Sunday, July 17, 2005

The Johnsons' French Camping (Mis)Adventure

Lance and I just spent a sweltering weekend in Strasbourg, France, where I unwisely decided that we should go camping. Going to Strasbourg itself was a good call, although it is a long drive for a 3 day weekend, but if we had been able to predict the weather far enough in advance, we would've gotten an air conditioned hotel room.

We left the house around 8:30 am, GPS unit and printed-out instructions in hand. We figured the total drive time would take around 4.5 hours, plus we were stopping at Bitburg AFB along the way to gas up, get lunch, and buy provisions for the trip. We arrived around 11 am at Bitburg. I'm not sure how long we spent there - more than an hour, less than 2.

Back on the road, we realize the instructions Lance printed out were too detailed and also inaccurate. Autobahn numbers aren't matching up with what we have in our directions. By some miracle, we don't get lost, although there are a lot of tense moments.

We arrive at the campground Montagne Verte (translated into "green mountain") at around 4 or so, making our travel time definitely more than 4.5 hours. Montagne Verte is just a couple of kilometers outside Strasbourg, but there is a bus and a tram that go into town. I should add that Montagne Verte is a misnomer. It might be green, but it certainly isn't a mountain.

We set up camp. I think it took a little less than an hour to get settled in. We were assigned a spot very near to the showers/restrooms, which was convenient in some respects, except that we could hear the toilet flushing all hours of the day and night. The people at the campsite next to us were British, and an American came along, saw Lance's truck, and introduced himself to us. We chatted for a bit. He was telling us how he and his wife were spending the summer bicycling through France and they were passing through Strasbourg for a couple of nights. We just thought it was interesting that the first people we met at the campground were English speakers.

After setting up camp and taking a brief rest, we decided to venture into town for dinner. As we were passing a stream that runs along the campground, we saw something that looked like a giant muskrat running toward the water. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get my camera ready in time, so I couldn't get a picture.

We found the tram station and bought our ticket. I think we bought the wrong ticket (we got the family pass that is good for 24 hours, although we found out later that the family pass must include children). But we traveled on it for 24 hours without getting caught, although I would not recommend doing that. They do have random checks. We just got lucky.

Once we were on the tram, I had no idea where to get off. My France guidebook doesn't offer a lot of information on Strasbourg, so I didn't really know where anything was. Once I saw the river, I decided that we should get off at the next stop. So we did. And then Lance discovered that I had no idea where we were, and he got a little upset. I told him that I was just winging it...that we could walk around and just explore and find a place that looked good to eat. But he was growing increasingly cranky (and the fact that it was about 90 degrees probably had a lot to do with it, as he overheats very easily). So after a bit of bickering back and forth about where and what to eat, I led him to the first place I saw after we settled down, which was an Italian place. It was good. I had the Tarte Flambee, which appears to be a local specialty (it was on nearly every single restaurant menu in town). It was basically a pizza without the sauce. Mine had cream, salmon, and onion on it. It was very very good.

After dinner, Lance was feeling more himself, and we decided to just walk along the river, which actually goes around town in a circle. We saw a good deal of the town just along the river. We decided to get some ice cream, so we eventually found ourselves at a kind of expensive Italian ice cream place. After we ate there, Lance wanted to head back to the campground for the night, so we hopped on the nearest tram we could find and made our way back.

Our first night was relatively peaceful. The other campers were courteous and weren't being loud and obnoxious at all hours of the night, which was nice. We could hear the toilets though and there were 3 churches in the area that rang their bells every 15 minutes, even in the middle of the night. Also, the outside lights around the bathroom/showers shone into our tent. I didn't get much sleep that first night, even though things cooled down considerably and it was comfortable sleeping weather. Our air mattress seems to have sprung a leak, so it deflated almost completely both nights. Irritating.


We started out with a picnic breakfast on a tablecloth in front of our tent (there was no picnic's one of those "bring your own everything" campsites, although they had nice showers and places to wash dishes and laundry). We went into town around 10 am or so, and the first place I wanted to see was the Cathedrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg. It towers over Strasbourg and is quite an impressive sight from the outside. Lance and I didn't go in with high expectations. Since we saw the cathedral in Cologne, we use that as the measuring stick for which to judge all other cathedrals. I have to say, this was close. We were both very very impressed. The stained glass had such amazing colors. The organ pipes, I thought, were even more beautifully detailed than the ones in Cologne. The astronomical clock was also really cool, although we happened to see the little show of allegorical figures at 10:30, which was just as disappointing as Prague's.

Right as we were finishing up our tour of the cathedral, they started choir practice. It was such gorgeous music, and we were in such a gorgeous setting, that I got a lump in my throat and I got a bit teary-eyed. It really was amazing.

After our look at the cathedral, we decided to get some cold drinks and sit on the steps of the cathedral, watching the people walking around in the square and listening to a guy who was playing the accordian. It was really perfect, although you could tell that the day was about to get really hot.

I decided that our next stop should be Palais de Rohan, a palace right by the cathedral that has an archaeological museum as well as a museum of fine arts and a decorative arts museum. We paid one admission price for all 3. The archaeological museum was somewhat disappointing. The decorative arts museum was mildly interesting, although moreso because we got to actually see the palace as a living space rather than just a museum. We got to see the bedrooms and how the palace must've looked back when it was a residence. In the decorative arts museum, they have the old astronomical clock on display from the cathedral. That was probably the coolest thing in there. We spent a brief time walking around the fine arts museum, but Lance was complaining of boredom, so I didn't get much chance to explore there, even though there were works by some very famous painters. I know he's not into art though, so I was just happy to get to see some of it.

Once we left the palace, it was really starting to get horribly hot. I suggested that a boat tour might cool things down a little. We had a choice between open-air or a covered boat. Lance decided on covered, thinking that it would probably be air conditioned (one would heat like that, it would be like an oven if it wasn't air conditioned). It felt really nice when we first got on, but as the tour got started, it got warmer and warmer and warmer. I was sitting by the vent and I could feel less and less air coming out of it. We started to really bake in there after awhile, which just made both of us even more cranky. By the time we got out of the boat, being out in the open air again felt like a treat.

It was then that I realized the entire trip was probably a big mistake. Lance wasn't having a good time. I wasn't having a good time because I saw how uncomfortable Lance was. I told him that after we found a place to have lunch, we could go back to the campground and just sit out the hottest part of the day...take a long siesta...what have you. Fortunately, there was at least a cool breeze.

We started walking around in search of food, neither of us really knowing what we wanted to eat. When it's that hot, nothing really sounds good. Eventually, I found this rather remote place that served crepes. We were walking down some alley that was pretty much deserted, and I happened to look down a side alley and saw a sign for a crepe restaurant with an arrow pointing down an even narrower alley. So we went down that alley and it opened into a small square that had a couple of restaurants and a postcard shop. The creperie was packed. So we got some crepes and actually had a pleasant lunch. We were sitting outside in the shade, but with the cool breeze, it was pretty nice.

Lance felt recharged a bit after lunch, so he allowed for going a couple of places we saw on the boat tour where I wanted to get pictures. And then we got on the tram and went back to the campground and took a siesta until dinner. But before going back, we stopped at a little fast food joint between the tram stop and the campground that sold Magnum ice cream bars. I'm addicted to the double caramel ones, but they don't sell that kind here in Germany. I remembered finding them in Paris last year. So we looked and they advertised that they had them. Hurray! But when we tried to order one for me, we were told they did not have them. I had to settle for a different ice cream bar instead, which was good, but just not the same. Ah well. All other searches for the elusive Magnum Double Caramels ended with the same result, even though the Double Caramels were pictured on their ice cream posters. I guess they are not carried in that part of France. Phooey. (Oh well...they do sell them in England, so I will be happily eating one a day while in London next month!)

Back into town for dinner, and I was in the mood for doner kebap. We had seen dozens of doner places, but of course, when I actually wanted one, the doner kebap shops were nowhere to be found. We settled on another pasta place that was near the cathedral. And since we were there, we browsed some souvenir shops.

Today (Sunday):

Slept better than the first night. We got up, showered, had our picnic breakfast, and tore down the camp. We took a different route back. The route going there took us through Saarbrucken, which was a scary experience we didn't wish to repeat. So we bypassed Saarbrucken, and had a relatively drama-free drive home. I saw a beautiful chateau somewhere in the Lorraine province of France (note: Strasbourg is in Alsace). We also drove along some beautiful parts of the Mosel once we got back into Germany. I wish I could've taken pictures of all the sights we see along the autobahn.

Stopped at Bitburg again on the way back to gas up and get lunch.

Our drive home was shorter by about 2 hours than the drive there. Also, it was a gorgeous 73 degrees. GAAAAAAAAH!

A note about Strasbourg: it has switched hands between Germany and France many times. As a result, many speak both languages and the culture is a good mixture of French and German. Beer is very popular there, and so are Rhine wines. The food is both French (quiche and cheese plates) and German, with lots of pork and sauerkraut (which is, incidently, Chinese and not German...something I learned yesterday). You see bakeries such as "Schmitt Patisserie/Boulangerie" - a German name with something that is very French. Menus are in both languages (we hardly saw any menus with English on them, but I got by on my rusty high school French...they don't speak English as willingly there). You see many German-style half-timber buildings. One dorm at the Univ. of Strasbourg was named "Gallia" when it was French, and "Germania" when it was German. This name switched back and forth several times. Strasbourg is an interesting mixture of both cultures.


Saturday, July 9, 2005

Architecture, Gastronomy, CHOCOLATE! and shopping in Brussels

Yesterday I went on a day trip to Brussels with my friend Christy. We didn't want the hassle of driving in, so we took the train from Sittard-Maastrict, Maastricht-Liege, Liege-Brussels. The total travel time getting there was not quite 2.5 hours.

We got off the train at Central Station, and immediately tried to get our bearings. We knew we wanted to see the Grand Place, St. Michael's Cathedral, and the Royal Palace, but we weren't really sure where to start first. The highest spire in Brussels is the one on the town hall in the Grand Place, so I suggested that we aim for that. Within a few minutes, we found ourselves standing in one of the most magnificent market squares in Europe, and there was a flower market going on. We stood and gawked and took a few pictures, and then decided to meander around the streets that branched out of the Grand Place.

Our next goal was to find the Manneken Pis, a celebrated statue of a peeing boy whose image graces the majority of souvenirs in Brussels. You can buy him in chocolate form, and various forms of metal and plastic, in addition to t-shirts, hats, bags, postcards...the list is endless. I'm not quite sure why this little guy is so popular, but there are a lot of things about Europe that boggle the mind.

But we did find him, on some rather un-spectacular side street. What pointed us to his presence was the group of Japanese tourists milling about, and the big Manneken Pis bar and restaurant located across the street (with an replica of Manneken Pis in a waiter's outfit in the window). Manneken Pis, I should add, has many little outfits that he wears sometimes, but when we saw him, he was utterly naked.

Needless to say, seeing him was somewhat anti-climactic.

We just continued walking down side streets, stepping into any shop or building that piqued our interest. Particularly chocolate shops. Many of them give free samples, and just the variety and various designs of the chocolate are enough to make you want to go into every shop just to look at them. Besides the chocolate shops (I eventually bought some chocolates at a place called Devina), there was this store we came across called La Maison du Miel, or "the House of Honey." The smell lured us in more than anything. It smelled like absolute heaven inside, and they sold, obviously, products made of honey - both edible and non-edible. They had soaps, bath ballistics, skin creams, masks, candles, candies, various kinds of honey, vinegars, beers made with honey...the list goes on and on. We spent a lot of time in this place and neither of us walked out empty-handed. They also let you sample the honey.

Anyway, Christy decided that she wanted to find St. Michael's Cathedral, so we eventually made our way there and looked around for a bit.

Then we decided to find some lunch. I don't know how we ended up where we was just some random street that we happened to come across. But we stopped at this restaurant (I can't recall the name of it) and had a very large lunch. I had some Belgian specialty, which was nothing more than meatballs in a tomato sauce with french fries. It was pretty tasty though.

After lunch, we wanted to find the Royal Palace. We eventually made it there, but not before being distracted by a few things. We walked around and took pictures, and then it really started to rain, so we stepped into a cafe and got some drinks while waiting for the rain to subside.

Once it did, we decided to just meander some more. We did a little more shopping. We both bought pashminas at some souvenir shop. I loved the one I bought in Istanbul so much that I had to get another one, and the price was right. We also came upon a Chi Chi's. I thought it was hilarious to see Chi Chi's in the heart of Brussels, but once I saw it, a huge craving for fried ice cream hit, so we went in to share some. It wasn't nearly as good as the fried ice cream served at the US Chi Chi's though.

Once we finished our dessert (as if the chocolates weren't enough), we figured we better make our way toward the train station, since we had about an hour or so before our train was due to leave. On the way there, we noticed a cheese shop tucked away in a little corner. We couldn't resist. Christy had been telling me about this amazing cheese she had in had fig in it. This store had it, and she was so excited. So I bought 3 - two for her and one for myself to try. So after that purchase, we made our way to the train station and came home.

It was a full day, but I think we got a good taste of Brussels, and we want to go back.

Oh...and one more thing worth mentioning, just because I thought it was hilarious. Some Italian guy was trying to pick me up in the Grand Place and was blowing kisses at me. I ignored him, but it was quite amusing!