Saturday, January 4, 2014

Chapter 37: A New Year and, for me, a new decade commemorated in Alsace

As my 60th birthday approached, I knew I wanted to go somewhere interesting to celebrate. It took a while to find out exactly which days Lawna could take off for the holidays, so travel plans were kind of last minute for a popular holiday weekend. Since we are returning to the U.S. soon, we didn't want to do anything too lavish; it would have to be fairly close by. I have been wanting to visit Colmar in the beautiful Alsace region of France, about a three hour drive from our home, so I booked a room online on Kayak and we took off from Spesbach on Tuesday morning.

The drive was mostly foggy through farmlands, mostly on country roads punctuated at regular intervals by lazy traffic circles. Not the quick, direct route afforded by the autobahn. Once we passed through Strasbourg and entered the Alsatian wine region, the sky began to clear and we finally arrived at Colmar in the late morning sunshine, in time for lunch. Check in wasn't until 2:00, but we had use of the hotel parking, which is a valuable commodity in European cities that are tighter on parking spaces than in American cities. Out hotel was rated with just two stars, but the price was insanely reasonable. At least I had found a last minute room in a popular tourist town on New Years Eve! We parked the car, left our bags inside and set off for a twenty minute walk to the historic center of town.

Colmar has been called the most beautiful city in the world (mostly by Alsatian promoters). It's a high compliment to live up to, but it is quite beautiful and, of course, touristy. The Christmas markets were still up and running, serving vin chaud, which is just French for glühwein, a heady mix of sometimes rum, wine and sweeteners like sugar, honey or apple cider. It's sort of a Yuletime hot toddy. The recipes vary by the vendors. Each booth competes to create the most interesting concoctions. It is definitely an alcoholic beverage and keeps Christmas strollers warm inside and giddily conversational. We lunched on French hotdogs, Alsatian sausage links on crunchy bagettes smeared with Dijon mustard, and a bowl of Alsatian scalloped potatoes. All those warm carbs and vin chaud make good chilly weather fare.

airing the bedding

Christmas market, Alsatian style

Colmar's downtown area is a splendidly preserved old town, filled with narrow cobblestone streets and old half-timbered houses. It makes a perfect setting for a Christmas market, and this was to be the last day. We wandered along the narrow streets for a few hours, enjoying the food and occasional street musicians, visited another beautiful French cathedral, but missed a few important sites because nearly everything was closed for the New Years holiday. I was expecting places to be closed on New Years day, but thought that museums would be open on the 31st. Even most of the cafés and pâtisseries were closed. EU countries take holidays seriously! Some downtown hotels had New Year celebrations planned, but reservations had to be made far in advance. Basically, over the New Years holiday there would be no places to eat. I felt suddenly in desperate fear of starvation!

We had a great stroll, and then lost our way trying to get back to our hotel (a common habit with us). When we finally made it back, we checked in, unloaded our bags from the car and surveyed our two-star digs. The cons: it was a tiny space, just big enough for a queen size bed with narrow space along the perimeter for luggage, a tiny bathroom and shower stall that hardly allowed a person to bend down to pick up a bar of soap. It was a tiny hotel room. The pros: It was clean and the staff was helpful, even providing a bottle of wine for us to celebrate the New Year. It had a small flat screen TV so that we could watch the New Year arrive in Berlin in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Also, the hotel offered a nice breakfast the next morning. So, we spent our New Year in a very small hotel room, watching German pop stars bring in the New Year with a dazzling light show and fireworks display. Colmar did not have an official fireworks display, but once midnight struck, firework explosions erupted outside. Perhaps it is legal to shoot of fireworks within the city limits. If not, a lot of Colmarians were breaking the law.

The next morning, we ate the hotel breakfast. I had booked the room for two nights, but decided that there was not much point in staying if everything was going to be closed on New Years Day. I told the woman at the desk that we needed to leave early. She looked disappointed and a little annoyed, but checked us out. I was fully expecting to pay the full amount for two nights since I was the one breaking the booking agreement, but a few days later I received an email from them informing me that they had credited my account for the difference. That gave the hotel an extra star in my estimation. Apart from having small rooms and limited amenities, the hotel was fine for the price, and the staff was quite wonderful. I would recommend them for anyone who just wants a place to sleep (the bed was comfortable) at an affordable price.

Unterlinden Museum, site of the Issenheim altar piece

Dominican Cathedral

Since most places were closed over the New Years holiday, we missed out on some significant sites. I had been hoping to see the famous Issenheim altar piece at the Unterlinden Museum, which is located in an old Dominican monastery which once served as a hospital. Issenheim is one of the greatest works of 16th century Christian art, depicting a particularly gruesome crucifixion scene wherein Christ is covered with a plague-like skin rash, showing the patients cared for by the Dominicans that they were not alone in their suffering. Mathias Grünewald painted it, though it was long attributed to Albrecht Dürer. The incredibly poignant depiction of suffering inspired a 20th century opera by Paul Hindemith and a biographical novel by German author W.G. Sebald. We were able to go inside the Dominican sanctuary, and I've included pictures, but the museum with the three altar pieces was closed. Also closed was the birthplace and museum dedicated to Frédérick Auguste Bartholdi, who is best known in the United States as the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty. The celebrated Alsatian also sculpted many other works which are scattered in public places throughout the city and housed in his museum. In fact, as we drove in and out of the city limits, one of the main traffic circles is dominated by a smaller version of our familiar Lady Liberty.

After eating our tasty breakfast at the hotel, we checked out and took off in the car with no particular plan. Colmar is situated in the Alsatian wine district, and almost any direction you turn is headed toward a picturesque vinyard town. We stopped at a large fuel and rest area, sort of a French Buccee's, near the lovely wine town of Sèlestat, gassed the car and picked up provisions for an impromptu road trip. From the sprawling parking lot, we could see a large castle on a hill. Pictures of it were also posted inside the rest area complex (restrooms/souvenir and grocery store/food court). The castle was Haut-Koenigsbourg, an enormous chateau overlooking the Rhine plain. We decided to drive up to it, even though we were sure it would be closed. The drive is scenic, winding up the Black Forest hillside (or as the French say, foret noire). Once at the 750 meter summit, we discovered lines of other holiday motorists who had parked just to walk around the grounds of the locked up keep. It is an impressive structure, and I am always awed by the capacity medieval architects had for constructing such grand edifices on such challenging terrain. We hiked around the grounds for awhile and took pictures of the castle and the fantastic view over the Black Forest and plains.


E. Leclerc, the French answer to Buccee's

Rhine plains

model of the original castle

After driving back down the mountain, we decided to just drive east toward Freiburg, which is located parallel to and near Colmar on the German side of the border. At various times in history these two cities have resided in the same country and have close cultural ties. It took less than an hour to arrive at the beautiful Black Forest university town where our son Michael spent a year studying German.We did not stop, but drove through toward the Black Forest hills, really foothills of the Alps that spread over Bavaria to the east and Switzerland to the south. We were only about a half hour away from Basel. We had a car stocked with baguette sandwiches, Alsatian pretzels and bottled water and just drove into the hills to see the scenery. The road winds up along spectacular forested cliffs and eventually crests in a popular ski area with giant ski jump structures. It had snowed, but only a dusting was left--certainly not sufficient for skiing. We did stop in one nicely blanketed area and made some snowballs. We're from warm South Texas. We regress to the childhood winter joy that we never had. 

Giddy south Texans playing in the meager snow.

Above the Black Forest

The sun was beginning to sink--evening arrives early in the winter, so, having no hotel to go back to, I turned the car around and we headed back to Spesbach, about a four hour journey on the autobahn. A great way to celebrate 60.

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