16 April 2009


Easter is a Big Deal in France. Friday and Monday are holidays for a lot of people, and the weekend is traditionally spent with one's family, not unlike Thanksgiving in the US. Since Karen had a 4-day weekend, we took the opportunity to do our first traveling in France. Marseille, Bordeaux, and Brittany were all options, but we took the TGV to Strasbourg for no better reasons than 1. neither of us had ever been there, 2. it seemed unlikely we'd travel much there for other reasons, and 3. it was big enough that we figured things should be open over the weekend.

Turns out we could have added a 4th reason: Strasbourg had the best weather in France that weekend, according to the reports from Karen's colleagues on Tues. Low 70s and sunny during the day, upper 40s at night.

Strasbourg is in Alsace, just a few miles from the German border, and the region has changed hands a number of times in its history. German influence in architecture, food, wine, and language are abundant, and the German tourists, prolific travelers with endless vacation if their numbers wherever we happen to be in Europe at any given time are any indication, were in town in droves last weekend.

The city retains its international flavor today not only through tourism but as the site of the EU parliament and other official EU bodies. One can apparently watch the proceedings if it's not Easter weekend.

We had a nice weekend, staying a short distance away from the incredible cathedral. Once you've been in Europe a while, you start thinking that if you see one more gothic cathedral, you'll puke. But the one is Strasbourg is so huge (it was the tallest building in the world through the late 19th century) yet so delicate -- the stone carvings are ethereal -- that you can't help but be taken with it. Oh, OK then, just one more...

The old city is on an island in the Ill, where crooked streets of half-timber buildings meander and empty into large Platzs. Sitting along the river in the sun drinking a carafe of Riesling or Gewürztraminer or Pinot Gris from the local wineries (Alsace is one of the great wine producing regions of the world) or maybe a beer (that German influence), maybe eating a flammekueche (or tarte flambé in the french lingo, a flatbread spread with a little fromage blanc, some thinly sliced onion and some lardons-- done right, a wonderfully light and delicious treat) just out of the wood-fired oven, pretty good life. So that's what we did.

Flammekueche with the ubiquitous green pottery wine carafe

French buildings pretending to be German. Or is it German buildings pretending to be French?

The Ill
Malty gnomy goodness: Belgian La Choufe beers (sacre bleu!) on tap in Alsace

This way to heaven: above the main door to the cathedral

On Saturday, we rented a car and checked out the area to the west, in the hills above the river. It was the first time I've driven in nearly 2 months and my first driving in France, and Karen's first navigating in France. It was wonderful and awful at the same time. Wonderful because the small forested roads in the hills were beautiful, still snow-lined, and almost empty of vehicles (and we didn't get hopelessly lost or broadsided or anything), awful because they were perfect for bikes, and everybody else we saw obviously knew this and was on 2 wheels. Next time. We drove through some small towns, all decked out for Easter, including special Easter cakes and pastries (in the shapes of lambs in repose). Bustling with locals and tourists in the morning, these small towns were completely shut down by afternoon; in contrast to Strasbourg, where the city stayed open for tourists, these towns still did traditional Easter.

Ruins in the countryside
Watchful gargoyle in Rosheim

Dropping out of the hills after lunch, we saw two trucks pulling trailers of 25+ mountain bikes (in France, velo tout terrain, or VTT) up the road. Tourist group? They seemed pretty heavy-duty for that. Then we started seeing tape, and finally cars everywhere with riders in full body armor-- we'd stumbled onto a gravity race. Actually, we'd stumbled onto the course recon for the downhill race the following day.

Judging by the posted start times, there were several hundred riders there in 3 different skill levels and multiple age and gender classes. Each rider was allotted 5 recons of the course, so we went to watch some of it, following the course and the whooping riders from the bottom up through the steeps. There were a few sections I'd be willing to ride, but there was a lot of heinous steep chute-and-drop stuff. Hearing the equipment absorb the big hits made it really obvious why the rigs are different from the cross-country bikes. I've heard plenty of free-riders brag about racing cross-country on their heavy gravity bikes, but it would take real balls (and then a lot of cash for the medical bills) to take a 21-lb climbing bike down one of these runs.

One page of about 15 of the start list

The sound track could have been anywhere-- Nirvana, The Sex Pistols, AC/DC. I figured that standing around watching, I'd at least learn the French equivalents for dude, or gnarly, or sick, but I didn't hear any words over and over again from the spectators. Maybe the French VTTers have bigger vocabularies than their US counterparts-- I didn't smell cannabis. Or maybe they just grunt. My French isn't good enough to tell.

The course finished with a wicked combination of a stupid-steep and rocky chute (most riders took the longer, slightly saner alternative route around it) into a high-speed whoopity-doo that dropped through a twisty rocky chute into a big drop, before leveling off into some high-speed/small air combinations.

Good to the last drop

The entry to the last drop

Why would somebody think to try this? I'll stick to the teeter-totters.

We did Easter mass in the cathedral on Sunday morning, where a chamber orchestra, a choir, and several soloists were performing pieces of a Haydn mass. The music was soaring, especially in that setting, though the mass was split up and interspersed with hollywoody organ arrangements. More wandering through the city, and we finished off the wekend with a very good dinner (perfectly cooked and tender magret of duck in a deeply spiced sauce, veal and mushroom kebabs, and for the 2nd time in 2 months (the other at Dovetail in NYC) foie gras ice cream-- this time paired with a ginger-tinted caramel that had the sweet-pungent punch that evoked chestnut honey: now that's heavenly).

Can't wait for the next trip.

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