Cycling around Colmar

Our main goal during our time in Colmar was to do some cycling through some scenic villages and Alsace vineyards as we’d not done any cycling on our previous travels. We also hoped we’d find a few nice restaurants and sample some local produce – wine being top of the list!

We hired two electric bikes from Lulu Cycles in Colmar. We’d originally planned to get normal bikes but a mother and her two daughters were returning some electric bikes when we went in and they strongly recommended them so we decided to give them a go.

Our first day of cycling followed a route that went through the villages of Turckheim, Katzenthal and Ammerschweir and ended up being a loop that was about 20kms.

I had problems on the first day with my bike as the pedals would lock if I tried to use the electric assistance going up hills – which is obviously when I most wanted it. Never having used an electric bike before and with neither of us being mechanically-minded we had no idea what was wrong and how we could fix it. I ended up having to push the bike up hills. Fortunately none of the hills were very big or very steep but it was quite annoying. It turned out, when we took it back, that I had the bike in the wrong gear, so on our second day I knew what to do and it was all fine.

Luke expresses his disapproval for my bike with a dirty look.

The villages around Colmar are all very picturesque. Some more so than others, of course. Each of the ones we visited on the first day was nice and we noticed that every church we came to had a shallow but large metal basket on the roof and in most of them were nesting storks. Andrew tells me that this solves the problem of storks nesting on chimneys and creating fire hazards!

We arrived in Kazenthal in time for lunch and the first restaurant we happened upon had a Michelin plate on the outside – a good sign!

A l’Agneau (don’t ask me to pronounce it) was delightful. They didn’t raise an eyebrow at our sweaty faces or rumpled cycling clothes, despite the fat that everyone else there looked like they had a special occasion happening. We choose a €28 three course lunch that also included an amuse bouche and petit fours. All the food was deliciously fresh and perfectly cooked with lovely presentation. The manner of the staff was also excellent – despite a low level of English they asked where we from and recommended other things to see in the area as well as recommending wines to match each course.

I don’t think I could pick my favourite course, every element was superb. After drinking and eating so much we both had a cappuccino before getting on the bikes to continue our ride. I rarely drink coffee but I have come to understand its value after a heavy meal!

Thankfully most of the remaining ride was downhill and fairly straightforward. One of the downsides of this sort of sight-seeing is having to stop frequently to check the map as we didn’t know the area. It would’ve been good to have some way of attaching my phone to the handlebars to use as a satnav. I also wouldn’t have minded a rear view mirror when we were on the roads so I could see cars and how far Luke was behind me.

Our second day of riding was even more successful. This time I had the gears+electrics worked out and after a brief attempt to use my headphones with google navigation so we wouldn’t have to stop so often, we were on our way, hurtling through corn fields and feeling the wind in our hair. Well.. except when google maps took us into muddy fields and knee-high grass.

Our second day took us through the villages of Herrlisheim-près-Colmar, Eguisheim, Wettolsheim and Wintzenheim. If you’re planning on visiting any villages around Colmar I strongly urge you to leave Eguisheim until last because anywhere you go after that looks a trifle dull.

Eguisheim is even prettier than Colmar and is made up of roads that are concentric circles.

It makes it a very pleasant place to wander around, even if it’s hard to know when to stop. It’s full of places to do wine tastings – we wished we had booked a night there so we could have taken advantage of it all.

We ended up eating at Au Vieux Porche, another Michelin-listed restaurant and almost, almost, as good as A l’Agneux. If anything was missing it was possibly the attentiveness of the service. There was no effort to engage us in any conversation and when we were ready to pay it took twenty minutes for the maitre d to come to our table. Otherwise the food was excellent and it was about the same price – nearly €90 for the two of us to have three courses each, wine pairings and coffee. My first ever espresso – predictably dreadful but with the desired effect of allowing me to continue riding without falling asleep on the bike.

Unfortunately the lighting was quite dim so my photos are a bit rubbish but believe me, it was all delicious! Well, except the coffee and that wasn’t their fault.

Although we hired the bikes for four days we only used them on two due to rain and hot weather and being lazy. We really enjoyed both days despite the few issues and it is definitely a lovely and accessible part of the world for riding if you’re not super experienced.

Here’s a few more photos from Eguisheim to finish off!

Colmar, France

Colmar is the second largest city in Alsace, a north eastern province of France that borders Germany. Despite being right in the middle of a great deal of action in both world wars the medieval centre of town is astonishingly well-preserved.

The style of architecture could well be categorized as ‘German gingerbread’. Or possibly ‘pastel dollhouse’. No matter what you call it, it’s delightful.

Since we’d chosen the place as nothing but a base for exploring a wine region, we had no idea that we’d hit on one of the most beautiful cities and most popular tourist destinations in the north of France.

This is the ‘house of heads’ because it is decorated with over 170 heads. I like to hope that in medieval times they used the heads of people who stop walking right in the middle of footpaths. It was a more enlightened age.

On our first full day in town I got up at the crack of 7am and went for a wander through town so I could take photos that didn’t have families in active wear ruining the charm.

As it was, only myself and a handful of Japanese people wandered the streets, happily snapping away.

Through a small amount of research prior to booking we had ascertained that Colmar had at least one very pretty street in an area called ‘little Venice’ but it turned out that in reality Colmar has a positive maze of lovely alleys and byways and it is hard not to take hundreds of almost identical photos – as you can see!

Next: cycling around Alsace – we hire electric bikes and it is mostly successful.

Paris: Wine Tasting at Ô Chateau.

While doing our food tour in Nice we met Sheandra, a lawyer from Atlanta in the US who was great fun and we all got along like the proverbial chateau flambé. We ended up going out for a few glasses of wine after the food tour and then deciding to meet up again in Paris, this time for a Rick Steves-recommended wine tasting lunch at Ô Chateau.

We all arrived a little early and caught up on what we’d done since we’d last seen each other then went downstairs into the stylish cellar where the tasting would take place.

Our instructor for the day was Gerald, a man with excellent English and even better wine knowledge. His presentation not only covered how to taste wine and how to discuss it, but also the history and geography of French wine. If you are an aspiring connoisseur or just interested in wine I’d hugely recommended it. If you already know a lot about wine they have an experts course too.

Some of the things I learned were:

1. How the sediment is removed from champagne bottles without the gas being lost. The neck of the bottle (where the sediment had settled) is frozen, then the plug of ice removed before the bottle is resealed.

2. What ‘brut’ refers to. I’ve always wondered yet never bothered to look and it turns out that it means a minimum of sugar is added to flavour the champagne and sometimes none. So when a champagne is ‘brut’ it means that it is dry. Champagne that is ‘extra brut’ is in fact more sweet because extra sugar is added.

3. When a champagne is labeled ‘Blanc de blanc’ it means ‘white of whites’ which means only Chardonnay grapes have been used. The other two grapes used to make champagne are red – Although champagne is never red because the skins are discarded.

4. NVB stands for Non Vintage Brut. This means that grapes from multiple seasons have been mixed to provide a more standard flavour.

5. Champagne glasses are tall with narrow stems because until modern methods were involved, the yeast sediment used to settle in the bottom of the stem.

6. To see if a red wine is aged you can tilt the glass over a white background and note that the pinker the tint of the wine the younger it is and the redder, or browner the colour the more it has aged.

Of course we learned a great deal more but, thanks to drinking about 8 glasses of wine, I seem to have forgotten most of it. C’est la vie!

I found that we knew quite a bit about wine terminology and a bit about production. Where we always fall down is in the actual tasting, although Gerald explained so well and gave us a few hints and so we did pick some of the flavours. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we guessed successfully.

The cheeses were paired nicely and each came from the same region as the wine.

Number three was my favourite pairing and the Sancerre (a Sauvignon Blanc) was my favourite wine, but I was tickled to be trying a Chateauneuf du Pape. Partially because I had just read about there being a pope who chose Avignon as his capital (traveling around Europe is like piecing together an endless historical puzzle) but mainly because it is mentioned in a Beastie Boys song and every time I read it I start singing Body Movin’ to myself.

Anyhoo, we were properly fuzzy when we left and we said goodbye to Sheandra before heading to the Musee d’Orsay.

We had a quick look at some very elegant Art Nouveau furniture and then their impressive collection of Van Gogh works. Van Gogh is always amazing, but seeing his work surrounded by other artists of the period really impresses on you how special he was. So vibrant and expressive. I took a photo of this one for Jess, as it featured in one of my favourite Dr Who episodes.

Last night (a week later) Luke and I had a long discussion about art we liked since we’ve seen so much lately. We both agreed that we thought the very best art (fine or otherwise) was the kind that appealed to many people on many levels. Work that could be enjoyed or be controversial or in some way stimulating for everyone, whether you were trained to appreciate it or not, but which held layers of meaning so that the more you knew the more there was to appreciate. I think this is why I find some modern art so interesting – the more technically skilled but also provocative it is, the better I like it.

I’d be interested in what other people think about so leave a comment if you have thoughts!

Last Day In Paris

On our last day we didn’t do much at all. It was the hottest day of our stay and also a Sunday, which meant that half the shops weren’t open. I decided the first thing we had to do was eat chocolate eclairs. I hadn’t had one in years so we went to three different bakeries and tried one from each.

They might look identical but they were (slightly) different. All were excellent!

Then we spent half the day being real locals – we sat in a cafe eating french food and drinking. Aperol Spritz for me and beer for Luke.

Lovely! Well, except for the wasps. Wasps everywhere in Europe right now! Everywhere we’ve been the pleasure of sitting outside and inhaling other people’s cigarette smoke has been mitigated by wasps trying to get into our drinks and food.

After this exceptionally lazy day we packed our bags, ready to head for Colmar via Strasbourg.

A few last examples of Paris street art. For those who like this sort of thing I have to note that stencils seem to be hugely popular here. Maybe they’re quicker to put up?

Paris

We caught a TGV train from Nice to Paris and it was a delightfully quiet ride compared to our last train journey. We watched rain pour down the windows and arrived in Paris to a delightful 24 degrees. Such a nice change from 30+!

Our hotel (the Hotel Audran) was in Montmartre, only a few blocks from Sacre Coer.

We were offered a room on the street side or behind and erroneously took the street side. I don’t know if the back of the building would’ve been much quieter, but almost every night people seemed to want to have shouting conversations in the street and then delivery or garbage trucks woke us up early each morning. Still, the cool weather was a wonderful thing and we quickly headed out to explore the neighborhood.

Montmartre is the bohemian part of Paris, with lots of quirky shops, restaurants and street art.

Our first walk took us to Sacre Coer (sacred heart) and its mad crowds and views over Paris.

Then we found a nice little restaurant for dinner (La Mandigotte) that had the menu in English as well as French.

One day I’ll remember to take a photo of the restaurant as well as the food.

I must say that we are both getting better at reading signs and menus – Luke did many years of French in high school and is finding that it is coming back somewhat. I did an unenthusiastic six months of French but I like having a go at learning a bit of the language when I go places and after Nice and Lyon I am finally saying merci instead of grazie or danke. All this changing countries gets a bit confusing after a while. It will be a bit of a relief to get back to the UK in that sense.

On our first morning in Paris we headed straight to an art exhibition – with a difference.

It was a sound and light show in an old foundry, where reinterpretations of Viennese artists from the end of the 19th century were being projected onto the walls and floor with a musical accompaniment.

It was beautiful and interesting. There were three Viennese artists presented, with Klimt being the longest show, then at the end there was a much more modern show called ‘Poetic AI’ that wouldn’t have been out of place at a rave. We both liked the futuristic display best but the whole thing was lovely and very unusual.

Big thanks to Viv for telling me about it, I wish it had been on when you were here!

After this eye-popping brilliance we headed to the Pompidou Centre for more modern art but we both agreed, despite a few interesting pieces, that it wasn’t as much fun as the previous exhibition.

One of the works that stood out most for me was a sound-proofed room. The deadened room felt both comfy and a tiny bit claustrophobic even though it was quite large.

A fascinating sensation.

Also we were perhaps getting slightly sore feet. Nothing wears me out like shuffling around galleries.

Next: an excellent wine tasting and more Paris wandering.

Swimming in Nice

Even though we packed a lot of organised activities into our time in Nice we did other things too.

One afternoon we put on our swimmers and headed for the beach. Many European beaches are at least semi-private. I think the worst ones are where you have to pay just to get on the sand/pebbles but in Nice there’s one enormous stretch of beach called the Bay of Angels. It has a 6km promenade that was built by the English many years ago as it was they who popularised Nice and the surrounding towns as a holiday destination. They came in winter to enjoy the milder temperatures and often on doctor’s orders for the clean, dry air.

The Nice beach is pebbles, although once you go further west the beaches become sand. Every hundred metres or so the beach alternates between public and private. The private sections have rows of beach chairs plus often a bar or restaurant. The two we checked out (at the very eastern end of the beach) were about 20 euro to hire a beach lounge for the day. When we went down to ask we found that both places had no beach lounges available for hire but it was possible to sit for free in the more shaded undercover area at the back and so we did that and took turns going into the water.

Unless you’re set on sunbathing, sitting up the back in the full shade is a much better option and few other people seem to want to do it. The chairs are comfortable, it’s not as bright and it’s cooler – and free! We only ordered two drinks each in the couple of hours we were there and the prices weren’t terrible either. So if you’re looking for a place in Nice to avoid the heat give it a go!

France: Nice

We arrived in Nice after several hours in a train carriage that had all the sights and sounds of an unruly crèche. A family with four small children and two adults plus about a dozen bags of toys and belongings sprawled across the eight seats in front of us, with the parents allowing the kids to hang over into the aisle and block the passage of people trying to walk through. When one woman, trying to get past, tripped over a child’s leg and landed heavily on the foot of the offending mother it seemed like appropriate karma. Very satisfying to watch, it was.

Aside from that our journey was uneventful and it was nice to spend half a day in airconditioning after the 37 degree heat of Lyon.

We caught a tram from the train station to our Airbnb apartment and discovered that it was 104 steps up to the fifth floor and it was definitely the smallest apartment we’d ever had. It did have aircon though and a tiny balcony that looked over the rooftops.

The balcony was so small that we had to shuffle the table forwards and backwards to get both of us out there.

On the first night we relaxed with our usual plate of cheese, ham and some cheap wine and planned our stay. Luke booked us into a variety of activities.

1. A walking tour of the old city. We did this on our first full day. It was €14 each and the tour guide was an Australian girl who had lived in Nice for the last ten years. She was obviously very knowledgeable about the city but had a kind of clipped way of delivering the information which made it all seem very rote-learned.

My favourite thing on the tour was a baroque church that was so over the top it sort of came out of bad taste into cool kitchness. It also had chandeliers.

2. A small group evening visit to Monaco.

It ended up being a very small group – just Luke and I and our driver, Antonio. He was great and full of information about Monaco and how it runs. I didn’t really know much about Monaco before we went so it was somewhat eye-opening.

The thing we both liked most was the cars.

Antonio dropped us off at the casino after a drive around the race track and royal residences. In front of the casino normal people hang around looking at cars and hoping to see someone famous… I guess? I couldn’t think of any other reason.

Not actually terribly attractive.

We went for a walk and had a look at the opera house and then looked down from a viewpoint onto the decks of some of the super yachts that lined the harbour. How annoying to be rich enough to own a super yacht then have plebs watching you eat your dinner!

We had a drink and then dinner at Cafe de Paris, an open air restaurant next to the casino where you can watch the fancy cars and fancy people walk past. The food was actually pretty good for somewhere so busy, and very nicely presented.

After dinner we stepped into the Monte Carlo Casino foyer and there was an art installation featuring a maze of playing cards.

We met up again with Antonio and boggled at the fact that people who are rich enough to come to Monaco would actually want to go there. It’s not a particularly attractive place and the main goal seems to be to show off. Saudi princes get their sports cars flown there for their two week holidays just so they can drive them around town at 10km an hour. The whole thing seemed to represent the worst of humanity but at the same time it was certainly interesting.

3. Nice food tour!

We always like a food tour. We had a very pretty and vivacious woman named Marion as our guide for this tour through the markets and stores of Nice’s old town.

We walked through the market and some speciality shops and Marion bought samples of fruit and pastries then stopped at a restaurant to have a drink and try various things.

Then we walked on to buy wine and try socca, a local chickpea pancake, plus an onion tart, both of which are traditional street food.

We finished at a store that sold gourmet olive oils etc and tried some samples then finished with a table full of cheeses, meats and fruits.

I wish I’d taken more notes throughout as Marion was very knowledgeable about cheeses and wines. I’d definitely recommend this tour to anyone interested in French food. Google ‘the French way tours’ for more information.

4. A tour of Cannes and Provence.

Another small group minivan tour. This time, sadly, we didn’t have the van to ourselves.

Our driver was a young and bubbly woman from Hungary who had pretty good English but occasional words were a puzzle until context made them clear. For example I thought she had said that Italians had brought ladder making from Italy until eventually I realised it was leather making. Our guide also had to shout to be heard by the people in the back seat, which meant we were caught in the crossfire in the middle row and the commentary was unceasing and quite repetitive. Luke’s a pretty patient person but even he was getting sore ears by the end of the day.

First we stopped for 40 minutes in Cannes. Obviously as a film editor, it was a bit of a pilgrimage for Luke although not terribly exciting when there was nothing going on.

Next we headed to several small villages in the hills.

it is hard to believe people lived up here for centuries and had to walk hours down to the valleys and coast to buy supplies. Not to mention getting building materials up the mountain.

We visited three villages. In the first we toured the Fragonard perfume factory. It was sort of interesting but when we came out into the village for five minutes afterwards it was so pretty I wished we had time there instead.

We stopped at another tiny village for a rather rushed lunch then a final village that was where Chagall lives and is now a centre for fine arts… and tacky crap. It was very pretty though and extremely busy.

We found a quiet spot and watched a storm roll in over the hills of Provence.

There was so much lightning that Luke managed to capture some video of it on his phone and posted it to Instagram.

We made it back to Nice by 5pm and had a quiet evening on our balcony.