Grace and Ellie have both studied French since they were twelve. Not only are they pretty good at it, they both really enjoy it. So last year when the opportunity came to host a French exchange student for ten days, we knew right away we had to do it. Jeff was somewhat skeptical — our house is not big, and we don’t have a guest room. But Ellie graciously agreed to sleep on a mattress in Grace’s room so that Wanda, our guest, could have a room of her own. The experience was more fun and rewarding than we could have imagined. It was ten days of learning about Wanda’s life in France and her learning about ours; including going on fun outings to Boston, and Canobie Lake, and a Red Sox game. Wanda and Grace (and Ellie too) were fast friends, and by the time she left, I felt like she was part of our family.
When we were planning our April vacation for this year, we tossed around a lot of ideas, from Peru to Africa. But as with other times, something was drawing us back to France. And if we were going to France, we were definitely going to see Wanda, and meet her family. So plans were set in motion to visit Strasbourg, the capital of the Alsace region, where Wanda and her family live. This was the perfect starting point to visit some other towns in Alsace, then head to Paris (of course), and make a final stop in Amsterdam
Here are the girls on our very first day in France. You’d never know that Grace and Ellie had landed at 8am in Paris and then took a train two hours to Strasbourg. We broke our rule of never napping on the first day, and took a two hour nap in the afternoon, along with a shower, and I have to say, that did the trick. We were to have dinner that night with Wanda’s family, and we didn’t want to fall asleep!
That afternoon we visited the beautiful Cathedral, a gothic wonder, completed in 1439. Inside is a fantastic astronomical clock with automated figures and beautiful, whimsical details. I don’t know why I didn’t take any pictures of it! At any rate, If you go to Strasbourg, it is a must see.
A few scenes from around the Cathedral:
Not far from the Cathedral, La Petite France is full of half timbered houses, the likes of which we later saw all over Alsace. I found a great article on the architecture and history of this style of building … if you are interested: https://frenchmoments.eu/half-timbered-houses-in-alsace/
In Petite France, we sat at a cafe and enjoyed some Alsatian wine, along with some Comté and Munster cheese, until it was time to head to Wanda’s home for our delicious dinner.We had such a great time, and stayed until past midnight, sharing stories over our meal along with champagne and wine.
The next morning, Jeff and I explored a little while the girls caught up on their beauty sleep, and then Wanda picked us up for a walk back to her house where we ate the most delicious traditional Blanquette de Veau. I keep meaning ask for the recipe — it was so good. And a wonderful tarte for dessert.
After lunch, we walked to see the European Parliament building. So beautiful and such a contrast to the half timbered homes in the other part of town.
Not too far from there is a beautiful park, that Wanda’s mother, Valerie, described as Strasbourg’s “Central Park”. It was a perfect Spring day, and the park was full of people enjoying Springtime in this beautiful city.
And there are storks! I’m pretty sure I have never seen a stork before outside of a cartoon where they are carrying a baby, and I thought this was pretty cool. 🙂
Our last night in Strasbourg, Wanda and her family, Valerie, Michel, and Jules, who by now felt like old friends, took us out for Tarte Flambé and Alsatian beer. Tarte Flambé is like pizza, only better! It’s really thin, and the traditional toppings are onions, bacon and cream sauce. We’d order two at a time, and then another round as soon as they were finished.
Sadly, our visit had to come to and end, and we said our goodbye’s (yes, I cried) as we would leave for Riquewihr in the morning. I can’t thank our friends enough for being so welcoming and sharing their beautiful city and Alsatian food with us. The people we meet in our travels are truly the best part of it, and I hope we see them again.
Before heading to pick up our rental car in the morning, Jeff and I took one last walk around the city (while the girls slept in — again!). I didn’t realize how much bicycling is a part of life in Strasbourg but there were bikes everywhere (not quite as many as Amsterdam – more on that later), but a lot!
Valerie had told us about this really cool church with it’s lopsided lines and start facade, so we made sure we went to see it.
Mid-morning, we picked up the rental car and headed off to Riquewihr, the medieval walled town on the Alsace wine route where we would spend two nights. Our AirBnb looked out right onto the main street which appeared to be pulled straight out of a story book. Or more precisely, the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast. I couldn’t get the image of dancing teacups and saucers out of my head.On the left is Dolder Tower, the town’s medieval watchtower built in 1291; on the right is a section of the old medieval wall.
If you look at the picture above, you’ll see vineyards in the distance behind the buildings. We found a little road that led up to them, and found this view of Riquewihr. Our apartment is just beyond the church tower you see on the middle left of the photo.There were lots of great shops on the main Street in Riquewihr, including that of a local artist (you can see him with us in the mirror in the top left photo) from whom we bought an etching of Dolder Tower. The Feerie de Noel, is the most amazing Christmas Shop, and the girls and I spent way too much in there. 😉 You Can see the outside of our Airbnb here — it’s the yellow building with the white shutters just to the left to the Crêperie sign. It was small but perfect.
We caught a double rainbow our first night on the way to dinner.
On a Monday night, there wasn’t much open in Riquewihr — it was very quiet. But we found a table outside at the Restaurant Le Cerf, just a few doors down from our apartment. Dinner was really lovely, and we enjoyed Alsatian choucroute, which is sauerkraut, served with sausage, pork, and potatoes.
One of the things for which Alsace is known, is its wine. I had always thought of Riesling as a sweet dessert wine, but we really enjoyed the Alsatian Rieslings. They were perfect in the warm weather we had — light and crisp. Riquewihr is along the Alsatian “Routes des Vins” which passes through many medieval towns known for their wine making. We had two days, which allowed to visit a few of them beyond just driving through. Our first stop was was Kaysersberg.
You may have noticed the German sounding names of the towns here. Alsace is right next to Germany, and in fact, bounced back and forth between being German and French a couple of times. However, French and Alsatian pride is strong here. There is even an Alsatian dialect of it’s own, that many natives of the region hope to keep alive.
Our next stop was Eguisheim. Everywhere we went in Alsace, there were Easter decorations still on display.
Our last day in Alsace, we were off to Colmar, which is the region’s third largest city (though the old section doesn’t feel like a city.). Alsace had a prominent role in World War II, due to its proximity to Germany. The Germans held Colmar and the area surrounding from November 1944-February 1945, and it was a difficult for the Allies to liberate the area. We visited on a beautiful Spring day, and it was hard to imagine what the region went through so long ago.
Near the river, there is a large marché with kiosks selling produce, meat, and cheese and many other delicacies.
We were hungry for lunch so we purchased some comté, ham, a baguette, a container of olives, and beer for Jeff and me, and had a picnic outside in this square.After lunch, we took one of the boat tours on the river, which gave a great perspective on the old part of town and the history and architecture in the area.
On the way out of Colmar, we passed by this famous lady! I had forgotten that Colmar is the birthplace of Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, who sculpted the Statue of Liberty, which of course, was a gift from France to the United States. Here, she sits in the middle of a roundabout — so not the best to get out and take pictures, but I did make Jeff take an extra spin around her.
Just before we reached Riquewihr, we took a dirt road to the top of the hill that led up to the vineyards above town, as the sun was starting to set, and the light was dreamy.
That spot was a perfect and magical end to our time in Alsace. The next morning we were headed back to Strasbourg to catch the train to Paris.
Part 2 — Paris — coming soon!