Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sunday in Alsace

Before I launch into the day, I have to admit this: I'd been to Riquewihr before. A memorable trip date wise -- it was in the week following 9/11. I had come to Alsace to launch my not so brilliant idea of leading small groups of Americans on tours of France -- specifically, ones putting the travelers in touch with producers of foods and wines, culminating each night with a superb dinner of regional foods. (You didn't know I did that? Ah, yes, I've worn many hats over the last decades!)

I put the idea to rest after two such trips -- one to Alsace and the other to Provence. I was so giddy with excitement in trying to provide the best of experiences that I spent far more than I took in. Not only was it a financial loss, but, too, the potential liability issues were frightening, as I was the organizer, driver, tour leader, etc etc all in one. If something had gone wrong, all fingers would have pointed to me.

Still, it was fun for the two times I did it and on the Alsatian trip, we dined at the Michelin starred restaurant in Riquewihr, La Table du Gourmet -- which, they say, is just this year vying for a second star. If you follow this stuff, very few places on this planet can boast two Michelin stars.

These days, I look for far simpler dining experiences. When I worked in a restaurant (for those who didn't know, I did that too -- some dozen years ago), I cared deeply about food presentation, but even decades before that, I really worried about what we eat. Fresh and honest was my go to phrase way before it became trendy in this country to speak that way. But now my palate wants the simpler stuff. (As does my pocketbook.) And so today, I take great care in considering all the eating suggestions my hosts gave me and I finally settle on one that seems perfect for today's lunch -- Le Sarment d'Or.

I begin with this topic of lunch because it's Sunday and I am in France and this meal on this day is serious business. Most restaurants worth their salt will be closed tonight because the French, especially those outside Paris, can't imagine that you could eat equally well on Sunday evening. Their great belief is that the big meal today should be in the afternoon and it should take a long time. So I walk around, glance at menus and make my reservation early.

But, before doing that, I have an even earlier activity to report. Waking at around 7, I note that the sky is just getting that predawn light that bespeaks of fine weather ahead. Maybe I should be up for a sunrise? It could be pretty in these parts. Can't tell unless you go out and look for it.

So I climb the wet, grassy hill of vines and I am indeed rewarded. First, the view toward Riquewihr:


Then, sunrise in Alsace:

( a distant town, mist over the valley, German mountains beyond)

(the two windows in the roof? mine)

(grapes catch the morning light)

And since I am up already, I may as well stroll through town before the groups of visitors arrive. It's really beautiful in the dawn's early light.





Not surprising that it belongs to France's designated "most beautiful villages." (Also not surprising: that the French rank their villages.)

I get happy thinking about breakfast at the local tea shop.


But after it, I change my strategy for the remainder of my stay. Two things were wrong with that most important meal: the cappuccino was 3.5 Euros and the little kuglehopf (or croissant, had I chosen that) was another couple of Euros. Now, if I can have the same breakfast at a very posh cafe in Florence (true, standing up, but still), for less than half that price, I feel this is a bit much for me to spend in Riquewihr. Too, the rules at the place are odd. No photos permitted of their pastries, which strikes me as an absurd and poor marketing strategy. So goodbye tea room, hello eating at home (all the more so since they have an espresso machine in my little apartment; I tell you, Jean-Paul has thought of everything).

I spend the rest of the morning watching the village fill with visitors. And I'm enjoying the color of this! It's a drop dead gorgeous autumnal day and I hear not only German but also French and Japanese.


Impulsively, I stop in at a wine producer to buy a half bottle of Riesling. It's Hugel & Fils -- quite a known name and a big wine house (there are 1200 wine houses in Alsace), but the seller is very friendly and despite my tiny purchase, has me taste some of the stuff he has opened for a Japanese couple whose wallets were obviously bulging.

(the wrought iron sign of Hugel)


It is really tempting to stroll and enter some of the shops lining the main street and I do that as well, just as they open for the day. In one shop, I pick up a few post cards and as I admire a very Alsatian motif in the pictures, I notice that they're all sketched by Hansi (real name: Jean-Jacques Waltz). Oh! The store also acts as a front to a museum -- which has a lot of the original work by Hansi, placed in the context of local daily life memorabilia from the years in which he lived and worked. His life  -- 1873-1951 -- spanned tough years for Alsace as it struggled to maintain a French cultural identity despite its rather aggressive at the time neighbor to the east.


The museum is, of course, empty. No one on a day trip wants to see this stuff, nor the film that they run nonstop (in French) about his life and times. But I watch it. It's really sort of touchingly extraordinary. You might call his artwork almost childishly precious. The scenes of Alsace show off a bygone era, with folk costumes, lots of children, geese, storks, and lovely images of the Alsatian architecture and, too, of the culture that is so much unique to this region. But Hansi wasn't just a painter of sweet scenes that are readily adaptable to postcards now. He was staunchly anti-German at a time when Alsace was annexed to the German empire (in 1871 -- returning to France in 1918, though with some degree of autonomy still: it's a very complicated history!) and he was arrested and beaten many times by the Germans for his caricatures of Germans and of German habits.

(His sketches of people are often used to create the wrought iron sings, so typical of the region. See two examples just above.)


And here, I want to put in one of my many, I realize, plugs for travel: So much of this stuff is now available on the internet. I hadn't known about Hansi and after the museum visit, I wanted to know more. But if I hadn't been here, my curiosity would have remained dormant. Perhaps one great gift of travel is this: it wakens sleepy corners of your soul. And you walk away humbled and enriched.

And hungry! I'm ready for my lunch and it is a splendid one! Again I choose the fixed price menu and I am offered a delicious salmon/crab salad, followed what you would probably call glorified (duck) liver and you'd be right, except that it really is glorified -- pan fried but buttery soft inside, with a sauce that was advertized as having artichokes and tomato confit, and I was astonished to see a large handful of chanterelle mushrooms and, too, shavings of white truffle thrown in. When I commented to madame at this pleasant surprise, she smiled and shrugged lightly -- it's what we had in the kitchen today.

(pan fired duck liver, with trimmings)

After lunch I'm back at the grocery store, where the clerk is about as nice as they come. I'm shopping for milk for my newly planned breakfasts at home and for foods for the smaller meal each day, be it lunch or dinner.

(urging us to sample)

And finally, I pick up a detailed map of the area at the tourist office. There's a marked great hike that I can do tomorrow, but there are numerous smaller hikes that I can put together on my own. Alsace is, in fact, a walker's paradise. At last, a place where I can link nature with village life -- all this against the backdrop of the magnificent Vosges Mountains to the west, and the sloping vineyards, leading to a vast plain to the east. It's not strenuous stuff, though the distances can add up -- all this suits me just fine.

I'm thinking it's getting on in the afternoon, but surely I have it in me to do a small hike. And of course, that small hike takes me from one village to the next one...


...and then the next one and I tell myself -- that's okay, I can always catch the bus back to Riquewihr. So, want to follow? It's very vineyard intense! Again, I am entranced by the patterns these rows of vines create!



And if you look closely at the last photo, you'll see that there is a harvest! I would say 75% of the Alsatian grapes have been picked already. Here, a young man is picking by hand. His grandfather (I'm guessing here) is sitting in the back of a hatchback, waiting. The grandfather gets up when he hears the commotion on the truck. (Including me jumping on to take photos.)




I wave and continue onwards.

As I approach the rather larger village of Ribeauville, I'm struck how different the vibe is here. Riquewihr has a unique beauty and though the other villages share some of its characteristics, I'm certain that Riquewihr is the little star of the region.

Four photos of the people of Ribeauville:

(the young men of Ribeauville)

(younger couples)

(at the cafe)

(older couple, with that Alsatian moustache)

Okay, time to catch the bus back. Excuse me, where is the bus stop?
Oh, but madame, the bus does not run on Sundays!
Oh dear. Small hike turns into long hike. But as Ed always tells me, you look at things differently heading back. Let's see what I can pick out for you from the reverse journey.


(finally! Riquewihr)

(admiring kuglehopfs and spice cakes)

Home now. Bread and cheese out for supper. A local Munster -- so pungent that the whole fridge has picked up the aroma. A glass of Hugel Gevurztraminer. A cookie left over from Milan.


I'll leave you with one of my favorite French salutations -- today, the fill in the blank was "soleil" (sun), so it went like this -- Profitez du soleil! (Another time it could be -- profitez de vos vacances  or, profitez d'un bon week-end.) The idea is that you are given this gift -- sunshine, vacation, a week-end and you should claim all riches appended to it. Don't neglect to reap the rewards! Look for them! Profit from them!