Tuesday 25th July 2017 Naples(Italy) – Basel(Switzerland) – Colmar(Alsace, France)
When we got an offer of a homeswap in Colmar in Alsace, France, we didn’t think we were interested, as we’d never heard of it, so didn’t expect it to be that good, so were very surprised when we researched it to find how interesting it looked. Corinne & Lucien have already stayed at our place, so now it’s our turn to spend nearly two weeks at their place. We’re flying Easyjet (A$100 each) from Naples to Basel in Switzerland, and have arranged a taxi to then take the four of us the 64 kms to Colmar ( 117 euros), as we have to get there before the Avis Hire Car office closes at 5pm.
Surprisingly we wake to the church bells at 7.30am (what happened to the 7am one?) just before the alarm goes off. We are breakfasted and down in the lobby before Mike and Debbie for once. Get reception to call a cab which arrives in 3 minutes, load up and have the fixed fare explained to us. At 23 euros, we can handle it, but the cabbie leaves his meter on, and it only comes to more like 15. Progress through the inner city is pretty slow, no real express roads here, just the streets we walked exploring, until we get down near the port and climb up to the higher level. The airport is surprisingly close to the city, and up on the plateau behind it, which is also surprising. We pay the man 25 euros, unload the bags and make our way in. At first it looks like there is a crush outside, but most of the people there are standing and waiting.
We arrive a long time before the 10AM bag drop off time, but join the Easyjet line, and the woman supervising has no problem with us. There is a long, snaked queue, so by the time we get to the check in, it is nearly 10AM, and we are quickly checked through, using the ticket information on the IPad. Processing through to security was more of a problem as Dianne’s ticket scanned through OK, but Murray’s is on the same ipad, and we have to pass the ipad over, but his ticket plays hard to get, but eventually he gets through. We have to give up our two-litre virgin bottle of water and drink our 1-litre Coke bottle dry before security.
As usual we have to run the gauntlet of Duty Free on the way to the gate, which is downstairs with the other low-rent airlines. We find seats fairly remote from the gate, but can see it and the board from where we sit, then move to the gate queue when it starts to fill up. Dianne would have held out longer, as she was comfortable where she was, and had something to do, but others are more anxious, and there is talk on the PA system about offers of cash for people to give up overbooked seats. We have assigned seats, but, even so, this IS a budget airline. Interestingly, the test frames for cabin baggage are a lot larger than we remember from Australia, and Dianne’s large day pack easily fits into about half the frame. This does not apply to others on the flight, but they seem to get away with it. We noticed a big group of people at another Easyjet flight having to check their cabin baggage into the hold out on the Tarmac. Apparently this is quite normal, and doesn’t carry additional cost. Our plane didn’t need this procedure.
When we walk to the aircraft, we want to go to the back stairs, as our seats are down the back, but are told to use the front. Getting close to our seats we have to contend with other passengers with seats further forward who have been let climb the rear stairs. There is a woman sitting in Murray’s assigned seat but Dianne, who has the Ipad with the boarding pass, takes on the job of shifting her. Her seat on the far side of the plane is free.
Climbing up from the airport, we get good views of the city, Mt Vesuvius and the coast to the south, before passing through cloud and swinging out to sea. There are some coastal views, possibly of Ischia, then not a lot until we pass over the coast at about Pisa, getting good views of the coast near Viareggio, which we visited, and fly straight over the marble quarries of Carrara which we had toured from Lucca. Gaps in the clouds also gave us views of the farmland south of Milan, the urban sprawl of Milan, and some of the Italian Lakes district. Some views of the lakes look like Maggiore and Como, but it will take analysis on Google Earth to confirm it. Over the Alps we have mostly cloud, but do see some rugged, snow clad peaks before reaching the green of Switzerland when we descend towards the Euro Airport (Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg) along the valley of the Rhine.
Unusually, we do have to pass through Immigration, and are asked our port of embarkation, but are quickly checked through. In the airport there are separate exits for France and Switzerland, and we have to make a decision, as we are going to France, but the taxi we have booked is Swiss. We try the France exit, and are relieved to find a taxi driver waiting for us, with a sign. We are out of the airport in about five minutes, into a VW minivan, and on our way down the F35 via Mulhouse to Colmar, about 60 km on a good road at about 110 to 130 kmh. The sky is very overcast, with visible rain showers, but we stay pretty dry until almost to Colmar, when it comes down heavily. By the time we arrive at Colmar rail station, it has stopped, and we are able to walk to the Avis office without getting wet. For the first time in our trip it is cool (about 20C), and we all look for some warm clothing to put on.
We wanted to pay for half the car rental, and it had been negotiated at some length, but finally settled that Debbie & Mike would pay for the rental, as we were providing the accommodation, but we would pay for fuel and parking. We end up with a Nissan Qashqai Diesel FWD faux-SUV, which we suspect is better than what was quoted for, and with two drivers (Murray and Mike). We think we are insured against third party claims, but it is a difficult subject. We have to pick up the car from the other side of the railway tracks, so take the lift down to the underpass, only to be told by an African riding a push-bike that the UP lift was not working, so have to drag all the bags up. Eventually find the car, which is not in the dedicated Avis section of the car park.
We take scratch and mark photos, load up, and Mike takes the first driving shift. In typical Avis style, there is no information on the particular quirks which are built into this car. It has one of the really stupid no-key start systems, an electric push-button parking brake, a six speed manual gearbox with a very mysterious reverse selector, and parking proximity sensors all round, so it takes a while to get under way.
We exit the car park successfully, and, using maps.me, which has our home location punched into it as a map, rather than a navigation tool, we make our way towards home, missing our first major turn, and having to do a loop to get up onto the railway overbridge. Murray plots a route which goes fine until we run into the one-way street system, and have to improvise. It is a pretty stressful introduction, but we manage to find our home, which is hidden by a large building until you are right on top of the driveway, which is narrow, and straight off a main road. To add to the excitement, the proximity sensors don’t like the gate posts, the shrubs along the drive, the wire mesh fence or the house itself.
We are welcomed by Corinne, who fixes us up with keys, a run-down of the kitchen functions, the windows and shutters, locks on the outside door, location of the supermarket and bakery, and shows us the study which has enough information, pamphlets and maps to run a small tourist info bureau.
After she left, we organised ourselves, and Mike drove us to the local supermarket, only about half a kilometre, but not without its problems, as our house is on the side of a large road heading out of town. The supermarket is quite large, and has everything we need to set up housekeeping, It has an Aldi-style trolley deposit system, and Murray gets caught in a sudden rain shower, and has to run to the car, unload, and run the trolley back to get Debbie’s 2 Euro coin, getting pretty wet in the process.
We spend the evening planning excursions and listing must-see villages, castles and natural attractions. We have a supper of frozen moussaka and frozen chicken with champignons and mashed potato, quite a change from Italian cuisine. Hit the sack early, complicated by oversized soft pillows and too-warm doonas, but the night was chilly enough to need some sort of doona. In spite of the main road we are on, the traffic noise was no problem at all with the windows shut.
Wednesday 26th July Colmar Homeswap
Today we plan to spend exploring Colmar, including having lunch in the old town, which is about two kilometres from our place. We make a pretty late start, and as all the recommended restaurants are booked out when we ring, we venture into town on spec, using paper maps from our information supply, and the maps.me as a backup. Manage to get to the large underground car park near the station without incident.
We immediately plunge into the Old Town, finding it tourist central, with large sandstone churches, a multiplicity of brightly painted half-timbered domestic and commercial buildings, cobbled streets, parks, statues and fountains, watercourses and finally the canals which justify the Little Venice name for this section of town.
We find a suitable touristy brasserie, L’Amandine (118 of 246), change to inside seating as it is pretty chilly (even though we have our warm gear on). Not expecting much, so pleasantly surprised when we have a large and tasty Croque Monsieur (ham, cheese and béchamel sauce on toast) chips, sort-of coleslaw and salad for 9 euros each, plus a beer and a prosecco.
We had a good walk around the old section of the city, found our way back to the car, and home without too much back-tracking. In the afternoon, Murray got his first taste of left hand driving in quite a while, taking the ladies down to get soup ingredients, plus a light bulb for Mike and Debbie’s bathroom, and an adaptor to hopefully enable us to use our Italian extension cord, as it is not compatible with the French sockets. This was only partially successful, and he had to use the Leatherman to file off the centre, earth pin on the extension cord. This is not too big a deal as most of our electrics are double insulated 2-pin types. This doesn’t apply to the Acer computer. Hopefully it will fry its useless self.
At night, Debbie cooks a good soup which we have with bread for a light supper, finished off with store-bought egg-based creme caramel. The night’s sleep was less successful, with the doona being too hot, and the pillow unsatisfactory, inducing in Murray a cricked neck. We gut the doona covers, put on warm gear and tried to get some sleep. By morning the cricked neck had not improved.
Thursday 27th July Colmar -Cernay – Route des Cretes (Le Vieil Armand, Le Grand Ballon) – Sondernach – Munster – Route Des Vins (Turckheim, Kaysersberg) -Colmar
The weather is still cool, which we are all enjoying. Today we decide to head for the Hautes Vosges d’Alsace (i.e. the High Vosges Mountains). We program the route to Cernay into the maps.me on Dianne’s IPad, which works pretty well, as the first move is a right turn out of our driveway onto main roads, a lot of which are the divided A35 motorway. Entering Cernay, we see a vacant, apparently free parking space within sight of the main church, and grab it. Further inspection reveals a one and a half hour time limit, and a van near us with one of the cardboard parking time indicators. We take a punt and walk up through the town as far as the tourist information office where we get maps and information on the Route Des Cretes, which passes along the ridge line of the Hautes Vosges, put in as a supply route for the French forces in WW1. We also get a location on a public toilet which is supposed to be near the church but can’t find it. Murray uses his French on a bystander who directs us down the street to a large store, with a big car park, but no sign of a toilet. Murray talks to another bystander who takes pity on him and leads him to a nearby pharmacy. Murray has to explain that it is not for him, and calls Mike over. The situation is resolved satisfactorily, and we thank our friend, go on our way back to the car to find it un-booked. Follow maps.me to do a U-turn and follow the road to the village of Uffholtz, and up into the dense forest of the Vosges.
At this stage we switch off the IPad, which, against all planning, has been allowed to spend the night disconnected from the charger, and is low on battery. Our first stop is at Le Vieil Armand Hartmannswillerkopf, with a large car park at the top of the hill, where there is a war memorial to the 30,000 allied and German soldiers killed in the area in 1914. We inspect the memorial and graveyard in light rain, but decide against venturing further, as only the paths are safe walking, even after so long, and we have a long way to go.
We carry on towards the Grand Ballon, the highest of the rounded mountain peaks above the tree line, but run into dense fog and can’t see anything except the road ahead and occasional cars going in both directions. At one point we get below the cloud level and stop for a view at an isolated auberge before getting back into the fog. We were planning on stopping at the alpine resort at Le Markstein, but the fog is so intense we can’t see where to stop, or what is on offer, so proceed toward Munster, after a backtrack to the turnoff, and a long, scary descent on 12 and 10 percent grades to the Munster valley. The scenery is very pretty in the valley, very green and rural, with farmhouses on the slopes. We look for lunch possibilities in the villages, particularly Sondernach which has an impressive church spire, but there is not a lot of action at 1PM. In Munster we stop just short of the massive sandstone church, and proceed on foot into the Centre Ville to find several eating places, settling on the hotel of the Trois Rois, for a hearty menu du Jour of a cold meatloaf pie slice and a large lamb lasagne, which is too big to finish. Dianne tries the local Munster cheese as the third course, but it is very strong, more like goat’s cheese, and not as good as Murray’s Compote Des Pommes, with raspberries and canned whipped cream.
At Munster, Murray took over the driving, with Dianne following a few turns behind on maps.me, but we managed to stay on and off the Route Des Vins for most of the way to the village of Turckheim and on to Kaysersberg, which we pass, and have to circle back, fortuitously finding a parking spot in a 2 euro all day payant, right at the start of the really picturesque Main Street.
We can’t believe just how picture perfect the place is, with narrow streets, well-kept and colourfully painted half-timbered buildings, a river with a fortified bridge and weir systems which once fed mills, and a ruined castle with an intact round tower looming over the whole place. We split up to do our own thing, leaving just over an hour to get back to the car. Walk all the way to the far end of the old town, and back through minor streets. Note in photos that we actually have a jumper on!
Back at the car, we decide we have seen enough and head for home, getting to Colmar proper, and the railway overpass we are now familiar with before the battery on the IPad dies and we are left with paper maps and Debbie’s IPad, which has maps.me, but for some reason has lost its tracking ability and can’t tell us where we are. We wing it, looking for familiar street names, but look like getting on the motorway to Strasbourg, so pull into a parking lane to regroup. We are having no luck with IPads, phones or paper maps, so Murray decides to give the inbuilt satnav in the car another chance, as it has been pretty useless and user unfriendly up till now. We find our exact home address, reset the home base to this address, and give it a go. It takes us off the main road to do a U-turn, gets us back onto the Rue de Strasbourg, going the opposite way, and we follow it blindly, turning when told, but at no stage are we sure we are winning until we pass our supermarket, and we know exactly where we are.
We decide to forego a gratuitous supermarket shop and head straight for home, taking extreme care to approach the driveway with no one behind us so we can do a wide turn to enter the driveway straight without the proximity sensors wingeing too much. We even managed a three point turn to make it easy to exit when other cars are parked in the drive.
We have a reprise of last night’s soup and bread, eat what we can of the now too-soft nectarines we took with us, do Diary homework and prepare for another night of difficult sleep.
Friday 28th July Colmar –Old Town- Eguisheim (Alsace Wine Route)
In the morning, Mike and Murray go into town for Mike to change US dollars. We park in the Rapp Car Park after a false start, missing a vital turn. Try BNP Paribas, but they only do foreign exchange for customers, so walk further down Rue de la Republique to a gold merchant reputed to be a foreign exchange agent, but they can’t help, but suggest the Poste Banque, further down the street. After a false start in the first entrance, we reach a room full of cash machines, and a couple of Post employees. Mike finds the right one, and strikes it lucky. They do exchange, but only after taking a lot of details. The amount of Euros is calculated, and Mike is given a cash card with the right amount on it, and extracts the cash from an ATM. The operator then makes up the exact amount with change from petty cash, and we are on our way. Murray was supposed to get cash as well from an ATM, but we set out with a rush, and the card is left behind.
We have the navigation system in the car working better, so can punch in our home and get directions from the Rapp car park to home with relative ease.
We have a lunch reservation (absolutely necessary for the good restaurants) at l’Arpege restaurant (6 of 246), recommended by Corinne, for 1PM. Go back into town early, park again at the Rapp car park, follow maps.me to the restaurant so we can reconfirm our rather chaotic Fractured French phone reservation. They are surprised to see us so early, but after a bit of confusion, find the reservation, and it is for four, not forty.
With time to kill, we walk to the highly recommended Unterlinden Museum (11 euros ea for over 65) named for the park next to it which has large linden trees (we think they look like plane trees).
The museum is very well presented in a refurbished 13th century convent building, with mainly stark white interiors, and plenty of space around the exhibits. The museum has at least four levels, and is quite extensive, so it is more tiring than most “small” museums. It is hard to find your way around, and we keep seeing rooms we haven’t seen after we think we’ve seen it all. They have some interesting exhibits. They have artwork from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, including the Isenheim Altarpiece which is its most famous work. Also had stained glass, weapons, furniture, music instruments and toys from the 14th to the 19th century, ancient ornate wine barrels, and modern and contemporary art, including a Monet and two original Picasso works, and other works in the same style giving tribute to Picasso. To do the museum justice you would need an audio guide and a lot more than an hour to see it, so our rather steep 11 Euro admission was a bit wasted.
We got back to the restaurant right on 1PM, and find it busy, but not full, but has the Completo sign outside. We get a round table for four in a canvas and aluminium domed gazebo, in a secluded garden behind the restaurant. We settle for the 3-course menu du Jour, all four settling for the duck leg with vegetables for the main course, some taking the fish terrine, others a steamed almost raw egg on a pumpkin mash for entrée, and for dessert two have the baked peach, and two have berries and cream on a cake base. The main course was very good, the entree and dessert “interesting”. With a set price of 17 Euro, not bad value compared with our recent Italian eating experience.
As the afternoon was still young, we decided to do an expedition to the recommended quaint village of Eguisheim, which we punched into the navigation computer, and had a drama-free trip, with Mike driving. We parked in a grassed overflow car park, punched our rego number into a ticket machine, paid 3 Euros with a credit card, and joined the throng of tourists in the village.
The village itself is built as concentric rings of streets, as a defensive arrangement, with the outer ring of houses serving as a city wall. The village was seriously cute, one of the Villages Preferes, awarded for particularly pretty villages by a public vote of millions of French people. We visited one in the Dordogne, and this one certainly lives up to its reputation. Nearly all the buildings are freshly painted, and have window boxes with a riot of brightly coloured flowers. We do nearly a full circuit of one of the narrow, concentric streets, taking a lot of photos of the half-timbered buildings before walking up the main, centre street to the incredibly picturesque square with a fountain, flower boxes, and church.
The village was home to Pope Leo IX back about a thousand years, famous for campaigning against married priests, and a card-carrying Saint. We have a look inside the church devoted to him, and take lots of photos, including of the storks nesting on the roof of the church.
We then walk the full length of the Main Street, back to the car park. In the street, Debbie had been talking to an older Kiwi woman who was travelling alone, and would miss her connection back to Basel if she had to wait for a taxi to come from Colmar, and she asks if we can give her a lift back to the station . We are able to re-route the GPS to go past the station, but are unable to let her out on the Main Street, so have to do a loop, drop her, and head for home and the supermarket by following the well-worn route from the Rapp car park. We are getting familiar with the city – now know to turn right at the Total service station, keep right at the last roundabout, and swing wide, with the blinker on to do the difficult turn into our driveway.
We have a quiet night at home with an evening meal of bread, ham and tomato, and plot a course for a trip to Freiburg in Germany tomorrow.
We have solved the sleeping problem by Dianne sleeping downstairs on the comfortable lounge, so Murray can spread out however he wants with his sore neck. She comes upstairs in the early morning to get a bit more sleep.
Saturday 29th July Colmar (France)- Freiburg(Germany)- Staufen, Breisach am Rhein-Colmar
Murray is up and dressed at about 7AM, breakfasts and is ready to go when Dianne comes down about 9AM. We get away about 10am, programme the in-car navigation system to Freiburg, about 50kms away, over the Rhine on the edge of the Black Forest in Germany. With Murray driving we get out of town fairly simply and onto the freeway heading south before deviating to the east to cross the Rhine. There is a complex of canals, weirs and locks where we cross, but decide to keep going and maybe have a better look on the way back, or another day. We miss the odd instruction from the nav system, which is currently mute, and we have to rely on close observation of the instrument panel for instructions, and do a certain amount of back-tracking and U-turns. On the way into the city, we end up on a German Autobahn, with a 120 kms speed limit, but we can sit in the slow lane at 110 without causing too much disruption. We decide to head for Mittelstad, and the Hauptbahnhof, which should get us to the centre of town, and hopefully to the edge of the Altstadt (Old Town). By sheer luck, we pass the Hauptbahnhof and take a right turn at a parking sign, and end up in a dead-end street, cut off by construction work, with only street parking, no parking station. The parking station would be accessible from here but for the construction, so we have to wait for a couple to assemble a baby buggy and get the baby out of the car. Fortunately the next car was ready to move, so we had an easy go at parking, which is good as the Qashqai is pretty big, and high, with little visual indication of where the corners are.
We use cash in the parking meter, but can only get about 50 minutes with a 2 Euro coin, and 60 minutes with 4 Euros, so we cancel and read the fine (German) print, and see that there is a one hour limit, so put in 2.5 Euros and get an hour. This short time means we have to rush our visit to the Altstadt, or go looking for parking after an hour. As it turns out we are right on the edge of the Altstadt, and the Rathouse square is only 5 minutes away. On the way we see some of the streets have gutters with running water. The water is reputed to be clean, free of sewage, and some local kids are towing wooden sail boats along them using string. We visit the Tourist Info in the Rathouse, have to buy a 1 Euro map, and then can get extra free information, particularly about the possibility of a chair lift to the mountain behind the town. We walk towards the cathedral, after negotiating a barrier where a Main Street is being torn up. Find the way through to the cathedral square which has a Saturday market, which is full of food outlets and farmers produce. We look inside the cathedral, which is impressive, but fairly dark and plain, but has a good structure and very good stained glass. We are able to walk out a side door, and back through the market to buy a bratwurst on a bun with onion and ketchup for 2.5 Euro, particularly good value. Only bought one to try it, when we probably should have bought two. Further around the market we find raspberries for sale, and can’t resist.
We meet Mike and Debbie at our rendezvous, walk back to the car via a different route, getting a look at the massive clock tower and city gate. At the car, we have to decide whether to find a carpark to stay longer, or head to the woods. Decide we’ll go and find the cable car to the top of the hill, and program it in. The instructions get us there, but at the last minute we decide we don’t want the base of the lift, and do a left turn to take us up a winding road through very thick timber. Halfway up, we stop for a look at the woods, and a comfort stop, then carry on to the top of the hill, where we miss the first parking area, and have to park beyond, further down the hill.
We decide to walk up to the top, but Mike doesn’t want to, so he drives back to the top car park while the three of us walk up a path on the edge of very green fields overlooking beautiful rural scenery below. At the top car park, we decide against walking up a steep path to the top of the chair lift, and decide to drive further along the road which follows the ridge.
We are unable to programme in a return route which doesn’t involve a return to Freiburg so keep driving toward the major town of Staufen. Eventually we get far enough away that the navigation system will accept Staufen without taking us through Freiburg. This involves a trip of 70 km on winding mountain roads, but we have plenty of time, and over 600 km of diesel according to the instrument panel. The route takes us through beautiful country, with very green fields in the valleys and high meadows, and dense stands of pine and deciduous trees on the higher ground.
At one point we stop to have a look at a waterfall, but balk at a half kilometre climb and 2 Euros each, and return to the car to watch a confrontation between two billy goats trying to walk a log bridge, both starting from a different end, and meeting in the middle – shades of Billygoat Gruff.
When we finally get to Staufen, via the villages of Hofsgrund, Todtnau, Utzenfeld, Konigshutte, and Munstertal, we find there is a lot of action. Try a full car park, but have to circle round to find a car park right beside where a festival was being set up. Unfortunately nothing was open, as the festival didn’t start till 6PM, so we walked into the main square, where we found the Rathouse and some restaurants open for business. While the other three ordered more bratwurst, Dianne did a patrol of the town to find a view of the castle, and anything else worth looking at. The bratwurst with gravy, onions and chips was not as good or cheap as the one in Freiburg, but it was filling enough for the both of us.
Out of Staufen, we still get a lot of signs pointing to Freiburg. Pass the villages of Bad Krozengen, Biengen, Breis, and Breisach am Rhein, and eventually start to get Colmar signs, which, with one major wrong turn and a long recovery loop, take us over the Rhine, to a roundabout where we can take a side trip down to see what the locals do on a Saturday afternoon in summer on the Rhine. There is a big park, with a lot of cars and camper vans, and on the water are power boats with people relaxing or swimming. We see no water skiing, but do see some of the ridiculously long and skinny Rhine Cruise Ships, and some commercial shipping. As we noted on our way out, the combination of weirs, canals, locks and the river is very complicated, and doubtless expensive. Across the river we can see the town of Breisach Am Rhein, on the German side, with a massive church/monastery building on top of an isolated peak beside the river. We weather a bit of confusion from the nav system, which sends us up a non-existent road, but circle around the island park to get back to the roundabout, and continue on our route into Colmar, and all the way to our “domicile”. We are starting to like this navigator, if only he/she could issue audible instructions in English. This will doubtless come with more study and fiddling.
We have odds and ends for tea, do our blog homework and catch up on photo-shopping before bed. The weather has been getting a bit warmer every day since we arrived, and today it was back up to 30C. We still have to sort out the hot-doona problem for Murray. Dianne seems happy with the blanket on the lounge downstairs, or when it gets too hot, using the doona cover as a light sleeping bag.
Sunday 30th July Colmar Homeswap – relaxing day
It’s forecast to be 30C again today, and we’re all tired, so the plan is to have a relaxing day, do a bit of supermarket shopping, and see the night lights of Colmar in the evening. Murray has discovered some watchable movies on Netflix on the IPad, so we don’t do a lot, and go out late to the supermarket to find everything closed, so the whole day’s meals have been mainly scrounging in the fridge. We don’t even have milk to fill up on muesli.
In the late evening just the two of us venture into town, noting on the way that all underground car parks are closed. We pass our usual Rapp parking station, turn right to follow our normal road home and look for street parking. We find some, but can’t fathom out the parking situation, but a local pay station has no lights on, and a worker nearby tells us we don’t need to pay after 7pm. We walk down the first interesting street towards the old town, find a lot of people sitting at outdoor restaurants and bars, but very few people walking the streets. We guess all the non-resident tourists have gone home, and resident ones are getting their evening meal and drinks.
The town and major buildings are not as well-lit as we would have thought from descriptions, but we do get some good photos of the buildings, churches and canals. We do a walk along the length of the canal and end up in a major above-ground car park, so circle back around to the car. We have to hurry the last two hundred metres as it has started to rain lightly. On the way back home it gets a bit heavier, but by the time we have to get out of the car, it has stopped. Dianne’s tooth, which started annoying her yesterday, has got a bit worse, and Murray’s stiff neck comes and goes in spite of a pillow change. At least we have got the too-hot doona problem sorted by inserting one of the blankets from the lounge into the doona cover. Dianne finds the downstairs lounge pretty comfortable and spends most of her night down there away from Murray’s back-sleeping.
Monday 31st July Colmar – Strasbourg – Colmar
We’re off to explore Strasbourg today. We have already done our research, and know that you can park in an outer suburb (for 4.10euros), and then up to seven passengers can get a tram into the city and back for no extra fee. We settle on the Baggersee Park + ride station on the south side of town as it is the closest one to the A25/35 motorway from Colmar, and programme it into the car GPS. Unfortunately the nav system likes at least a street name, so we have settled on a long street which leads to the P + R, so we are expecting a bit of hassle at the end of our trip unless we can find P +R signs. In spite of going into the setup to get the fastest route, the machine seems to want the shortest route, and tries to get us off the motorway at every possible opportunity. It takes fiddling all the way out, and most of the way back to make the machine understand we want on the motorway.
Just on the outskirts of Colmar, we get our first couple of photos of the day – a copy of the Statue of Liberty on a roundabout. This resin replica is 12-metres high and was made to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of the original sculptor Auguste Bartholdi, who was born in Colmar. From the moving car Dianne, who is on the right side of the car, gets some pretty good shots of the castles scattered along the foothills of the Vosges.
Getting off the motorway at the sign for Baggersee P + R, we see a sign to the right, when we know the parking is to the left, but miss a little skinny road which loops around under the motorway exit road, so find ourselves doing a rather radical U-turn a kilometre down the road. At the parking station, we get a ticket from the boom gate at the entrance, then read all the fine print on how this gets the four of us into town and back, and how to pay. It turns out you don’t pay until you get back and are ready to reclaim your car. The system works well, we validate the ticket on a machine, catch the first A-tram into the city, aiming for Homme de Fer, the last station we can go to as the next two stations are closed at present while they have work done on them, but we end up jumping out when we can see we are passing near the Cathedral, one of the highlights of our visit.
Walking toward the cathedral, it is hard to believe the scale of the building. It is so big in relation to the square it is in, it is difficult to get the whole building in one frame, so our photos don’t show just how impressive it was. The high-Gothic style is amazing, with intricate stonework in pink sandstone, impossibly slim pillars and hundreds of statues of saints, and gargoyles on the roof.
We are early enough for the morning session in the (free) church, so join a long line, and are pleased that it doesn’t take long. This could be aided by the pretty perfunctory search of Dianne’s handbag and the backpack, which the notice boards forbid. Maybe we have been profiled again and declared harmless. The scale of the building, the intricately fluted columns, the highly decorated pulpit, and the red and gold organ suspended on one wall are all impressive. There is not a lot of artwork, but the many stained glass windows are large and colourful.
There is a large mechanical clock on the right hand side of the altar. This gives detailed information on times in different cities, representation of night and day on a globe, and other unexplained functions. The highlight is on the quarter hour when a mechanical figure walks out from behind a door, circles another figure holding bells, and makes a single ring for the quarter hour. Apparently there is a more animated display at 12.30, but you have to pay money to see that.
Out in the square, we have a look at La Maison Kamerzell, which was built in the 15th and 16th century, then walk across to le Palais Rohan in the far corner of the square to get a better perspective of the cathedral and plot our next moves. The photos from this angle are not as good, as it is obvious that one spire is missing (they never got around to building it), and there is a lot of scaffolding at the other end.
We have a walking tour map purchased in the Tourist Info, and we decide to follow it, starting at the edge of the cathedral square, passing through a very busy street to the canal side, where they are loading one of the large glass roofed tourist canal boats. It looks like it would be really hot when the sun comes out.
We follow the route of the walking tour map through the old city, miss one canal crossing by walking along the canal-side path under a bridge that doesn’t have steps down to the path, but cross at the next bridge. Get some good photos of what must have been the strong flow of water through arches which must have been part of mills. (the street behind them is La Rue des Moulins). We watch one of the Tourist canal boats as it passes through a rotating steel bridge, then get a bit lost in the area where the canal divides to pass three parallel islands. We cross a line of “Ponts Couverts” which are not covered bridges, then back over what looks like a long, covered bridge, but is the barrage which controls the water levels in the city and has been used historically to flood the lower town for defense purposes.
We walk back towards our starting point down the Grand Rue, which looks like an uninteresting large street on the map, but which is a relatively narrow pedestrian precinct with half-timbered buildings, shops and restaurants.
We stop at Troquet des Kneckes, (56 of 1,226) a fairly trendy looking bar/restaurant, where we have the set menu of a pretty ordinary, but cheap and filling chicken stew with pasta, while Debbie and Mike have tarte flambee (also called flammkuche), an Alsatian dish fairly similar to a pizza, with a very thin bread dough covered with white cheese, onion and bacon. It rains while we eat, but is fine for the rest of our walk back to get the A Tram back to Baggersee Park and Ride.
We pay our 4.10 euro charge (not bad for parking all day, plus a return ticket to town for the four of us), recover the car and set the navigation to “domicile”. As we know we will be on motorways nearly all the way back, we can ignore the navigator trying to send us off the motorway at every exit, and fiddle with the settings for long enough to correct whatever bug or wrong setting was diverting us – we even got her to talk to us. Unfortunately we don’t know what it was that made it work, so don’t know how to do it if it mucks up again.
On the way home, take telephoto of Koenigsbourg Castle, which we hope to visit later in the week, and a typical small village in the countryside.
Dianne sent an email to Corinne this morning, asking about dentists as her tooth is not improving. Back at the homeswap, Dianne goes looking for a dentist, as Corinne has told her there are three in the building next door. She doesn’t find them next door, so comes back and googles, and finds there are a couple a block or so away. Maps.me takes her into a housing development, where she can see no sign of any dentist, but keeps looking after seeing a parking spot with “dentist” on it in front of an apartment. Eventually finds a man to ask, who just happens to be going to the dentist, and shows her where it is, hidden around a corner. She speaks to the busy receptionist, who doesn’t speak English, so she goes to get the dentist who does. He has a quick look in the waiting room, but it is hard to show him the problem there, so takes her into his surgery, and she shows him a missing filling (incredibly THREE have fallen out in the last seven weeks) and he confirms it is not a problem at present, but the tooth near it is the problem, as she suspected. He recommended a course of antibiotics plus pain killers if it gets any worse, which should keep it OK till she gets back to Australia in three weeks, where she will probably need root canal work and a cap. He hand wrote a script so she wouldn’t have to go on the computer as a client, and he wouldn’t take any money for the checkup. Fairly late in the evening, Dianne decides she should get the prescription filled just in case, so we drive down to the nearby shopping centre, not really expecting the pharmacy we have seen to be open, but are pleasantly surprised when it is. The cost is another surprise, only 8.4 euros, although at first Dianne thought it was 84 euros. Having had a big lunch, we made do with whatever was in the fridge, and yesterday’s bread. Dianne is still sleeping downstairs, and Murray is struggling to find a comfortable sleeping position, right side OK, but the arm goes to sleep, on the back not good for the neck, left hand side hard on the neck and shoulder. Hot showers, and application of our heat pad (bought when in India), after sorting out electrical incompatibilities, helped. Dianne is awake at 5am with the tooth getting worse, so starts on the antibiotics. What a pair of crocks!
Tuesday 1st August Colmar – Lazy morning, afternoon at the Colmar Port de Plaisance
Debbie has a hairdressing appointment today at 11am, and after a lot of discussion on possible moves for the rest, it was decided Murray would drop Mike and Debbie in town, and we would use the car in the afternoon for a bit of local exploring. The Navigation is working well enough for Murray to be confident he can find his way home with it.
After lunch, when it’s about 31C, we set a course for a village near the canal port, and pass over the canal right at the port. It looks interesting, so we do a long loop to the left, ending up on narrow roads through corn fields before finding our way back to the port. We park beside the canal, beside a house with a big dog and a number of cars on the street. We do a long, hot, walk along the main road to find the end of the canal, and around it back to the port, to look at the canal boats, and a rough looking steel hulled sailing vessel. Most of the boats look like they’ve been there a while, and the canal doesn’t look that nice. Definitely not on the tourist map like the canals we saw in Burgundy.
This is also the location of the RV camping area, and there are lots of large RV’s. We walk back via a supermarket which is mainly fresh food, almost a farmers market, take photos of the canal, the boats, a couple of swans, the shallow muddy creek running under a bridge on the main road into the canal, and a very strange brick building with a tower which has rounded corners right up to the top floor, which is slightly larger with square corners and a copper domed roof.
We follow maps.me to find where several canals/rivers merge to form a large cross shape on the map, using more narrow roads through the cornfields. When we find the canal, it is a proper canal, with a bridge, locks, and a lock-keeper’s cottage. From the bridge we can see where the water widens out and forms the cross on the map. We have to circle a fair way around, on tracks which don’t rate as roads on the map, and pass a couple of large rock-lined cisterns, which we think belong to a fishing club, before we get back to the water opposite the lock. The waterway is a combination of canals and a large weir about three-metres high, with water flowing over the notched concrete crest and down a slope protected with rocks and coarse gravel. Far up the widest canal, we can see people canoeing. One of the canals passes under the motorway bridge, with a narrow gravel road beside the canal. This also just shows up as a track, and we are tempted to take it, but sanity prevails, and we return to the main road and set a course for home.
Dianne is now on the course of antibiotics, and is taking paracetamol at four hour intervals, but things seem under control.
Wednesday 2nd August Colmar -Route des Vins d’Alsace
We have made up a list of must-see villages and local sights in the foothills of the Vosges, generally along what is known as the Route Des Vins d’Alsace, but mostly to the north of Colmar. The whole route stretches the full length of Alsace. It’s forecast to be 32C today, and we have a lot we want to see, so are away right on 9am. The route took us from Colmar to Riquewihr, Zellenberg, Hunawihr, Ribeauville, Thannenkirch, to the major object of the day, the large and magnificent Haut- Koenigsbourg Castle.
Our first stop, Riquewhir, was probably the best example of a small fortified village we have seen in this area, small enough to walk all the way around, large enough to have a vibrant commercial and tourism scene, overall as pretty, or even prettier, than Eguisheim which has the Preferred Village title.
We walk up the centre of town and out the gate tower at the top,
then around the ramparts street, following the original walls of the village.
The colours and design of the half-timbered houses, the
attention to detail, the decorated fountains, the flower displays and the manicured vineyards right outside the town were amazing.
From here we pass through Zellenberg, a very small village on an isolated peak, but it is too hard to find the way into the old town, so we carry on, passing lots of very attractive vineyards on the way, to Hunawihr and find some doubtful parking on the outskirts after a fruitless search of designated parking areas.
It has a finely preserved fortified church, complete with outer wall, on a knoll outside the village proper (and up a steep hill) which we walk to, and three castles in different states of repair on the mountains nearby. They look interesting, but are only accessible by foot, so we don’t even think of it, and move on to Ribeauville, where we have even more parking problems, missing the main parking area, finding parking a long way out of town, but circling back to the main parking area to find it full, with cars waiting, so return to the outskirts where the parking we had found is now almost full, but we manage to find a spot.
We walk into town, past a tower which had one of the stork-nesting platforms we are now used to seeing, then up through the town, which is well supplied with squares, fountains, half-timbered buildings, vintners yards with vine growing equipment, a large ruined castle on the mountain behind the town and a stack of tourists. Most of these towns, like the vineyards, are on the slopes of the Vosges foothills. We walk all the way to the top of the town and circle right past a large church with an attractive interior while Mike and Debbie walk back down the town to select a suitable place for lunch. They picked Brasserie Le Giersberg (22 of 35). Our lunch of Tarte Flambé Forestiere Gratinee (with lardons-pork fat, white quark cheese-similar to curd or cottage cheese, onions and particularly good champignons) and a salad is one of our best, and reasonably priced.
We walk back through the town to reclaim our car, take more stork-on-tower photos, noting how much white residue a stork nest leaves on the steeply sloping tiled roofs, and set a course for the small village of Thannenkirch as the Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle does not have a street address, and we haven’t worked out a way to programme places of interest into the computer. The route takes us up into the piney woods again, to a small village with a big church, and from there we get road signs taking us up another winding road toward the castle.
We haven’t seen a lot of traffic and are surprised when the first car park on the one-way loop up to the castle is full, and anything like a park on the side of the road is taken. As it is a one-way road, we are forced to soldier on, deciding to try for a park when we get reasonably close, or else continue around the loop. We are lucky to find a space within a long walking distance of the castle, but have to force the person close behind us, and possibly behind him as well, to back up. The proximity camera system on the car is a pain a lot of the time with its insistent beeping, but it is a real help getting into tight places.
We think Mike is going to stay in the car, but he follows us up to where the shortcut path climbs up the hill, through the woods and away from the road, but he decides to spend time in the shade while we continue on to the castle. It is still a ten minutes climb on a shaded path still damp with last night’s rain.
Entry is a steep 9 Euros each, but the castle is pretty impressive from the highway 10 km away, even more so from right under the towering walls. It originates from the 15th Century, looted and burned in the 30-years War, given to the town of Selestat in 1865, given to the Kaiser (William II of Hohenzollern) in 1899, and heavily reworked and restored from 1900 to 1908, and worked on right up to 1918. There are a lot of historic photos, models and presentations on the history of the castle and the reconstruction in the early 20th century. We do a lot of stair climbing, as the castle has a lot of levels and towers. One stairway in particular has an intricately carved stone handrail around the hollow central core.
We take photos of the construction presentations and models, and interiors of the rooms used by, or for, the Kaiser. Note the number of large porcelain stoves spread through the living quarters – obviously gets very cold up here in winter. From the top of the castle we get good views down onto the large town of Selestat and smaller villages spread along the foothills four or five kilometres apart. As all the vineyards do not have integrated farmhouses, the distance between village is probably governed by reasonable walking distance for farmers and labourers.
The air is not clear enough to allow us to see the course of the Rhine and the associated canals, some 10km away, but we can see some large bodies of water. We are able to get good views of the castle itself from the top, including views of the traditional windmill on one of the turrets. In spite of the degree to which it has been rebuilt, it is one of the more interesting castles we have seen. Leaving the castle, we accidentally get sidetracked into the medieval garden at the base of the castle, and have to retrace a lot of steps, which is not appreciated, as by now we are very hot and weary. Go to the tourist trap at the crest of the road to get ice block and soft-serve ice cream to sustain us on the way back to the car. Debbie had left earlier and walked back on the track we came in on, while we took the road, which was a surprisingly long walk back to the car.
At this stage, we have had enough for one day, and it’s 3.30pm, so plot a straighter course back to Colmar via the motorway. After a rest we go to the supermarket for bread to have a light evening meal.
Thursday 3rd August Colmar home day
It’s forecast to be 33C today, and as we’ve seen most of what we wanted to see, we decide to have another easy day. The photographic record shows a single sunset photo taken out of the window at the top of the stairs. Murray has discovered an English language crime novel, and Netflix movies on the IPad, so the whole day is one big veg-out for him. Dianne starts to read up and plan our two weeks in Paris, so we can buy transport and museum passes as soon as we arrive. Prepares a spreadsheet on the museums we want to see when we are there, and their opening times, evening openings, and closed days. Evening meal from fridge scraps and ageing French bread.
Friday 4th August Colmar, Switzerland (but not Basel), Mulhouse, Dannemarie,
Rogemont-le-Chateau, Bourbach-le-Haut, Thann, Saint-Amarin, Colmar
Last night we had carefully planned a trip to Basel, just over the border in Switzerland, as we have some positive articles on it. Dusted off our Swiss Francs, and are ready in the morning for an expedition. Before leaving, we fill the tank with 50 Euros worth of diesel, which covers all the driving we have done (about 660 kms) in the last 8 or so active driving days (incredible!) and punch in the navigation instructions. With Murray driving, we head back down the road we arrived on, with speed limits up to 130 kms, but not enough to allow a habitual speed limit keeper unfettered access to the fast lane, so we spent a fair bit of time in the (relatively) slow lane with the trucks. The motorways here are so numerous that they merge for a while and then divert, so a lot of the motorways have two or three numbers.
We pass the Euro Airport for the three towns, Basel in Switzerland, Mulhouse in France, and Freiburg in Germany, and are still on the motorway when we encounter major congestion due to a motorway toll. We see the Douane/Zollinger sign earlier, but figure we can afford a few kms of toll charges, as we are almost in Basel. When we are near the head of the queue we are diverted to a ticket booth with a woman standing outside it. She tells us we don’t have a sticker for the automatic tolls, and will have to buy one. We are OK with this, but the only sticker you can buy is a twelve month sticker, for 40 Swiss francs (about A$52). Nothing is available for short duration. All we want to do is drive about 1km and park the car and look around! None of us are pleased with this incredible bit of bureaucratic bullshit, and Murray asks how we can get the hell out of it and give Basel a miss. The woman describes, in French, with a wave of the hand that we can go a gauche and get out. This is not particularly clear, so we repair to a nearby parking area where a fair collection of cars and vans are parked, possibly with the driver’s considering their options.
Dianne suggests the possibility of a park-and-ride, using non-motorway streets to get to one, but Murray, as the designated driver, has had enough, so we circle round, find a turn which takes us onto the return motorway, and we cut our losses and head for Mulhouse, then maybe the Rhone-Rhine canal and the Vosges foothill towns we haven’t seen yet, and possibly a fog-free view from one of the Ballons.
The motorway takes us all the way to the centre of Mulhouse where we start looking for parking. Settle on an underground park at a well-documented area known as Porte Jaune. We take careful note of the car’s location, as it is a really big car park, surface in a large shopping mall, then walk outside to find we are in a multi-storey building with three concave facades, which should be visible for miles. Maps.me tells us we are very close to the old city, but it is a bit fine on direction, so we walk for a while to give the map time to orientate, but meanwhile find a city map at a tram stop.
From here we can see the spire of the large church which seems to be called a temple. We walk into the main square, where there is a small market and a Rathouse which is intricately painted to look like the carved stone building it is not. The church doesn’t boast a name, and has construction scaffolding at the front, and is locked up tight. Dianne sees a girl on a pushbike with a cart in front of her, advertising tourist information. Not sure if it is a sales pitch or not, but turns out to be the local tourist office coming to the (few) tourists who are here. After all the tourist places we’ve seen, which are crowded with tourists, it’s been quite pleasant to walk around an ordinary town. We walk around the small number of streets in the Historic Section, visit a pharmacy for Dianne for more Panadol, while Murray photographs Gillaume Tell Restaurant and Rue for further reference (not sure why William Tell is celebrated here as he was a Swiss hero). We spend some time comparing two competing outdoor restaurants in the square, and settle for L’Auberge des Chevaliers (171 of 249) Murray and Dianne split a Tarte Flambé Forrestiere (nowhere near as good as our previous one ) and a very large, good salad with pate, ham, potato salad, egg, lettuce etc etc.
After, we have no trouble finding Porte Jaune, redeem our car for 2 Euros, give thanks we are not in Basel, and set a course for Dannemarie.
Dannemarie is on the Rhone-Rhine canal, on a combination of reasonable motorways and smaller roads, but it is a weekday, and road maintenance has closed some roads. Just like in Australia, their “deviation” signs are in unlikely places, pointing unlikely directions, and our navigation unit is not up to speed on diversions, so we go on narrow roads, over canals on narrow curved bridges and through unknown villages before we get to Dannemarie and follow the local signs to the Port de Plaisance, which we enter from the wrong direction, having seen it and not wanting to let it go. We park and walk around, taking photos of what is much more like the canals we are used to in Burgundy and Southern France, with a large number of boats at a marina. The boats include traditional barges, modern fibreglass canal boats, power boats and sailing vessels. We take photos and move on, as Murray is not seeing a lot of interest from the others.
We encounter more diversions on the way to Masevaux, where there is a road going up and over the mountains, but we miss seeing this, as we stop short of Masevaux and head east on the flat land to find another road which will take us up to Rogemont-Le-Chateau and Bourbach-Le-Haut, unfortunately not “haut” enough for a good view, although there is a side road which leads up to some sort of memorial and lookout, but we are not in the mood, so descend to Thann.
Than is obviously a major tourist trap, as all the parking is blue restricted parking which has conditions attached and needs to have a card on the dashboard. We’ve previously asked how you get these, but were told it wasn’t worth our getting it. The town looks really good, and the high Gothic church with a delicately carved spidery steeple is very special, but we look around, can’t find anywhere to do a safe park, and as everyone is getting pretty weary at this stage we leave and carry on up the valley, beside the train line as far as Saint-Amarin before turning uphill for a look through the suburbs before getting back on the main road back down to Thann. Dianne, under Murray’s instructions, manages to get some photos of the church on the way past, not the great shots they could be from the ground, but enough for the record.
We almost have an incident getting onto the main road from a multi- lane roundabout with a slow bus in front of us and fast cars overtaking on the roundabout, but manage to survive. The motorways take us right back to the outskirts of Mulhouse before turning north and home to Colmar.
The weather has cooled down a bit again – today was 28C, which is definitely more comfortable for walking around. Having had another big lunch, we made do with what was in the fridge and cupboards.
Saturday 5th August Colmar car return and cleanup day
We’re all off tomorrow – Dianne and Murray to Paris for two weeks, and Debbie and Mike to Switzerland, Germany and Slovenia for three weeks. We’ve seen everything we want to around the area, so today we’re taking the car back, cleaning, packing, catching up on diary, and generally filling in time.
In the morning we fill the car with diesel, nearly 20 Euros for yesterday’s full day’s driving, then plot a course to the Avis car park, which works out surprisingly easy once you have found the name of the street the car park is in. Murray, Mike and Debbie go in, and Debbie buys rail tickets for tomorrow while Mike and Murray take photos of all four sides of the car, and report to Avis. The office is busy, and it takes a while to be served, but the transaction is very quick- tank full? Check! No damage? Check! No problems? Check! We remember to take the house keys off the car keys, Debbie turns up and we catch a taxi from the rank back home for 10 Euros.
We spend the afternoon cleaning up and packing, the ladies cobble together a good meal from our left-over food of eggs, tomato, onion, potatoes, fruit salad, and carrot sticks with tzatziki for appetiser.
We make a determined effort to get the diary up-to-date for the first time this trip, and Murray watches Netflix once his duties are over.
Summary of Our Thoughts on Colmar, Alsace and the general Region
We cannot believe that we had never heard of Colmar before we were offered the homeswap. Very few people we know have been here, though nearly everyone has been to France. This area has so much to offer. The villages on the Alsace wine route such as Eguisheim, Riquewihr, Hunawihr and Ribeauville are incredibly picturesque with the colours and design of the half-timbered houses, the attention to detail, the decorated fountains, the flower displays, and the stork nests. Driving around the manicured vineyards and seeing them up on the hillsides is a wonderful experience. There are also castles to explore.
Once you’ve explored the wine route, there are the Vosges Mountains to explore, as well as Strasbourg. Freiburg in Germany, and especially the mountains and valleys around it, are incredibly beautiful. If you’re looking for a new area to explore in Europe, we thoroughly recommend this area.
Our houseswap was in a great position for this exploring. We didn’t need to be in the centre of Colmar, as there was more to see in the countryside, than in the centre of town. However, we are looking forward to being in the centre of Paris, so that we can go out of an evening for a stroll around, or buy bread etc, without having to get in a car, find parking etc. This is the one thing we have missed here.
The house itself was large and spacious, with two bedrooms and two full bathrooms and one extra toilet, an enormous well-stocked kitchen, large lounge area, and dining area. It had everything you could want, except for any fans for the hot weather.