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 switzerland (day 1)

So I decided to finally blog about my trip to Europe. It’s been 2 days since I’ve been back but after the frustration of having to upload photos in batches of 20 at a time because of the crappy internet here, I decided to take a break from thinking about the trip. Anyways, now I’ve quit the laziness and decided to write all the stuff down before I completely forget it. I’ve also decided to (and in fact executed already) upload the photos to Facebook instead of to this site. That way I don’t have to worry about diskspace. I’ve also decided to create a Travel category, which is a silly decision because I won’t be traveling too much from this moment on… Anyhows, enough formalities!

Our flight from Mumbai was straight to Zurich and left at around 12:50am. We decided to get to the airport early and have dinner there itself, since there have been a slew of development in the food options there. As it happened, they had a fully functional food court as well as a restaurant that was sponsored by IIFA (an Indian film institution of some sort). The dinner there was over two weeks back, so I have no recollection of what it actually was… but it was good! We had overestimated Bombay traffic by a country mile, though, so we ended up spending quite a bit of time waiting for our flight.

Day 1 – Interlaken/Wilderswil

At Zurich, we arrived and after picking up our bags looked for the rental car counter. Upon finding it, we started asking companies for cars, only to be met with rejections. Apparently it’s hard to get a car in Zurich for 4 days on a Sunday morning at 7:00am. This brings me to my first tip:

EuroTip 1: If you’re renting a car, book in advance. The rates are better as is the availability.

We ended up renting a satisfactorily comfortable car–a Renault Clio–for an overly inflated price of around 410 CHF (that’s Swiss Franc to you). The car was good, even though it was French. (jokes!!) We decided not to go with the GPS option as we headed out to Interlaken using directions we had printed out from Google Maps in Mumbai. I was the navigator and my Dad was the driver. My mom was the pre-elected backseat driver but she didn’t do her job and took photos instead. It worked out for the best for everybody!

After a false start wherein we pulled into a gas station and wondered how to get on the highway, we were off. The highways in Switzerland were quite awesome and the speed limit max’ed out at 120 kmph. Most cars were going a lot faster, though, so we decided to stick to the rightmost lane. My Dad was forced to learn the task of driving in a left-hand-drive, driving on the right side of the road with a stick shift (aka hands switched). A strenuous task considering that most recently he’s only driven on the left side of the road in the right side of the car with automatic transmission. He adjusted well, though, and the fact that we didn’t have to switch too many gears because of the nice highway system, was also good.

We reached Interlaken in good time and then got lost in Wilderswil, the small township where our hotel was located. As it happened, we just overdrove and missed it on the side, but found it on the way back. The hotel was a small inn-like hotel that seemed to be a family business. It had a restaurant on the lowest floor, then the reception and finally rooms on the next 2-3 floors. Our room was thankfully on the first floor, but we still had to carry bags up at least one flight of stairs. The doorboards were squeaky. The hotel was called Hotel Baeren, or “The Bear Inn”. Accordingly, there were several stuffed bears all over the place. Here are some photos of the hotel:


A few of the bears that welcomed us


An old-school typewriter

Unfortunately, we made time a little too well for our own good and ended up reaching Wilderswil about 2 hours before check-in time. So we walked around the area and got a feel for the places around. We also warmed up our camera lenses a bit. There were a view views of Jungfraujoch, the “Top of Europe” mountain-range available, but the cloudy skies didn’t create enough contrast for a decent photograph. We made our way all the way to the rail station, which was about 1.5km away, I’d say, and then headed back. There was still about 30 minutes to go before check-in time but this time the person at the reception, who seemed to be the owner of the inn, said our room was ready and showed us to it. We put our bags in and decided to have lunch at the inn.

The food was scrumptious, although a bit pricey, but this was something that we’d get used to in Europe. I ordered a wiener-schnitzel, my Dad ordered a pasta of some sort and my Mom ordered a rösti dish with chicken in mushroom sauce. I think that meal ended up being one of our favourites of the whole trip. Beverages were in the form of wine and beer (a local brew, known as Rugenbrau). Overall, it was a good start to the trip. We came back to the room and all took a nap from the exhaustion of a decent drive and a long flight trip and walking.

In the evening, the hunt for coffee/tea was on as well as the search for the actual city we were planning to visit: Interlaken. We had decided to stay only one night near Interlaken since most of the fun stuff there was for adventurous folks (paragliding, bungee jumping, river rafting, etc.) which we clearly were not a subset of. We got ad-hoc directions from the proprietor and set off in our car, only to get lost in about 10 minutes. Or rather, we thought we were lost whereas we were actually on the right track. Anyhow, safety prevailed and we drove back to the hotel and parked round the back, and then approached the train station and bought tickets to Interlaken there. This brings me to another tip.

EuroTip 2: If you’re driving in a foreign country with lots of changes from routine, consider getting a GPS navigation device. Local transportation in Europe maybe great, but it’s also pricey.

We found our way to Interlaken on a roundtrip ticket and then walked from the train station towards the city and the Thun lake (or maybe it was the Kriens lake… don’t remember). On the way, the many maps we passed confirmed that we had in fact been heading in the right direction. In fact, it was the shortcut from the owner of the inn that caused us to doubt our route.  Right across the train station there was a beautiful little cove/pier (I don’t know anything about nautical terms for shores) across from one of the lakes. There was a coffee shop there and we decided to end our quest for coffee and had a drink there. I had a Cafe Macchiato which came complimentary with a delicious little piece of Swiss chocolate:


Yummy Cafe Macchiato which my Mom kept referring to as “cold”, although it was warm

After replenishing our caffeine levels, we started walking towards town. On the way there we passed a small kiosk and purchased water, ice cream (for the parents) and a large pack of Maltesers for myself. Ooh, I think Maltesers are one of the finest chocolates invented. I was so busy eating them that I couldn’t take a photo. Oops. On the way to town we passed (among other things) a Japanese garden, several parks and several breathtaking views of the Jungfraujoch mountain range and the two lakes. We also saw many, many dogs. Apparently dogs are the national animals of Switzerland, or so it appears. Everyone had a dog. Most had two and some even had three. Not so many children around, though. It was the first place in my life where I saw a no-smoking sign in any sort of establishment accompanied by a dog-allowed or dog-not allowed sign almost everywhere.

The weather was a bit rainy so our pace of walk was brisk, but we had enough time to soak in the atmosphere. Interlaken is a completely tourist town and it seems that it is the destination of choice for Indian tourists. About 80% of the people there looked to be tourists, of which greater than 50% appeared to be of desi descent. In fact, we even passed a sign on the way that was in Hindi! I got my Mom to take a photo of it. Priceless… but I guess it’s the Yash Chopra effect? Anyways, as we walked back, we began to look for dinner options and settled on a place called Des Alpes, which apparently served great pizza. Sadly, I only remembered to take a photo after the pizza was consumed:


This plate contained pizza

We then walked back to the station, took the train back and walked back to our hotel. By the time we reached Hotel Baeren, it was approaching 10pm and the light had just began to fade. Yeah… them Swiss have long summer days and long winter nights, from what I hear. Anyways, despite the nap and the coffee, we were pooped and crashed hard. We decided to go to Jungfraujoch the next day on a relaxed schedule, instead of trying to catch the “Early Bird” special at like 6.45am. ‘Twas a great decision…

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