17 July 2017


On the small chance that I didn't experience enough vacances in April, not far behind, as you might recall, are the ponts de mai: several long weekends during the month of May that depend on the placement of French bank holidays in that particular year.  While I stayed home for the first two long weekends, the rest of May became a traveling blitz.

It began with a return to La Roche-sur-Yon, my first home in France since 2014.  Eight months had passed since my last visit, and after living in a wildly different region of France for awhile, I actually felt a dull version of reverse culture shock upon returning.  The Vendée is certainly a traditional region, and also wealthier than the north.  I could feel people staring at me on the train from Nantes to La Roche - not because they knew I wasn't French, but because they knew I didn't normally take that train and wasn't local.

Despite that revelation, I visited my old haunts in town, saw several friends, had coffee with former students and colleagues, and attended my old community band's end-of-year concert.  (For the first time, I can show you what our concerts looked and sounded like: here is a bit of a piece I had played with them as well, excerpts from The Godfather.)

Dad and me in Paris
After a couple of busy work days back in the north, I headed down to Paris to meet my parents who had flown in for an end-of-May visit.  We spent several hours catching up and enjoying the perfect spring weather in the Jardin du Luxembourg before hopping on a train to spend a long weekend in one of my favorite places in France: Strasbourg.

Tarte flambée from
Troquet des Kneckes
I've spent a fair amount of time in Strasbourg, but it's always fun to revisit and see it anew through someone else's perspective.  We took advantage of the Alsatian regional culinary specialties like tarte flambée, pinot gris, bièrebretzel, gâteau forêt noire, and kugelhopf.  We admired the Cathédrale from all angles and at different times of day, climbed to the top for a view of Strasbourg, listened to street musicians, visited the Musée Alsatien, got together with a couple of my friends for drinks, strolled along the canals and saw the ponts couverts...  We even walked the 45 minutes it took to get to Kehl, Germany for an afternoon; how often do you get to walk to Germany and back, after all?  On the agenda was visiting a rose garden and experiencing true German culture in the form of Spaghetti eis at an ice cream parlor.

Strasbourg Cathédrale

Madeleines du Voyage
I experienced some new things in Strasbourg this time around, too, one of which was a long-time bucket list item: afternoon tea at Au Fond du Jardin, a fancy tea shop next to the Cathédrale.  Cozy inside on a rainy afternoon, we enjoyed the Downton Abbey soundtrack as background music and chose teas from an extensive menu (or rather, the propriétaire expertly chose for us) as well as scones and madeleines, small cake-like French pastries.  You can find these in bulk at any French supermarket, but Au Fond du Jardin makes extravagant gourmet madeleines which they call Madeleines du Voyage; you can peruse their selection here.

We loved the uniqueness of the individual teapots that the tea is served in, and the madeleines were to die for (especially the chocolate).

That rainy day also included a visit to the Cave historique des hospices de Strasbourg, a wine cellar located on public hospital grounds.  The hospital cellar itself dates back to the late 1300s, though the original was burned down once.  In its early days, probably due to the abundance of wine producers in the Alsace region, wine was often accepted as payment for medical services.  In turn, the hospital made a profit selling wine.  Today, you can do a self-guided tour free of charge as well as shop regional wines (typically white and sweet), though you can find wines from all over France there.  The cellar's main claim to fame is perhaps the oldest surviving wine barrel in the world, dating back to 1472.  The wine itself has only been sampled a few times over history, but tests have been done on it in recent years showing that it is indeed still wine (and not vinegar), and is made up of about seventy aromatic components.

Once the rain had cleared, we spent a day in the nearby town of Colmar.  Four years ago, I visited to see the Musée Unterlinden; this time, I chose to spend some time in the Musée Bartholdi.  It's a small, quaint spot dedicated to the artist and Colmar native Auguste Bartholdi; if his name rings a bell, it's because he created a certain Statue of Liberty (La liberté éclairant le monde).

He also created a well-known fountain in Lyon as well as a statue in Clermont-Ferrand, among many other pieces.  The museum holds several floors of sketches and miniatures of his works.

Colmar is known for its Petite Venise, or little Venice, an area of canals with a Venetian flavor.  We took a short boat tour up and down a bit of canal, given in both English and French.

On Sunday, we headed away from Germany and toward Belgium, stopping in Lille for a few days.  I don't play tourist very often in Lille, but it was nice to have company to try a few new things, like climbing the old beffroi for a view of the city.  Made of brick, typical of the north of France, Lille's belfry is the highest in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region.  It's a climb of about six stories, though it's possible to cheat and take the elevator up if you prefer.

City hall beffroi
We took the tram to Roubaix, a city adjacent to Lille, to visit a well-known municipal-pool-turned-art-museum appropriately called La Piscine.  There is still a fountain in place of the indoor pool, and some of the artwork is arranged in cases in the skeletons of the old showers.  You can see sculptures, decorative art pieces, paintings, sketches, and more, and there are usually several temporary expositions as well.  All in all, very unique and well done and worth the trip just outside of Lille for an afternoon.

Le welsh
La carbonade flamande
As far as northern France cuisine goes, I can report on a couple of specialties we tried.  One is carbonade flamande, meat cooked in a sweet dark beer sauce.  This is one of my favorite northern dishes because of the unique flavor of the sauce.  The other speciality I had is called a welsh; in its most basic form, it's cheddar fondu over a thin layer of grilled bread with beer and mustard added for flavoring, but other ingredients like meat and egg can be added.  Le welsh is very heavy, though, and I'd recommend sharing with someone!  Both plates came with an abundance of fries and a salad.

Wednesday night, it was time to pack up and city hop once more.  We took a quick Thalys train north through Belgium and up to Amsterdam.  It was my third time visiting the city, but the first time sans jetlag.  We enjoyed bright blue skies and the first green leaves of spring dotting the canals, not quite covering up the iconic architecture.  There were plenty of people there for the long holiday weekend, but it wasn't nearly as stifling as in July or August.

View from Westerkerk
New experiences this time around included a climb to the top of Westerkerk and eventually going inside the church where the artist Rembrandt's grave is located.  Only very small groups of about eight people can go up the tower at a time, so I'd suggest stopping by the ticket counter first thing in the morning to reserve a tour time for later in the day.  The climb up the tower is literally that - a climb up steep rickety wooden steps, hanging on to a rope - especially as you reach the top (and the descent is even scarier), but the view is spectacular and the tour guide gives you interesting tidbits of info on each floor as you ascend.

Another "first-thing-in-the-morning" attraction was the Rijksmuseum, more or less the Louvre of Amsterdam.  The Rijksmuseum is smaller and more manageable, but because you can see all of it in half a day, you feel obligated to do so and it can be quite tiring swimming through seas of tourists, trying to take in all the artwork.  We unintentionally had a good strategy skipping straight to the second floor to see the Rembrandt and Vermeer paintings first when we had the most energy and before the room was swarming with people.  The most famous in that room is Rembrandt's work, La ronde de la nuit.  On the first floor, you can find a couple of small Van Gogh paintings, including a self portrait.

Just outside the Rijksmuseum sits a modern attraction, I amsterdam.  We got there early hoping to beat the crowds, but were lucky to snag these photos after being thwarted by a kid who just couldn't get down from the top of the 'm', a giant tour group taking over suddenly and with a vengeance, and a small spat with their maybe Australian tour guide.  Someday, we'll return to capture 'terdam' in all its glory.

Our Lord in the Attic
We stayed in an Airbnb on Frederik Hendrikstraat, which is in a quiet, local neighborhood not far from the Anne Frank house and Westerkerk.  Our host left us with some off-the-beaten-path suggestions, including Ons'Lieve Heer op Solder, or Our Lord in the Attic museum, located in the Red Light district.  Inside is one of the best-preserved original houses in the city, bought by a merchant in 1661, including a hidden Catholic church constructed in the attic soon after.  (In the mid-1500s, Catholics had lost the right to worship openly in Amsterdam.)  The intricacy and craftiness of the church's design is incredible, and there is plenty more history to discover in the many rooms of the house.  This place is among the highest on my "hidden gem" list.

Finally, a riverboat cruise through the canals is a lovely and relaxing way to take in the architecture without the stress of walking through the streets trying not to get hit by bikes and cars.  We took one at sunset on our last evening.

And, since I haven't done one of these in ages, here is your random

Dutch Word of the Day
slagroom - whipped cream

...just in case you need to order some fancy ice cream.

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