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.

back in mangoland

A lot has happened since my last post. In particular, I’ve graduated. Wheeeee. But let me go through all the events in approximate order.

Graduation

It has been exactly one week since I graduated (except if you are anal enough to look at time differences, in which case I’m probably about 11.5 hours short). Graduation was fun. Although I discovered new sweat glands in my body thanks to the beautiful Houston heat and humidity, it was worth it. The speaker was quite interesting although the choice of topic was kind of questionable given the event that the was going on. I’m all for gender equality, but I’m not sure how it was the most relevant topic to be giving at a commencement, where there are people of both sexes graduating. Additionally, given the current world climate economically, politically and environmentally, I feel like a much more appropriate speaker could have been chosen. Anyways, I’m not one to sulk abotu who spoke at my graduation so that’s that.

After graduation I participated minorly in the photo-taking dealio and then had to rush back to my room to pack. I pretty much had to pack all the clothes I was going to be bringing back to Bombay as well as all the little remaining things that hadn’t been packed (such as toiletries, etc.). Once packing was done, my uncle drove me to my storage room and I put everything in there. Finally I dropped off my guitar at Alice’s apartment and said bye for the first time (haha).

Post-Graduation Festivities

Post-graduation dinner was had with Tweety’s family at a Thai restaurant near the hotel my family was staying at. The food and wine was pretty good and it was a fun dinner as we recounted not only our days at Rice, but our parents’ days at college together. After dinner we went our separate ways and I fell asleep around 11:00pm out of pure exhaustion of the days activities! Also we were going to wake up the next day to leave for Canyon Lake at 8am, so we needed to go to sleep early.

The drive out to Canyon Lake took about 3 and a half hours. The four “kids” ended up housing up at the Holiday Lodge, which was about a 3-minute incline walk away from where my parents and uncle and Aunt were staying, at a treehouse of some sort. The first day, after all the driving, did not feature any non-lazy activities as everyone pretty much crashed and napped. We did go out to dinner to a BBQ restaurant called Cooper’s Old-Time BBQ, which was about 25 minutes away from our lodging. The food was delicious, but I think I preferred the Rudy’s we had when we went tubing a couple of weeks back. The rest of that Sunday was pretty nondescript.

On Saturday it was decided to sleep in late and then head out tubing on the Comal River. Luckily I had done this with my friends a couple of weeks back, since without my “expertise” we would have been quite lost. We rented the tubes out from Corner Tubes again and then went on the river. It took most people quite a lot of time to figure out how to maneuvre the tubes. I think my mom still doesn’t know how to do it. =P Once we finally got a hang of it, we went down the first chute. That is where the first problems began. My cousin went down the chute without his tube because he fell out of it just before going there. Luckily he was not (too) injured from that, and someone had held on to his tube at the other end. I got stuck in that current again and had to climb out and walk myself past the current which kept pulling me back.

The next issue was the second chute (the one near the dam). My mom ended up going over the dam instead of through the chute, just as the guy at Corner Tubes had told us not to do. So she fell out of her tube and waded her way to the side, while someone managed to recover her tube. Meanwhile, a bunch of the others were around the side waiting before entering that second chute because the first one had been so aggressive. I quelled those fears and we finally went through the second chute, although my cousin ended up ramming his foot into the poorly placed rock in the middle of that chute. Thankfully it wasn’t anything really bad.

The current was a lot faster than it had been last time I was there, so our group ended up becoming quite split up. My mom and uncle ended up taking the lead without wanting to. There were a few sour feelings there, but they managed to hang on to a few trees and wait for us. After the third chute, and waiting for Sunil to catch up with us, we finally floated the last 45-odd minutes of the river together. That was most relaxing and as my aunt said, it would have been nice if the whole river had been like that. Hope you’re taking notes, Mother Nature! 😛

The next, and possibly worst, issue was at the end. The current was pretty fast and the designers of the floating system were probably not using their heads when they decided to put the last public exit in one of the deeper sections of the river. What ends up happening is people need to hope to float to the left to take the exit, and if they miss it, they are at the mercy of the river, since they can’t walk back given that the river is so deep at that point. Only 4 of our group of 8 managed to hit the actual exit. I had to swim after Sunil and push him to the side and then do the same thing with my cousin. My uncle, meanwhile, had meandered off to the other side of the river and his tube had overturned. I swam across the river and against the current to get to him, at which point he had recovered his tube and I was nearly out of breath. We then waited for our shuttle driver to swing in to business. He swam against the current and recovered the people who had over-floated to the left and he then swam across the river and pushed my uncle’s tube (with him in it) to the other side. I swam across, having swum a lot more than I have this whole year! I guess the important thing to remember is that we all survived. 🙂 It was kind of an adventurous trip in the end, and we have the battle scars to show for it (mine are in the form of sunburns :().

We decided to then drive down to the closest winery since it was almost time for them to close. The winery we selected was the Dry Comal Creek Winery and Vineyard, and it was tended to by a sweet, old woman. Unfortunately winery tours were only held on the weekend (we were there on a Monday) so instead we decided to do a wine tasting. My dad and I tasted all 12 of their wines and their sangria whereas other members of our party tasted subsets of those. We ended up buying a bottle of their Unoaked Cabernet Sauvignon, which has made its way back to India because of full stomachs!

Dinner that night was home-made pork burgers courtesy of my uncle and aunt (and garden burgers for the vegetarians courtesy of the supermarket that prepared them). My uncle grilled the burgers and we ended up eating indoors in the treehouse because the mosquitoes scared us away. After dinner we talked and finally the four “kids” headed down to the Lodge for the night. My sister and her husband finished their packing (they were driving to San Antonio to fly out early next morning).

On Tuesday, we drove to San Marcos to complete the shopping portion of the trip. I didn’t buy much so I don’t have much to say. But my cousin and mother went a little bit crazy, since my cousin was buying stuff for his wife’s family and had to make a good impression. 🙂 I hung out with my uncle and dad, who ended up window-shopping in some of the more expensive stores, hence the lack of wallet-opening. After San Marcos we drove back to Houston and had a very delicious dinner at Pappadeaux. I then watched parts of the Rockets being blown out by the Lakers (we ended up losing by 40 points) and trying to make plans with my friends for the next day.

My aunt and uncle and parents left the next day. For dinner I met up with a few friends at Two Rows in the Rice Village. We took advantage of the $1 beers and I had a scrumptious grilled tilapia for dinner. Afterwards we drove to Amy’s Ice Cream for dessert and finally I was dropped off to my hotel near the airport by Tweety. It was nice seeing my close friends before leaving, one last time.

Traveling

Thursday was travel day for me. I, surprisingly, managed to wake up just in time for the free breakfast and helped myself to some cereal and juice. After that I went back to my room and showered and completed all final packing. At 11 am I checked out of the hotel and took the shuttle to the airport. There, I checked in and got past security relatively quickly and camped out at my gate for about 2 and a half hours. I spent the time listening to music and watching Pyar Ke Side Effects on my iPod since I had forgotten how the movie went. The flight was about 15-20 minutes late because of “maintenance” but it took off eventually and reached just a bit behind schedule in Paris. The Houston-Paris flight was pretty packed and did not feature a video-on-demand system. I ended up watching 3 episodes of House and The Tale of Desperaux during my flight. Apart from that I napped and listened to music.

We then reached Paris and I was exposed for the first time to the confusion that is the Charles de Gaulle (CDG) Airport. After seeing the mess of organization that is somewhat characteristically French (:P), I realized why it is that while flying through Paris my bags always get lost (sample size = 1). There are something like 7 terminals and they are named as follows: 1, 2A, 2B, 2C, 2D, 2E, 2F. I don’t know why terminal 1 got shafted as such. Must be a French thing. The only way to travel between terminals is by a shuttle bus that does not seem to operate on any specific schedule or order. You would think that if you got on the bus at Terminal 2A, it would circuit through the airport in order (2B, 2C, …). Instead, this bus went to 2C, then 2F, then skipped 2D and went to 2E, then to 2B and finally to 2C. I only assume that it visited 2D after.

Once we finally reached the terminal, the airport was pretty busy and messy. I didn’t have that much time to spend at the gate, luckily, since the shuttle bus took so long to operate. By the time I used the bathroom and came back out, the flight had “boarded”. Boarding involved stuffing everyone on the flight into one more of the shuttle buses, this time commissioned to take us to our flight. They stuffed and stuffed and stuffed the bus until we were packed so tightly like sardines that even if the bus braked abruptly, no one would fall. As it happened, the bus did brake abruptly on the trip and the theory checked out okay. What was even more ludicrous is that the ground staff realized, finally, that 2 buses would be needed. The second bus brought something like 10 people.

The bus then proceeded to drive to our flight, which seemed to be parked outside the airport or something. It took a good 20 minutes to reach it. I think it was parked near what would be the soon-to-cause-even-more-confusion Terminal 2G. Or maybe they would create a Terminal 3 or something. Who knows how these French people make decisions?!

I complain a lot but once we finally got on the plane (it was a really old Airbus A320) things improved. The flight was at something like 30% capacity, probably because the rest of the world realizes CDG isn’t the best airport to transit through and because of Air France’s poor reputation. I didn’t complain, though, and thought the service was actually a LOT better than airlines such as Continental and Air India. We actually got a menu card asking us to choose what we wanted to eat! We were served complimentary beverages, including wine, beer and even champagne. Take notes, Continental! Although I suppose that is why Air France is probably going out of business…

I took the liberty to occupy one of the middle rows of 4 seats since they were empty and hence was able to stretch out quite a bit. While eating dinner I watched Dostana on the video-on-demand system and then started reading the book I bought, Persuader by Lee Child. Still haven’t finished that up so I will discuss it in a separate entry. After that I slept for about 6 hours straight and woke up just in time to eat “breakfast”. The flight landed about 30 minutes behind schedule at about 12:15am. I breezed through swine flu checkup, immigration and customs since the airport wasn’t busy yet and also because my parents had flown with my checked baggage so I was traveling with just a backpack. By the time I got home it was about 1:15am and the TV wasn’t working so I entertained myself online by checking email and Facebook and the like. I finally fell asleep around 2:30 or 3:00am and slept lightly till about 8:30am. Let’s see how I tackle the jetlag today!

Today my mom and I went and ordered a pair of glasses (since she lost my old pair in the packing and moving confusion). We also stopped by at a grocery store on the way back and bought MANGOES! I am happy and am looking forward to sinking my teeth into that tasty deliciousness. We also bought ingredients for tiramisu. Well, kind of. We couldn’t locate ladyfingers so we substituted it with an Italian Puff Pastry biscuit thing of some sort. If it doesn’t work we may attempt to make ladyfingers from scratch. But at some point I’ll be making tiramisu again. Hopefully it’ll go well! (I’ll take photos for you, Alice. :))

That’s all for now. I think I’m about to inherit two used cameras (one digital and one really old Canon) from my parents so I’m going to go play with them now. And proceed to take photos of my mangoes. Mmmmmmmmmmmm.