For half-term holiday, we went to France again.
We took the Eurotunnel, and were late, as always. Eurotunnel informed us that there was usually a £30 fee for being late, but waived it when we pled traffic on the M25. I had emailed our usual campsite near Calais, who had said they would leave their gate open late. But not so late as we arrived -- 11pm. So we had to hike to the top field with all our bags and the tent. The wind was high and spitting rain, but you could see the moon occasionally. It was only once we were all in bed, with the car locked way down at the entrance, that the storm began in earnest. It was as if someone had grabbed the tent and was shaking it violently. Eventually there were deep pools of water around our therm-a-rests, and when I went outside to pee in the small hours, I noticed that the grass was so wet that there was an actual current. Luckily, we managed to laugh at it all, and when there was a post-dawn lull, P drove up the car and stuffed in the soggy tent, while I went to pay in dripping euro notes.
We drove to Arras and ate at restaurant La Rapiere, which was in the Relais and Chateaux guidebook but was well overrated. Then we wandered around town. The girls got separated on the way to a quilt shop, so the boys did the underground caves. The British won a battle in WWII by tunneling up behind German lines.
We joined the Youth Hostels, and got a room at the one on the square. Nice location, rooms slightly whiffy. The boys won the toss for dinner, and chose a nearby Chinese restaurant that was pretty good, especially the five-spice duck. At the end the waitress brought two small cups, one pink and one blue, with a sweet-perfumed rice-wine in them. At the bottom of my cup was a lovely naked lady showing all her charms. At the bottom of P's was an ithyphallic man! Once we drank the liquor the pictures, which the children were clamoring to see, disappeared, because they were beneath glass marbles that distorted them. Only in France!
The next day, after a breakfast of pastries, we darted east to reach Alsace. Near the town of Oberbronn the way was barred. Once we understood that a chestnut festival was in progress, we pulled over and joined the fun, leaving the tent to dry on top of the car. I made a bee line to a stall selling chestnut liqueur mixed with crémant D'Alsace, yum. There were also ethnic dancers, bad crafts, good apples, and various wursts. Above us on nests lived some storks. At the edge of town was a campground, where we rented a cute cabin for a couple of nights.
If we had had any sense we would have eaten at the flammenkuchen tents in the village, but Patricia liked the guidebook looks of the fancy restaurant Auberge Le Puits VI, which we mistakenly thought was in nearby Niederbronn. After a lot of talk on the mobile phone we drove and drove, until finally the proprietress drove out and led us to it! If only we had looked at their website, which has GPS coordinates, we could have treated it as a geocache. The decor suited P: formal but cute. Parsnip salad and broth; seafood soup; lamb with curry spices; red-cabbage ice cream; quinces in chocolate. That sort of thing. Claire spelled out "thank you" in toothpicks. It was a long day for them.
The next day we needed a walk, so we went on some trails above Oberbronn. There we collected our own chestnuts, and saw lots of blue-black beetles. At the top was a crenellated tower, so we played kick-the-castle and drop-the-huge-rotten-log-thirty-feet. Deeper in the wood we found a hexenplätzel, where witches had danced and there was some sort of gourmand familiar-cat (sourciere gourmande transformée en chat).
That night we determined to have flammenkuchen, although the best place (reputedly) in Niederbronn was closed that night. So, after stocking up on groceries at a "Coop", we had the pizza in a quiet place, where the proprietress asked us if we had taken the chunnel and asked why we had ended up in her neck of the woods. We replied that we came for the cooking, and she showed her seriousness by not allowing us to order our food all at once. We had to order one, eat it while hot, and then consider whether we wanted another.
The next day it was on to Strasbourg! We managed to park centrally, did a bit of houseware shopping, then got on to the important business of lunch. Our guidebook led us to the traditional Le Saint-Sépulcre, which was charming, but full up. So was another place. Panic started to set in, when we stumbled across Chez Yvonne, which had loads of room for us upstairs, and was cute and fantastic. Pre-appetisers were chunks of presskopf on toothpicks. I had excellent herring, followed by liver dumplings. Ross had the choucroute. The Gewürztraminer was lovely.
Ross suddenly recognised the nearby cathedral from his school week abroad (where he got a taste for €1 wine!) and gave us a tour, including the Ecclesiastical Computer and the gargoyles.
There followed a bit of soul-sapping city wandering (closed museums, toilet dashes), during which I kept an eye open for a hotel. Deep down, I was hankering for a bit of luxury, but failed to express this, and when P suggested that we find a youth hostel in the suburbs I got into rather a snit. Visions of large beds with clean sheets fluttered in my head. The upshot was that Patricia drove us out to the town of Ribeauvillé, where there was a campground. I noticed with perverse satisfaction that it was fixing to rain. At least we had brought pastries from Patisserie Christian. The kids enjoyed theirs, but my beautiful chocolate tasted like a lemon handiwipe. Sic semper to grumpy dads. I hope to return to Strasbourg for an indulgent weekend sometime.
Ribeauvillé proved to be very quaint. Since the town is near Munster, I breakfasted off microwaved Munster-en-croute purchased at a gourmet shop. Ooh, it was hot and runny. Then we wandered into the wine cellar of the appropriately-named Mr Sipp. Mr Sipp was an effusive polyglot, and we tasted several bottles and bought a case or maybe a bit more. On top of this, once we got back to the car, I darted into a nunnery and chatted up the nuns, one of whom led me into their cellar, where I repeated the purchasing process to the sound of a bottling machine.
By then I was well ready for a hike, and luckily Mr Sipp recommended one on the outskirts of town up to some ruined castles (11th-15th century, sires of Ribeaupierre) . Rays of sun picked out yellow vineyards in the distance.
We lunched in Colmar, at a place the kids chose for its "plate of crudeness". There were a lot of Japanese about, which shows that this town has a world-class upwelling of cuteness -- it would be nice to see the Christmas market. We enjoyed the Musée D'Unterlinden, not least for Temptation of St Anthony and the excellent butt-faced demon.
We decided to go to Germany, because Griffin was (briefly) studying German at school. Also, we had never toured in Germany, which suddenly seemed odd. I chose a nearby town on the edge of the black forest, Staufen, and P drove there. It turned out a good choice, as it has a vineyard-hill with a ruin, and a pretty pedestrian center. It claims to be the town where Faust lived. We walked around some restaurants as night fell, unable to pick. Finally we returned to a sort of open pavilion, that was serving something cloudy from plastic jugs. I asked what it was, forgetting that I don't really speak German, and got a polysyllabic reply. It was pleasantly sour and alcoholic, presumably newly-fermented, unfiltered wine. Yum. With it we had boiled wurst, bread and mustard. One of our neighbors had a giant mustache.
Maybe we should have thought earlier about where to stay, but I figured that so many campers come from Germany that there should be plenty of campgrounds. And there was one right nearby, five stars, with a pool and extremely clean showers -- you had to squeegee the floor when you were done.
Next day was a long drive, to get down to our friends, the D family, living near Le Châtelard. We thought it might be fun to go via Switzerland, but it is not, and you have to pay a big toll in Swiss Francs. We paused back in France, at lake-proud Annecy, where I bought some black puddings. These were great steamed with some pears that Mrs D had got at her local market.
We spent several days with our friends, who have four children -- it was our children's favorite part of the trip. Their house is large, with great views and fouines living in the attic. The kids all had mp3 players, and you could often hear them singing You're Beautiful along with James Blunt, in that special tuneless way of people wearing headphones.
It was Halloween while we were there. Some cute little French children came by trick-or-treating. We let off a lot of firecrackers, bobbed for apples in the local water trough, and told scary stories around a pentacle of candles in one of the stone basements. The kids also made bows and arrows.
Did we hike and picnic a lot? Oh, yes! The mountains are very beautiful, and there are some long trails. We climbed to the Col d'Orgeval, and to La croix du Nivolet near Margériaz. There were leaf-piles and the throwing of leaves. We saw paragliders taking off, and ate crozets (buckwheat pasta) and tartiflette (cheesy taters).
The Bauges are not so far from the Jura mountains, that gave their name to the Jurassic. We found a lot of fossils on our hikes, principally shellfish and echinoids.
After sadly taking leave of our friends we consoled ourselves with a geocache on the way to Vienne. There we stayed at the Hotel Central which was convenient for the museums, where some of the most interesting items were silver plates ca 300ad, of the Allobroges. The kids drew statues in another museum. We also met a woman artist on a canal boat named "Flora" and got to see her atelier inside, complete with dog. It turns out we had admired her painting where we had had lunch, a restaurant run by her son. She had been educated in England.
From there we drove up through Burgundy, where we camped. The next day we went to Gevrey-Chambertin and such wine towns, but everything was too expensive, not surprising given how small the vinyards are, and how popular they are with the Japanese (in Vienne we had met a gentleman wearing a beret, who imports wines to that country). But on our way to the village of Ternant, to see some megaliths, we came across a farm (Ferme De Rolle) that had an excellent restaurant. We got the house red, which was delicious, but unfortunately not for sale (they sold big-name wines only).
Yes, we really went, though Patricia will deny it.
We were coming up from the Savoie via Burgundy, and decided to surprise the kids. We camped nearby on Thursday night for a fairly extortionate €37. The pool was closed for the season, and we ate a picnic dinner on a ping-pong table. It rained a fair amount.
The next day we motored closer for 15 minutes, all the while expecting the children to twig. The suspense was helped by the fact that, apart from the motorway exit, there are basically no signs anywhere. A sign of French disapproval?
We were coming into the huge parking (€8) tollbooth with DISNEYLAND arched across it, and still no sound from the back of the car. Finally I asked:
Erich: "Where are we?"
Kids: "Are we in Paris?"
Erich: "No. Read the sign!"
Kids: "Disneyland. But we thought that was in Paris."
Erich: "It's near Paris."
Kids: "You said we weren't going to Paris. There's riots."
Erich: "Could I please hear something along the lines of 'Golly Dad this is great!' instead of a geographic and political discussion?"
It cost €225 for us all to get in.
We immediately made for the Indiana Jones ride. Claire was too short, and Griffin won't do 360-degree loops, so Patricia waited outside with them. I actually enjoyed it -- normally roller coasters just make me tense and unhappy. Ross adored it, so he immediately did it again with P (only 5 min wait time) while I took Griffin and Claire to "Pirates of the Caribbean". Now that I liked -- I always like gentle water rides. And it was cunning how the first part wends through the Bali-style restaurant, though instead of eating there we had awful burgers and chips for €55 over in Frontierland. Good robots, especially some fencers, and a pirate swinging on a rope.
After repeating "Pirates" with everyone, we did "Big Thunder Mountain". This had a 35 minute wait, which was annoying, though it must be far far worse in the summer. We got Fast-Track tickets to do it again later. The second time, Griffin kept his eyes open. Claire just plain loved it. In between we did the Haunted House. The dancing ghosts, which had impressed me as a kid, now just look like what they are: reflections in a pane of glass.
We got fast-track tickets to Space Mountain, and meanwhile watched "Honey I Shrunk The Audience" which was fantastic, great 3d and air-blasts. The goopy Kodak adverts while waiting were awful, though. There was a little black boy looking for his dog, using color photos, and I kept hoping that the next ethnically-diverse neighbor would be Korean.
At Space Mountain, Griffin chickened out, so I went with Ross and Claire. I hated it -- very fast and violent, and it gave me a headache for the rest of the day. I also worried about Claire, next to me, but she was having a ball, and wanted to do it again.
Then we watched a parade, and the saccharine carols and debased song medleys, which you cannot escape anywhere, finally started to get to me. P was already in sugar-shock.
We did Peter Pan (boring) and Alice's Curious Labyrinth (also boring). Then we figured that we had better get our dual-pass money's worth and went to Disneyland Studios, which shut at 6pm. There we only had time for a history-of-animation film (ok) and the rock-and-roller coaster for Claire and P (I was hors de combat, Ross was getting a cold, and Griffin won't do 360).
We thought about going back for more rides, but only briefly, as it was dark. Then we thought about getting a hotel room, or at least pricing one for laughs, but the sight of Disney Village, like a mall on steroids, sent us scurrying back to our real world of damp tents and smelly youth hostels. I woke up at 5am to watch a confrontation between some youths and police in the main square in Arras. And then we went to our favorite sort of theme park: the weekly market:
At dinner the previous evening, Griffin was wearing his faux-coonskin hat, our only purchase at the temple of Disney. A nearby table finished their pizzas and a matron with badly-dyed red hair donned the cap to general hilarity. I wouldn't have known how to say that there was a peril of nits....
Next time I want to go to Parc Asterix for a full-French theme park experience (actually we have been to Bagatelle several times, and liked it). We passed it on the way to Calais, and it was closed for the season, which I thought was already very French.
On the drive back to the Chunnel, we stopped for a good lunch at St Sébastien in Blendecques. Once again we got to the train late, only this time we had to pay extra.
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