Monday, July 20, 2009

Summer Nights in Paris

With the day in Strasbourg at a close we piled back in the car for the final few hour drive into Paris...well, the outskirts of Paris, to drop the car at the airport.

After saying farewell to our Audi A4, we were back on public transit for the first time since Munich and stuck on a delayed train. Actually a malfunctioning train with no a/c which gave us a chance to discuss public transit versus personal transport. Would we rather be sitting in traffic on the autobahn or stuck in a broken down train somewhere between stations...tough question.

This time in Paris we tried something a little different; we rented an apartment instead of checking into a hotel room. We stayed in a one bedroom apartment full of old charm on the fifth floor that had huge windows opening out over the street. It was a fun place to stay for a few nights. It didn't come with normal hotel services such as room service or house keeping but it gave us extra living space and the unbeatable experience of living in the city like a true Parisian. The apartment was a great change from hotels so keep this in mind when you are traveling. It's worth the extra hassle if you don't mind sacrificing some hotel nice to haves.

Now with our arrival in the city being well after dinner, we headed to one of the places that goes well into the night and a place where you can always get food - the Avenue des Champs-Élysées! We were on the hunt for a midnight pizza and by the time we finally cut into our pizza's it was well after 1 am. Expensive? Yes. But the atmosphere on the Champs-Élysées with its tree lined streets, high end fashion stores and people who want to be seen was totally worth it. We even did our best to dodge traffic for a few photos of the Arc de Triomphe in the middle of the 12 lane boulevard. Too fun!

The next couple days we did the normal amazing sights in Paris. Its only normal by Paris standards...local bakeries to get pan au chocolats for breakfast, the Musée d'Orsay, the Sacré-Cœur Basilica, strolling through the streets and along the River Seine shopping for art...and the list goes on. We just enjoyed what the city had to offer.

The only real problem was the heat. It was well in the the 90s which in a city not geared for heat, serving water in 2-gulp glasses, was at times overwhelming. However we did take opportunities to get out of the sun or cool off. For instance, instead of eating our crepe filled with Nutella in the sun we sat in the shade and enjoyed views of Notre Dame. Or at the Louvre, where the fountains were calling our name, dipped our feet in the water and cooled off along with all the other hot visitors.

A big highlight for me was having a birthday in Paris. To celebrate we used a recommendation from a friend at work, who is from France and lived in Paris. It was a quintessential Paris cafe with locals spilling out. There was even a short wait for a table! Luckily for us, our waiter had spent a few years in the UK and spoke very good English. He helped us pick a great bottle of wine to accommodate our nice steak dinners even arranging to have a huge firework in my dessert. I'm not exaggerating, this wasn't your average candle - it was a mini roman candle! Excellent! For dessert Steph and Tara enjoyed Nutella tiramisu and it was served in an old fashioned canning jar - they said it was incredible but I can't say for sure because I didn't get a bite...

I need to give a big thanks to my awesome Mom and Dad for the great birthday dinner! We were thinking of you.

Before I get to the last night of our trip I want to quickly mention the hilarity that ensued on the top of the Arc De Triomphe during our visit at rush hour. I'm sure its a daily occurrence but seeing the sheer number of vehicles trying to all at once squeeze through the huge roundabout at rush hour was such a laugh. Cars as far as you can see trying to get into the roundabout and the chaos in the roundabout for cars trying get out, all horns blaring. You'll have to see the photos to fully understand the size of the traffic jam. In this case, the public transit wins hands down.

Upon reaching our last night in Paris we realized our non stop trip was starting to catch up with us. We needed to slow down so what better way to do so than to have a picnic at the Eiffel tower. After rounding up some cheese, wine and pastries we did exactly that, stopped and enjoyed one of the best views in the world. Under the clear skies and warmth of the summer evening we watched the Eiffel tower go from day to night and sparkle in all its splendid glory.

A perfect ending to a European road trip enhanced by the great company!

Paris Photos

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Day in Strasbourg

There’s no better way to start a day in France than with a croissant and coffee. This became our regular breakfast for the next few days while in France. Easy to find and relatively cheap! So after the breakfast of French champions, we headed for the much talked about astrological clock. We were told to line up early so we could ensure we’d see it all – the sight included a 20 minute video about the clock then you could see it in action as it struck 12:30pm.

The clock was intricate and ornate but unfortunately the video and 12:30 striking were quite a letdown after all the build up. But we’ve got some lovely pictures of the artistry on this beautiful clock but it wasn't much of a show.

We then took a leisurely boat cruise around the town, which included going through 2 locks, which was a new experience. Strasbourg is a larger small town, if that makes sense, and we could tell there was loads to see and do but we were there only briefly.

To top off the day in Strasbourg, we climbed the spiral staircase to the top of the cathedral tower for a commanding view of the city. What a sight! Old crooked buildings with erradic rooflines, the new modern buildings of the European Parliament and the other historical buildings such as the Palace.

Next stop – Paris!


Saturday, July 4, 2009

Colmar to Strasbourg

Colmar was a lovely little cottage style town with its cobbled stone streets. The slower pace of life there was great. We were finally able to enjoy a warm summer evening with a late dinner topped off with some regional treats that included our first taste of Alsacian wine and the tarte flambet – most resembling a pizza but no tomato sauce…just white sauce, cheese and a bit of bacon/ham on a pastry-like base. That is the traditional style – Tara and I had ours with Munster cheese and potatoes – yum! Full from dinner we enjoyed a lovely walk through the streets and then hit the sack.

On leaving Colmar the next morning, we began to see the Vosges mountains which run south to north in the Alsace region. Along the base of these mountains are the vast vineyards and towns that form the Route du Vin (the wine road). The wine road produces some award winning wine and was the perfect path to Strasbourg, our next destination.

We picked up a wine road map from the Colmar tourism office who helped out tremendously giving us a head start by quickly circling a half dozen of the best towns along the route. Along the route we quickly found that there was a town, then you went up and down a small hill and you were already to the next town!

We stopped at a couple of the recommended towns and had some food and wine. The “road” literally has a vineyard or wine cellar (a wine merchant’s store, not necessarily his vineyard) every few feet. The picture at the top of the article is one of the many picturesque towns we found.

The Alsacian wine is generally white and sweet. We tried a little of everything and the Reisling was probably our favorite. In walking in one wine cellar we found the merchant entertaining a young couple, speaking in French. He attended to us as well but we quickly found he spoke very little English. Fortunately the young couple spoke great English and they became our official translators. They were down for the day to buy wine; they lived about an hour away.

The merchant’s wine was the best we had so far so we tried several. We also asked if he gave tours of his production facility. After a few sentences through our new translator, a quick tour was agreed only if the couple would translate, which they luckily did.

This particular merchant was a cooperative wine maker meaning he sourced all his grapes from several surrounding vineyards (he didn’t grow his own). Of the 2 million bottles a year he produces, most of them are exported, many going to Asia where they pair well with the Asian cuisines. On the tour, we were able to see the massive stainless steel tanks used to produce the excellent drinks we just enjoyed along with the almost fully automated bottling process. It only takes 2 or 3 staff to bottle all that wine.

After our tour, it was recommended we try the winemaker's sparkling wine that had recently won “effervescent of the year”. It was great! It's called Cremant. Not sweet, not too dry and perfectly bubbly. During our tasting the merchant, with the help of a little translation, was adamant it was better than champagne but just not from the Champagne region. We’ll let you know if we can find it being sold in the US as we would recommend you all try it. And best of all, it was only 6 euros!

A big thanks to our gracious friends who happily translated for us.

With a memorable wine road experience in our pocket, we decided to call it a day on the route du vin and headed on to Strasbourg, knowing we needed to find a hotel!

With the help of Satnav we found a hotel. The lady at the desk offered us keys to let us go look at the room and we scored a family room (for 4 adults) with two double beds and loads of antique furniture that I wished I could pop in my bag like Mary Poppins! Loved it! And, we had a view of the cathedral that dominates the small town’s skyline.

Dinner was lovely – more tarte flambet for Tara and I – and Josh got adventurous in ordering the “pork cheeks” which turned out to be quite yummy! After our dinner we retired to our family room, enjoyed a bottle of our wine from the day’s route and played Zac and Tara’s favorite card game “345”. Good day!


Neuschwanstein Castle – Fantasy Land

We arrived just outside Fussen in Hohenschwangau to try and find our hotel just as darkness was setting in. Since we were arriving after normal check-in hours we had to call the phone number on the confirmation. The 24 hour desk was up the road at another hotel where we had to go pick up the keys.

As we were about to go in the main door of our little B&B, a lady came out asking if we were the Koch family. Nope. Apparently we had been given another family’s room keys. We told her our name and handed her our confirmation and she was quick to point out – the reservation was for JULY - not June. Oops. Upon discovering this mistake and having four people standing out in the rainy night, the lady made a big scene yelling, "Ei-yi-yigh!" as she stormed off into the B&B, turning on lights and booting up the reservation system. After she settled down she turned out to be really nice and gave Zac and Tara a room with a view of the castle. An exceptional room with no reservation, whew!

You must know that the Neuschwanstein castle was the inspiration for the Walt Disney World castle and is truly like something out of a fantasy. There is just something magical about it. After dinner we headed back out into the rain to take a few photos and enjoy the night view. It was pitch black and the castle was amazing perched up on the side of the hill. Going back to our childhood days again ala the Etch-A-Sketch, we tried our hand at creating some light painting masterpieces. One of our better results is the photo above, done by the little known artist Znoland...

The next morning we woke up to more clouds and rain, which meant no paragliding over the castle. Doh! I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.

Instead we headed out for a tour of the castle. On top of the mountains where the views are spectacular, King Ludwig II (who was a bit odd, they say) created a fantasy world of a castle, inside and out. The castle was supposedly in honor of composer Wagner and was decorated to include scenes from his operas including a fake cave. One of the highlights is the view from a bridge near the castle which ranks in our top 10 views list. It was quite surreal although I could be biased from all the Disney castle commercials over the years...

After braving the raining cloudy weather in Bavaria, we headed towards our next stop - Colmar, France. Along the way, we even ducked into Switzerland and realized at a rest stop we didn’t have any money because they weren’t on the Euro. That meant no toilet break until we were back in an EU country because all the toilets cost 50 euro cents to use!

Bavaria and castle Photos

Let the road trip begin

This day was supposed to be a short drive to Hohenschwangau near Fussen in southern Germany to paraglide over the Neuschwanstein Castle but with the weather still poor we had to change plans. No paragliding would happen today. Instead we opted to drive southeast to Berchtesgaden to try and visit Kehlsteinhaus or better known as Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest.

We piled into our (free upgrade) Audi A4 wagon and put the hammer down on the Autobahn. I’m should say that driving on the autobahn is quite fun. You are able to put your foot down and just go. During long sections you don't have to worry about the speed limits. Fast, slow, what ever you feel like driving. Oh just make sure you get out of the way when you are going too slow. At one point we had the A4 around 120 mph and were being passed by other cars! I am not kidding. It was an awesome adrenaline filled few minutes for at least Zac and I. Tara and Steph were sitting quite nervously in the back seat.

Stopping off just into Austria, we found a picturesque little alpine café for lunch that was set beside a spearmint cream colored river flowing down the mountain and through the town. The nice lady working could barely speak English but she managed to say mozzarella and tomatoes while showing us ciabatta bread – sold, 4 please!

Taking our time, we headed up the mountain where we could catch the bus up to the Eagle’s Nest. Unfortunately we missed the last bus by 20 minutes. It was closed. At 4pm! What a bummer!

The only other option was to drive through the mountains to see what we could find. We ran across some incredible views and a mountain playground which turned out to be quite fun. They had swings and slides and a giant teeter-totter which entertained us for a long time. Up down, up down, we laughed and enjoyed the views of the Alps and the storm brewing in the background.

After playtime was over we took off for Fussen.

Bavaria Photos

Friday, July 3, 2009

Munchen – Start of a European road trip

To entertain Zac and Tara who flew over in dire need of some vacation, we decided a road trip through Europe would be fun... starting in the beer and brat capital of the world - Munich, Germany. We wanted to get a feel for what we had heard was one of the most livable cities in the world known as Munchen in Germany, which is by far much more fun to say!

First things first – we had to try try litre of beer. In reading up on the many beer halls in the city most of the reviews said we should head straight for the Hofbrahouse even as touristy as it can be. The reviews are correct! It was a fantastic way to spend an evening listening to the German band jamming away, enjoying the huge litre beers and a smorgasbord of sausages and sauerkraut.

The next morning we geared up for our bike ride through the city. Since we only had a short time in Munchen it was the perfect way to get a feel for the city even through the cold and rainy weather. A few of the stops included the world’s biggest beer garden in the huge English garden in the city center, the place where the Nazi party got its start and the man-made surfing wave that our Hawaiian tour leader uses every day to keep up his skills. One interesting place was dodger’s lane - back in the day locals would walk this lane instead of the main road to avoid saluting the giant swastika installed in the area. Not saluting could see you sent to a work camp or worse... killed. So dodge we shall…

Another fascinating place was at the University where a group student protesters called the white rose resistance, threw anti-Nazi leaflets out of the 2nd story window onto the Gestapo waiting below to take them away. There is a monument to the students with what looks like leaflets scattered across the pavement. They were taken and the 1940's. Sad story, but worth a read.

Our favorite experience in Munich was by far the yodeling bar we stumbled upon later that night. Being a true local hangout, we were fish out of water that went something like this:

Walking up a narrow winding set of wooden stairs we could hear the distinct music echoing from above. Smiles already on our faces, we opened the door at the top into a tiny attic bar with 8 or so tables, a bar and a small area with a chair for the older gentleman who was yodeling and playing the accordion at a lightning pace. With only a few other groups of people in the bar we were quite obvious tourists as we sat down. We then found out the yodeler was quite the comedian where even in German it was quite obvious when people are having a joke or 5 at your expense. We just laughed pretending we understood the German jokes, soaking up the atmosphere. The jokes were on us and it was all the better we had no clue what they said.

As the night went on he warmed up to us indicating when we should sing and gesture in certain songs. We meet a local in the bar who was happy to do his best at joke translation and a few were even funny. At one point he asked, “How did you find this special place” and “What you mean by I am awesome?”

As the bar filled up we shared a table with some guys from Switzerland who were quite entertaining as well. I think they were just as enthralled by our accents, as we were with theirs.

Even just a short time in Munchen was enough to see it is a livable city and a city I can’t wait to get back to.

Yodle-ley-hee-hoooooo, it’s on to Fussen tomorrow.

Munich Photos