Friday, July 25, 2014

Postcards from the Alsace Region of France

The Alsace region of France is special. 

It's an area of rolling hills dotted with cities and towns, bright green vineyards, dry white wine, a particular smelly cheese, their symbolic storks, and friendly people.

France's smallest region is tucked in the Northeast corner sharing borders with Germany and Switzerland. It lies on the west bank of the Rhine river, nestled between the river and the picturesque Vosges mountains. The culture is unique to the area- a mishmash of French and German- leftovers from two centuries of passing back and forth between the two countries. As a result they have their own language and over 400 culinary specialties, both heavily influenced by their germanic heritage.  As one of our Alsatian friends said, "We are Alsatian first, anything else second".

In our eleven days there we were lucky to stay with two different Alsatian families. In Vendenheim we visited the fabulous Q family and Mme. L to join in on my bestfriend/roommate's sister's French wedding.We basically crashed the family holidays of both sides of their family, the American and the French one (Thanks guys!) . Later in the tiny town of Guebwiller, Tom and I had our first couchsurfing experience with a lovely couple and their two cats.

With the help of these families we saw some of what the Alsace region had to offer. And tasted a lot of it too. And drank quite a bit of it as well. As the trip came to a close we realised we had not even scratched the surface of what there was to do in the Alsace.

  Strasbourg itself was surprisingly stunning. All I had heard was that there were some pretty buildings and that it was pretty small. In person Strasbourg seemed to bear it's history on it's buildings - A combination of passions I always find irresistible. The traditional wooden beam and thatch houses often have the year and names of the inhabitants written in old germanic hand. Some are much older than America. The streets are cobbled and worn down by centuries of feet. The newer buildings are definitely French and house some of the most important EU meetings in Europe. It's a collision of old and new at every turn. I loved noticing the H&M clothing store in a building built in 1563, an undetonated 1945 grenade paved into the wall of a more modern hotel, and seeing all of this with a bretzel or plum ice cream in hand.

Petit France

View from the Cathedral

The Cathedral
If there is a jewel in the crown of the old and fabulous Strasbourg, it is most definitely the cathedral of the Notre Dame. It is made of the special pink sandstone of the nearby Vosges mountains and stands at a stunning 466 feet (142 meters) tall. Not only is it considered one of the finest examples of high gothic architecture, but it was also the tallest building in the world for an astounding 227 years. 227 years. For me it was beyond comprehension. Construction began in 1176 and continued throughout the middle ages. The result is an impressive building with gothic details like lace. Hundreds of gargoyles and saints stare down at you. It also boasts the best view of the city.

The Food: Flammekueche, A Plum Tart, and a Baeckeoff
 The Alsatian food is more German than French and extremely delicious. Especially if you are a meat eater like me. Dreaming of a hot flammekueche as I type...and maybe drooling on my keyboard a little.
Tarte Flambee or Flammekueche: thin dough with fresh cream, lardon, onions, and cheese.

Homemade tart made by Mme. L 

Route de Vin D'Alsace
The winding wine route of Alsace runs through beautiful little towns and hills of vineyards. On this sunny day we could even see the medieval castles at the tops of hills. Also wine tasting. We actually ran out of time to actually stop but if I were to go back I would definitely give it more attention.


Typical town

Les Cigognes: The Storks
 Summer in the Alsace is the perfect time to see their iconic birds, the white stork, in action. You see them roosting in ginormous nests, flying over head, or just walking around. Ever heard of the stories of storks bringing babies (Dumbo anyone?)? Well this is where the legend originates. They are to this day a symbol of fidelity and fertility.

Grapes and Storks- So Alsatian


And Finally...

There were so many unique things about the Alsace region that struck me. I can't write about the Alsace without writing about my hands-down favorite thing about the region - the people themselves. We were so lucky to be hosted by lovely and lively Alsatian people in both Vendenheim and Guebwiller. Both families took us in whole-heartedly, even though we were complete strangers, and often times couldn't even speak the same language. It could have just been luck but I found the Alsatian people to be genuine, open, and just tons of fun. Without them, our experience could not have been what it was: a pleasure.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Iceland in Numbers

  • Five days, two people, one car, and about....thirty-one sandwiches.

We did it! We made it to Iceland from Washington D.C. in one piece. Our first stop on our trip can only be described as epic. Everything about road tripping in Iceland was stunningly surreal. It was beautiful, jarring, confusing and just so completely unique.  We only saw and did a tiny portion of what there is to see and do and our minds were continuously blown.

So rewind to June 25th: Exhausted from our sleepless journey over the Atlantic we picked up our rental car in Keflavik and drove the 25 minutes to the northern most capital in the World and the home of one third of Iceland’s population, Reykjavik. 

We were zombies on wheels and it was foggy and cold but Reykjavik still did it’s best to charm us. The splashes of color in both the buildings and street art cheered us. I particularly liked the cheeky names of bars and shops, my personal favorite: The Chuck Norris Grill. 
We slept that night in the Reykjavik City Hostel and camping ground and woke up the next morning to start what would be four days of ridiculous and wild beauty.

 Iceland is the country for a road trip.

 The ring road is Iceland's only highway. It runs all the way around the island. Because we were only there for a couple days we decided just to drive along the south coast and up into the eastern town of Hofn for their annual lobster festival. We made it and on the way we dipped our toes in a lake with icebergs floating in it, swam in pools and rivers heated by volcanic energy, drove through endless fields of purple flowers, climbed in, up, and around unreal waterfalls, ate the freshest lobster I've ever had, walked in between two tectonic plates, walked on black sand, slept through endless sunny nights, and (attempted) to speak the only living language that uses runes.

So- The Numbers:
Duration: 5 days- Reykjavik (2), On the road (3)

Distance: Around 1255 km/ 780 miles (!)- We are not exactly sure because we got lost a couple times and deviated from our plans to pick up a couple of hitchhikers,visit random waterfalls...and got lost more. We think we spent a total of 15-ish hours driving.

Dollars spent: $1047. 91 total, which breaks down to $104.80 per person per day. Considering that Iceland is the 5th most expensive country in the world we were pretty proud of ourselves. Look out for an upcoming post about how we managed to see so much for so little.

Icelandic horses seen: About 300 including two teeny foals that had been born just that morning!

Sheep seen: Approximately 200 for every person we saw.

Icelandic sheep we almost ran over: 3- good thing our rental had some solid brakes.

Nights spent in a rental car: 4

Hours of darkness: 0

Naturally hot bodies of water we bathed in: 5 including a hot river, a pool at the base of a glacier, and a pool on the beach with Damien Rice (a crazy story for another time)

Glaciers seen: 2 including Europe's largest, Vatnajokull.

Sandwiches eaten: 31- To save money we went to the local grocery and brought bread and sandwich makings and ate them for almost every meal, save for a gorgeous meal at Pakkhus in Hofn and the famous Icelandic hotdog place, Baejarins Beztu Pylsur.

Waterfalls sighted: countless...they were everywhere. Beautiful tall and skinny ones, ones that were huge and powerful, ones that seemed to come from the middle of the rock. Stunning. I will probably write an entire separate post.

The most delicious langoustine ever consumed: 8 each (yum!)

Times Tom used an expletive to describe something: every 5 minutes "Look at that f@$%ing mountain!", "Oh my God there's a f@$%ing waterfall! And there's one, and there's one!"

Iceland Superlatives

Things we like about Iceland: 
Tom- The mountains, the scale. How big and impressive everything was. Waterfalls falling out of everything and how quickly the landscape changed.
Danielle- I loved the wildness of it all. Iceland makes you feel the force of nature in the thermal power, the freezing glaciers, the rushing waterfalls, the sheer size of the mountains.  Driving for hours without seeing another person. The hotdogs were weird in a good way too. Tasty cold water.

Things we don't like about Iceland: 
Tom- Water that smelled like stinky egg farts. (Unfortunately, due to the high sulphur content of the thermal springs they smelled bad. Real bad.)
Danielle- Kinda expensive. We skipped a couple things that would have been fun if we had had a higher budget. Like the phallological museum. Oh, and the little lazy Icelandic flies that had a penchant for eyeballs.
Tom testing how hot the stinky egg farts were.

Best moment:
Tom- Tied: Both involving waterfalls, once at Skogafoss and again at Gljufrabui. At both we got to climb up a rock face and see the waterfalls from a different view than normal. The best moment was that first second getting to the top and looking down...
Danielle- Walking into the crevice in the rock face blocking Gljufrabui from view and into the cave. We were sopping wet with waterfall spray in a dark cave and all of sudden the waterfall seems to pour out of the sky. Or dipping my toes into a crystal clear glacial lagoon.

Worst moment:
Tom-Sleeping in the car the night before we left for Manchester. We had returned our rental sleeping bags and pillows so we were extremely uncomfortable and freezing. We barely slept.
Danielle- Ugh..same.

Best thing we ate:
Tom-Langoustine! Warm, buttery, fresh, and delicious.
Danielle- Yeah. You could see the boat that caught them out the window.

Worst thing we ate:
Tom- The first sandwich we ate from a bakery in Reykjavik on the first day.
Danielle- WAY too much mayonnaise. Too much. mayo.

Favorite tourist destination:
Tom- Skogafoss or Gulfoss. Skogafoss because it was just beautiful and massive and that bada** little cliff thing. Gulfoss was just so massive and powerful. It was just truly awesome.
Danielle- I can't even. They all had something great.

Most overrated attraction:
Tom- Geysir. It was cool, but it smelled like egg farts and was just a little bit too touristy. The shop sold cans of "Fresh Icelandic Mountain Air" for 1100 Kronor, or like 13 bucks, just to give you an idea of the touristy-ness. I hope the air in there didn't smell like the Geysir did...
Danielle- Thingvellir national park. Not that it was overrated, I actually thought it was really cool. It was just pretty crowded compared to the rest of the sights we visited in Iceland and it kind of detracted from the experience for me. And the toilets cost three bucks.

Oddest experience:
Tom- This one is easy. The oddest experience for me was waking up at 4 in the morning to the sound of a sheep going, "BAAAAAA" about ten feet from the car window, and it still being light outside. 
Danielle-We went to Hofn for the lobster festival, expecting there to be tons of visitors and lots of people in general. Turned out we were pretty much the only non-Hofners there. In a town of just 1000 people we stuck out. Still we wanted to experience the festival. So we follow this large group of townspeople into this shipping warehouse.We walk in and on our left was the catwalk. Directly to our right was a ...boat. Filled with kids and dogs.Turns out we had walked into the spring collection of the local Hofn clothes designer. So there we are watching the teens of the town march to house beats with their mum's and baby siblings. It was great.

Would we visit again? Suggest to a friend?:
Tom- Ooooooh yeah.
Danielle- In a heartbeat. I'd go back tomorrow.

 Have you ever been to Iceland? Did you find it expensive? What would be your favorite sight? Could you sleep in a car to save money?