Alsace, France, January, 2020
Strasbourg, Alsace France
New Years Day got off to a nice slow start lingering in bed with coffee and thoughts about the upcoming year and particularly the next 6 months. I told Steve "I gotta get out of here." He said "Why don't you go get your nails done." I said "That's not what I mean." He said "You do what cha gotta do", and by 3:00 that afternoon I had a ticket to Paris to depart two days later.
The Alsatian region of France hugs the German border and the Rhine river on the east and the northern edge of Switzerland to the south. There are rolling and round top hills speckled with small towns and church spires and castles. It is known for it's wine and food but really drew my attention with it's quaint villages of half timbered houses and little winding, cobbled streets. I'd looked at it as a destination to explore on one of my September adventures but during the busier seasons the cost isn't "user friendly". Colder weather changes that.
French scares me. When someone speaks English to me with a French accent I almost shut down. I just cannot process what I am hearing. So I wasn't at all sure how I would get along. ...and what about the Yellow Vests protests, and train strikes that were going on? Unlike my other trips where I have almost every aspect planned out, other than my first two nights in Strasbourg reserved I don’t have a clear itinerary. Normally I think that would leave me a bit nervous, but in this case it leaves me feeling some freedom. If I can’t get to where I think I may want to go, I can change direction on a dime and go somewhere else. …and if I accidentally wind up on a train or bus going the “wrong” way, I can just decide that it is the right way and make it work.
A long day of travel which included the train and bus from Cardiff to LAX, a flight with an unexpected upgrade and the high speed train from Paris, I arrived deliriously tried in Strasbourg…with just my backpack and the sense that I’d need a much heavier jacket. After a dinner of baguette, cheese and pate in my little attic hotel room high above the Plaza Kleber I fell asleep thinking about what tomorrow holds….
January 5, 2020
I had no idea when I arrived here that Strasbourg was known as the Capitol of Christmas and has the oldest Christmas market in Europe. I'm just glad they are slow in taking it all down! I was too tired to stay out last night to enjoy the lights so I made it a point to retrace my morning walk after dark this evening to take in all the lights. It was really magical...and chilly.
Today's exploration began with a long walk along the river that surrounds the city's historic center. A couple of swans followed me until they realized I wasn't going to feed them. It is Sunday so the streets were quiet and it was peaceful. I pretty much wound my way up and down every cobbled street and alley until my hunger overcame my sense of Awkward Solo Diner and I chose a place to eat.
The Tarte Flambée is to Alsace as the fish taco is to Baja and Patatas Bravas is to Catalonia... a traditional, regional delight. It is a light, thin, crispy pizza crust with onions and small pieces of ham. and I love it. Quite frankly, Trader Joes has one in the frozen pizza section that is very much like what I had today. I made sure to leave a little bit on the plate rather than eat the whole thing in order to be more lady like. But I wanted to eat the whole thing!
I came back to my room for a nap, but instead got busy with maps to try to figure out where to head tomorrow. I'm going south with the idea of finding the GR 5 / Route du Vin trail and exploring some small villages and castles ... and tarte flambée as needed.
January 6, 2020
When I went to bed last night, after an obsessed route planning event, I thought I had done the best figuring I could do. However, I woke up around 3am with a revelation that I had missed something and had to get back on maps and figure some more. My plan of getting up at 6am was thus delayed and I made it to breakfast around 9:00. Unfortunately, my plan was to make the 9:57am train to Obernai, and I missed that one...and with my language handicap coupled with the Frenchy ticket kiosk, I also missed the 10:20 train. The next 3 normally scheduled trains were cancelled due to strike, so I finally got my ticket for the 12:10 train, then assessed my options for waiting for the next 2 hours. I was drawn back toward the old city center in a cloak of heavy fog and wet chill in the air. I think I ended up walking streets I had somehow missed in the prior couple of days. It was a very nice walk and I made it back to the station in plenty of time to catch my train into the wine country.
The Route du Vin actually starts north of Strasbourg, but the highly Instagrammed, picturesque villages on the trail are south, so that is my aim and I thought I would begin in Obernai which is acclaimed as Les Blue Beaux Détours de France...one of the finest stops to make in the whole darn country.
I stepped off the train and noted a severe drop in temps from what I had left behind. Though it wasn't a long rail distance from Strasbourg the temperature drop was face slapping. I found my way into the old town wrestling with a few needs I had, and trying to prioritize them. It was in the low 30s (F) and though I had most of my layers on I had clearly misstepped in not pulling out my gloves and in choosing the matching scarf instead of the warmest scarf. My original plan as of 3am was to take the train to Obernai and talk with the Tourist Office about the walking trail to determine how far I might make it today before choosing a place to stay. However... the info office was closed until 2:00 and I arrived at 12:40 so I walked about the town a bit thinking about staying the night, having lunch, buying a heavier jacket, and using the public toilet...
At about 1:15 I ducked into the Hotel Diligence on the old center town square and waved the white flag of surrender and get a room.
I opted to spend 10euros more for the 15m room over the 9m room. I didn't know really what that meant, but after my last sweet attic room in Strasbourg, with the toilet exactly 1 full step from my bed, I thought a few extra meters would be nice. And it is. My towel rack is heated and I have a tub!! and a kettle and an amazing view of the cathedral spire and the town clock tower and the timbered buildings of the town and I am feeling blessed. ...and warm.
I donned a couple more layers and switched out the matching scarf with the warmer one, found my gloves and headed over to the tourist office. I got the low down and a few maps that somehow The Google hasn't mentioned and am feeling confident for tomorrow's walk and beyond.
A trip to the grocery turned out to be quite a culinary adventure. I have never seen charcuterie abundance like I saw today. No US store has ever contained the amount of dried meats, pates, cheeses, cruedités that this standard, small town grocery had available. It was a shame I was shopping for only one.
So tonight, I will enjoy my charcuterie and a hot bath and lay out my clothes (almost all of them!) for tomorrow. But I finally feel sure about my plan. I know where the trail begins and about how far I will go tomorrow. That's all I need! ...an my leftover meats and cheeses sit outside my window in "refrigeration".
Obernai - Itterswiller January 7
Itterswiller - Chatenois January 8
Chatenois - Ribeauvillé January 9
Technology can be a continual challenge for me. I have been without Internet and unable to post each day, and now it seems that my charger for the laptop has stopped working and I lost my last post before it actually got posted. So, the following is a combo of the past 3 Days.
The long and the short is I’m wandering through vineyard country, dotted with tiny villages, with medieval history and quaint streets that look right out of a storybook. I set out from Obernai and seemed to make one wrong navigational decision after the next as I zigzagged my way along what probably could have been a more direct path toward the town of Barr and onto Andlau. There are some symbols posted along the way but no map that I have tell what those symbols mean. The only one I recognize is the one for the Camino de Santiago leading towards Spain.
Andlau was to be my endpoint for the day but it looked so sleepy and closed up when I got there, so I added a few more miles to get to Itterswiller where I found an open hotel.
Itterswiller is about two blocks long which I’m sure in the wine tasting season are a hopping two blocks. However in January everything is closed up and there was not an open place to find any food. I made dinner from a Clif bar, a meat stick and a couple of packets of Emergen-C that I had in my snack stash.
The hotel had some renovating going on and therefore the Internet was not working so I had to just take a more relaxed approach to the route plan for the following day. I decided that as long as I was heading in the general direction of the town I wanted to get to I wasn’t going to stress too much on which path I was on... the GR5, the Route du Vin, the Camiño Francés... made no difference to me. And I think I covered all of them at some point.
(Images from Obernai to Itterswiller)
I left about 8:30 next morning to head to the town of Chatenois. Thick ice covered the puddles on the path. The weather forecast had called for rain but I’m pretty sure that if there were to be any precipitation it would be snow rather than rain. Thankfully I saw neither. My highlight of the day was the town of Dambach -la-Ville which was about as cute as they come. As I exited the town gates the wind was icy cold but my layered up approach held up pretty well. My outfit for the day was a short sleeve smart wool T-shirt, a long sleeve REI midweight base layer, a long sleeve 1/4 zip smart wool sweater, Patagonia Nano Puff jacket covered by my rain jacket and accessorized with a scarf wrapped up to my bottom lip. The upside is that the upper bulk is slimming to the lower proportions of only 2 layers.
I arrived in Chatenois and found a hotel. When looking for the hotel reception area, I went in through the restaurant entrance and was promptly seated. I figured it was an opportunity to eat a tarte flambée. So I did.
After a little rest I set out to do some exploring and found the old walled portion of the village. It’s so spectacular to see such an ancient stone wall with houses built into the wall that people are still living in today. Our USA is just a baby in comparison!
When touring around the old city wall I found the Camino de Santiago route sign and decided that that would be what I would follow for today’s leg of the journey.
Today was much warmer, almost Spring like. The Camino route took me higher up the slopes of the hillsides and opened up the view a bit. Off in the distance I could see just a hint of the alps. I’ve yet to see even one other walker and as I headed into the woods I wondered if that made me feel safer or more vulnerable. I went with safer. ...but was glad when the wooded trail ended and I was back in the vineyards.
Ribeauvillé, my end point goal for the day is even more picturesque than I had imagined. I quickly found a hotel and am taking a break before I go out to look around. These next few villages are the ones I really wanted to see, so I’m looking forward to it!!
Ribeauvillé to Kaysersberg
January 10, 2020
The walk between villages is more of the same... peaceful and jam-packed with solitude. I even engaged in some singing out loud today. Ribeauville was a very cute village, but Riquewihr was quaintness overload. From my understanding, it is the town Beauty and the Beast was inspired by. I can see it. Again, coming in the chilly off season sure pays off. It was almost completely empty.
I walked slowly through the streets lined with ornate and colorful buildings until I was hit hard in the nose with the smell of sugar and butter. I'm not one who usually likes sweets, but I was drawn into the bakery that was emitting the scent. I bought a meringue that was as big as my face and nibbled on it as I continued to explore the quiet streets. Amazing.
Leaving through the town gate I continued on toward Kaysersberg. More wide open spaces on the Camino route brought me along the vineyards on the terraced hillside. I headed up to the castle before descending to town. 115 steps to the top of the tower gave me a great look around.
The towns are finally getting around to taking down the Christmas decorations today. It's funny to see the town drop off spot for all the Christmas trees. The January throw aways still look and smell fresher than the ones we buy in December in San Diego.
My dogs are barking after several days of 10+ miles per day. So thankful to see that I have a bathtub at my hotel tonight!
Kaysersberg to Colmar
January 11, 2020
Colmar wasn’t the planned end destination for today, but c’est la vie....
I got started around 9am full of butter and confidence and headed off toward Turckheim and on to Equisheim, each leg approximately 2 hours. Right off the bat the trail led up into the wooded mountain...getting the heart started. It was nice being able to look back across the valley to where I came yesterday... but a very steep “up” none the less.
The trail led through a couple of new-ish construction hamlets and eventually headed downhill into Turckheim. As I wandered in the neighborhoods and toward the city center I had a very strong sense that I was done. Done. Done walking. I sat in a park for a little bit and looked at my map and assessed my options. Colmar by train seemed like the best idea, so I headed over toward the little train station stop and found an inoperable ticket machine and no people around. At that point there seemed to be no other choice but to walk on to Colmar which was another 1 hr 45 minutes. Now out of the vineyards, I walked along roads and felt conspicuously out of place.
With all the perseverance I could drum up, I finally made it into Colmar city and through blocks and blocks of apartments and buildings. After regrouping for a few minutes on a bench outside the hospital, I aimed toward Petite Venice, my final push into the old city center. All I wanted to do was to find a hotel and get off my feet. I found a wonderful attic room right at the heart of petite Venice with a robe and slippers and a mini bar. After showering, I sat robed, exhausted and somewhat satisfied and enjoyed a can of Pringle’s and small bottle of champagne from my minibar before going out to explore the beautiful streets of Colmar.
Colmar To Strasbourg, Strasbourg To Paris
January 14, 2020
...and so it’s the beginning to the end. On the train back to Strasbourg, looking up to the hillside terraces I'd walked along for the past few days I had a chance to reflect on my internal journey as much as the physical one. Both had covered a lot of territory. I spent one more night in Strasbourg, then a nice walk along the river to the station, the train from Strasbourg through the countryside...through Lorraine...through Champagne And eventually into the Paris airport station.
It has been an interesting trip for sure, to travel with only a loose idea, but no real itinerary. I feel empowered to do less planning in the future. I did implement a few things from lessons learned on past trips which reduced some stress ...which is always nice.
I am no better with the French language today than I was 10 days ago though. I’m just less anxious and embarrassed about it now.
I joined a Facebook group this week which I unjoined quickly after getting a taste of it. It’s a parenting forum to ask questions and get input from other parents...mostly moms it seems. Helicopters. Snowplows. Lawnmowers I was taken aback by many of their questions. So many of the moms presented a challenge facing their teen /young adult kids and then added that the child had anxiety issues...social anxieties etc. which complicated the situation (*this is not a commentary on clinical anxiety disorders). The vast majority of responses suggested keeping the “child” comfortable and happy. This made me feel uncomfortable and unhappy. We don’t overcome things that make us uncomfortable by avoiding them. And I don’t believe we achieve happiness by living an unchallenged life. Happiness comes from climbing the mountain and looking back at how far you’ve come. You help someone with their anxieties/fears by empowering them in taking a step and walking with them. Look that monster under the bed directly in the eye.
For me I had to look the French speakers and French train ticket kiosks directly in the eye and ask my question the best I could, sometimes twice. And I became less and less uncomfortable with it and more and more happy about being alone, adventuring in France.
I’ll be seeing you again sometime Francy Pants. But until then Au Revoir!