Our Luck Runs Out

May 31, 2010

Sunday (Fetes des Meres), May 30 – Kintzheim: It was too good to last! We took the recommendation of our hosts that the Relais & Chateaux inn in Selestat was a good place to eat and made a reservation for Sunday lunch. It was an utter disaster: silly foie gras layered with cherry gel:

inedible turbot, a decent langoustine risotto (the exception), the toughest veal chop on earth, and unripe strawberries for dessert. Ugh!

We haven’t had a day of full sun since leaving Paris and so we spent most of the day on the internet catching up with the Sunday Times and email. We did have some ripe strawberries purchased yesterday for dinner along with a bottle of the local Cremant d’Alsace (the glasses and candle lantern were among the bric-a-brac we purchased in Strasbourg):

To bed to try to forget today! Tomorrow has to be better!


Accidental Tourism Vindicated!

May 30, 2010

Saturday, May 29 – Kintzheim (Alsace): I’m always amazed when a string of good luck extends beyond a few fortuitous beneficences. And I’m sitting here amazed! Following on from our dinner last night, we spent the lunch hours in Strasbourg, able to park a few feet from the area recommended by Steves as good restaurant territory. A very cute neighborhood called “Petite France” — we surmise because it was the ghetto for the French after Germany took over Alsace in 1870 — with nothing but one tourist-trap restaurant after another. I was just about to give up and go shopping for a picnic when we heard some amateur music being played down the street in a courtyard and noticed a banner which said “Bric-a-Brac — Tarte Flambee”.

We turned in to find a local fundraiser where they were selling grandma’s attic (got some marvelous things for roughly 10 cents an item) and preparing the local specialty, tarte flambée: a very thin cracker-like crust spread with fromage blanc and sprinkled with onions and lean lardons.

After failing to find a parking place within walking distance of the cathedral (and thus missing seeing the mechanical figures dance on the quarter-hour), we went on south towards Colmar, our next destination. We stopped at a small town to the north, inquired at the tourist office and found this chambre d’hote:

When we arrived, thanks to the iPad’s stunning GPS function, we were stunned to see that we had reserved a large room with kitchette and Wifi in a small village in the wine district.

We accepted our hosts’ suggestion to dine at the small local restaurant within walking distance up the road and could only properly have the local specialties: another tarte flambé (this time with muenster added) and choucroute royal (which means that to the usual meats is added a most tasty pig’s knuckle):

iPad Day at Orange; Wild Boar Dinner

May 29, 2010

Friday, May 28 – Saarbrucken: Today was the day of the iPad’s release in Europe and therefore the day we could get a French microSIM to permit 3G access anywhere. The helpful people at Orange (cell phone provider) explained that we certainly could get the microSIM but needed a French bank account. We replied that we had such a thing. They then explained that we also needed a French credit card. We replied that we were very close but did not yet have it in hand; as we knew, we might not in fact ever get it before the trip was over. So, we bit the bullet and called Dani to ask whether he would permit us to use his credit card. He very kindly agreed (thanks Dani!) and the transaction proceeded by phone call between the Orange agent and Dani. And we are absolutely delighted with the result: hit “maps” and you are shown your current location; enter a destination and you are shown exactly what turns to make to get there. (I know: most of the world already finds this GPS magic commonplace; I’m a bit behind.)

Our second challenge was to get the “clef de 3G” working on the MacBook Pro. After loading the software, nothing happened. We were relieved to discover that the Orange agent could do no better. In the end, he provided a substitute key and made it all work. That should have meant that this post (and those for Wed and Thurs) could have been posted tonight. But we are now in Germany where the Orange network does not work!

We finally left Verdun at 3pm, too exhausted to go visit the battlefields (which probably looked no different from the countryside we could see from the road — although we’ll never know). We decided to take a short detour to Saarbrucken to sample some German cooking, found a terrific hotel at the tourist office, and set out to find a beer garden and good local food. We did find a place in the main square to sit and have a beer and a newfangled drink made with prosecco and peppermint:

Two hours later we were back at the hotel having seen nothing we couldn’t have found virtually anywhere in Europe (ersatz sushi bar, McDo, many pasta/pizza places) very discouraged. The 30ish innkeeper suggested we eat at the hotel but, having seen what we thought was the menu by the door, we were not impressed.

But we really had no other choice. So, imagine our surprise to discover that the menu extended far beyond what we had seen and included a wild boar braten shot by the innkeeper himself. As you can see below, we had a stunning home-cooked meal which would have been very difficult to find if one were searching for it.

We started with a cup of wonderful potato soup:

The wild boar braten was the main dish:

with butter spaetzle:

and the traditional red cabbage:

Best Hypermarket Ever! And Reims.

May 29, 2010

Thursday, May 27 – Verdun: Did I mention the rain yesterday? Well, it was no problem because it occurred only while we were driving (both morning and afternoon). But today we were greeted with a heavy mist coming down, completely eliminating the possibility of taking the delightful pictures of the vineyards I had imagined last night.

After breakfast we had a superb tour of the production facility of the small producer whose B&B we stayed in. One group of aging bottles was marked as containing 6538 bottles which may have been the yearly production. That would be gross revenue of about $100,000; no wonder they needed the B&B to keep going. But they are clearly serious about carrying on the family traditions — genealogy chart on the breakfast room wall!

As we drove through the rain towards Reims, I expected that we’d encounter a hypermarket of some sort but I never imagined we’d come upon the largest and most impressive hypermarket I’ve ever seen — and I’ve seen a lot (I love ‘em!). It’s a good time to go shopping when it’s raining and we needed a lot of things. In particular, we needed a table and chairs to sit out in the countryside having our picnics. We found some wonderful chairs of modern design (made in China, of course) which we tried out during our lunch picnic in a small park next to the commuter rail tracks in a suburb of Reims (rain conveniently halted):

We felt strongly that we couldn’t leave Champagne without indulging in a full bottle and, happily, the E. Leclerc hypermarket sold cold bottles of very reasonably priced champagne.

Of course, we’re in France to discover culinary delights that we just don’t find in Boston and we found a doozy. I thought I was living on the edge when I discovered oregano-flavored potato chips in Greece but we’ve got that beaten by a mile: Poulet Roti with thyme. You have to taste it to believe it!

Our lunch also consisted of some large shrimp at a bargain price and some salmon roe in a jar which will be perfect as our salt cellar.

After lunch we drive on to Reims and found a parking spot about 100m in front of the cathedral.

A most impressive one with Chagall stained glass windows from 1971. Most of the church itself was a reconstruction of the original destroyed in WWI with significant help from John D. Rockefeller.

We phoned ahead to a small hotel in Verdun recommended by Rick Steves. While walking around waiting for dinnertime checking out the local restaurants gastronomiques, we found a fishmonger who had some very pretty oysters which we arranged to have opened to carry back to the hotel on ice (7.40euros a dozen):

We bought an aerosol can of whipped cream to go with the strawberries we’d bought in the morning.

First Day on the Road: Champagne Country!

May 29, 2010

Wednesday, May 26 – Epernay: It took us until 11am to get all our stuff in the car — we weren’t rushing — and another 40 minutes to escape the Paris perepherique on the A4 towards Reims. We stopped for lunch at a too-typical restaurant gastronomique in Meaux, a small town famous for brie and mustard with an impressively large cathedral.

The meal was merely satisfactory overall but had some really outstanding items: three mousses as amuse bouches (cauliflower, asparagus, and salmon), a delightful chevre and sweet onion mixture in a filo wrapper:

and a stupendous Dauphinoise (with the mixed grill):

We found a nice chambre d’hote in the compound of a champagne producer. When the wife had shown us to our room, she came back with two small glasses of the vin de maison:

We also had to have some kir royale in the evening in Epernay:

All in all, a nice start!

Impressionists missing; over-the-top car

May 26, 2010

Tuesday, May 25 – Paris: Our last full day in Paris. We spent the morning at the Musee D’Orsay where, without any warning to people buying tickets to see the art, they’ve closed the Impressionist galleries for renovation. Just a dozen van Goghs lined up in a temporary gallery. Still, we saw some favorites, such as the Rodin portrait of Camille Claudel and her sculpture of a young girl being rejected by an older man. Also some fine Art Nouveau furniture — although one comes away impressed with the quality of similar things at the Met in NYC.

At lunchtime, we had an appointment with a friend of a friend of a friend of Dani’s private banker in order to try to set up a French bank account with a French credit card containing a memory chip: many automated ticket machines and even one motel (Formule Un) require the chip and won’t work with an American credit card. To our great surprise, we were able to set up the account but now need to figure out how to get the card itself from Dani’s address where it must be sent to us whereever we happen to be. But at least we’re 80% there.

We then went to the district for designer fabrics (and every other kind) so that Deb could look for a cotton knit for the Diane von Furstenberg wrap-around she wants to make. She had a great time in the major fabric stores (one was 6 floors of fabric) but our only take-away was a dish towel!

Our last task of the day was to pick up the car we will drive for the next 72 days. I’d been wondering how I could sweet-talk the agent into giving us the car they implicitly promised (a VW Golf; the contract says “Golf or similar” and we’ve been round that barn before). BUT amazingly, they noticed that we were dropping the car off in Pisa and as they had an Alfa Romeo coupe with Italian plates which they wanted to get back in Italy, they offered it to us. Very nice car!!! (Photos tomorrow.) Very difficult drive from l’Etoile to Dani’s (repeat after me: anything on the right, including traffic entering a rotary (!!), has the right-of-way) but we made it.

Sorry it wasn’t much of a day for interesting pictures. But it is strawberry season and we’re doing our part:

Paris dead but Louvre open

May 24, 2010

Monday, May 24 – Paris: Today, everyone’s taking it easy for Pentecost but we needed to make up for some lost time so we paid our third visit to the Louvre. The famous:

and my favorite, the ivories:

We were surprised as we cruised the Italian paintings in the Grande Galerie to see three Caravaggios, including the Death of the Virgin, refused by the Neopolitan church which commissioned it because the virgin looked rather too human. Within a few decades, it had made its way into the hands of Louis XIV.

Lunch at a rather mediocre place with our first croque-madame:

(Deb in the pink linen dress on the right.)