Friday, May 30, 2014

Winding roads and rugged mountains in Majorca

I'm currently in the not-so-shabby position of trying to rush through blog posts since there is a lot going on to try and blog about! This weekend, I'm back to Tours for the first time this year (where has the time gone?) to catch up with friends and visit the Vitiloire wine festival, the highlight of any self-respecting Loire-wine-loving girl's calendar.

First though, I'm fresh from five nights in Majorca celebrating uni friend Amber's 30th birthday. When she invited me along, I hesitated a little bit. In my mind, Majorca was a "Brits abroad" destination, full of sunburned, drunken chavs (yes, Mum, chav is a naughty word), massive nightclubs and very little culture. But I thought, "it's not the sort of place I'd usually choose to go to, so this is my opportunity to see it", and decided to hop aboard the Majorca train.

I imagine a lot of it is where you go to - a night out in Magaluf was talked about several times, but eventually dropped for lack of enthusiasm/everyone wilting under the prospect of a big night out on the tiles - and also the time of year you go. But I must admit that Majorca didn't really live up to my negative perceptions. I did very little research and hadn't even seen any photos (I think I initially thought Majorca was in the Atlantic, that's how little I knew), so I was really surprised by the rugged, mountainous interior, the sheer coastal cliffs and the diversity of sights and activities on offer. We really didn't do too much, and actually I would have been happy with some more time lying on a beach, but it really wasn't the drunken lads on tour vibe I was expecting.

We stayed - seven of us - in a large stone apartment in the heart of Palma. This was a bit of a challenge to my sensibilities as well. I'm not really a fan of being around people 24/7, especially since Amber was the only one I knew. Everyone was perfectly nice, bar the occasional minor annoyances you get with any group, but it was a bit much for me by the end. With that many people, it's just a hassle trying to get going anywhere. Trying to decide what to do, where to eat, and then just getting everyone up, showered and out the door (particularly when there's hangovers involved) is a real mission. In that sense, it's amazing that we did anything at all, although I'm still kind of annoyed that on our beach day we missed all the good weather because some of the group wanted to visit the cathedral first despite the forecast predicting it would cloud over in the afternoon. Hmmph.

I arrived on Thursday evening after a stressful trip to the airport (the train was replaced by a bus service which was oversubscribed, but luckily I left plenty of time to get to the airport in Germany) for an evening of tapas and wine, very pleasant. Friday was probably the best day of the trip (always good if you can start high and then taper off). We hopped in our two hire cars and drove from Palma to Port Soller, where we stopped for an amazing lunch on a roof terrace overlooking the harbour, then on to Pollença through some very windy mountain roads with spectacular views. Stopped in Pollença, a charming little village, for a drink and then before it got dark drove all the way out to Cape Formentor at the northern tip of the island, whence you could just see Menorca on the horizon. I got a bit carsick on the twisty roads, but it was definitely worth it for the views.

This is the view from the terrace where we had lunch in Port Soller. Amazing (reminds me of Monaco)

And the delicious grilled calamari I had for lunch

On the beach at Port Soller

Stopping en route to Cape Formentor for a selfie

On the way to Cape Formentor

Unfiltered photo of a very white town as the sun sets on the way back from Cape Formentor

At Cape Formentor

Virtually the same as the last photo, but I couldn't decide which I preferred

Apparently hanging on for dear life at a viewpoint on the way to Port Soller

Panorama at Cape Formentor

On the way to Cape Formentor

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg

Last but not least on our Alsatian weekend (I always feel weird referring to things as "Alsatian", by the way), we called in to the Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg, as recommended by one of Jules's colleagues. We had both taken a quick look at the website, but it failed to really sell what, for us, was the most spectacular part of the château: the amazing, incredible, superlative view.

The clues were there: we noticed an unusually zig-zaggy road leading to the château when we looked at the route, and it has "haut" right there in the name, but I don't remember seeing any photos of the view online. The road snakes up through woodlands to an elevation of 757 metres, where you are treated with probably the best view I've ever seen from a château, looking across the Alsatian plains to the Black Forest and the Vosges mountains. If you ever get the chance, even if you don't go inside the castle, trust me that you should drive up and look at the view, especially if you're lucky enough to have perfect weather as we did.

The castle itself was old, but fell into ruins and was restored under Kaiser Wilhelm II when Alsace was occupied by the Germans. I'm not a big fan of heavily-restored sites and was mostly interested in getting up to the top of the castle in the hope of more spectacular views. So I maybe rushed us through a little too quick (I was thinking we would go down the same way we came up, but we didn't really). Still, definitely worth the visit.

Kinda gaudy, but impressive

The imperial eagle on the ceiling

Jules (actually genuinely smiling) and the dragon

Me and that view

View from the turrets

Panoramic view from the castle

Back on the ground for some more vineyard shots on the drive home

So, we really had a lovely weekend. I think we used our time wisely between Colmar and the surrounding region. I wouldn't have thought of visiting anywhere outside Colmar, but I'm so glad we did because we got to see the most amazing landscapes and had a really great, chilled-out time. As you may know, the word "lucky" irritates me at times, but this weekend I definitely was feeling like one very lucky girl.

Friday, May 23, 2014

On the route du vin

We didn't really have much of a plan for Sunday. Jules had been recommended a castle and a couple of scenic towns to visit in the region, but I wanted to wait and see Colmar first on the Saturday before deciding how to allocate our time for the next day. We had a bit of free time on Saturday morning, and decided to take one quick last look around Colmar on Sunday morning before going to Riquewihr, lunching in Ribeauvillé, visiting the Haut-Koenigsbourg castle in the afternoon and taking a leisurely drive back to Metz via the Alsatian Route du Vin. I mean, does that not sound like a nice day out?

I had heard of people driving or cycling the Route du Vin before and sort of thought "I've seen vineyards, I don't drink white wine, that's not for me". Well, I was wrong. (Hold the front page.) The Route du Vin is not only for me, I imagine it's for everyone. It's almost impossibly picturesque. I said to Jules at one point that the French government would probably have to pay people to plant vineyards even if they weren't making any wine (and thanks to subsidies, they probably effectively do).

Much as I adore the Loire Valley (and their wines win hands down, as far as I'm concerned), the vineyards there, while lovely, lose to the gorgeously terraced vineyards in Alsace. Touraine is just too flat, by and large, while the rolling hills of Alsace offer charming vistas at every turn. In the end, I think just driving along in the car was my favourite part of the weekend, even though we didn't stop off and sample any oenological delights.

View from the highway driving to Colmar

So many cute little villages

We did stop, however, in Riquewihr, a small and very touristy town. When I mentioned this to my colleagues at work, they pointed out that there had actually been a big fire (which killed someone and destroyed four old houses) there on New Year's Day this year. They've evidently done a good job of cleaning up, as I didn't see any signs of it (according to Jules, there was a house under construction, but I don't remember seeing it). Again, Riquewihr is really pretty, but also very, very touristy. I think we had thought we were getting off the beaten track and away from the tourists a bit. Ha! I think there were even more than in Colmar.

Driving in to Riquewihr

The main drag in Riquewihr

After Riquewihr, it was just a 10-minute drive to Ribeauvillé, where we had lunch at the Cheval Blanc, as recommended in the Michelin guide. Ribeauvillé was still pretty, but less overtly so than Riquewihr, and less crowded. Riquewihr was nice to see, but I think we were both glad to be having lunch in a less febrile atmosphere. We parked more than a kilometre away from the restaurant (before checking where it was), which gave us the chance to walk the whole way through the town to the "quartier pittoresque" which was indeed picturesque, but a bit quieter than further up the main street. We spent around two hours dining on the sunny terrace, sipping a surprisingly nice and not too sweet crémant and geranium-syrup apéritif before tucking in to a very nice dish of chicken leg and spätzle (soooo good) for me and baeckoffe for Jules. I definitely wanted more Alsatian food while we were here, but this was more refined (and better!) than I've had elsewhere. After the main, we were both fairly stuffed, but eventually made room for some sorbet - the lemon was to die for.

Jules in Ribeauvillé

A fiddler ("pfiffer"), the symbol of Ribeauvillé

And the symbol of Alsace - a real live stork!

It was so cool seeing this guy. We amused ourselves imagining how he must just think he's the boss with his awesome nest on top of a medieval tower

We stopped by the side of the road to take this gorgeous vineyard panorama - to die for
A very, very agreeable way to spend a day - next up, the Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Charmante Colmar

I'm soon to be blogging atcha from sunny Majorca (lucky me), but thanks to the wonders of computer "here's one I prepared earlier" trickery, I'll be able to bring you dispatches from our weekend in Alsace without lifting a finger. Other than the typing fingers I'm lifting right now, obviously.

I liked Strasbourg a lot when I visited in the midst of my flatmate crisis all the way back in July 2011,
but hadn't given a lot of thought to Alsace since, even though I now live quite close by. But then I noticed Colmar cropping up on a lot of those Buzzfeed-style lists of "most charming towns" or "places to see before you die", so when I saw that the forecast for last weekend was hot and sunny, I put that together with the fact that it was one of my last free weekends before moving further away (Colmar is around a 2.5 hour drive from Metz, so around 5 hours from Brussels) and suggested a spontaneous overnight trip to Jules. He just got a new car and didn't need much persuading to take it for an extended spin (we got to make full use of the electronic sun roof), so earlyish on Saturday morning we hit the road, arriving at our hotel around 11.30 am.

I had two main goals: see the Issenheim Altarpiece, and wander around the streets taking photos of all the picturesque half-timbered buildings I'd seen online. The first goal was facilitated by the fact that it was "Museum Night" when we visited, meaning that all the museums had special late openings (for free!), so that meant that we had the whole afternoon to stroll about the city. Minus the two hours we spent sitting at a café in the sunshine, of course.

The first impression was that Colmar is, indeed, amazingly lovely and charming. Rows of brightly-painted half-timbered houses, narrow cobblestone streets, picturesque canals, ivy- or rose-covered façades: it's got it all. Cue (by the way, has anyone else noticed "que" suddenly cropping up everywhere for "cue"? Irritating) much frenzied snapping and posing in an attempt to capture the perfect shot without a million old people in the background. (Nothing against old people, but there were a hell of a lot of them cluttering up every picturesque landscape and taking a long time to move out of shot.)

My sunglasses broke :( So mission #1 was finding an H&M for some cheap replacements, but not before a couple of squinty photo opps

Statue in front of the Bertholdi museum - a native of Colmar who designed the Statue of Liberty

So many outfits

Obviously, it was amazingly cute. I have literally dozens more photos that I could put up showing the city's charms. As time went on though, we were both reflecting on whether it was too cute, too chocolate-box. It's tedious to go somewhere as a tourist and then complain that it's touristy (fair game when you live there though, as long as you're not too obnoxious about it). Although I try to pride myself on not being a "bad" tourist (talking too loudly, stopping dead in the middle of the street, wearing a backpack on a crowded train etc.), god forbid I turn into one of those pretentious wankers who like to drone on about being a "traveller, not a tourist, maaaan". I think Colmar is partly saved by the fact that everything doesn't look brand spanking new - the paint is bright, but you can tell it hasn't all been uniformly slapped on in the last year or whatever. But although it is genuinely, really really pretty and I enjoyed seeing it, it maybe lacks a bit of soul.

The plan for the evening was to grab an early dinner and then go to the museum afterwards. However, every restaurant we had scoped out online was either full or didn't appeal in person. So we decided to quickly nip in to the Dominican church - which is currently housing the Issenheim altarpiece and a few other works while its usual home, the Unterlinden Museum, is being renovated - before eating. It was actually really nice seeing these works in an ecclesiastical setting, and thanks to the free entry, the church had a lively buzz to it which you wouldn't necessarily usually associate with a museum or church.

At first, I thought just the big crucifixion scene below was the altarpiece, but it turns out that it was a very elaborate multi-part piece with folding doors over a carved wooden centre (I took a photo of a helpful model below). I didn't fall in love with it, but I think I definitely appreciated it more once I realised the scope of the work.

The altarpiece (painted panels on the left and wooden carving on the right) in the Dominican church

The altarpiece's central scene

A very green, very dead Jesus being laid in the tomb
Jesus had the grossest feet I've ever seen

Another set of wings of the altarpiece

Close-up of monsters on the altarpiece

A model showing how the altarpiece was put together

Another elaborate altarpiece by a different artist (there's like 8 different panels to it as well). I actually liked the vivid colours of this one better than the Issenheim altarpiece

After checking out the church, the idea was to have a quick dinner before taking a quick look at the rest of the collection in the Unterlinden Museum (which closed at 10 pm). We just decided to sit at the nearest place, which was a mistake. We had to sit outside because it was full inside, which was okay at first but got progressively colder (and neither of us had brought a jacket out), which wouldn't have been too bad except the service was soooo slow. I was feeling sick (too much bubbles of the winey variety in the bath methinks), we were freezing, and the food was fine but not good enough to make up for the service. We had taken a fixed menu and wanted to abandon before the cheese course (which took so long to come that I wondered whether they were actually making some elaborate cheese-based confection - nope, it was just a bit of munster on a plate) except that we asked for the bill several times (when we could flag down a waiter, which wasn't often) and they didn't bring it. Instead of a tip (which are included anyway in the bill in France, before anyone gets upset), I wrote "Slow service" and a frowny face on the receipt. So thanks Restaurant Pfeffel for making us miss out on going to the museum. We should have left earlier, if you have to say "I'm going to the loo, if they haven't taken our order by the time I get back, we're leaving", you should probably just leave. Well, at least we managed to see the jewels in the Unterlinden collection before dinner...