Loc and I have some awesome friends here. Case and point:
Lufthansa’s pilots went on a previously announced strike last Wednesday morning. This was all well and good, as our flight to Sicily for our Italian Thanksgiving was not to depart until the following morning. All well and good, that is, until the pilots announced that their strike was to extend through the following day, the day we were to fly. Darn. At least they told us at 11:30.
11:30, you see, happens to be the beginning of Loc’s lunch hour. It’s also the lunch hour of our friend Kevin up at Vilseck. Further, we have three savvy stay-at-home types, two of whom put a good deal of effort into planning our Sicilian extravaganza. And up in Grafenwoehr, our friend Ryan spent his day without his phone, so he knew nothing about the proceedings until he arrived home and was told to pack his bags – honey, we’re leaving; let’s go!
In the 90 minutes from 11:30 to 13:00, our crew canceled all of our coordinations for our Sicily trip (except for the airfare… Lufthansa’s lines were backed up for days), set our collective eyes on a new destination, and decided to drive that same afternoon. We chose to visit the wine country of eastern France, and we chose to book our lodging as our impromptu plan unfolded – spontaneity is the spice of life, right? Bethany even downloaded an audiobook for our journey, Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance (we’re all so happy we’re married).
We set our sights for the night on Colmar or Strasbourg, two Alsatian towns on the Franco-German border, and left Loc to secure the lodging. As we’d agreed to leave that same night, I volunteered to go to Nuremberg to retrieve the rental in a timely fashion – we’d gotten a 7-passenger van that could hold all six of us and our bags. I spent the 13:00 hour packing my bags and talking to my buddy Aaron, who gave me a low-down on the region, on the phone. By 14:00, I was out the door and walking to the train station, and I was rolling towards my automotive by locomotive by 14:20.
I’d listed 16:00 as my time of pick-up, and I walked up to the rental counter at the Nuremberg airport with several minutes to spare. I’d originally rented a VW Caddy Maxilife, primarily because it has a cool name for a bunch of married foodies to roll around in, but upon presenting my credit card, I was offered an upgrade. I got upgraded to a Mercedez-Benz Vito, which not only increased our storage capacity but came with an automatic transmission AND an onboard navigation system. Super spiffy – I tested the navigator on my way home and found it to be accurate, in English, and adept at pronouncing German names. Good, good.
Our friends still had to finish their duty days out and pack and such, so we didn’t begin our journey until after 18:00. Loc and I had a quick meal of vegetarian frikadellen, butternut squash, and bread. The rest of the crew brought their dinners along for a mobile picnic. All of us brought grocery bags of fruits and vegetables that would otherwise go bad while we were away. We all loaded up into the van, appreciating for the first time just how much space we really did have, and ruminated on how best to fill that space (read: wine) – and off we went.
With Loc as my right-hand man, I drove off into the darkness and across the land. Let me tell you, there’s just something wonderful about leaving Bavaria. It’s not that I don’t love the place, because I do, but there’s this forcefield of terrible weather just beyond Nuremberg, the far side of which is, uh, pleasant weather. It’s like stepping through the wardrobe in one of CS Lewis’ books. Every time.
Loc had booked a nice apartment in downtown Colmar, and we parked the van with relative ease and were inside by 2300. There was some goofiness here, because the entry code we’d been given did not jive with the keypad on the door, nor did the two successive codes that the receptionist gave Loc over the phone… but there was a bottle of Riesling and a bottle of water sitting on the table for us when we did get in. That was cool. The place was full of such nerddom as a full-blown map of Middle Earth and a beautiful book about a goofy Giraffe that J.R.R. Tolkien had both written and illustrated for his son – it’s called Mr. Bliss. Suffice it to say, I would very much have liked to meet the decorators of that apartment.
In the morning, after breakfast and a brief walk about town, we embarked on the next leg of our journey. I’d had Beaune and the road connecting it to Dijon recommended to me by my friend Aaron, so we all set off to have a look. Beaune, in addition to being impossible to pronounce, is home to an architecturally world-renowned hospice. Alas, we reached the town at the beginning of sieste (yes, the French do it too) hours and decided to move on to Dijon before the hospice opened back up. Dijon is home to the world’s oldest mustard empire!
Our journey northward along the A31 took us past a number of reputed wineries, among them the Clos de Vougeot estate. It also took us past a number of wine bars, and we stopped at one of these to use its facilities and drink a bottle of wine before continuing on our way. It is here that I learned about the Gamay grape and the wines it yields, the kingpin being Beaujolais. We had a 2011 bottle of Gamay, which we all quite enjoyed. The Vougeot estate likewise proved a worthwhile visit, though due to our timing and our desire to get to the Maille flagship store before closing time, we did not tour the chateau. We did, however, pass by a wine vendor and flip a U-turn in the van to pay a visit. Worth it.
Dijon is a foodie haven, yo. Kevin booked us a dinner venue, a French tapas place, for 2000, and we set out to go find Maille, that emporium of fine mustards – so fresh, they’re on tap. Well, we found it. We spent time aplenty sampling mustards, vinaigrettes, oils, and gurkens, and left with mustards, vinaigrettes, and oils. Tip: crush some garlic and pop the whole crushed cloves into a bottle of good olive oil; after a few days, mix the oil with a tasty Balsamic vinaigrette and have at it – soooo yummy. Anyway, dinner was great; my favorite dish among delicious dishes was an open sandwich with goat cheese and fig compote. Breakfast was great too – croissants, éclairs, and a baguette from a superb boulangerie. And then we found a coffee shop that advertised coffee art on its window; Loc walked out with a panda on his cappuccino. Each one of our individual drinks was crafted with great care… it was just awesome. Also, I will learn how to make a worthy baguette. I left that city so happy.
Pressing on, we moved for Reims. It was on this leg of our voyage that we listened to Aziz Ansari tell us how much dating has changed and how hard it is to find a mate now – yay marriage. Loc had booked us a place with jaw-dropping views and a parking lot, and we made it into that lot with nary an issue. While Loc and the rest of the crew went off to find the owner of our apartment, I parried with a Frenchwoman who ardently insisted that I could not park where I had parked because the police had forbidden it. It was a numbered parking spot; I didn’t move. The owner came down and met me just as Loc and the gang came back into sight. She didn’t have any issue with where I’d parked, and we all filed upstairs. The living room window looks directly at the facade of the cathedral; our jaws dropped.
As we’d arrived around 1500, we wandered around the town and its Christmas market looking for a lunch venue, but came up short on something agreeable to all and just went to the pub by our place. It was good but unremarkable, save for the fried soft boiled egg that Loc got – none of us had ever seen that before.
Reims was the headquarters of the 101st Airborne Division in 1944. In early 1945, GEN Eisenhower and his staff took the infrastructure for their own. It was chosen for its proximity to rail, road, and canal, and also for the intact telephone system housed therein. Reims is where the Germans surrendered to Eisenhower’s staff. Today, there’s a rarely-visited museum in that same building, with the operation center laid out as it was in 1945. We walked up there, watched a movie about the war and the building’s importance, then toured the rest of the facility. The surrender at Reims was overshadowed by the surrender that Stalin demanded in Berlin, so it was a cool piece of history to stumble upon.
This night, the group settled on Moroccan food. People, I had good Moroccan wine. The last time I drank Moroccan wine, it was out of a repurposed 1.5L water bottle, and it turned me off wine for a looong time. Chateau Roslane – put it on your bucket list. I guided my culinarily adventurous friends through the ins and outs of the menu, and we briouats, tajines, and couscous dishes laden with vegetables and fall-off-the-bone tender meats. All left supremely satisfied, no room for dessert.
Oh, and Reims has a fantastic light overlay projected onto the facade of the cathedral at night during the Christmas markets – it’s sweet. Per Wikipedia, that facade is one of the masterpieces of the Middle Ages. By the way, that cathedral is built on the site where Clovis converted to Christianity, establishing France as a Christian nation. It’s also where 25 kings of France were coronated. I just really like it.
On the way out of town, we visited the Pommery champagne estate for a tour of its cellars. It’s a rather eclectically decorated building with a most impressive cellar lined with bottles of champagne dating back to 1874. Yes, 1874. I didn’t get to taste it. We did get to learn all about champagne production, which was pretty cool – the way they do the in-bottle fermentation, then expel the yeast is pretty ingenious. We sampled a glass apiece of their Brut champagne, then continued on to Strasbourg.
Strasbourg proudly declares itself the Home of Christmas, and it pulls out all of the stoppers to prove it. If ever there is a Christmas market to visit for its aesthetic beauty, this one is it. There are six or seven markets set up in the city, and the streets connecting them all are beautifully decorated in Christmas spirit. We wandered all over these markets, having laid on reservations at a Lebanese place a bit outside of the city. We thoroughly enjoyed the markets and found an Argentinian cantina in our rambling. I canceled my reservation at the Lebanese place – he was stressed to have us coming anyway – and we went Argentinian instead. That restaurant is called La Pampa. It’s worth a visit.
In short, go to France for food, wine, architecture, history, and happiness.
The following morning, we ate a hearty breakfast of toasted sandwiches, fruit salads, and a delicious yogurt topped with jam, then we said one last goodbye to France, hopped into our van (which we did manage to park in a garage the night previous, ground guides front and back), and drove into the sunrise. And on the following day, I did return the behemoth wagon to its rightful home.
All of this, my friends, was planned on the fly.
And it was awesome.