partially closed the entire week ahead of Easter Sunday.  On the other hand, we got to see celebratory seasonal markets, craft shows, and city installations.  And all of my souvenirs were delightful Pâques chocolates. :)
We ended up being very happy to have the rental car, because we were really hoping to visit the picturesque villages surrounding Colmar (read this post on Paul's Travel Pics; it was our inspiration for the trip).  Although getting between the towns is possible via public transportation and/or bike rental , we were much more flexible with the car.
It would be impossible to pick a favorite moment from this trip, but I think what I appreciated the most was just the unhurried time we spent in the small towns of Ribeauvillé, Riquewihr, Kaysersberg, and Eguisheim.  We only spent about 1-3 hours in each town, (we barely squeezed Eguisheim in the morning before our train to Paris), but we had virtually no itinerary in the towns and once we parked the car, we got out to stroll and see what we saw, completely open to what the town had to offer.  Walking Ribeauvillé turned into a lazy lunch with white wine people-watching and chatting on an open square, then hiking behind the town on the path up to the ruins of the castles Saint-Ulrich, Girsberg and Haut-Ribeaupierre.  Kaysersberg turned into sitting quietly by the river at dusk, drawing a fantastic timbered house's facade, and then taking an Alsatian dinner in a restaurant in town.

All in all, an amazing region and one I hope I get to spend more time in someday.

1 comment:

  1. Haha, you share your first Autobahn experience with a lot of people I know :)