Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Bonjour - Alsace-Lorraine

For our first trip to France, we decided to go to the Alsace-Lorraine region. This area borders the north & east sides of the country (near Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany & Switzerland). The region has had a turbulent history, having been caught in most of the skirmishes, and at various times has been considered to be part of the German empire. This sets it somewhat apart from the rest of France, but the result is a friendly and interesting culture. We drove in the evening and spent the next day exploring Metz and Nancy. Then it was on to Colmar, a town on the Alsatian wine road. Alsace produces a great deal of wine, mostly white, and wonderful cremant (sparkling wine). Colmar is a little touristy and the streets look a little more like a german town than what you'd expect to see in France. We settled in to a small cafe for the first of many traditional meals -- the region is famous for its sauerkraut and meat dishes. If you like comfort food then this is the place for you! Here's a shot of the town at night.

The next day we spent traveling the wine road. It's very different than America -- the wineries are mostly located in the many small medieval villages along the road. We had fun stopping at a few and trying to negotiate the language, which usually started with english, moved to french (Rochelle), then german (Rich), then pointing with our fingers (which sometimes worked best). Here's a shot of Rich in his dream cellar and an idea of the scenery.

Having been a part of so many conflicts, it's no surprise that there are many castles and ruins throughout the region. We went to Haut-Koenigsburg, which was restored in the early 1900s by Kaiser Wilhelm while the area was under German rule. It is sometimes criticized for being "overly" restored, but it's a spectacular sight nonetheless.

We spent 2 nights in Strasbourg, the closest major town, although the city center is so concentrated that it feels smaller than it is.On the way home we happened to see a sign for an American war cemetery. Almost every area in Europe has been affected by war at some point or another, and in France there are still many signs of WWI and WWII. We decided to make an unplanned stop and were glad that we did. It turns out that the St. Avold cemetery holds 10,489 American soldiers, the largest number in WWII military cemeteries in Europe. Strangely enough it was a great place to do some "birding," so it turned out to be a beautiful and moving end to our first trip to France.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Otter tug-of-war

Flevoland is the newest dutch province, just north of Amsterdam. It's "new" because it only became a province in 1986 as a result of reclaimed land from the ocean via various projects that started in 1932. This created some interesting "natural" environments, and the area is known for a variety of birds & waterfowl that live or migrate through here. Our day was very windy so it wasn't great for birding, but we had a fun experience at the nature park. The park has a variety of animals in various natural settings, including some european otters (which we didn't see) and asiatic small-clawed otters (which we definitely saw). Some of our friends & family know that otters are Rochelle's favorite animal, likely due to their playfulness and their love of water (and shellfish). While looking at their area, some of the otters started coming toward the fence where we were standing. We put down our backpack, and Rich leaned over the fence to try to get closer pictures. Unfortunately, forgetting that the top of the fence was electrified was a big mistake and resulted in quite a shock (literally), but luckily the current isn't so great to stop the heart (at least this time).

But the otters kept coming our way, and before we knew it one stuck his little paw through the fence and grabbed the backpack strap. This quickly attracted another otter, then another, and before we knew it we had five little otters tugging at the straps of the backpack. We eventually pulled it away from them, but we'll never forget the little game of tug-of-war with the otters.

The weather started to clear up, so on our way back we stopped at another of Holland's castles, the Muiderslot. The current castle dates to the 1200-1300s. It's located in a quaint little sea town on the edge of the "bay" and made for a nice afternoon.

Brussels area (or more cafes)

The Belgium border is just a little over an hour's drive from here. Brussels is in the middle of the country, just over the split between the dutch/flemish and french speaking parts of the country. Brussels is a strange city; it's almost impossible to see where the "good" and "bad" areas start and end. We always hear about how bad Amsterdam is for petty crime like pickpockets, but for some reason we felt more uncomfortable in areas of Brussels, particularly at night in some of the more crowded areas (and some areas get really crowded). The food more than makes up for it; Belgians are really proud of their food and the area is famous for its mussels. There's also a huge variety of cuisines, and there's a food "street" where you walk down a narrow, very crowded street and the restauranteurs literally try to grab you off the street to eat at their place.

There are some really pretty areas in the city, especially the main square or Grand Place. The town hall dates from the 1400s, but the surrounding buildings were built mainly at the end of the 1600s/early 1700s following a massive French bombardment. There are a number of outdoor cafes, and we enjoyed one our second night there when to our surprise we discovered that a group of marching bands from around Europe were playing there (yes, the band geek in us comes out every once in a while). Our guidebook recommended seeing the square at night and they weren't wrong -- here's a shot of the town hall. A group of french-speaking people were happy to take our picture -- so happy that the surrounding people clapped & cheered when they took it!

To and fro Brussels we also made some good discoveries. On our way we stopped at a great little town called Leuven (Louvain). Once again we found ourselves at a great little cafe on the square, enjoying the view of the 15th century stadhuis. The entire building is covered with statues of famous local people and bible reliefs. Belgium is home to a lot of beers, but the biggest name is Stella Artois, and we were surprised when we passed by their huge brewery here. On the way home we stopped in Mechelen (Malines), where we -- don't be surprised now -- spent a leisurely morning at a cafe on the square! Sundays are pretty sleepy throughout the region, so we weren't able to explore the buildings much, so perhaps we'll return to visit some of the historic buildings on the square. One thing's for sure, we definitely know where to go when Rochelle is craving a big bowl of mussels! (Pictured: Leuven stadhuis, Mechelen square)

Friday, October 06, 2006

Trying to catch up on some posts, we thought we'd add a few from some of our travels. One of the great things about being here is that everything is so close. Most of the sights in the Netherlands are within a 2 hour radius. Belgium, Luxembourg, and parts of Germany & France are within 5 hours or less.

Exploring the Netherlands has been fun -- there are many really nice towns with central squares that are great for relaxing at an outdoor cafe and shopping the markets. Some of our favorites are Gouda (yes, like the cheese, but it's not pronounced anything like Americans would say it), Delft (famous for the blue/white pottery), s'Hertogenbosch (luckily the dutch call it Den Bosch), Maastricht, and Zutphen. Here's a picture of Gouda's beautiful Stadhuis, dating from the 15th century.

The Netherlands isn't really known for it's castles, but there are a few castles and ruins scattered throughout the country. We visited Kasteel Huis Bergh in the eastern part of the country (the current building dates from the 17oo's) ... here's a photo of the castle and Rochelle peeking out after we climbed the stairs to the tower. The tour was only in dutch so we can't tell you much of the tower's history. We just smiled politely while the tourguide took us through the narrow staircases and showed some of the armaments from the castle's history.

We stayed overnight in Arnhem, enjoying a great Thai dinner thanks to a reco from one of Rochelle's colleagues. We found a little pub and enjoyed a few good games of darts. The next day we stopped at one of the British war cemeteries -- this area saw a lot of action in WWII. The battles portrayed in "A Bridge Too Far" happened here, and we've since found out that the movie is a Christmas tradition in Great Britain. A group of Canadians had just been there and had placed a Canadian/Dutch flag pin on all of the Canadian graves. It's amazing how much war history surrounds us here and there'll be more in future posts.