Friday, 12 July 2013

European travel - Summer 2013

When the opportunity presented itself (dropping offspring off in Paris), it seemed like a very obvious thing to do: redeem those frequent flyer miles and check out Paris more than 25 years after our Lune de Miel.  Unfortunately, by the time the program acceptance arrived, it was no longer possible to fly into Paris.  So, we flew into Frankfurt and out of Geneva.

It's always been one of those conundrums (should that be conundra?): How can I have traveled around Europe without ever being in Germany?  No, the Frankfurt airport doesn't count.  Since there was a request that we actually visit Germany, we selected Heidelberg, a city with an extremely old university (1386!) and relatively close to Frankfurt.

It's fascinating to me: Heidelberg is approximately 15 miles from the Rhine River.  And yet, when one crosses into France, the architecture is quite distinct.  Heidelberg has a baroque "old town" with architecture dating back to the 18th century.  The building ornamentation is quite different from France with an emphasis on corners and roof lines.  The river Neckar (a tributary of the Rhine) flows through Heidelberg and certainly serves as a vital connection to other cities - barges continue to ply the waters.  We had some classic German food the first night including a very unusual cheese: it was marinated in the sauerkraut brine.  It was advertised as not being suitable for the unwary but we found it both intense and enjoyable.

From Heidelberg we moved to Strasbourg where our first experience was a pair of delinquent girls who pushed the kid into a pole on the bus and kicked my backpack (resting on the floor) as they ran laughing out the bus.  Jet lag did not help here so I wasn't as swift or observant as I might have been.

Strasbourg rests on the Ill, a rather famous river in gastonomy.  The Michelin *** restaurant Auberge de l'Ill (located some 30 miles south of Strasbourg) features modern Alsatian food.  No, we didn't eat there.  Because I delight in sauerkraut, I am a fan of Alsatian food and cooking.  Braising sauerkraut in wine or beer tempers the flavor and when combined with smoky meats (like ham or bacon), it becomes a sumptuous whole.  The well known Choucroute Garnie is an exemplar of this style of cooking.  It's one of my favorite meals in winter (although I don't do it much).  Classically, it is served with boiled potatoes and rich, spicy mustard.  The recipe in Julia Child (Mastering the Art) is easy to follow and produces excellent results.

From Strasbourg, we took the TGV to Paris.  Of course I have to rave about the TGV: it puts everything in this country to shame.  Built by the government, this train network extends all over France and into Switzerland and Germany.  The ride is fast, smooth and quiet.  And yet, we can't get it done in the Northeast Corridor.  A national shame and disgrace.

Paris has changed.  The availability of travel meant I saw many more races in Paris than 25 years ago.  I would say there are many more Africans and Asians today.  I saw so many Japanese restaurants I wonder what changed?  Have the French discovered sushi?  Was it the influence of French chefs (notably Bocuse and his disciples) that drew the Japanese to France?  Apparently, today one of the big trends is Japanese-French style fusion.

The center of Paris is inundated with tourists.  They were everywhere.  It was only when I ventured out of the inner ring of arrondissement that I felt like the old Paris was returning.  Otherwise, it was packed with both tourists and Parisians.  One interesting trend was the number of American families: We saw many families with children traveling together.  Since we've been dragging the kid with us since he was 9 months old, I can only view this positively.

The senses of Paris are the same: because the buildings are not that high (most places), the light filters down to the street.  The wide boulevards also bring spaciousness.  The smell is mostly the same, particularly in the Metro.  When I lived in Paris, the streets and sidewalks were washed and swept every morning.  This created this earthy smell I still recall.  But now, they seem to have switched to the American model of using street sweepers.  A pity.

To be honest about it, there is a lot less dog poop than there was.  I don't know what changed, but it used to be that you had to keep one eye on the sidewalk because you never knew what was in front of you (interesting side note: why is it that some cities are dog cities and others are cat cities?).   To compensate, there were a lot more bicycles.  Paris has created bicycle lanes and established a lending system (Velib) that is widely used (but also apparently heavily vandalized).  Instead of looking out for merde de chien, you now have to look (both ways!) for speeding bicycles.

Begging seemed to be everywhere.  I remember running into les clochards here and there 25 year ago  but now it was constant.  And interestingly, a fair number of them owned dogs.  I wonder how much of their income was spent on dog food.

What is it about the French and smoking?  Thank goodness smoking is now outlawed in restaurants but when you walk, you are inundated by smokers left and right.  Is it a matter of personal liberty?  It is blatant disregard for health?  Whatever it is, the French continue to smoke and drink.  One out of two ain't bad.

I found the food markets to be much the same.  The same wonderful selection of cheeses, the incredible variety and selection of wines (I saw some wine bottles with prices less than bottled water; would I want to drink it?  Probably not.).  Our local butcher shop was spectacular, with such finds as Guinea Hen.  I bought a rack of lamb (I was told it was the last of the season from the Pyrennes) and the flavor was delicious, even if the cooking time given by the butcher was too long.

I have to say that English is everywhere.  It's the lingua franca between different peoples: it's the one language that the chinese and french can speak.  Even the word "geek" has been imported into French.  I have to admit though, when your brain just can't manage to find the right word in French, it is useful to drop back into English.

As for my French, it did come back to me in fits and starts.  I did manage to conjugate a few verbs into the past and future tenses.  I did manage to remember words that I had forgotten and every once in a while I found my self speaking nearly at full rate.  Speaking another language is always interesting: at first I find myself surrounded by words from Russian (of all things!) and then on occasion I get words in Italian.

The offspring asked an very interesting question: Is Paris just New York with more light?  I think this cuts to the central point: globalization has made Paris much more international and multicultural.  In this sense I must agree.  But Paris has the arts support of the government, something the US does not (and will not) have.  So, I consider the musical arts scene to be more vibrant than New York.   I can not comment on the visual or performing arts.  And, of course, the food culture of France is vastly more developed than in the US.  The US is doing better, but it's still not France.  And while New York can compete with Paris on restaurants, I still think that the Parisians have it beat overall.

From Paris we went (again by TGV) to Lausanne.  Lausanne is close to the Geneva Airport (a direct train goes very frequently) and also home to a well known technical university (EPFL).   It's quite a walking experience since the town is built on a hill.  It starts at the beach on Lake Leman (also known as Lake Geneva) at Ouchy and goes up the hill to the cathedral and beyond.  A train system can be used to move up and down the hill if you wish.

We made a side trip on sunny (but foggy) day up to Les Pleiades via a private cog railway.  You can buy tickets from the National Swiss Railway system that include private railways.  I've always wanted to take a cog railway: the center rail is a rack and the engine provides the pinion gear.  Unfortunately, I couldn't see the drive gear since the body of the engine went nearly all the way to the ground.  Supposedly the top offered fantastic views but with the haze it was all but impossible to see clearly.  And, thanks to a couple going to lunch at restaurant on the "Route Gourmand" (my kind of route!), we actually had instructions about how to follow the trail.  And, thanks to the use of text messaging, we were able to rendezvous with Bart on the geared train.

The following day, we said goodbye to Bart and had to change locations (not a bad thing in retrospect).  We moved to the nearby small village of Cully located in the center of the Lavaux wine district.  The Lavaux vineyards date back to the 13th century and were constructed by monks.  They go straight up the hill from the railroad tracks.  The vines have a southern exposure and it can get quite hot (I know this from personal experience).  We walked nearly the entire extent of the trail (which winds around and through the  vineyards).  The principle grape is Chasselas, which produces a very drinkable white --- the reds don't have much body (or "structure" as the wine folks would say).  When I talked to the wine seller in Paris about Swiss wines he said that the French thought that the prices were too high for what you got.  And I can see that.  But it's still a very nice thing to drink a wine that you know was grown a few miles from you and perhaps even produced next door.

Our B&B was part home, part guests bedrooms and in the bottom floor, a jazz club.  Our hosts asked us if we minded a practice session one night.  I told her that if they didn't practice then I didn't want to listen!  When we came back, I heard them rehearse Duke Ellington's "It don't mean a thing..." ---  including the lyrics in English.

Switzerland is expensive, there's no denying it.  The food was more than we were willing to spend.  A lunchtime stop in the heat for pizza, salad and bottled water was over $40.  But, do keep in mind that includes tax and tip.  This was the one incident where I wished I could have left less than the service compris: the server was surly and lackadaisical. But overall, this was the one exception.

We had a final breakfast overlooking the Alps and then it was train to the airport and the usual "deluxe" experience with US Air/American.  When we arrived at Dulles, we were confronted with a passport control line that I would guesstimate had perhaps 300 or more people in it.  This is a direct contrast with the Passport control at Frankfurt: 2 minutes.  US: 30 minutes.  Welcome back.

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