Vacay in Meat Town

Cisternino mapWhen I think of Italy, I think of Renaissance paintings, luscious wines from Chianti, Roman ruins, and Juliet’s balcony in Verona. I imagine Venetian gondoliers and margherita pizzas in Naples. Limoncello in Sorrento, and George Clooney on Lake Como.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that the picturesque little town in southern Italy where I was staying was famous for its meat.

That’s right. Meat.

Cisternino, Italy, is a charming little town of white-washed alleys and postage stamp piazzas nestled in the heart of the southern region of Puglia. It is one of three towns – Cisternino, Alberobello, and Locorontondo – that roughly outline a triangle of the Valle d’Itria where you’ll find the enchanting stone houses with conical roofs called trulli.

The area is known for its rolling hills, vineyards, and acres of olive trees. In fact, Puglia produces something like 40% of the olive oil used in Europe and makes some very tasty wines to compete with the more famous Tuscan brands in the north.

And since Puglia is in the “heel of the boot,” you’re never far from the sea. Cisternino is less than a thirty minute drive from the Adriatic. The larger seaside cities of Bari and Brindisi have ferries scheduled for regular passage to Greece, Albania, or Croatia.

There’s lots to love about Cisternino (photos above)  and it’s an ideal central location to explore beautiful Puglia (you’ll need a car). But what we didn’t realize until a few days after we’d settle into our Airbnb home just outside the town is that Cisternino is known for its meat. Specifically, for its butcher shops, marcelleria, where you select your meat from the butcher’s case and it’s grilled and served to your table right in the shop, or in an adjacent dining room.

Mention Cisternino to anyone living in other parts of Puglia and their eyes light up as they inquire if you’ve tried the meat there.

I don’t know if the locals ever buy meat and bring it home to cook for themselves. I suppose they could, but the Fornello Pronto – “ready oven” – concept has been a popular and economical option for dinner in this area for a long time. And Cisternino, with something like a dozen Fornelli Pronto to choose from, is known throughout the area as THE place to go for enthusiastic Pugliese carnivores.

We unwittingly stopped at one such place for a late lunch on Friday, our first day in town. Not knowing any better, we mostly ordered the signature local pasta (orecchiette, or “little ears”). Dan may have ordered a meat dish, but I forget now. Regardless, we were clueless and in this smaller town off the typical American/Italian tourist track, no one spoke English to explain the meat tradition to us.

On Sunday morning we visited nearby Alberobello, a UNESCO World Heritage site where we’d booked a walking tour to learn about the historic trulli. On hearing that we were staying in Cisternino, our delightful guide, Antoniana, was the first to tell us about its fame as Puglia’s Meat Town and enthusiastically encouraged us to try the local specialties.

steak dinner

My friend Sue; my fabulous steak

That night we randomly chose Le Tre Lantern for dinner. Since we walked in looking like we had no idea what we were doing (true enough), the smiling host swept us past the meat case and into a dining room, handing us menus. He probably felt that spending half of his evening trying first to explain how it works, then puzzling out what each of the four of us wanted, could be accomplished far more efficiently by providing menus with English translations.

By the time we had each chosen an entrée (I had a fabulous steak) and ordered sides of salad and roasted potatoes and, yes, more orecchiette, we had enough food in total for maybe eight people. Word to the wise, if you’re going to a Marcelleria or Fornella Pronto (I’m honestly not certain which term to use), order sparingly and plan to share because the portions tend to be generous. One side salad, for instance, was plenty for the four of us.

While attending a cooking class on Wednesday to learn how to make orecchiette, our instructor Simona shared more tips on ordering meals at Cisternino’s meat market/restaurants. She said that one not-to-be-missed dish is the bombetta, or plural, bombette. These are little parcels of grilled meat – could be beef, veal, pork, or chicken – that are pounded thin, topped with a layer of cheese and/or other fillings and herbs, then rolled up, sometimes wrapped in bacon, and secured with toothpicks. Each bombetta is about the size of two thumbs pressed together.

So on our final night, we made our way back into the warren of streets and piazzi of the old center of Cisternino and stopped at the tiny Alvecchio Fornello for one last attempt at a traditional meal in Meat Town.

This time we nailed it. The patient man who greeted us explained what was in the display and allowed us to choose a variety of bombette from the butcher’s case. We also selected a coil of sausage, added a salad, an order of roasted potatoes, and jugs of red and white wines.

The bombette were delicious and reminded me of miniature versions of one of my mother’s favorite Italian dishes, braciola. In our family, braciola was made by pounding out a cut of beef like flank steak until it’s very thin, then spreading cheese, seasoned breadcrumbs, and other mystery ingredients (to me) on top of the meat. Then the whole thing is rolled up, tied with string or secured with picks, and baked in spaghetti sauce until tender. The braciola is then sliced and served in pinwheel-like portions.

We finished our last meal in Cisternino with complimentary shots of house-made limoncello and arancello (like limoncello, but made with oranges). Despite eating a substantial meal, that ounce or two of arancello made me giddy. I recommend it as a delicious way to obtain a quick buzz if you’re in Puglia and in the mood to get silly. I may be looking for a recipe to make my own, come to think of it.

Grazie mille for reading about Meat Town and if you ever have the opportunity to explore Puglia – GO. It’s my new favorite part of Italy.



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When you go to Rome but your suitcase goes to Myanmar

My new friend Carol Cassara has some great tips on avoiding lost luggage and agreed to let me share her post:

Check out Carol’s story here!

It’s called “Dude, Where’s My Luggage?” – love the title. And her suggestions are good ones.

Having said that, I am going to jinx myself by admitting this but, despite traveling quite a lot over the years, I’ve only lost my luggage once  – and that was returning home from Switzerland about 30 years ago. Consequently, I have become very cavalier about my carry-on luggage. Before my Kindle, it would have been filled with about four paperback books, a notebook and pens for writing, snacks and more snacks, cell phone and charger, extra glasses, my meds and maybe a toothbrush.

Extra underwear or items of clothing? Basic toiletries? A hairbrush? Nah. I guess my peabrain thinks if I can read and eat, all is well in the world (well, it kind of is, right?).

So I’m going to be more thoughtful about the contents of my carry-on for future travel. I’d like to think that pretty much anywhere in the world (or anywhere I’m likely to go) you can find a store to buy new toiletries and even some undies, if necessary. But it wouldn’t hurt to have a backup or two.

Oh – and I’m going to suggest you add one more thing to the checked bag when you’re going overseas. I always have a copy of my passport info page tucked somewhere in my suitcase. If I were to lose a purse or day bag, it would make it easier to have that on hand.

Okay, I don't know where this bus photo was taken, but from the look of the crowding, it could be Rome. It's the closest you'll even be to another human being without having sex. Photo credit

Okay, I don’t know where this bus photo was taken, but from the look of the crowding, it could be Rome. It’s the closest you’ll ever be to another human being without having sex. Photo credit

Also, you can scan any identification, insurance card, even credit cards you’re taking with you, save them to a file with a ridiculous name and email it to yourself. In a pinch, you can access your email and get a copy of everything that was in the wallet that was stolen on the #64 bus in Rome.

I have a friend who saves all her passwords in a file called “asswords,” but that’s another story.

Check out Carol’s website at Carol Cassara dot com, too. Happy travels!


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Gimme some Big Tex and everything fried

I just realized it’s more than a week since I went to the Texas State Fair with my dear Dallas buddies, Carol and Patsy. Over a week! Already!

Here’s the thing. If I don’t write about things soon after the experience, I may not write about it at all. I find myself bumbling along to the next thing and getting all excited about whatever happened most recently. Like yesterday morning. As I was grabbing my jacket pool ladiesfrom the locker room at the Y, I started talking with a nice lady who was getting ready to leave at the same time. As it turns out, she comes to the Y every morning at 7:30 to meet up with what she says is a friendly and funny informal group of other women for the Old Lady Free Swim (not the official name). They all laugh and chat and paddle around every morning before classes start. I was looking for a way to ease back into the pool and I think I’ll like that. Then I can do strength training or walk on the treadmill or whatever afterward. Sounds like fun, right? (I have to keep repeating that to my exercise-adverse self …)

Oh. And I had a great time on Sunday with Ginny and Vicki at the annual luncheon and fashion show of the Textile Arts Alliance of the Cleveland Museum of Art, too. Bought a very cool, funky scarf-like thing.

You see what I mean.

Carol and Jazz, with Max observing from his perch on the end table.

Carol and Jazz, with Max observing from his perch on the end table.

So back to Texas. I had not seen my Dallas friends in 24 years. Seriously. Time doesn’t just fly. It streaks by at warp speed. I flew in late Saturday and stayed with my buddy Carol, her dog Jazz, and cats Max and Stoli, in Frisco, which is a suburb kind of north and west of Dallas.

When I lived in Dallas 24 years ago, I think Frisco was a gas station and a shrub near Plano. And when I moved to Dallas several years before that, Plano was the new home to Frito Lay and JC Penney, a Baptist church, and a few McMansions popping up on scrubby lots.

Today, that whole area is a metropolis of office buildings and corporate headquarters, shopping centers, housing developments, megachurches, sprawling school complexes and busy freeways. The Dallas Cowboys are building their new home and training center in Frisco and Toyota is fixin’ to (speaking Texan, y’all) open its new US headquarters there, too. There’s a development in the planning stages just blocks from Carol’s gorgeous home that will be the Texas version of New York’s Central Park. It’s currently a huge field of dirt and scraggly brush, but don’t ever tell a Texan that a transformation sounds unlikely. They said Central Park, and it will most surely be Central Park and then some.

Coming from quiet Northeastern Ohio, the fast-paced, ever-expanding development north of Dallas was nothing short of amazing to me. It’s the 21st century version of the Wild West. They say everything is bigger and better in Texas, bless their hearts. But it’s a great place to visit and I hope to do a lot more of that now that I’ve so happily reconnected with my friends there.

Midway at Texas State Fair

Midway at Texas State Fair

On this first trip back, the girls suggested we visit the One and Only Texas State Fair. Yee haw! Count me in! So we strapped on our orthopedic walking sandals, slapped on some sunscreen, and took the DART train from Carrollton to the station right outside the gates of the fairground, Fair Park. The train system in Dallas is clean, fast and inexpensive – a great way to avoid the freeways crammed with rodeo daredevils in pickups trying to beat portfolio managers screaming down the center lane in their Beemers.

Now, Fair Park is busy all year – not just during the fair. It’s the home of Cotton Bowl stadium where college football is worshiped each fall, several performance venues like Music Hall, the African-American Museum and Texas Discovery Gardens, and much more. In fact, Fair Park boasts the world’s largest collection of 1930s Art Deco exposition buildings.

But one thing Fair Park has that is unique to Texas, and to the world, is Big Tex. Seeing Big Tex and eating fried food were my two primary reasons for wanting to visit the fair. Oh, and seeing an honest-to-goodness Texas longhorn steer.

The girls and Big Tex

The girls and Big Tex

I learned that Big Tex and I are close to the same age. He made his debut at the State Fair in 1952 and a year later, the big baby started talking and later moving his head and hands. He’s actually a little creepy, but Texans L-O-V-E him. When he burned up in an electrical fire in 2012, there was no question he’d get a facelift (just in time for his 60th birthday) and return bigger and better than ever.

He’s three inches taller now, too, at 55 feet tall. His outfit is from Lane Bryant, or maybe custom-made by the Williamson-Dickie Mfg. Co. in Fort Worth. I forget. One of the two. I was surprised to learn that he was wearing clothes at all, honestly. I didn’t realize this until after my visit when I started reading more about him. In person, he looks like he’s just painted in denim or something. But then, my vision sucks (I’m actually looking forward to cataract surgery when Medicare kicks in next spring).

Maybe most impressive, sartorially speaking, are his Lucchese cowboy boots. If you are not a cowboy (or cowgirl) you may not know that Lucchese are the Cadillac of boots. Sicilian shoemakers Salvatore and Joseph Lucchese emigrated to the U.S. via Galveston and set up their first boot-making shop in San Antonio around 1883. They started out making boots for the United States Cavalry School at Fort Sam Houston and went on to become, eventually, THE name for Western style boots. Big Tex, of course, deserves nothing less.

Corny dog love

Corny dog love

Pretty Patsy and the funnel cake

Pretty Patsy and the funnel cake

Fortuitously placed just adjacent to Big Tex is Ground Zero for fried foods at the Texas State Fair:  Fletcher’s Corny Dog tent. There may be other corny dog sellers (aka just corn dogs where I come from) at the fair, but people are happy to stand in line for the best. We were lucky to be there on a quieter day and didn’t have to wait long for ours. Best damn corn dog I ever ate.

But wait. We’ve seen Big Tex. Do you remember what is next on our “must do” list? That’s right:  fried foods. The Fletcher’s Corny Dog kicked off a foray into all things fried, most of which we did not actually sample, but it was great fun seeing what was available.

Fried carrot cake

Fried carrot cake

After our Corny Dog, we shared a funnel cake. This has always been one of my favorite treats at the Ohio county fairs I’ve visited, so I was happy to see it in Texas, too. As we were sharing the fried, sugar-dusted dough, a lady sat next to us with a great example of how everything-can-be-fried, Fried Carrot Cake. It came with a caramel dipping sauce and a white sauce that may have been cream cheese or whipped cream or icing  of some sort, but it wasn’t holding up well to the heat (did I tell you it was freaking 90 degrees that day? In October? WTF, Dallas?). She gave it a thumbs up and seemed an honest sort, so I’ll recommend it to you. Looked yummy.

I had promised myself (and my son) that I would only actually buy and eat one outrageous fried treat. But here’s a short list of a few of the more interesting options at the fair:

  • Chicken-fried lobster tailsigns 1
  • Fried pickles
  • Chicken-fried bacon

    This nice guy offered a piece of his fried bacon for us to try. Was tempted.

    This nice guy offered a piece of his fried bacon for us to try. Was tempted.

  • Fried butter
  • Fried Snickers bar
  • Fried dulce con lechesigns 3
  • Fried bread cone filled with steak and peppers
  • Fried stuffed olives

However, the one that made me pull out the last of my tickets and pay for a serving was the Fried S’More.

Yes, yes, yes! (I'll have what she's having.)

Yes, yes, yes! (I’ll have what she’s having.)

Oh, mama. Pull apart the sweet fried dough, and inside you’ll find ooey-gooey melted chocolate and marshmallow and a hint of graham cracker that sort of melded into the fried dough. Can I tell you how happy I was to have held out for this sinful dessert? Worth every sugar-busting calorie. Trust me on this.

I respected his space

I definitely respected his space

And finally, as we waddled back to the DART station (well, I waddled, anyway), we did come across Tex’s Pride, Big Tex’s very own longhorn steer. Unlike his fiberglass master, Tex’s Pride was a real bull with a ring in his nose and an expanse of horn at 60” that’s only two inches less than I am tall. Tex’s Pride eats 40 lbs. of feed and drinks 30 gallons of water a day. He spends about seven hours a day chewing cud. He also frowns on people who want to play with him and I was more than happy to “respect his space,” as advised by the sign.

Texas is big and hot and there’s too much traffic and not enough trees. People go to church a lot and take the whole Christian thing fairly seriously and I suspect there are more folks packing guns than I dare to imagine.

But you know what? It’s a heck of a lot of fun to be there. Especially if you’re lucky enough to have friends like mine. I can hardly wait to go back and explore the Pearl Arts District in downtown Dallas and visit the Texas Book Depository to learn more about the tragic Kennedy assassination there. I’d like to see what’s new on trendy Lower Greenville and sample the area’s fabulous barbecue and Tex-Mex cooking. We enjoyed a short visit for lunch and shopping in charming Granbury, and I’d like to do more of the same in Grapevine and historic McKinney.

And guys – that’s just around DALLAS! I know I mostly write about Europe and love every moment I am able to explore there, but I could spend a month tooling around Texas and never be bored. If the girls will have me, I’ll be checking on cheap flights to go back for another visit soon.

Go to Texas, y’all!

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Flying Frontier: thoughts on cheap ass travel and more

Well, first I have to tell you about a webinar I’m considering taking by a writer I admire, Josh Bernoff. He has a blog called “Without Bullshit” and his webinar is about Writing Without Bullshit.

I’m all for writing without bullshit. On the other hand, my blogs pretty much rely on bullshit to provide some degree of entertainment. I think my readers like my bullshit. Right, you two?

Now that I think of it, I’m guessing Mr. Bernoff would say that leading a blog post with information that is totally irrelevant to the subject of the post counts as a serious bullshit faux pas. My friend and mentor and sometimes-editor Jane Gassner would agree. Sorry, guys.

I will consider the webinar. Anyone who wants to weigh in on whether or not I need to eliminate some of the bullshit, feel free to comment here.

Happy Halloween. A photo that bears no relation to the topic of my blog post or the irrelevant opening paragraphs.

Happy Halloween. Here’s a photo that bears no relation to the topic of this blog post OR even to the irrelevant opening paragraphs. You’re welcome.

So today, after an absence of several months that I can’t explain, I no longer feel inclined to share more stories about my awesome trip to Alsace last spring. In fact, being old, I barely remember what I did in August, let alone May. Suffice to say, Alsace is fabulous and you should go.

I do, however, remember a fair amount of what happened in the last couple weeks. So before this, too, becomes a vague memory, today’s post is all about my recent experience flying from Cleveland to Orlando on Frontier Airlines.

Note:  When I say I can’t explain an absence of several months, I do not mean to imply that I was in a coma or abducted by aliens or anything noteworthy. No, I just lost track of time, at least in regard to blog-writing. This begs the question, is writing in my blog something I do when I’m not busy living my actual life? Or, maybe I just don’t like to write when I’m hot (not sexy, but sweaty)? I don’t know. But it’s October, and I’m back.

Another note:  I just got a FitBit and it’s squishing into my wrist which is resting on the keyboard as I type. I don’t like this. And I’m pretty sure I’m not even getting activity points for writing, let alone steps. Anyone know how I can lower the daily goal of 10,000 steps to, oh, say, 2,000? I want something achievable. But I digress. Again.

Be sure to allow PLENTY of time to check in with Frontier.

Be sure to allow PLENTY of time to check in with Frontier.

I’m conscientious and wanted to select reasonably priced flights to work a client’s conference in Orlando. The best deal appeared to be on Frontier, so I booked tickets for me and my bud and business partner-in-crime, Ginny. The program was held at the lovely Loews Portofino Bay hotel. This unique property actually looks like it’s on the Italian Riviera, but the little lake beyond the piazza winds around not to some gem of a village on the Cinque Terre but to City Walk at Universal Studios. Instead of taking the ferry to Vernazza or Corniglia, we ended up having dinner at Bubba Gump’s after sipping a margarita at – where else? – Margaritaville, where we watched sweaty, sunburned people leaving the park wearing Harry Potter capes and Minion tee-shirts.

Maybe I’ll write about Loews Portofino Bay Resort another time. Or, you can just visit the website yourself. If you haven’t consumed too much of the Disney Kool-Aid, you really ought to consider staying there if you have to go to Orlando again sometime.

I’m really all over the place today, aren’t I? Part of the problem is that I was almost done writing this when I got a phone call from my realtor (I have an offer on the house I put on the market at the beginning of April – yay!) and when I went back to finish writing, stupid WordPress hadn’t saved my last several paragraphs. Stupid WordPress. Bad.

Anything larger than this is considered a CARRY ON BAG and you will be charged big bucks on Frontier.

Anything larger than this is considered a CARRY ON BAG and you will be charged big bucks on Frontier.

So here’s the deal with Frontier. When I booked our tickets, I knew I’d have to pay for checked bags. In fact, it costs more to carry a bag onto the plane than it does to check it. I actually like that because I’m tired of all the cheapskates who fly on “regular airlines” and try to cram the entire contents of their bedrooms into the overhead compartments. Very annoying.

So I ticked off “yes” for checked bags. However, I didn’t notice that I had to check off “yes” for both legs of the trip. Consequently, Frontier thought we were bringing suitcases to Florida, but leaving them behind. I think that sounds a little shady and that the airline should assume that we ARE bringing our suitcases back home unless otherwise noted. Right? We discovered this the night before we were to go home so we had to pay even more money since we hadn’t made it clear in advance that we wanted round trip tickets for our luggage, too.

Fine. When we tried to figure out how to pay for our bags to come home with us, we also learned that it’s all but impossible to talk to anyone on the phone who works for Frontier Airlines. Since Ginny was the one trying to do this, I can’t speak to the details, except to say that Ginny is the most good-natured, kind person on the planet – and she was pissed.

She did eventually learn that if we tried to check in at the airport, not only would checking the bags cost even more money, we would need to pay another $11 per person to get boarding passes. What? Yes. So, somehow the hotel concierge got us straightened out, printed the boarding passes, and we were able to leave Orlando the next day.

The cheapest seat on Frontier is this one: Five bucks for a swing and harness.

The cheapest seat on Frontier is this one: Five bucks for a swing and harness.

But wait. Did I tell you about seats? If you want to choose a seat on Frontier, you have to pay. The price of a seat varies according to where the seat is on the plane, whether or not there is an inch or two of extra leg room, and whether or not you want a seat belt (just kidding about that last thing). None of the seats recline, by the way. That’s fine with me because I’m sick of sitting with someone’s head practically in my lap, especially if I’m foolish enough to want to use my tray table to eat a snack or something.

Oh. Speaking of snacks, I guess you can buy some from the flight attendants but I didn’t look at the “menu.” You can have a complimentary cup of water, but will pay for coffee or soft drinks, etc. It’s kind of like being in prison in the air, now that I think of it. If you don’t have money for the “commissary,” no snacks for you, buddy.

If you are willing to really go cheap, you can have standing room on the wings.

If you are willing to really go cheap, you can have standing room on the wings.

And finally, you’d better be on time and no fooling around. Sweet Ginny, who does like to push the envelope when it comes to flight schedules, I must admit, stood in line at the Frontier check in counter in Cleveland for nearly 20 minutes. When it was finally her turn at the desk, she was told she had missed the window for check in by two minutes. She thought they were joking. They were not. It cost her $99 to change to the next (nearly empty) flight leaving a couple of hours later.

I had taken out a loan to reserve seats across from each other on the aisle, but instead, the kid sitting in the middle used Ginny’s empty spot to strap in his big stuffed Mickey Mouse.

You thought I was joking, but no. Seeing polygamists in the St. George Walmart never fails to interest me.

You thought I was joking, but no. Seeing polygamists in the St. George Wal-Mart never fails to entertain me. Yes, I know I’m a jerk.

I wish I could tell you I’ll never fly Frontier again, but before this first experience I had already booked flights to Las Vegas for Christmas. No, I am not spending the holiday playing the slots. My mother and I are visiting my sister in nearby St. George, UT. We will probably go to the local Wal-Mart to ogle the polygamists at some point during our holiday visit as there is not much to do in St. George if you aren’t busy keeping up with all the secret activities taking place at your local Mormon temple.

I am hoping to try fried cheese in the shape of Texas next week.

I am hoping to try fried cheese in the shape of Texas next week.

In the meantime, I’m excited to tell you that I am flying to Dallas to see my old friends Carol and Patsy this Saturday. We are going to go to the Texas State Fair, which I suspect will offer lots of great material for a blog post when I return. We will also eat plenty of great Tex-Mex food and drink margaritas and laugh until we cry. I can’t wait.

The only down side? Heaven help me, but I booked my ticket on Spirit Airlines. Have I mentioned lately how much I miss Continental?

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Love Letter to Alsace . . . Eguisheim, the “snail city”

Love Letter to Alsace is a series of essays about my trip to the Alsace region of France in May 2015. It was one of the most delightful adventures I’ve ever experienced! I hope you will enjoy reading about different aspects of the trip, from traveling to the destination, to stories about the lovely towns and villages we visited, and more.

The friendly girl in the Ribeauville Tourist Information office called Eguisheim the “snail city” because the town was built in three concentric circles around the chateau where Pope Leo XI was born. She also said it was picturesque and one of France’s (many) “most beautiful villages.” It might have won an award for flowers, too. Plenty of those around, too, although I must say that every pretty village with pretty flowers would have gotten my enthusiastic vote, just so you know.

Birds eye view of Eguisheim

Birds eye view of Eguisheim

This brings me to a confession about this trip. Unlike my previously well-planned excursions to places like London or Rome where I’ve compiled a laundry list of MUST SEE places, Sue and I wandered around Alsace by the seat of our pants. Want to see the town shaped like a snail? Sure. Look for a place to have fish for lunch on the Fried Carp Trail (more on that later)? You bet. It didn’t take a Mona Lisa to capture our interest. In fact, my only regret was that we somehow missed the Gingerbread Museum.

Maybe next time.

This also was my first experience renting a car in Europe. Having the freedom to easily pop in and out of little villages and towns that would be difficult to visit using public transportation was great. And it was easy. Do it if you can.

Sign for a restaurant, I think - I liked the girl!

Sign for a restaurant, I think – I liked the girl!

So we were off to Equisheim on a sunny Sunday morning. The drive was gorgeous – winding through vineyards and cutting across other tiny towns, curving around the hills and catching glimpses of the ruins of castles in the distance. Eguisheim was maybe a 30 minute drive south and west from our flat in Ribeauville and has a large parking lot outside the city walls (you have to pay) and public restrooms. There’s a large map showing how the town is laid out, conveniently posted just before you enter the village.

We were greeted by colorful half-timbered buildings as well as older stone constructions decked out with pastel shutters and overflowing flower boxes. In the center of town we found the old chateau adjacent to a lovely church with a statue of the pope in front. Leo XI was born there in 1002, if you can even fathom such a year (I can’t).

The old chateau is on the left, church to the right, and statue of Pope Leo IX in front (and Sue taking a photo, probably of the stork next in the top left corner!)

The old chateau is on the left, church to the right, and statue of Pope Leo IX in front (and Sue taking a photo, probably of the stork nest in the top left corner!)

The remains of three medieval red sandstone towers rise above the village. They reminded me very much of the remnants of  towers that still loom above some of the historic gems of Tuscany, like San Gimignano and Siena, and I imagine they served much the same purpose as lookouts and places to run for protection if invaders were spotted.

The towers are all that's left of three castles above the village of Eguisheim

The towers are all that’s left of three castles above the village of Eguisheim

Built in the 11th and 12th century, Eguisheim was destroyed in 1466, but the city and its protective ramparts were rebuilt and little has changed structurally since the 16th century.

Walking dog in Eguisheim

A local family walks the dog along this ancient wall in the very center of the village

There were plenty of people enjoying a Sunday stroll in this charming village, but not so many that the place felt at all crowded or overrun by tourists. We had lunch on the patio outside a restaurant facing the main square. It was the best tart flambé of the trip for me! This Alsatian version of pizza starts with a very thin, crispy flatbread crust and is topped with a light spread of crème fraiche, some grilled onions, and bacon bits similar to pancetta.

The buildings curve around to circle the center of town.

The buildings curve around to circle the center of town.

A proud producer along the Route des Vin, Eguisheim is known for its pleasant Pinot Blanc, hearty Rieslings, and luscious Gewurztraminer and Muscat wines. À votre santé!

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Love Letter to Alsace . . . Itty bitty Bergheim

Love Letter to Alsace is a series of essays about my trip to the Alsace region of France in May 2015. It was of the most delightful adventures I’ve ever experienced! I hope you will enjoy reading about different aspects of the trip, from traveling to the destination, to stories about the lovely towns and villages we visited, and more.

Tiny Bergheim is the next stop on the wine route just west of our home base of Ribeauvillé. It turned out to be the perfect first baby step of our adventure. Quiet country roads led us through fields and vineyards, giving us the opportunity to practice our knowledge of who-yields-to-whom on roundabouts without causing excessive distress to the light, local traffic.

See the arched entrance under the tower? That's the entrance to the old village of Bergheim.

The arched entrance under the tower leads to the old village of Bergheim.

This plaque is on the left as you approach the tower entrance. It appears to be a soldier mooning and thumbing his nose to the enemy! We're thinking the Germans?  Couldn't find a date!

This plaque is on the left as you approach the tower entrance. It wasn’t dated, but from the look of the uniform, we are guessing it’s a French soldier thumbing his nose and telling the Germans to kiss his derriere!

Approaching the medieval gateway to the village, we found a shaded municipal parking lot on the right (free!), flanked by a small stone building housing very clean public restrooms. We thought that was nice, of course, but it wasn’t until several villages later that we came to fully appreciate Bergheim’s thoughtful hospitality. Merci, Bergheim!

The town walls, dating back to the early 14th century, are still virtually intact – a rarity in the Alsace region where so many battles have been fought over the centuries. Winding streets reveal ancient traditional, half-timbered wine growers’ homes and everywhere shop keepers and residents celebrated the beginning of summer with terra cotta pots and wooden window boxes overflowing with colorful geraniums and pansies. Fabulous old wisteria bushes dripped purple clusters of blossoms, mimicking the ripe grapes that will be everywhere in the region come fall.

Wisteria in bloom!

Wisteria in bloom

Bergheim has been known for its wines and surrounding vineyards since the Middle Ages and there is evidence of Roman occupation from long before that time. Near the town’s parish church you’ll find an “Annette Garden” where “simples,” medicinal plants, were cultivated in the 15th century.

The witches' garden

The witches’ garden

If you go to Bergheim in the summer, you may be interested in visiting the Maison des Sorcières, or Witches’ House, situated between the garden and church. Its hours are very limited during the off seasons and was closed the day we visited. We learned later that in the 16th and 17th centuries, more than 40 women were burned at the stake for practicing witchcraft. The museum tells stories of the lives of the accused women and their trials, as well as displaying some of the instruments used for torture in that era (yikes). My friend Patti had asked me to bring back a stone for her garden, here in Ohio. Since she is a very good witch (of course!), Bergheim was the perfect place to pick up a rock to join others she has collected from places like Sedona, Arizona.


Geraniums outside a shop in Bergheim

Bergheim is not home to a long list of historical must-see sites, so we just enjoyed wandering around the pretty town, even returning when we learned that its weekly market was scheduled a few days later. There wasn’t much to choose from, compared to the large Saturday market in Ribeauvillé, but even that was kind of nice. People chatted with us a bit and it was clear that this was not a market aimed toward tourism. Locals were stocking up on their veggies for the week, or checking out the inexpensive clothing hanging from racks next to the shoe salesman’s display (I would have bought a pair of Clarks sandals but he didn’t have them in my size after checking the inventory in his van!).

Heading back toward the tower after our visit.

Heading back toward the tower after our visit.

Bergheim is perhaps a ten minute drive from Ribeauvillé and is a charming, low key place to begin your exploration of Alsace’s picturesque villages. Until next time, à tout à l’heure!

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Love Letter to Alsace . . . Ribeauville, actually

Love Letter to Alsace is a series of essays about my trip to the Alsace region of France in May 2015. It was of the most delightful adventures I’ve ever experienced! I hope you will enjoy reading about different aspects of the trip, from traveling to the destination, to stories about the lovely towns and villages we visited, and more.

Okay, it’s corny. Ribeauvillé, actually? As in “Love, Actually?” My son just mentioned that his girlfriend loves that movie and so do I and I LOVE Ribeauville, so . . . .

Anyway, Ribeauvillé is pronounced kind of like this:  ree-bow-vee-lay. It’s a tough one because the French kind of gargle a hint of the “R” sound in the back of the throat and whenever we tried to say it that way, people would laugh at us. If we just started out with an ordinary American-sounding “R,” they would correct us, we’d try the gargle-R again, and they’d laugh more.

Standing in the middle of Ribeauville's Grand Rue. See the castle on the hill above?

I was standing in the middle of Ribeauville’s Grand Rue. See the castle on the hill above?

Regardless, having taken French for four years in high school when my mind was young and perky and sponge-like, it’s amazing to me how much of the language (if not the correct pronunciation) came back to me during our nearly two-week stay in Alsace. Kind of like being able to sing all the lyrics to every Beatles song written prior to, oh, maybe 1967.

As I told you last week, finding a flat to rent in Ribeauvillé on Airbnb was serendipity. I knew nothing about the town, other than its primo location between Strasbourg and Colmar. It turned out to be one of my favorite places, well, in the world.

View from inside the castle ruins, looking down to the countryside around Ribeauville.

View from inside the castle ruins, looking down to the countryside around Ribeauville.

Ribeauvillé is located about midway on the 170 km Alsace Route des Vins, or wine route. The early Romans who first marched up and muscled in to conquer and rule the area eventually relaxed into the green, rolling countryside and planted vineyards to create their favorite beverage. Less military, more vino, and plenty of the guys decided to stay behind for the good life instead of returning to hot, dusty Roma.

The most successful vineyards for that climate produced grapes perfect for making dry, white wines. Some vineyards facing the south or southeast, soaking up the sun and warmer breezes, have been producing wine since the Middle Ages.

Sue enjoying the Muscat at Jean Sipp Winery.

Sue enjoying the Muscat at Jean Sipp Winery.

In beautiful Ribeauvillé, the commune proudly boasts three Grand Crus and offers fragrant Rieslings, Pinot-Gris, Gewurztraminer and my favorite, Muscat. Sue and I particularly enjoyed the Muscat at the Jean Sipp Winery in the upper part of the city. We enjoyed meeting the owners, cousins of our Airbnb landlady, Sophie Sipp, and their tasting room was a lively, friendly place.

Ribeauvillé has one long, main street, the Grand Rue, where nearly all the restaurants and shops can be found. Smaller side streets tend to be more residential, but the Grand Rue hosts a parade of locals, tourists and day trippers all day long. There’s a healthy contingency of hikers and bicycling enthusiasts making their way to the hills rising above the village. The ruins of three pink sandstone castles are the hikers’ destination, promising spectacular views of Ribeauvillé and the surrounding countryside.

Little bear delights children passing by as he blows bubbles above the souvenir shop below.

The little bear delights children passing by as he blows bubbles above the souvenir shop below.

Bicyclists claim their patch of the road on the Route des Vins and also can ride right through the vineyards on bike trails created especially for them. Seeing them in the distance, their shiny helmets bobbing along above the vines in the sunshine, sure made cycling look like an appealing option to explore the area.

I'm posing demurely with the minstrel statue in Ribeauville.

I’m posing demurely with the minstrel statue in Ribeauville.

Ancient Ribeauvillé was the seat of the Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre – the Lords of Ribeaupierre. Today in the town you can visit the Butcher’s Tower, built in the 13th century, the 18th century Hôtel de Ville, or town hall, the Maison des Menetriers, or house of the fiddlers, and what almost feels like a stage set of colorful half-timbered buildings housing bakeries, boutiques, restaurants and more.

Thousands flood the town the first Sunday in September each year for Pfifferdaj, the Minstrels Festival (this link should take you to a YouTube video of Sophie’s float). This is the oldest festival in the Alsace region, celebrating the lords of Ribeaupierre and the minstrels they protected. Fantastical floats parade down the Grand Rue, each creatively interpreting a theme inspired by images from Medieval history, such as peasant life, castle life, trades, animals, fortune, etc. Our friend Sophie shared photos of her group’s floats over the years where she has figured prominently (see below).

That's Sophie in the front of everything, long flowing hair and wielding a sword in the 2012 parade!

That’s Sophie in the front of everything, long flowing hair and wielding a sword in the 2012 parade!

I would love to return to Ribeauvillé one day – perhaps even to witness the amazing Pfifferdaj firsthand. But in truth, my favorite times during our stay there were early in the morning and again in the evening when the streets were quiet and I could almost imagine that this was my home.

Hearts and plaid - the Alsace folk designs.

Hearts and plaid – traditional Alsace folk designs.

Hearts and red plaid fabrics feature prominently in the many souvenirs for sale in Alsace. I know I left a piece of my heart there, and it’s resting in the magical town of Ribeauvillé, with castles hovering on the hills above.

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Love Letter to Alsace . . . staying put with Airbnb

Love Letter to Alsace is a series of essays about my trip to the Alsace region of France in May 2015. It was of the most delightful adventures I’ve ever experienced! I hope you will enjoy reading about different aspects of the trip, from traveling to the destination, to stories about the lovely towns and villages we visited, and more.

My friend and treasured mentor, Jane Gassner, said she liked my last post about traveling to Alsace (thank you, Jane!), but then asked, “Where does the ‘love letter’ come into this?”

So quickly – I promise! – before I get into Airbnb and my thoughts on staying in one place, let me explain.

This vacation was one of the most delightful, memorable trips of my life. The Alsace region just spoke to me, you know? It will forever be one of my “happy places.” If I close my eyes and imagine myself sitting outside the café near our flat in Ribeauville, drinking a cup of rich coffee and savoring an almond croissant, the Saturday morning market bustling in the square beyond . . . . That’s a little piece of heaven for me. Maybe your happy place is hunting for shells on the beach in Clearwater or watching hummingbirds hovering around the feeder in your grandmother’s back yard. If you think about it, and if you’re lucky (I feel SO lucky!), then you will come up with a number of places in this world, near and far, that evoke such warm memories, just imagining yourself there will bring a smile.

My friend Sue and I are at our favorite cafe in Ribeauville, having our morning coffee.

My friend Sue and I are at our favorite cafe in Ribeauville, having our morning coffee.

I love, love, love Alsace. That’s it. And one reason for writing this love letter is to serve as a reminder and promise to myself that one day I’ll return.

Airbnb and other ways to stay put

So let’s talk about a vacation where you stay in one place, versus moving around a lot, either independently or with a group, on land or water. I’ve been on a number of tours in different parts of Europe and the U.K. over the years, and there are unquestionably advantages to traveling with a group. In fact, if you have not done much traveling overseas, land tours and river or ocean cruises are excellent vehicles for seeing and experiencing a lot in a relatively short period of time. Someone else plans all the details and you can relax and soak up all the new experiences.

Our guide in Nuremburg was amazing - learned so much history. This was one of the stops on a fabulous Viking River Cruise.

Our guide in Nuremburg was an entertaining, knowledgeable graduate student working on his PhD in history. Nuremberg was a fascinating stop on a Viking River Cruise in Germany several years ago.

I will say for sure, I do learn more when accompanied by guides who know the history and culture of the place we’re seeing. I can read guide books and memoirs before I go somewhere, but it really can’t compare to hearing stories from an experienced guide who knows the location inside and out.

This recent trip was just the second time I’ve rented an apartment or flat in Europe for a week or more. The first time was maybe nine or ten years ago. I found a three bedroom flat in the center of Florence for four of us, following a tour we’d taken to the Amalfi Coast and Rome. We took the train from Rome to Florence (and that was an experience worthy of the Three Stooges, perhaps for another time!), then used public transportation to get around the city as well as for day trips to nearby cities like Siena, San Gimignano and Lucca. I found our flat online through Papavero Villa Rentals and I would heartily recommend this company if you’re considering renting a place in Italy.

Florence - one of Italy's treasures. Another place I could visit again and again ...

Florence – one of Italy’s treasures. Another place I could visit again and again …

The choice to stay in Florence was pretty straightforward. My friends and I had been to Florence before and knew we wanted to stay right in the heart of the city for what would be our second visit. Planning the trip to Alsace, however, led me from one interesting option to another as I my online investigation evolved.

My friend Sue and I had settled on two basic elements for the trip. First, we wanted to rent a car to explore the area because it just didn’t look like Alsace would be easy to navigate using public transportation. Since I had read that renting a car in France was relatively inexpensive and I knew the drivers were probably not as crazy as those in Italy (this turned out to be true!), we were pretty confident about choosing to drive.

Second, since we were exploring a fairly small slice of France, we liked the idea of making one place our home base. And taking that one step further, why not rent an apartment, allowing us to spend less than we would on hotel rooms and able to economize by making some meals at home instead of eating out all the time?

Rick Steves recommends charming Colmar - and it was all that and more!

Rick Steves recommends charming Colmar – and it was all that and more!

We originally talked about focusing on Strasbourg, which is the largest city in the region. But one quiet evening a few months later, I finally watched my Rick Steves DVD about the area, and learned that Rick recommended spending more time in nearby Colmar, which is smaller but even more picturesque and not quite as touristy as Strasbourg. The video of Rick walking around Colmar was so inviting, we agreed to switch the search for accommodations from Strasbourg to Colmar.

Now, I’m sure there are many smaller agencies offering rentals for tourists. Papavero, which I mentioned above, is one of them and working with them was wonderful. In fact, if I ever want to rent a place in Italy, I will certainly contact them first.  But currently, two of the largest and best known international vacation rental sites (I’m not sure if they even existed when I went to Florence) are Airbnb and VRBO, or Vacation Rental by Owner. I’d had positive experiences with both . . . with cancellations, so far!

I actually had booked a flat in Bruges, Belgium, through VRBO several years ago and had to cancel at the last minute when the volcano blew in Iceland and air travel came to a halt. Remember that? What a disappointment! I still would love to return to beautiful Belgium.

And two years ago I reserved a little flat in downtown Brisbane, Australia, through Airbnb to visit my son. Another unfortunate cancellation. Hey. S*** happens. In both cases the landlords refunded my deposits. I was very pleased working through the two online booking agencies, as well as with the fair and kind individuals who allowed me to cancel my reservations without penalty.

So a word to the wise: If you choose to rent accommodations through ANY provider – always be sure to read the fine print. What IS their cancellation policy? I never dreamed I might have to cancel either time, but you just never know what might come up. Most rentals want 50% up front at the time of booking, so – well, just CYA, okay?

So anyway, now I’m looking at Colmar and there are plenty of options in and around the city center. With both Airbnb and VRBO, by the way, you can find anything from a single room in someone’s home with a shared bath down the hall (like staying at your cousin’s house or something; not sure I’d be game), to a villa that sleeps ten and has its own swimming pool.

Since I’d never been to Colmar, of course, I’d look at the photos of a place, then pinpoint it on a city map, but I didn’t really know if an apartment was in a convenient and/or safe area or not. And, more often than not, parking wasn’t included and I was a little leery of trying to find a place to park on the street. Would the rental car be safe? Would we be able to park close enough to the flat? Was I still capable of parallel parking after having avoided it as much as possible over the last 40 years or so (no!)?

Green acres is the place to be

Then I thought – DUH! – we have a CAR. We can stay wherever we want! Why, we could even stay in the country or, better yet, in a cute little French village nearby. Airbnb was full of places in towns and villages around Colmar and they were mostly cheaper, too.

We hit the jackpot when we chose a rental in Ribeauville!

We hit the jackpot when we chose a rental in Ribeauville!

I started expanding my search outside of Colmar and came across the place we finally rented in the town of Ribeauville, about a 30 minute drive from Colmar. All I can say is, I thank good karma, the angels above, and blind luck to have come across one of the most adorable towns in France AND one of the most adorable apartments in the most adorable town in France when I happened upon Sophie Sipp’s ad for “Your nest in heaven.”

The clock tower in Ribeauville was built in the early 1500's.

The clock tower in Ribeauville was built in the early 1500’s.

Ribeauville’s Grand Rue is the main street that runs through the town. There are side streets, but really, not much is going on more than a few doorways down on either side of the main drag. There is an upper town and a lower town, with an ancient clock tower bisecting the two areas. Sophie’s place is right next to the tower! So not only is it the most adorable flat in the most adorable town, but it is situated exactly in the middle of everything.

At lunch on Saturday my friend Fran asked me what the ONE thing was that I loved most about my trip. Well, that’s so hard to say, but finally – it was being in that flat in exactly that location that formed the foundation of this wonderful trip.

And reasons why staying put rocks

For the very reasonable cost of about $100 a night (that’s split between two of us – not per person!) we each had our own bedroom, along with a full kitchen, living room and dining room, and a great bathroom complete with our own washing machine. (I’m hoping as I write this that I can upload my video of Sue showing others how to use the French washing machine. Trial and error doesn’t begin to describe the process, but eventually, clean clothes prevailed. And here’s the link to the video!)

The living room reflects Sophie's whimsical taste

The living room reflects Sophie’s whimsical taste

Our rental included a good Wi-Fi connection plus a bright, cheerful kitchen stocked not only with dishes and cutlery and pots and pans, but also pantry staples like salt and pepper and sugar and olive oil. Things you need to cook with, but would never use up in a week or so if you had to go out and buy them all yourself. There were stacks of fluffy white towels, some laundry soap for the washing machine, comfortable beds with crisp, clean sheets. I would say these are the basics you can expect from a really good, well-provisioned vacation rental.

However, our dear Sophie went far beyond “really good.” She also left us coffee, cream, orange juice, cookies, pasta and pasta sauce – and much more. If you are very, very lucky, as we were, your landlord might come CLOSE to doing what Sophie did to make us welcome.

Upon arrival, she carried our suitcases up to the flat then invited us for a walk around town to get our bearings, introducing us to her cousins at their winery, to her favorite boulangerie (bakery with bread as its primary offering), and pointing out a couple of the best places for pizza (the local tarte flambe – yum!) and fine dining. The next morning she took Sue on a hike up the hill (little mountain? I dunno; too steep for me, though) to explore the ruins of a castle.

Toward the end of our stay when we asked Sophie if she knew of anyone offering cooking classes in the area to maybe learn how to make a local dish or two, she turned up the next evening with an Alsatian apple tart with custard that she and her mother had made – as well as with ingredients to show us how to make it ourselves! (I can’t wait to try out the recipe – it was amazing!)


Sophie’s delectable apple tart Alsacienne

Sophie was, and is, one in a million. But one potentially great thing about these rentals is that you will definitely have some degree of interaction with the owners. If you are friendly and they are friendly, there could be the opportunity to learn about local highlights, as we did with Sophie, and possibly even to make a new friend. I’m sure there is the odd landlord-from-hell out there, but I hope neither you nor I ever runs across him.

We were so grateful for Sophie’s hospitality, Sue and I wondered what we could do to express our appreciation. I checked online, and the consensus seems to be that you would not want to offer a monetary tip to an Airbnb or VRBO host. It’s just not appropriate. However, if you would like to do something, it would always be nice to leave a gift like a bottle of wine or chocolates. More the kind of things you would give to your hosts if you’re a guest in their home.

We found a gift for Sophie that was something kind of fun and useful to add to the apartment, and then we treated her to dinner our last night in Ribeauville. I sincerely hope we will stay in touch and I know Sue and I will never forget her kindness and hospitality.

Sue took this photo of Sophie and me at dinner on our last night in Ribeauville (profiteroles for dessert!)

Sue took this photo of Sophie and me at dinner on our last night in Ribeauville (profiteroles for dessert!)

My wish for you is if you choose to rent a car and stay in a rental property for a trip anywhere – that you are fortunate enough to connect with someone as special as Sophie, and in a town as unexpectedly delightful as we found Ribeauville. The most adorable landlord with the most adorable flat in the most adorable city in Alsace.

Next time I will tell you more about my “happy place,” Ribeauville. Until then, à tout à l’heure and have a wonderful week!

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Love Letter to Alsace . . . and how we finally got there

Love Letter to Alsace is a series of essays about my trip to the Alsace region of France in May 2015. It was of the most delightful adventures I’ve ever experienced! I hope you will enjoy reading about different aspects of the trip, from traveling to the destination, to stories about the lovely towns and villages we visited, and more.

After reading about my trip to the Alsace region of France, should you care to follow in my happy, dancing footsteps, here’s some information on traveling there from the U.S. Now, it might seem like this information should be the last post because, after all, what if you read all about Alsace and decide you don’t care if you ever see it or not? Unlikely (in my very prejudiced view), but possible.

Well, never mind. This is how I planned the trip and I’m going to write up the whole shebang chronologically. And here’s a new map for you, so you can see what we were up against.

That little pink area is Alsace. Germany is to the right and though it doesn't show it, Switzerland touches the bottom.

That little pink-ish area is the Alsace region in eastern France. Germany is to the right and though it doesn’t show it, Basel, Switzerland just about touches the bottom of pink Alsace section of the map.

Although there is a Strasbourg Airport, it’s pretty small. You certainly could find a way to fly into Strasbourg from the United States, but you would definitely have to connect through a larger European city and your ticket would be much more expensive. I love looking at maps, by the way, so I soon discovered that the nearest major airport was in Frankfurt, Germany.

Now, the Frankfurt airport is HUGE. It’s Lufthansa’s home airport and serves as a hub for all kinds of connections throughout not only Europe, but the world. It’s the third largest airport in Europe, 11th largest in the world, and about 60 million passengers go through this mammoth facility each year. They also serve really great soft pretzels.

Typically, you get the best fares between busy airports, simply because so many airlines service them and there’s decent competition. Basic economics. So I already knew that flying from a major North American city to Frankfurt would offer plenty of options at competitive rates (especially if you can be flexible about dates and days of the week for travel). Sue was able to splurge a little and get a United flight direct from San Francisco to Frankfurt. I chose to use some of my United miles for my ticket and ended up flying from Cleveland to Toronto to Frankfurt on Air Canada, then return on Lufthansa to Toronto to Cleveland (United, Lufthansa, Air Canada and others belonging to the Star Alliance work together to share flight options).

A word about flying into Canada:  don’t do it. First, thanks to freaking terrorists and TSA and all of that other inconvenient and annoying stuff that makes it unpleasant for people anytime they cross a border (except in the sane and sensible European Union), you have to screw around with customs and immigration on what is designated as a little patch of U.S. soil within the airport, and it’s confusing as hell. Coming back, in particular, was irritating and after walking at least a mile from the plane to the immigration area, the teenagers working there were too busy gossiping with each other to give coherent directions to any of the weary travelers wondering what strange move they’d have to make next.

Now, I’ve been in the Montreal airport and that wasn’t bad, but Toronto is a really mixed bag. I had more than four hours between flights on this last trip, coming and going, and I’d have to say that Toronto is unquestionably the prettiest airport with the most mundane food I’ve ever come across in a first world country. With all that time to kill I thought I’d treat myself to a nice dinner. Imagine my surprise when I learned that Toronto’s gourmet option is a Tim Horton’s.

While there is nothing wrong with Tim Horton's, I still say it's sad if that's the fanciest option in the airport.

While there is nothing wrong with Tim Horton’s, I still say it’s sad if that’s the fanciest option in the airport.

On the other hand, the general waiting area is super nice. There are tables with comfortable chairs where you can charge your phone and play with a bolted-down iPad (I’m okay with that, I mean, how long would they be there if they weren’t bolted down, right?). In fact, all the chairs are large and cushy and there are even signs clearly stating that you don’t have to buy pre-wrapped sandwiches or yogurt parfaits or anything else to be allowed to sit there. That part is really nice. Just don’t count on anything more substantial than a sub and chips for dinner.

I thought flying on Air Canada would be preferable to United. I was wrong. In fact, I’m not sure I even like Canadians anymore after the lackluster experience of flying with them on their nationally-named carrier for eight hours. The experience was as bland as, well, Canada.  I just got the feeling the staff weren’t particularly interested in whether we came along or not. Maybe they knew I was American. I don’t know.

angry lady on plane

Me, upon learning banana bread was the only thing on offer for breakfast. Ick.

Airline food is always an easy target, but compared to what they served on Sue’s United flight, the Air Canada menu was pitiful. These were both overnight flights, and a couple hours out of Frankfurt, the United folks offered passengers a complete breakfast with a choice of scrambled eggs or French toast. On Air Canada, after a quick spin around the cabin with the beverage cart, they tossed a cold, shrink-wrapped hunk of banana bread to each person calling it a morning snack. Really?

Gotta love those hospitable Germans!

Gotta love those hospitable Germans!

Returning home on Lufthansa was pretty great (if sitting in coach for nearly nine hours can EVER be considered a tolerable experience). First, they had the individual entertainment screens at each seat offering a boatload of free movies and TV and music. I watched TWO recently released movies – “Still Alice” and “The Imitation Game,” which were both excellent – and before dinner, the flight attendants walked around with those nice hot, wet cloths to freshen up. And then after dinner, they offered brandy or Bailey’s . . . for free! Hospitality! What a concept!

More about Lufthansa

it's always safer to be a Canadian when traveling abroad. Better than Swiss.

it’s always safer to be a Canadian when traveling abroad.

Excuse the rant about Air Canada. I don’t really dislike Canadians. In fact, I still am tempted to tell strangers I’m from Canada when I’m traveling if the strangers look at all threatening and/or inclined to look unkindly upon Americans. Nobody hates Canadians. They make the Swiss look controversial.

Now, to get from the Frankfurt Airport to Strasbourg we discovered that we could take a Lufthansa BUS. Yes! Lufthansa has regularly scheduled motor coaches making the little-over-two-hour drive to Strasbourg every day. So we thought, why not? We can see a little of the countryside. The price wasn’t bad (about $100 each round trip). Sure. Let’s do it.

And thank goodness we did, because when we arrived the entire German rail system was on strike! The bus to Strasbourg was packed, and we thought it may be because of the strike, but we found the same thing returning to Frankfurt ten days later. I think it’s just a cost-effective, convenient alternative to the train or flying and people use it a lot.

One thing we could not determine before leaving the U.S. was whether or not the Lufthansa bus stopped only at the train station in downtown Strasbourg, or if it also went to the Strasbourg airport. No one we talked to at Lufthansa ever really knew and we were finally told to ask the driver. Seriously. No one knew. And as it turned out, oddly enough, the Lufthansa bus does NOT go to the Strasbourg airport. Lufthansa? Airport? Seems like a no-brainer to me. Consequently, we spent 50 euros (about $57 US dollars these days) each way to get to the airport to pick up our rental car. I looked into getting a rental car in downtown Strasbourg, but was unable to find an agency that could promise a rental with automatic transmission (more about car rental in a moment).

Now, if you DO follow in our footsteps, complete with Lufthansa bus, be aware that the return trip from Strasbourg to Frankfurt is interesting, to say the least. We got back to the place where the bus stops, which is on a city street near the train station. There’s a Lufthansa sign at the curb. That’s it. No one taking tickets. No terminal or anything.

This is kind of what it looks like, trying to board the Lufthansa bus in Strasbourg to return to Frankfurt.

This is kind of what it looks like, trying to board the Lufthansa bus in Strasbourg to return to Frankfurt.

As the time gets closer, more people arrive and start lining up with their bags. Or not. Many just hover on the fringes, waiting to leap for the bus the second it arrives, hoping to accurately estimate where the closest luggage area and door will come to a stop.

These experienced (and ruthless) Lufthansa bus travelers elbow everyone aside to toss their suitcases in the hold, then charge for the door. The bus driver can’t help with luggage or attempt to restore any semblance of order or civility because he has to serve as a barricade at the top of the steps, checking names off his list before allowing passengers to dive past him to claim what I guess they think are “good seats.” Forgive me for saying it, but – it’s a cluster fuck.

Would I take the Lufthansa bus again? Mmm. Maybe. But I think I’d check other options first. Maybe see if there are cheap flights on Ryanair or other European commuter airlines, either out of Paris or somewhere else. I’d check on the cost of flights from the U.S. to Basel, Switzerland, since that’s actually about a two hour drive from Ribeauville, where we stayed. For that matter, having seen the Frankfurt airport and experienced the drive to France, maybe I’d just rent a car there after all. We were a little concerned about driving out of Frankfurt, but didn’t need to be. It would have been easy.

About the rental car

And finally, I’d like to tell you just a little about our rental car, which we ordered through Hertz. It isn’t necessarily that difficult to rent a car in Europe – unless you want a car with automatic transmission. Then it can get tricky.

I’m not going to say Sue and I are OLD. I will say we are old enough to know when something would be a very BAD, not to mention dangerous idea. Reacquainting ourselves with how to drive a stick shift in the rolling hills of eastern France when we don’t even know for sure where we’re going seemed like an invitation for trouble. Since nearly all Europeans drive standard transmission cars all the time, it’s difficult to even find an automatic car to rent. And when you do, it will cost nearly twice what you’d pay for the stick shift autos.

Yeah, I know that's a corn field, but that's kind of how it looked. I was driving and I was traumatized. Sue laughed.

Yeah, I know that’s a corn field, but that’s kind of how it looked. I was driving and I was traumatized. Sue laughed.

We agree it was worth every penny after winding our way up and down a mountain (we saw BOAR ROADKILL!) to visit Haut-Koenigsburg Castle, not to mention trying to parallel park on narrow village streets, or to carefully maneuver the car backwards out of a dirt road leading into a vineyard that the GPS girl inexplicably led us into, well . . . all I can say is, thank GOD for automatic transmissions.

And finally, finally (I mean it this time), if you rent a car, DO pay for the extra insurance. Or at least check with your insurance agent at home before you go. I always refuse rental car insurance when I’m out of town in the U.S., so I’m glad I checked to learn that I was not covered overseas.

And don’t wait until the tank is on empty before learning how to pump gas. On our last day we intended to fill up the tank before returning the car, but the gas station (this was a Sunday morning) refused all of my cards and all of Sue’s cards, and there was no cash option. A couple of guys on motorcycles tried to help us, but even they threw up their hands and left after a while (one of them might have said, “Sacre bleu!” Or not). Fortunately, we had enough gas to get back to the Strasbourg airport, where we circled endlessly trying to find the Hertz drop off lot, then dumped the keys and grabbed another 50 euro cab ride to the city.

Whew! Okay! And I didn’t even get into the quirks of our little Renault with its endless beeps and push button starter and . . . never mind. Enough for now!

À tout à l’heure! Until next time!

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Love Letter to Alsace . . .

Love Letter to Alsace is a series of essays about my trip to the Alsace region of France in May 2015. It was of the most delightful adventures I’ve ever experienced! I hope you will enjoy reading about different aspects of the trip, from traveling to the destination, to stories about the lovely towns and villages we visited, and more.

That little pink area is Alsace. Germany is to the right and though it doesn't show it, Switzerland touches the bottom.

That little pink area is Alsace. Germany is to the right and though it doesn’t show it, Switzerland touches the bottom.

Do you know where Alsace is? I was just a little girl when I first heard of this northeastern slice of France as the place where my great grandparents came from. The story was, over centuries of wars, that this luscious green land was a treasure swapped back and forth between Germany and France. Even today you’ll sometimes catch people speaking snippets of an old Alsatian dialect that seems to be a mishmash of the two languages, though French is officially and most commonly used. Names of towns are just as likely to sound German as French, and many people have French first names and German surnames.

So, I join thousands of Americans who say, damn it! Why didn’t anyone ask Nana exactly WHERE she came from?! I have some very vague information about grandparents on both sides of the family, but I sure wish someone had quizzed the old dears and gotten a few details written down before we lost them. I remember Nana sitting in my grandparents’ sun room watching Indians baseball games on TV and always wearing a dark green visor, I think because of having had cataract surgery (which was a huge deal back then).

I'll be posting this one again so you can see where the various towns are that I'll write about. For now, look for Ribeauville, up and to the left of Colmar. That's where we stayed!

I’ll be posting this one again so you can see where the various towns are that I’ll write about. For now, look for Ribeauville, up and to the left of Colmar. That’s where we stayed!

Fast forward 50+ years and I am a real-life as well as armchair traveler, hooked on reading travel memoirs and watching anything travel-related on TV. I have the latest boxed set of Rick Steves’ Europe through the Back Door DVDs and defer to Rick’s entertaining and practical advice when planning every trip of my own.

I’m also an HGTV junkie, recording every episode of House Hunters International because – greedy guts that I am – it’s not enough to imagine merely visiting a country. No, in my fondest dreams, I’m actually LIVING in some charming European village. Specifically, I am living in a tiny flat (with the dogs), just blocks from a train station where I can easily visit MORE charming villages and historic cities at my leisure. This is, perhaps, where I spend a couple months each winter (maybe in the South of France?) since I am not a Florida kind of gal. I return to my sweet home in Ohio before my April birthday, having escaped the worst of winter on the chilly shores of Lake Erie. Sounds good, right?

So anyway, one House Hunters International show a few years ago featured a young couple looking for an apartment to rent in Strasbourg (see map). It was adorable! I was so taken with the beauty of this small French city  (plus – it was in Nana’s ALSACE!), that I vowed to visit one day.

Yes, I have a dirty mind, but doesn't Sue's lunch look vaguely pornographic? This what you get if you order

Yes, I have a dirty mind, but doesn’t Sue’s lunch look vaguely pornographic? This what you get if you order “choucroute” – sauerkraut, potatoes, sausages, ham and bacon.

Then . . . my old friend Sue Brooks was in town visiting family, so we got together for dinner. We started comparing travel stories and discovered that Alsace was on Sue’s must-see list, too. Sue is a registered dietitian and despite being a size two, is an enthusiastic foodie, and wanted to visit to try the choucroute (French sauerkraut), charcuterie (French sausages and weird potted meats and such) and wine.

And I (size mind-your-own-business), just wanted to wander around ogling half-timbered houses and window boxes filled with geraniums, eating almond croissants and hearing the melody of French being spoken around me.

When it comes right down to it, I’m all about traveling to see pretty things. There. Call me shallow. I don’t care.

Here I am in Ribeauville, posing with my latest National Geographic Traveler magazine. I have been meaning to send it to the magazine (they asked people to do this). Maybe they will publish mine!

Here I am in Ribeauville, posing with my latest National Geographic Traveler magazine. I have been meaning to send it to the magazine (they asked people to do this). Maybe they will publish mine!

Where I’m Going With This

I’ll stop here because honestly, I am going to overwhelm you AND me if I keep writing. I had a hard time even getting started because there is so much I want to share with everyone. In the days and weeks ahead, this site is going to be pretty much Everything Alsace, because I have fallen in love with this region of France.

And I was in great company. Sue and I seemed to be in sync when it came to planning every  detail. Next time I’ll tell you more about where we stayed and how I found it on Airbnb. Then I hope you’ll enjoy hearing about some of the places we visited during our ten days in France. (Side note:  we actually flew in and out of Frankfurt, which is the closest major airport – and I’ll tell you about that, too.)

A stork! We loved them!

A stork! We loved them!

You’ll hear about Stork Stalking, following the Route des Vins as well as the not-to-be-repeated Route des Carpe Frites (that’s fried carp and all I’ll say about that right now is EEEEUW!). We’ll go to towns and villages you never imagined you’d want to visit like Eguisheim and Riquewihr and Ribeauville.

We’ll eat pork shank and sausage with sauerkraut and try the region’s white wines. And, yes, you’ll see pictures of window boxes filled with geraniums and castles on hills with vineyards in neat rows marching down the slopes below.

For now, I will end with our favorite French farewell, à tout à l’heure! – which means roughly, see you later!

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