eurotrippin’ in france (day 2)

We had decided the previous night to go ahead and visit wine country in Strasbourg while we had an opportunity, a decision which required us to rent a car since wine country was not accessible. There was a huge wine route in Alsace, unsurprisingly known as “la route du vin” which was basically a road that went through all the wineries in the Alsatian region (of which there were hundreds and thousands). Instead of falling for the same mistake we had made in Switzerland, we booked the car online the previous night and got a really good rate on it.

Our car was supposed to be picked up from Budget Car Rentals at the station in Strasbourg but once we reached the station, it appeared that all rental companies except Budget happened to be there. A few cabbies outside directed us to Budget, which was located about 0.5km away from the station. So take that advice of booking cars online with a pinch of salt! Once we finally found Budget, we had missed our reservation by about 15 minutes but it didn’t matter since it didn’t look like they got much business! We completed the requisite paperwork and were off and on our way in no time.

We were armed with a map of all the wineries in the region (represented by white dots with the large areas being larger white dots) so we had a fair idea of where we wanted to go. We decided to head to one that was about an hour and a half away (about 150 kilometers using the superfast French highways). The name of this town currently escapes me, but we made good time and ended up following the often confusing directions to find the town. But before I get into that, let me go ahead and make my promised gripe about the French and their obsession for roundabouts.

When you exit a normal highway, you typically can keep going straight on the feeder if you wish to get on the highway, or you hit an intersection which allows you to go left (under the highway) or right depending on where you want to go. The French do not like this easily obvious design. Instead, every time you take an exit on the highway, you are greeted with a roundabout. The good thing is that there is no traffic light stopping the progress of cars, the bad thing is that the roundabout usually results in utter confusion. Furthermore, if you have a heavy vehicle, or a long vehicle (such as a moving truck) involved, all traffic in all direction stops while that truck maneuvers itself around the roundabout.

Anyhow, we made it past these silly roundabouts and got to our final destination where we promptly stopped at a gas station to check out where to go. Unfortunately, we seemed to have misunderstood the concept of wineries. Whereas we had thought that each of the dots on the wine map corresponded to a winery, instead each of the dots corresponded to a town that contained many wineries. The town we were in had a lot, but upon asking the person at the gas station where to go, instead of directing us to the wineries in that region, she directed us to backtrack and get on the wine route. Maybe there wasn’t a way to get on the wine route? I’m not sure, but we ended up backtracking anyway and following the crude directions to search for the elusive route de vin.

On the way, we stopped at a town called Osthiem which was not on the wine route, but nearby it. I got out of the car and, in my broken French, asked at the only open establishment in the little town, a restaurant, how to get on the wine route. She gave me directions pretty confidently, which suggested that we weren’t entirely lost. Seeing that it was around 1pm and that it would be a while before we found the wine route, a winery and thus a place to eat lunch, my Dad made an executive decision to have lunch at that restaurant. The meal turned out to be pretty delicious and pretty huge. My parents ended up taking one of their set meals, which cost $10.50 euros per person and consisted of a starter (soup or salad), a main course and a dessert. I ended up getting a standalone dish which was chicken in a mushroom sauce and their portions were so huge that I felt like I was eating a whole chicken myself.


The house white wine we had in Osthiem

Once we were done with our meal, we set off again, optimistically, in search of the wine route. This time we hit jackpot as along the way we saw brown signs proclaiming “Route de Vin” and hence began following it. We eventually reached the Ribeauvillé region, which was one of the larger spots on the wine map. There we parked (all parking meters in France appear to be coin-operated) and headed out on foot, only to be hit by rain. We eventually wet-trekked our way to the tourist office where my parents got some information about what to do and where to go.

Apparently we missed the wine festival by a period of about 24 hours. This would have allowed us to pay a nominal fee of about 6 euros per person and taste wine at any of the wineries in the town. Sad at missing this opportunity, we went to a couple of wineries and did a couple of tastings. I also learned the French word for tasting: degustation. Surprisingly, the tastings were all free. We only had two tastings, however, since my Dad was driving and my Mom doesn’t like doing wine tastings. After we left the first winery, we visited one of the larger distributers.

There they had a wine museum as well as many different wines to taste. It appeared to be a pretty popular place and one, in fact, where people bought 3-4 boxes of wine at a time, so it was pretty busy. We spent about 15-20 minutes ambling around the wine tasting counter before tasting one Riesling and then settling for a three-pack that consisted of bottles of Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurtzraminer wines. After making our purchase, we hurried back to our car so that we could drive back home and return the car by 6pm, which is when the car rental place closed.

This turned out to be a smaller problem than it could have been as it started pelting rain, and as a result we didn’t feel like stopping at anymore of the wineries that we were passing. We did get a good look at the vineyards along the way, though. The trip back to Strasbourg was uneventful as we were able to follow the signage and avoid being misled by the roundabouts, and we returned the car at around 5:30pm, with plenty time to spare. After that, we took a tram back to our room and rested for a bit before setting off again in the evening.

My Mom wanted to check out the Petite France area on foot, so we headed out in that direction. It may have been because of the cold caused by the rain or it may just be that the French don’t like going out on Fridays, but the whole area was deserted. The same places that had been stuffed full of people the previous night were completely empty. Most restaurants that had had seating outside the previous day were now boarded up or only serving inside. It was extremely peculiar the way the tourism had u-turned, but we didn’t complain as we were able to go around to more places and get more photos.


A closer view of the torture tower we’d seen on the boat


This was apparently the symbol of the Strasbourg Tram System–empowerment of women


One of the many bridges we had passed under the previous day


A building at Kleber Square… I think it was a museum or train station or something

Once we were done taking photos, we had dinner somewhere that I now forget and then headed back to the hotel. The next day was going to be a pretty early start as our train back to Paris was leaving at around 9am. So ended our last day in Strasbourg, and our 6th day of our Europe trip. We had not only gotten a good taste of the beautiful architecture and history surrounding Strasbourg, but also a taste for one of the specialities of the Alsatian region—the wine country. Unfortunately, we were not able to complete my Mom’s inspired-by-travel-guide goal of having breakfast in Switzerland, lunch in Germany and dinner in France, but it had been a good trip and choice of destination, anyway.

eurotrippin’ in france (day 1)

Our flight from Zurich to Paris was at around 8:30 am so we left Luzern at around 5:45 am, hoping to reach the airport by around 7am. The drive was supposed to take a shade over 1 hour, so we had given ourselves a pretty large buffer in case things went wrong. As it turned out, they did. We had again used Google Maps to get our directions from the Luzern hotel to the Zurich Airport and had even scoped out our initial departure route on foot the previous day. However, once we got past that, the directions got plenty confusing.

It appears that Europeans have some sort of obsession with roundabouts, something we would find out when we were in France, and thus something I will gripe about then. However, roundabouts caused us our share of problems here, since every turn seemed to be given as a roundabout (at least by Google Maps) and the number of roundabouts didn’t appear to match up. We got lost a couple of times (once climbing up some mountain area) and using my Dad’s BlackBerry EDGE connection helped us relocate a bit. However, we still wasted at least 25-30 minutes going the wrong way and recovering.

Our saviour came in the form of a gas station on the way to Zurich. The directions provided by Google Maps were confusing enough that they told us to go towards Zurich and then take an exit for Luzern (where we had been coming from!) before heading to the airport. Basically, there was a lot of implicit highway switching that only confused us. A line such as “follow the overhead signs to the Zurich Flughafen” would have been better! Luckily, the gas station employee told us to get on the transit highway and then just follow the signs to the airport.

This we did and although Zurich was under heavy construction and there was a bit of traffic, we pulled into the airport’s car rental drop off area at around 7:30am. From there we went ahead and got checked in and by the time we got through security, it was time to board. In that way, it was good that we got lost since we didn’t have to sit around and twiddle our thumbs at the busy Zurich airport! However, we didn’t get an opportunity to do any gift shopping, which we decided to leave for when we were on our way back.

The flight to Paris was uneventful and lasted only about 45 minutes. We then reached the mess that is known as the Charles de Gaulle Airport and quickly whisked ourselves away to the train station. This is when the French really get you. I had done some reading up before of how the Paris public transportation/railway system works. There are three companies with stakes: SNCF (the national rail network), RER (a local rail network that also operates medium- and long-distance trains) and the local metro. To complicate matters further, it appears that you can use tickets interchangeably on 2 of the 3, sometimes. Yup, must have been designed by a Frenchman!

Anyways, we found the TGV counter and bought ourselves a ticket to Strasbourg, which is where we had decided to go to first. We had about an hour to kill before the train got there and then a journey of about 2 hours on the TGV. Traveling on the TGV was a pretty sweet experience as it was a pretty superfast train. After staring at the blurred scenery outside for a few minutes, I picked up the book I had bought in the Mumbai airport, the latest Lee Child book, and settled down. My Dad did get a little impatient and bought some wine and snacks from the kitchen car, but that was the only eventful thing that happened on the train ride.

Once we reached Strasbourg, we had to take the trams to get to our hotel, which was the Holiday Inn. I had looked up the station/trams we would have to take earlier, in Luzern, so we didn’t have any trouble finding our way. The tram system in Strasbourg was pretty efficient and we got to our hotel in about 15 minutes and checked in. We had taken an Executive Room, which basically meant we had free internet, as well as several little gifts throughout the day in the form of complimentary bottles of water, chocolates and whatnot. The receptionist was kind enough to provide some tourism information to my father while my Mom and I lazed in our room, so we got an idea of what to see and do in Strasbourg, apart from that which we had already researched.

After freshening up, we headed back to the city center using the trams by way of a trio ticket, which was a lot cheaper and allowed us to travel unlimited for a period of 24 hours (not like anyone checked tickets, anyway). Once we reached the main central station—Homme de Fer—we set out in search for the Cathedrale Notre Dame, with our map in hand. We were able to find it at around 7.30pm, which was unfortunately about an hour after it closed, so we had to make do with taking photos of it from the outside. It was a pretty spectacular structure, and we also noted that there was going to be light show there starting at 10pm. We thus quickly made plans to come back there after dinner.


Can you believe how blue that sky is?


It was so big it had to be photographed from many locations

Next, we headed to the river, which featured a “cruise” that would take us around the canals of Strasbourg and provide us a view from the boats of the many buildings that people came to see there. We booked our tickets for the 8pm boat, which was an open-air boat, and then hunted around for dinner. We had a faux start with dinner since we sat down at a place near the river only to realize that there would be no way that we would be able to complete the meal without missing our boat cruise. So we quickly abandoned that idea and my parents settled for a crêpe each while I decided to go ahead and wait for dinner.

Once we got on the boat, we had great photo opportunities. The Strasbourg canal system is pretty good at showing one all the places around, and it is also interestingly designed. They have “lock-gates” all over the place where there is an area for the boat, and the water level is adjusted such that the boat goes up or down about 2 meters. It’s hard to describe and unfortunately I didn’t take any photos so you’re just going to have to ask me to describe it to you in person if you are really interested! Along the way, we also saw a bridge that simply rotated away to allow for the boat to pass. The main sightseeing from the boat, though, was the Petite France area. I don’t know what the point of this area was, or why it was named as such. My Mom says it is because the buildings/architecture is in the “French style” but I wonder why you need such a region in France itself! I suppose it is because Strasbourg had its share of inhabitants from different countries (such as Germany) over the years.


One of the many buildings we saw on the boat ride


Sweet-looking church


Torture tower where prisoners were kept

After the boat ride, we made it just in time for the light show at the Cathedrale Notre Dame and thus decided to eat dinner there itself. Unfortunately, my camera produced an epic fail at capturing the light show, so you will have to make do with these poor photographs. The light show basically involved playing classical music accompanied by lights that highlighted different features of the Cathedrale’s carvings. Each of my parents took turns getting photos and videos of the show, so maybe I can enhance this blog with one of those sometime in the future (probably not!).


A blurry look at the Cathedrale Notre Dame light show

With the light show done and it finally becoming dark instead of twilight-y we decided to head back to the hotel. We took the same tram route and hit a minor speedbump with our connecting train, since it stopped two stops ahead of the one we needed to go to because of maintenance. Luckily, Strasbourg had metro buses arranged that followed the same route as the tram and thus we were able to get back to our hotel without too much issue. Once we got back there, I did some more reading on my book and then we crashed, tired from all the different modes of transportation we had used that day!