Monday, October 28, 2013

So, as the sun sinks slowly in the West...


   We just got back from a couple of weeks on the road, which, in addition to inherent sloth, is why I haven't posted for a while. After spending a week on Îl de Réenroute getting my first speeding ticket, we came home long enough to entertain a friend from the States then spent a week in Alsace. The speed cameras are one of the most frustrating aspects of life here and something I'll take up in the future but, for now, let's just say I'm ready to help man the barricades.

             So this is a travel log of sorts.  I don't particularly like travel writing since most of it gives me information I don't really care about, like restaurant recommendations.  Plus, they frequently read like essays from a creative writing class, to wit: "It was a stroke of luck, really, that my luggage was lost when I flew to Italy this summer to visit the jewel box villages of the Cinque Terre — five heart-stoppingly picturesque hamlets on the Ligurian coast, dotted with pastel houses nestled amid terraced hills that drop to the jade and lapis waters of the Mediterranean." (I swear this is the opening line of a recent travel article picked at random from the New York Times.)
         Info I look for includes how best to avoid anyone speaking English. Well, not entirely since Scotland and Ireland are on my "to visit" list. Let's just say I don't want to hear people that say "like" a lot.  And as far as restaurants go, my only requirements are that they serve alcoholic beverages and meals that include beef or pork. In any case, I've always been content to tag along wherever Cynthia takes us because it's usually someplace photogenic where I'll at least learn something.  
            A few weeks ago we rented a car and drove about two and a half hours north of here to Îl de Ré, which, as the name indicates, is a 32 square mile island off the coast, just north of La Rochelle. As usual, my wife made all the arrangements and all I had to do was drive and produce a credit card when needed. Unless you want deal with rich Parisians and every European with an RV or travel trailer, you don't want to go near this place in summer. According to one UK newspaper, the year-round population of around 20,000 swells to 10 times that. Fall is definitely less hectic, although the autumnal RV's are piloted by retiree's who literally have the rest of their lives to get anywhere. The highlights for me were a local festival, leftover World War II bunkers and donkeys in pants.
            Somewhere in France, right now, there's a pretty good chance a festival is going on. Whatever they make, grow, catch or play, the towns and villages here hold a festival to celebrate it. Here in Bordeaux, every June is the - guess? Right - the Wine Festival.  Bergerac's got a couple of Cyrano themed fêtes and down river in Blaye is every kid's favorite, the Asparagus Festival. You can find celebrations for apples, pigs, cows, vinegar, peppers, oysters and I'd be willing to bet that somewhere there's one for dung. During our visit to Îl de Ré, the village of St. Martin-de-Ré held it's annual Shellfish Festival, Fête du Coquillage. Tents and tables were set up at the local docks and the whole village seemed to have turned out for what looked like all-you-can-eat mussels. The music included a surprisingly good R&B band with horns doing  Mustang Sally with a French accent.
            Walking the beaches here you'll find presents from Germany in the form of bunkers from the Atlantic Wall. At least one has been converted into a house and some have started to slide into the sea. On the south side of the island is an abandoned gun battery that's reputed to be one of the most intact examples. Interestingly, a French group has formed to preserve some of these things after a few on Île d'Oléron were dismantled. 

           Probably the most photographed feature of Îl de Ré are the donkeys, the wooly hides of which give them a definite Rastafarian look. They don't all have natty dreds but apparently the rastas are unique to the island. Every postcard rack here has dozens of cards with pictures of these donkeys wearing snappy stripped or checkered pants. Legend has it that one of the locals decided to protect her flock from the torments of mosquitoes by fashioning trousers to cover their legs. How she knew they were being tormented and why their legs were the only parts suffering is anyone's guess but it does make a cute way for the locals to collect a few extra tourist euros. We didn't get to see any full dress examples since, as was explained to us, donkeys don't really dig wearing pants so they only wrestle them into a pair for special occasions, probably a Donkey Festival.
            For the second leg of our trip, we flew over to Strasbourg in Alsace. Alsace is France with a German accent and it's gone back and forth between the two countries a few times, most recently World War II - the gift that keeps on giving. Strasbourg is as beautiful as every other major city in French and loads of other people have described it better than I can so, to save us both some time, just Google it.
            During our week there, Cynthia planned a day of stuff for me that included one of the best train museums I've ever seen and possibly the best auto museum as well.  The Cité de l'Automobile and Cité du Train in Mulhouse (about an hour drive south of Strasbourg) are, for me, pretty solid evidence that I never really grew out of wanting to play with cars and trains.  SNCF, the French railroad people, run the train museum so it's pretty much a history of France's railways. The car museum bills itself as the largest in the world and I saw no reason to doubt it.  €18.50 got me into both and it would have been cheap at twice the price. Again, to save us both some time, click the hyperlinks above.
            One rainy day we drove over to Baden-Baden in Germany where I made a couple of interesting discoveries. One was that, despite both of my grandfathers having been born there, I don't feel any particular emotional pull to the Fatherland. Maybe, like Cynthia, it's the whole Third Reich thing or maybe we just did a good job of assimilating in the New World. In any case, I didn't have the same feelings as coming to France.
           The second discovery was that, unlike France where your two choices of beer servings are 1/4 and 1/2 liter (roughly half and full pints), the smallest beer the Germans offered me was the 1/2 liter, and for the same price as the 1/4 across the Rhine. This might be reason enough for a return trip. Maybe it's time to embrace my heritage.


  1. So I beat you...I too got a speeding ticket on my way into Paris when we were there in June. Darn those cameras!