Rainy Days in Florence

It was nothing but wet, wet, wet for three days in Florence.

We have been extremely fortunate on our travels when it comes to the weather – up until last weekend, that is. Other than some cold and rain when we were in Normandy (which is to be expected) we have pretty much enjoyed sunny, blue skies and warm temperatures. In fact, I was beginning to wonder if I was ever going to get to wear any of the cold-weather things I had brought along.

All of that changed last weekend, when thunderstorms, loads of rain, and cold temperatures rolled into Florence, definitely not weather that invites one to get out and wander around. We spent all day Sunday huddled in the apartment, in our pajamas, reading, writing and trying to stay warm (heat can’t be turned on until after November 1). On the plus side, we didn’t spend anything!

Rain pouring in under the kitchen window/door. Usually the rain falls parallel to the building so not a problem but this time it came directly at the building. Our host said it had never happened before!

The weather was almost worse on Monday, but we dashed out for a few groceries and gelato in between storms. One of the storms that passed through was so intense that we had water coming in the kitchen window/door, flooding the floor. We grabbed up every towel we could find to mop up the water that had come in and prevent the flooding from getting any worse. It was crazy!

We had also been watching weather reports for the Cinque Terre as we were scheduled to visit there today and tomorrow, but things did not look any better. Yesterday morning our host strongly advised us not to go at this time, that conditions in the Cinque Terre were considered very dangerous as there had been flooding and more storms were expected.

This pretty view lasted less than five minutes before dark clouds and rain returned.

Looking for any excuse to get out of the apartment at that point, we decided to take our chances with the weather and walk to the train station to see if we could get the date changed on our already-purchased tickets. The weather yesterday morning had been bouncing between blue skies and rain (mostly rain), but we bundled up and grabbed our umbrellas, a good thing as it began raining hard within a couple of minutes of leaving the apartment.

We thankfully had no problem changing our tickets at the station. In fact, we were pulled out of a long line by a helpful TrenItalia employee and our tickets adjusted on the spot. We will be going up to the Cinque Terre week after next when things are supposed to have calmed down, weather-wise (we were also able to change our hotel reservation). After the tickets were taken care of we thought that since we were out we should walk around for a bit and see if we could find the 13th century house of the great Italian poet, Dante Alighieri. We’d heard it was not an easy place to find and thought a bit of a challenge might be fun.

My new warm slippers – so comfortable!

We decided to go by way of the back of the Duomo so I could buy a new pair of slippers, one of the purchases we had decided to make in Florence. We first stopped though for some gelato (to get out of the rain) before heading to the shoe store. My new slippers are wool clogs made in Italy by SuperGa (“People’s Shoes of Italy”) in a lovely spring green, my favorite color. I had seen them in the window when we were in the area the other day and both Brett and I thought the price was right and that they would make a nice souvenir.

Dante’s bust on the side of the house was our sign we were at the right place.

After buying the slippers we walked around and after a few turns eventually found Dante’s house, helped in part by the sight of a large tour group (all in rain ponchos) that had gotten there right ahead of us. After admiring the old house for a few minutes we walked a short distance intending to visit the Bargello Museum, but it was getting ready to close so we instead decided to return home. The streets were wet with puddles everywhere (some worse than others), and while the sky occasionally broke through the clouds the rain still was coming and going. We had a lovely walk though filled with beautiful views, and we also stopped at a bakery near our place and bought some apple coffee cake for today’s breakfast.

The Ponte Vecchio at dusk. The rain returned a few minutes after I took this picture.

Today’s weather looked like it was going to be better, and maybe not rain at all! Our host’s mother and father came over in the morning to bring us clean sheets, and they offered to clean the apartment for us (we declined – we clean every day). We were also able to finally get a load of our dirty clothes washed and hung out – the sun was shining! Then we set out to visit both the Basilica di Santa Croce and the Bargello Museum. Santa Croce literally took my breath away when we entered – it was an amazing space filled with amazing art. The tombs of Dante, Michelangelo and Galileo are located inside as well as other tombs for or memorials to famous people, and the cloister area outside was also beautiful. We spent nearly an hour there looking at everything.

The facade of Santa Croce.

Michelangelo’s tomb – I did not know that he had been 90 years old when he died, a very old man. He was supposed to have been interred in Rome, but citizens of Florence wanted their native son buried here and his body was smuggled to Florence. The three women at the bottom of the tomb represent Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture.

Before going on to the Bargello we stopped for lunch at a nearby osteria. I ordered a mozzerella, ricotta, and spinach calzone, and was served one that would have fed our entire family. I laughed when I saw it, like “are you kidding me?” but I was actually able to eat most of it (a glass of wine helped). Brett had focaccia with prosciutto, again absolutely huge but he also finished most of it.

This sculpture of a drunken Bacchus was Michelangelo’s first major work. The circular piece to the left, of the Virgin with child, is also by Michelangelo (the Tondo Pitti).

We spent nearly two hours in the Bargello Museum because there was so much to see, from statuary to paintings to pottery to all sorts of Renaissance artifacts of daily life. I was especially interested in the busts – compared to “generic” statuary, the faces on the busts actually looked like people you would see walking down the street today, that all they needed was a spark to reanimate.

When we finally stepped outside it was – sigh – raining again! We figured there was no point in hurrying home because the clothes we had left outside were probably soaked, and neither of us wanted dinner either, so we made stops at the produce market, the grocery store and our neighborhood gelateria before finally going to the apartment. Thankfully the clothes were only slightly wet – apparently it hadn’t rained all that much in our neighborhood.

Special Halloween flavors and designs at our neighborhood gelateria included pumpkin pie, “night” (vanilla colored pitch black), stratiacella with a spider’s web, cinnamon cookie crunch, and other fall favorites.

P.S. Today is Halloween, and we’ve seen a few kids in costumes, and some came into the shops we were in for a “treat” from the shop owner, maybe a cookie or small piece of chocolate. Our neighborhood gelateria had all sorts of Halloween flavors and colors going on! Tomorrow, All Saints Day, is a national holiday so we’ve decided to stay home for the day once again.

Gelato Every Day: Week 1

Day 1: I chose banana and tiramisu flavors (they paired well); Brett had mint chocolate and cookies & cream with chocolate.

We’ve been in Florence now for just over a week. One of our many goals while here was to try to have gelato every day, and we’ve been doing a pretty good job of it so far. We missed going out the day before yesterday because of the weather, but otherwise have made a point of indulging ourselves every day.

Day 2: Zuppa Inglese and a scoop of panna with chocolate & orange for me; cherries and cream and peanut butter for Brett.

The availability of different flavors has been frankly astonishing, limited only by the gelato makers’ imaginations. I think too that we’re already becoming “gelato snobs;” that is, we always choose the shop with a wide variety of different flavors versus one that only carries the “standards.”

The persimmon flavor was so amazing we both had to get some. I added green tea, and Brett had honey vanilla with his.

One other great thing we’ve discovered is that you can have two flavors for the same price as one – gelato is sold by the size of the cone or cup, not how many scoops you get. What a concept! We usually opt to have our gelato in a cone, but tried cups the other day. I didn’t think it tasted as good from a cup or was as fun so it will be all cones, all the time for me now. Brett is fine with having his gelato in a cup now and again.

Day 4: I chose ricotta with figs and black sesame. Eating gray gelato was a bit strange but the flavor was fantastic! Brett had mandarin orange and crema, which combined in sort of Dreamsicle. As you can see, the gelato was melting fast that day – it got kind of messy for a while there.

One week down, three more to go! Stay tuned for updates. Also, Brett’s job as a hand model is secure.

We tried out the little gelato shop just down the street yesterday, before the thunderstorms returned. After sampling almost all their interesting flavors I chose pomegranate and bergamot; Brett had stratiacella (crema with chocolate chips) and zabajone al marsala (egg creme with sweet marsala). Man-oh-man was the gelato at this place good – we’ll definitely be going back!

 

Closing Out the Books for October

There are two more days to go in this month, but from the way things look now we will end up just slightly over budget for the month. Considering how the month began though we’re very happy with where we’ve arrived at the end.

Our goal in October, as in September, was to keep our average daily spending to no more than $50/day. That amount is to cover daily food and snacks, transportation costs (other than train journeys between cities or countries or rental cars; those trips were prepaid), entrance fees and tours, and any other miscellaneous expenses that come up.

An Italian breakfast “burrito” for Sunday brunch to use up leftovers (gnocchi, meatballs, and pesto with scrambled eggs in an Italian “tortilla”).

We spent the first three days of this month in Switzerland, but even with carefully watching our spending the costs for that short trip had our daily spend average at $123.83/day by the time we got back to Strasbourg on October 4 – yikes! Thankfully Strasbourg was a very affordable city and we were able to keep our daily spending there to around $40/day or less, and brought the monthly average down to $54.78/day by the time we left for Bordeaux. Our time in that city proved to be slightly more expensive than Strasbourg though so our daily average didn’t move as much while we were there, but Florence has turned out to be an affordable place to live and as of today our daily average for October is down to $51.25/day, or $38.25 over for the entire month. We can live with that.

A frugal early afternoon treat on a stormy day: coffee with a couple of biscotti.

November will be one of our “long” months; that is, we will be covering five weeks versus four between our Social Security payments. There is some Christmas shopping we plan to do while we’re in Florence, which we have covered in the budget, but we’ve also decided on two other purchases we want to make here and will have to fit those in somehow. Thankfully we have already set aside funds for museum entrances in both Florence and Rome so those won’t affect our daily spending amount.

Thunderstorms and rain have allowed us to stay home and recharge for a couple of days.

A couple of other items, unrelated to current spending, have popped up this past month and are going to have to be dealt with when we’re in Portland in December. A slightly chipped tooth has been causing some minor pain from time to time, enough to be annoying, so I’m going to have to see a dentist and get that taken care of. Also, while we were in Bordeaux, continual walking on (uneven) cobblestones began aggravating the bursitis in my left hip something fierce, which in turn has ramped up my lower back pain. There are cobblestones everywhere in Florence, so I take Aleve every day which helps some, but the pain has definitely had an effect on how much I can walk (between two to three miles, but not much more). I was grateful for the thunderstorms yesterday because they kept us inside and allowed the bursitis to settle down a bit. However, I am probably going to have to get a cortisone shot (which I have avoided up until now) when we’re in Portland in order to be able to enjoy the rest of our adventure in 2019.

Our life in Hawai’i feels like something in the far distant past these days, but the reality is we’ve only been on the road for a little over two months. So far what we’ve seen and done has exceeded all our expectations, we’re having a grand time, and we’ve managed to stay within or very close to our budget. Brett and I have settled nicely into our travel-team roles, continue to greatly enjoy each others’ company and have fun talking about what’s going on and planning what to do each day (and what to eat!).

What To Do When There’s So Much Do

A shrine adorns a building at the end of our little street.

To be honest, Florence has felt a bit overwhelming at times, but in a good way. There is so much to see and do here, so much beauty, and it can be almost difficult to choose what to do or where to go at times. Both Brett and I are feeling very grateful that we are here for a month versus just a few days.

For the past few days all we’ve pretty much done is walk around and look at things from the outside. We started the day yesterday with a walk to the train station to purchase tickets for an overnight visit to the Cinque Terre next week. We had initially thought to go all the way to Monterosso al Mare, at the top, but instead just bought tickets to Riomaggiore, the village closest to Florence. The weather is predicted to be less than good next week, and we may end up needing to buy a round trip ticket from Riomaggiore up to Monterosso, and then riding the train back down to visit each village versus being able to hike between the villages as we hope to do (we’re staying overnight in Manarolo).

The front of Santa Maria Novella, from the piazza.

The back and side of Santa Maria Novella

Afterward we bought our tickets we walked around the beautiful Santa Maria Novella church and square, and then went over to see Santa Maria del Fiore. We walked around the Duomo with our mouths wide open, but lines to go inside literally wrapped around the building so we decided to face those another day. I would love to go up inside into the dome, but my knee won’t allow it (I could go up but would never make it down), so that’s something Brett will do on his own one day while I maybe do some other sightseeing or shopping. I had always thought from pictures the exterior was black stone with white, so was pleasantly surprised to see the beautiful deep green stone instead.

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Today we walked down the street to view the frescoes at the Brancacci Chapel (which were breathtaking), then shared a pizza. We wanted to visit the Boboli Gardens but dark clouds rolled in and it began sprinkling, and we did not want to be stuck out in the middle of the gardens if it began to rain any harder. We instead walked down close to the Ponte Vecchio and then turned down a side street to check out a gelato shop. The owner of the shop was born in China, but has lived in Florence for 21 years, and we had a lovely conversation with him while we enjoyed his wonderful gelato. After that we headed back to the apartment with a stop at a small produce shop for a head of broccoli and some pears to go with dinner tonight.

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We plan to make day trips to both San Gimignano and Siena in the next couple of weeks, and have to figure when to fit those in as well as visits to the Uffizi and Accademia museums, where tickets will need to be purchased in advance. We learned today though at the gelateria that all museums will be open for free on November 4, so we’re thinking we’ll get up early that day and walk over to visit the Accademia (supposedly the lines won’t be very long this time of year). As far as dining we want to go out for bistecca fiorentina one evening, have antipasti and risotto for lunch at least once, and have a few more pizza (pasta I can fix at the apartment).

We have only one other definite thing on our calendar now though, a pizza class a few days before departing for Rome. We had a coupon from Airbnb to use toward an experience, and after going over all of the ones offered here in Florence we decided learning to make (and eat) pizza sounded like the most fun. Brett already makes a pretty good pie, but he’s hoping to pick up a few tricks and techniques to up his game.

This weather this weekend is predicted to be stormy, so we’re thinking of maybe going to the Mercado Centrale on Saturday or visiting the Palazzo Pitti, and then just staying in on Sunday to read and plan future outings.

We accidentally discovered the Sts. Michel et Gaetan church, with its facade covered with beautiful statuary, when we went down the wrong street.

Two happy cherubs adorn the top of the church. The interior is supposed to be quite spectacular.

Florence truly is an embarrassment of riches. It’s almost unbelievable to have so many choices of what to do and see each day.

Settling In in Florence

The view from our kitchen window

Every travel day is unique, with some easier than others, some longer than others, some more complicated than others, and so forth. We plan as well as we can and then hope the day unfolds according to plan. Thankfully everything went as planned on our journey from Bordeaux to Florence, but turned out to take longer and be more tiring than we imagined, and we arrived at our Airbnb feeling absolutely exhausted. It will take us a couple of days to get back up to speed before we can set out to explore and savor the city and the countryside. We thankfully have the time in Florence to do just that – four weeks to be exact – and a couple of days of rest won’t impact any schedule or a limited amount of days.

The apartment living room – the books are in Italian and English.

Our host and his wife custom made the cabinets from wine crates.

Our apartment for the next month is positively charming, and everything I hoped it would be when I selected it. The building is hundreds of years old, and the apartment was lovingly restored by the host and his wife, with custom cabinets made from wine crates. The kitchen is extremely well equipped (with a dishwasher!) and the bed is very comfortable. There’s a washing machine too, thank goodness. If we have to find something to complain about it’s that the bathroom is very tiny. But, it’s clean and modern and we will adapt.

The kitchen is small but very well equipped. And that view!

The owners discovered this old fresco of a drill during their renovation of the apartment.

Both of us fell asleep early last night and slept late this morning. I woke up with a stuffy head, but that cleared up quickly and my cold appears to be almost gone. Brett and I unpacked our suitcases and put away our clothes, and then put the suitcases away in the spare bedroom where we won’t have to look at them for a month! Our host left us wine, juice, soft drinks, water and snacks, but we walked to a nearby market today, just around the corner and down the street, and between what the host left and what we picked up at the market we’re set for several days. We enjoyed a delicious onion foccacia for lunch, and the rest of the day will be spent napping and reading and recovering from yesterday’s journey.

The shuttered windows look out over the street, but keep the bedroom nice and dark.

One thing I already know about our time in Florence: my mornings will be spent with a cup of coffee in front of the kitchen window absorbing that view!

Days of Wine and Rest . . . and More Wine

The village of St. Emilion

My cold had almost disappeared, and I was feeling better, and then, just like that, I wasn’t. We had a great time on the wine tour to the south of Bordeaux on Friday and I was feeling quite good, but I woke up yesterday morning feeling worse than ever. So, we ended up staying in the apartment all day other than making one short, last trip to the boulangerie for a baguette and pastries, and to the grocery store for some cheese. We rested, read our books, and packed our suitcases. In the afternoon Brett walked over to the Tourist Office and booked us seats on this afternoon’s St. Emilion wine tour, so we finished up our last day in Bordeaux, and in France, drinking wine again and visiting the medieval village of St. Emilion.

The first chateau we visited on Friday was Chateau de Myrat, where we tasted sauterne, a sweet white wine.

Chateau de Myrat’s pressing room, with grape presses from old to new. The gentleman on the right is the former owner of the Chateau; he has passed ownership on to two nieces (most Chateau stay in the same family for generations).

One of the Chateau de Myrat vineyards. Because sauternes are made using partially dried grapes, each vine only produces around half a bottle of wine. The Chateau was still harvesting grapes when we were there.

Traveling requires flexibility. After our aborted effort to get out to St. Emilion earlier in the week, we had planned to try again yesterday. The combination of weather, sickness, and scheduling difficulties had kept us from getting there earlier, and we thought yesterday would be our last chance. We had also thought it would be more affordable for us to go out to the village on our own, but after some research we discovered the senior discount offered by the tourist office actually made a tour the more affordable choice. Although neither of us was thrilled about spending another afternoon on a bus, on our own the trip would have cost us around 45€ each, at a minimum, but with our senior discount the tour was just 36€ per person which included a guided tour of the village and a wine tasting at a nearby chateau. We also remembered that everything (ATMs, stores, etc.) would be closed on Sunday, and all the errands we needed to do before our departure on Monday morning would be impossible, so in the end it made far more sense for us to take the Sunday tour and to take care of errands and chores yesterday.

Brett discovered this Roman ruin, an amphitheater called the Palais Gallien (c. 3rd century CE), on his way to the tourist office yesterday afternoon.

Finally, the tourist office, where the tours began, is only a 20 minute walk from our apartment. To get to the village of St. Emilion on our own we would have to make the same walk to the tourist office in order to catch a tram to the Bordeaux train station, then take a 35 minute train ride out to the village followed by another 20 minute walk (minimum) from the St. Emilion station into the village, with the journey repeated on the way back. It was exhausting just thinking about it! In the end the tour turned out to be a very good decision even though St. Emilion was holding its annual balloon festival this weekend. The village was quite crowded, and the walk would have been very difficult.

The second chateau we visited was Chateau Haut-Bacalan, just south of the city of Bordeaux. This vat of fermented wine was recently moved into oak barrels for the second fermentation; the wine’s tint is still visible inside the tube.

Chateau Haut-Bacalan’s red wine ferments in oak barrels for 20 months. their white wine for just nine months.

I am not a red wine drinker, but I tasted this one – amazing.

Although we are generally not “tour people,” we thought both of the wine tours were very enjoyable and well done, and we learned quite a bit about the French wine industry, its regulations, different wine classifications and appellations, and lots of vocabulary associated with French wine. We were very lucky and had the same wonderful guide for both tours, Brigitte. We were taught how to taste, which made a real difference when we tasted two vintages of the same wine at Chateau de Myrat (a 2014 Sauterne and a 2011), and at Chateau Laniote (a 2016 and 2015 St. Emilion Grand Cru). While Brett and I are both still very much novices, we both feel we can approach French wine now without any fear. We can read a French wine bottle and understand what everything on the label means.

Chateau Laniote is located just five minutes away from the village of St. Emilion.

Vineyards at Chateau Laniote.

We watched the balloons taking off while we were at the Chateau. Seeing them all floating over the vineyards of St. Emilion as we departed was magical.

The wine tours also gave us a chance to view the beautiful countryside outside of Bordeaux, both to the south and the east, and tour the charming village of St. Emilion, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. All three of the chateau we visited were fascinating as well – not just for the wines but for their history and the culture behind them. We learned that many of the chateau in the south are still owned by nobility, and many of them continue to be royalists! Chateau Laniote has been owned by the same family since 1821, with ownership passed down through the women of the family.

12th century monastery cloister in St. Emilion

One of the original gated entrances to the village of St. Emilion.

Tomorrow will be a very full, busy day of travel for us, and I’ve got my fingers crossed on both hands, as well as my toes on both feet that it goes well. We will begin in the morning with the 20-minute walk to the tram station along with our suitcases and backpacks, then take a tram to the Bordeaux train station where we will catch a shuttle bus out to the airport. Our flight to Bologna leaves in the early afternoon. When we arrive in Bologna we’ll catch a bus over to the train station where we’ll buy tickets and catch a train to Florence, a 35-minute or so ride. Finally, a taxi will take us from the station in Florence over to our apartment (hopefully with a taxi driver who knows more than our driver did here in Bordeaux!). Brett and I have joked that all we need is a ship and a donkey and we will have covered every mode of transportation in a day!

We’re enjoying our second glass of Chateau Haut-Bacalan’s white wine – can you tell?

Au revoir, France, and merci – we have had an absolutely wonderful time!

Our French Adventure

It’s almost a little bit hard to believe, but this time next week we’ll be in Italy, and will have finished up a 37-day journey through France, visiting four major areas of the country.

Hopefully we’ll leave France on a high note, but for now I am still struggling with the head cold I brought along from Strasbourg, and trying to get my energy back. We’ve optimistically booked a Friday afternoon wine tour to the area south of Bordeaux, and plan to spend Saturday afternoon in Saint-Emilion, but otherwise are just taking it easy and hanging out close to our apartment. We were going to go to Saint-Emilion today, and even got as far as getting to the station and on the train, but I must have looked and sounded awful because Brett strongly suggested we get off the train and go back to the apartment and try again another day (thankfully we hadn’t bought our tickets; we were going to buy them on board from the conductor). I have no idea why I thought it might be a good idea to undertake that major of an outing today, but I was glad I took Brett’s suggestion.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about all of our time in France, the things we’ve seen and experienced, and with Brett’s help I’ve ranked the four very different areas of the country we’ve visited:

Strasbourg

  1. Strasbourg: We felt comfortable in Strasbourg from the moment we got off the train, and loved every minute of our stay, including our tiny, efficient apartment. The city was warm and welcoming, and filled with friendly, helpful people. We thoroughly enjoyed the local cuisine with its German influences, from bretzels (giant pretzels) to kugelhopf, from tarte flambeé to choucroute with its delicious sauerkraut and sausages. The entire city and public transportation system was easy to figure out and find our way around, and the central area compact enough to walk from place to place (as long as we looked out for bicycles!) without becoming disoriented or lost. The city held loads of both the old and the new to explore and appreciate. Also, everything, from food to transportation, was very affordable. Strasbourg’s location also made it easy for us to make a short getaway visit to Lucerne, Switzerland. If things ever get to the point where we feel like we need to bug out from the U.S., Strasbourg is probably where we would go.

    Omaha Beach, Normandy

  2. Normandy: We spent four wonderful days here, even if it was cold and windy for most of that time. Brett got to eat a huge bowl of moulin-frites (steamed mussels with french fries) at Mont Saint-Michel, we ate locally produced camembert, fresh-baked apple tarts, and drank homemade Normandy apple cider. We lucked out with our cozy, comfortable little apartment in Balleroy, well-placed to easily visit the landing beaches and American cemetery, Bayeaux, and get out to Mont Saint-Michel. We loved driving through the beautiful Normandy countryside and old villages, and what at times seemed like the crazy routes our GPS provided from place to place. And the history, both old and more recent! Everywhere we went was a reminder of the past. There was far too much we didn’t get to see in four days and we’d love to go back if we can some day.

    Notre-Dame de Paris

  3. Paris: I think if we had not arrived so exhausted, and had more than four days to spend in the city, we might have liked Paris more than we did. I love city life, but Paris was almost too much for me. Still, we had a wonderful time and it was thrilling to visit so many places we had only seen in pictures before – the Arc de Triomphe (my favorite), Notre-Dame, and the Louvre Grand Pyramid – and to sit in the park and relax in front of the Eiffel Tower and watch the sun set and the lights come on. Montmartre was the perfect neighborhood for us to stay in as well – we could have happily spent several more days exploring the area surrounding our apartment, including its boulangeries, patisseries and markets.

    One of two spectacular fountains at the Monument aux Girondins, Bordeaux

  4. Bordeaux: Poor Bordeaux. It’s not its fault that I’m still sick and we’re so far not able to enjoy our time here as much as we could. It’s also been a bit gloomy, weather-wise, but we hope it will improve. Besides our weird introduction to the city courtesy of our taxi driver, we’re finding it a bit grittier than Strasbourg, with lots of renovation and building going on, and streets torn up (a new leg of the tram system is being installed), and it feels a bit more stand-offish and less warm and inviting. I’m hoping by the end of the week that I’ll be feeling better enough to appreciate the city, the wine tour and the countryside, and able to actually taste the wines on our tour! I’m also looking forward to walking through Saint-Emilion without fear of collapsing.

Porcus charcuterie and upstairs restaurant, Strasbourg

What will we miss when we leave France? Cheese, so many different kinds of delicious, stinky cheese. Wine – even an inexpensive bottle of wine here is wonderful. Boulangeries, and fresh, warm baguettes. Patisseries. Charcuteries and paté. Mirabelle plums. Café au lait. French cookies from the supermarket. Receiving a cheery “Bonjour!” and giving one in return before starting any encounter. So many people putting up with my horrid French. Most of all, being encouraged to take our time and relax, and appreciate the joie de vivre of daily life in France.

Next Monday though our suitcases will be packed once again and weighed and re-weighed – we are flying RyanAir for the first time and know they are super-strict about weight limits. When we land though we will be in Italy!

 

Taxi Madness

Gare de l’Est, Paris – we arrived here from Strasbourg but had to go to Gare Montparnasse for the second part of our journey.

It was bittersweet leaving Strasbourg yesterday morning, and our little apartment there – we had had a wonderful stay and loved every minute of our time there. But, our bags were packed, we were up early for coffee and one last kugelhopf for breakfast, and were out the door by 8:00 in time to catch our train to Paris. I was very nervous about having to change stations in Paris as I figured if anything could go wrong it would be during this portion of the trip. It also didn’t help that my head cold was, if anything, worse than it had been the day before, and I also slipped on the last step leaving the apartment building and pulled a muscle in the back of my right leg.

We were booked first class for the entire trip, and the seats on our first train were oh-so-comfortable except for one little thing: They faced backwards, and I cannot ride backwards on anything (something to do with my middle ear and balance). I lasted all of five minutes in my seat before heading to the dining car next door, where I found a seat facing forward at a small table and nursed two cafe au lait all the way through the one and a half hour journey to Paris. The train had originally come from Frankfurt, so while I ordered my drinks in French (or at least tried to), the waiter spoke nothing but German to me!

We had an hour between the arrival of our first train at Gare de l’Est to get to the second at Gare Montparnasse. We had intended to ride the Paris Metro between the two stations, but the night before we left Strasbourg Brett discovered that there was work being done on the Metro line that ran between the two stations and decided we should instead take a taxi from one to the other. That was fine with me as I was not relishing moving our bags up and down stairs and off and on the Metro. We headed to the taxi stand when we arrived in Paris, but immediately a man came rushing up to us and said in English, “There’s a big taxi strike today, and most of Paris is closed for a 20 km race! Come with me, I will get you a car” We thought this was strange as we had already seen a few taxis arriving and departing but he insisted that those taxis were only taking people to the airport. We started to walk with him over to an area where a few private cars with drivers were parked, but when he said the ride would take 40 minutes and would cost 85€ we said “nope” and headed back to the taxi stand feeling a bit foolish and angry at ourselves for listening to him.

In the meantime a bit of drama had erupted at the taxi stand. A well-dressed elderly man and an equally well-dressed older woman were about to come to blows over who was going to get the next taxi. They were yelling at each other, calling each other names and the woman had her purse raised and was about to strike the man. He had actually been in line ahead of her, but for some reason she had felt entitled to the cab and was not going to let it go. However, before things really got out of hand two more taxis appeared, so the man got into the first one, the woman the one behind (both of them still steaming), and we climbed in the third, a VW mini van with loads of room for our suitcases. Our driver was a lovely woman who spoke English and who drove us past the Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Pantheon and other sites on our way to Gare Montparnasse. We were at our destination in less than 20 minutes (not 40!) even though estimates had said it would take at least 30) for just 20€! She apologized for the ride taking longer than usual because the 20km race had made a shorter route impossible.

Thankfully the comfy seats on the train to Bordeaux faced forward! My cold was getting the better of me at this point though and I fell asleep for much of the ride. The TGV trains in France are pretty amazing, and travel at rates of up to 195 mph. The speed can make it hard to watch things out the window, but the ride is smooth and you’re at your destination before you know it.

It was warm enough in Bordeaux to eat outside yesterday afternoon, before the rain started.

We were very hungry when we arrived at Bordeaux at 2:00 in the afternoon, so Brett and I walked across the street for lunch at an outdoor cafe before heading to our apartment. We shared a delicious but inexpensive Margherita pizza and each had a glass of wine, and then walked back over to the taxi stand at the station to grab a ride to our lodgings. There was another American couple ahead of us in line, but when a little blue taxi pulled up they looked at it and said we could have it; they would take the bigger car behind it (they were large people and had four big suitcases). Our taxi driver, an elderly man, helped Brett load our suitcases into the trunk, we hopped in and were off.

Or so we thought. I had shown the driver our address and he had nodded that he understood, but it became apparent in a matter of minutes that he had absolutely no idea where he was or where he was going. Every time the taxi would stop he would pull out some old maps and try to find the address. I showed him the GPS map on my phone and he acted like he understood, but still kept pulling out the maps and we could see he was looking at parts of town nowhere near our destination, and he was sometimes looking at the map sideways or upside down. We became a bit scared, a) because we could not communicate with the driver; b) because we had no idea where we would end up; and c) because we thought the guy would run the meter up to 40 or 50€ or even more and then demand payment. We could have asked him to stop and let us off, but he had our luggage in the trunk and we had absolutely no idea where we were in the city or how we would find another taxi – we were trapped.

The front of our apartment building – our unit isn’t available because . . .

. . . it’s in the attic of a building around the corner (those two teeny tiny windows are ours).

Thankfully our host called me to let me know he was waiting for us at the apartment (we were a half hour late at that point). I gave the phone to the driver, who had a long conversation with our host, and he finally got the car turned around and apparently headed in the right direction. We seemed to go in circles for a while, but eventually our host, who had been standing out on the street near the apartment, somehow recognized the taxi and stopped it! We got our bags, paid the driver (after our host argued down the price) and went to the apartment. Our host was shaking his head the whole way, telling us how bizarre the driver was, how strange he was – both old and not quite right in the head. We told him we had never felt physically threatened, but we knew something wasn’t right, and felt lucky to finally be where we were supposed to be. Our host agreed we were lucky, and urged us to use Uber next time, that it has a very good reputation in the city.

I love the kitchen area in the apartment with the old stone wall left visible. It’s extremely well-equipped, and cabinets hide a spacious refrigerator and freezer as well as a washer/dryer.

The open-plan living-dining-kitchen area is very spacious. In fact, the entire apartment is bigger than our house was on Kaua’i!

All’s well that ends well though. Our Bordeaux apartment is spacious and lovely, with absolutely every amenity. It almost feels like we’re living in a mansion compared to our Strasbourg home (which we had grown to love even though it was tiny). It was raining earlier today and as I still don’t feel very well all we did is go to the supermarket and to a boulangerie. We had a simple lunch after we got back, and will have cheese and wine for dinner tonight. Tomorrow, rain or shine, we’ll head out and begin discovering Bordeaux.

A simple first-day lunch from the supermarket and boulangerie: beet, cucumber, and tabouli salads, baguette slices and smoked salmon, and red fruit tarts for dessert.

Farewell to Strasbourg

We will miss Strasbourg’s distinctive architecture – eye candy every day!

We have spent a wonderful three weeks in Strasbourg, but we’ll be up early tomorrow morning for pastries and coffee, and then leaving for the station to catch our train to Paris, where we’ll change stations/trains for the trip to Bordeaux.

Location, location, location – our apartment has been very small (less than 300 square feet), but it’s been very comfortable (including the sofa bed) and a great place for us to stay in Strasbourg.

Although our Strasbourg apartment has been tiny, smaller than many RVs, it’s worked out well for us and Brett and I now know how small a space we could live in if we had to! We divided the chores while we were here so that neither of us had to be in the kitchen at the same time, worked out a schedule for when the sofa bed was either unfolded or had to be put pack up, and figured out who got what space where (I like to curl up on the sofa, Brett prefers being in a chair at the counter). Our apartment in Bordeaux is going to feel like a mansion after living so small here.

One thing we’ve greatly enjoyed in our apartment, besides the terrific location, has been a Nespresso machine, and the ability to make a delicious cup of espresso every afternoon or after dinner. We are not “gadget people” but we’ve decided that once we settle somewhere we are going to get ourselves one of these machines, especially since the Nespresso pods are completely recyclable.

A plate of choucroute, with five different Alsatian sausages, sauerkraut and potatoes.

We spent our last full “free day” (Thursday) in Strasbourg going out for choucroute, perhaps the most famous regional Alsatian dish. The restaurant had several varieties available, but we each ordered a version with five different local sausages (made on site at the restaurant’s downstairs charcuterie) instead of a more traditional one that included various cuts of pork. The sausages were all delicious, and the sauerkraut absolutely perfect, and not as sour as any I’ve eaten previously in my life (I read that French sauerkraut puts the German version to shame and after our meal I agree). We left lunch with full and happy stomachs, and walked over to the Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame to see the exhibits of Medieval and Renaissance art and architecture there – the museum had been closed on our last two tries because of a strike, but the third time was apparently a charm.

Twelfth to fifteenth century statues from the cathedral that have been taken down and restored – they’ll eventually go back up.

The spiral staircase at the end of the museum tour – it reminded me of octopus tentacles.

We had noticed a lot of commotion surrounding the Cathedral as we walked past on our way to the museum, and it turned out a detective/mystery series was being filmed on location. It was fascinating to watch the actors and the extras (which included some police, a CID team, and a couple of morgue workers) take their marks and then go through the scene over and over – they did three takes while we were there. We also got to see the murder “victim” back in the catering tent, in full costume – that was amusing. I may end up on French TV – all of us at standing at the police tape were apparently there as normal “gawkers” who would show up if there really was a murder or accident or such. Anyway, I will never be able to watch another episode of any show without thinking of this experience and seeing how it’s done!

Actors, extras and crew move through their scene in front of the cathedral.

We had to go back for the fancy ice cream cones once more!

All has not been fun and roses though – I came down with a massive head cold night before last, with an awful sore throat and a head that felt like a soggy bowling ball. It’s been especially miserable because I cannot remember the last time I was sick – I don’t think I had a cold the entire time we lived in Hawai’i. Brett, bless his heart, let me take the day off yesterday while he took care of the laundry so that we could pack today. I felt well enough to fix dinner last night although my appetite sure was diminished. I’m feeling better today and should be fine for tomorrow’s travel day.

So, it’s on to Bordeaux tomorrow and our last eight days in France. My suitcase is packed, and Brett will be getting his done in a little while. We have completely fallen in love with Strasbourg and will be sad to say good-bye to this wonderful city tomorrow. We’ve enjoyed our respite here, the experiences we’ve had and the things we’ve seen and done, and both of us are so very glad we decided to stay here for as long as we have.

Two Lovely Fall Days in Strasbourg

Four two days the sky was blue and the temperature was spring-like in Strasbourg.

Both Brett and I thought by now we’d be well into sweater weather, but at the beginning of this week temperatures here in Strasbourg were in the mid 70s, and accompanied by beautiful blue skies.

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We had put off visiting museums thinking we’d save that for a rainy day, but there haven’t been any rainy days, and with time growing short before our departure this weekend we decided on Monday to walk up to the Musée Alsace, just up the street. The museum, located in a what turned out to be an actual vintage Alsatian home, gave an fascinating overview of traditional life in the region. The artifacts were interesting (and beautifully displayed) and included exhibits about clothing, furniture, work, daily life and religion. Our favorite exhibits included the many examples of tiled or ceramic wood stoves that were used to heat Alsatian homes back in the day, as well as traditional furniture, pottery and clothing. We especially enjoyed the exhibit of carved flour spouts from old mills in the area, with their expressive faces.

The best cafe au lait; the best pastries

Afterwards, we stopped for a pastry and coffee at our favorite boulangerie before heading back into the Petite France neighborhood to check out a walkway out over the river we had missed before. The walkway turned out to be alongside a lock used to raise boats over a drop in the river; the swiftly running waterfalls on the other side of the river had formerly been used to operate mills. We were fortunate enough to be there in time to watch a tour boat enter the lock, be raised up and then head out, all in a little over five minutes. We were also able to watch an old swing bridge we had crossed previously in operation – it had to be moved so the tour boat could continue through.

The sun sets over the Alsace – this was the view from our Airbnb host’s yard, looking out over the countryside.

That evening we had the great pleasure of having dinner with our Airbnb host and her family, who live in the countryside outside of Strasbourg. She prepared a very French meal of mashed potatoes, duck confit, and shallots cooked in wine and cassis. We drank Alsace sparkling wine before dinner, and some red wine with, and after the main course we tried five different cheeses including a chèvre with figs, a brie stuffed with truffles, some roquefort and two other delicious options. Finally, we were served a slice of tart – mine was Mirabelle plum, and Brett’s was blueberry. The family spoke excellent English so the conversation flowed all evening, and we left with our hearts and stomachs full and happy.

Artisanal ice cream cones – all natural flavors presented in a lovely flower.

Yesterday Brett and I decided to ride the tram over the Rhine River into Germany, but after checking the map we discovered that nothing we wanted to visit there was walkable from the station. We debated just going over and getting on the next train back so we could say we’d been in Germany, but finally decided to skip that outing and head over to see the Cathédrale again, visit a nearby museum of Medieval and Renaissance art and artifacts, and stop for ice cream on the way at a shop our host had recommended.

We spent a long while yeserday examining all the carvings on the Cathedral, both the front and sides. There are dogs, donkeys, pigs and other creatures up there as well as saints and gargoyles.

The Kammerzell House in the cathedral square dates from the 15th century and has the most richly decorated half-timber panels in the city. The facade features 65 bottle-bottomed windows.

Temple Neuf

There was a wonderful family musical group from Latin America performing in front of the cathedral, so we listened to them while we ate our ice cream, spent some time examining the carvings on the cathedral, and then walked over to the museum, which turned out to be closed because of a strike. Undeterred, we headed back the other way in order to wander through some of the narrow streets around the cathedral and make our way over to look at Temple Neuf, a Lutheran church built between 1874 and 1877, on the site of an old Dominican convent. The church was closed though and we were not able to go inside.

A portion of the long, snaking painting we discovered in an alleyway depicting different masks from around the world.

The demonstration band and singers – the music was loud but fun and peppy.

The contingent from the French Communist Party. Many groups and parties were represented in the demonstration, and everyone behaved themselves and seemed to be having a good time. They were marching over the tram tracks though so probably the only people unhappy with the situation were commuters.

At one point we headed down an alley to get back out to the main street and happily discovered a lovely work of street art on a wall in the alley. When we got to the main street we found ourselves up against a large demonstration in progress, with lots of marchers along with some fun, peppy music. We had seen notices at the tram station on Monday about a strike, but had assumed it was a rail strike, not the temporary shut down of service while the demonstration passed through. We realized that if we had gone to Germany we most likely would have been stuck there for a couple of hours until the trams were running again, so were glad we had decided not to go.

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On both days as we walked down the narrow streets we discovered shops selling traditional Alsatian specialities. We bought some delicious local gingerbread the first day as well as some Alsatian butter cookies and macarons, but just ogled the expensive artisan nougat (it cost around $36/pound) and some other bakery treats we saw. Yesterday we stopped in a wonderful fromangerie just to look over all the varieties (there are more types of cheese in France that there are days of the year), and ended up buying some more of the chèvre with fig, and a piece of lovely, soft cheese made from cow’s milk. We wanted to buy a LOT more but we restrained ourselves – it all looked (and smelled) so good. We also checked out the location of the charcuterie where we will be going for lunch tomorrow, to enjoy choucroute, a traditional Alsatian pork and cabbage dish.

We walked home on Monday by the old entrance to the public hospital (Civil Hôpital), which sits at the end of our street.

The old staff entrance at the Civil Hôpital.

We have just three more days remaining in Strasbourg, a city we have come to love. One of those will be taken up with laundry and packing, and tomorrow we’ll go out for choucroute and hopefully get in to see the museum that was closed on Tuesday. Today’s weather was overcast and cool, and the warmer weather that had been forecast did not appear so we stayed inside and rested, caught up on our reading, and enjoyed the delicious cheese we bought yesterday. It’s supposed to be raining when we get to Bordeaux on Sunday but we’ll deal with that when we get there.

P.S. I found our beeswax wraps today! They were smashed into the bottom of my backpack under a couple of things I hadn’t yet needed to unpack. So, so happy we did not leave them somewhere.

Brett and I have absolutely nothing against Viking Cruises, and in the past have thought about taking one, but seeing this Viking group of 50-60 Americans getting ready to move en masse to the next site made us glad we are traveling on our own.