At least in my mind, Fog has a wonderfully Gothic character about it. It evokes images of Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles and the eerie streets of old Barcelona. It isn’t sinister, simply mysterious… perfect fodder for the writers mind. Growing up in a big city in the desert, the closest we usually came to fog were those old London Gold commercials. So it came as a wonderful surprise here to discover that if you manage to wake up before the sun, bundle up real tight, and venture out into the darkness… you will be completely enveloped by it.
This particular morning the cold is biting. Even with a sweater and a jacket on it still manages to perpetrate deep down into you. The streets are silent and through the mist the city reveals itself slowly, in pieces. The remains of last nights excesses are still littered here and there; an old pizza box, an abandoned scarf , a two euro bottle of Pinot. You force yourself to take your time, moving slowly up Boulevard de la Victoire towards Pont Royal. The fog is so thick that it’s difficult to even tell where you are heading, street signs and building facades all blending into one. The light of the street lamps give off a melancholy glow, leading you with unrelenting increments up to the river. Looking left, you can just see the boats anchored to the quay, rocking gently, empty. Beyond, the lights from the Church of Saint-Paul burn through the haze, illuminating each of its beautiful towers.
Crossing the bridge you enter old town. Here, still in the confusing mist of the pre-dawn it becomes effortlessly easy to imagine you’ve entered a different time. The half- timbered roofs and cobble stone streets guide you through small twisting alleys and secluded city squares. Hopefully, you will allow yourself to get lost, turned around, losing yourself for a few minutes to the city. That is, after all, the whole point, to release yourself from the clamor and the demands of reality. To reach into the magic that can only be found when let go enough to tap into it… here in the last strands of the night, when all interference is gone and the world is asleep.
When you finally find your way to the cathedral, you notice how it could easily be mistaken, in the gloom, for Dracula’s Castle. Rising out of the mist, it stands illuminated against the moon, obligingly completing the Gothic illusion you’ve built over the past hour. Commandeer a chair from one of the deserted cafe’s and take a seat. Enjoy the moment until the sun emerges, finally, to burn it all away.
I thought it would be nice to follow up my story on travel difficulties in Europe with some actual travel advice. While most of us can figure out how to book flight to Europe, knowing the best ways to get around once you’re here may be a bit of a mystery. I certainly don’t claim to be an expert but here are some tips based on my own experience.
Air Travel- Traveling around Europe by plane can be much more feasible than you might think. Discount airlines such as Ryan Air and EasyJet, booked in advance, can be much cheaper and faster than taking the train. A one-way ticket on easyjet from Paris to Barcelona can be had for as low as $30, with a flight time of just over an hour. The downside is that the flights and destinations offered by these companies can be quite limited and the airports they fly out of can sometimes be very out of the way.
Bus- Inter-European travel by bus is frequently your least expensive option. Buses serve most major European cities and there are numerous smaller lines serving more remote areas. Eurolines is the largest provider of inter-country travel and does it for very cheap. A major downside is how ridiculously long it can take. A trip from Paris to the Madrid is more than 12 hours…. 1.5 times longer than a transatlantic flight.
Train- Travel by train is by far the most popular method of travel in Europe. The trains are fast, frequent and usually reliable. Price-wise it is, unfortunately, the most expensive of all the options so far, but if you have the cash its also the option with the least hassle. All you do is show up, hop on and enjoy the ride. If you live in the US and want to book trip in advance Rail Europe is your best bet. They offer a wide variety of rail passes based on how often and how far you’ll be traveling. Once your here you’ll need to book with the rail network of the country your currently in. For France that is SNCF.
Car- Renting a car offers the most flexibility and prices that are comparable to renting in the US. And if you are traveling with a group of three or four, renting and splitting the price can make the trip downright cheap. Cars can be rented in almost every city, usually at the airport. One thing to remember though is that if you can’t drive a manual, you will need to request an automatic. Supplies are very limited though and you still may not get one. Also, if you are under 25 you will be hit with a pretty hefty surcharge.
Over the last two months more than four Transit and Energy strikes have wreaked havoc all over France. Workers protesting the proposed increase in the retirement age from 60 to 62 walked off their jobs in oil refinery’s, train stations and even from the Eiffel Tower. Most of those strikes, however, lasted no more than a day whereas this latest walkout threatens to stretch on for weeks.
So far President Sarkozy and the the French Government have refused to bow to rising pressure from the national unions. Labor leaders, however, say the strikes will continue until the workers aims are achieved.
In practical terms, this latest walkout has some serious implications for European travelers. Eurostar and the SNCF, major European rail providers, reported that most of their lines are running at less than 50% of the usual number of trains. Air travel was also seriously disrupted as many flights in the past two days have been canceled or delayed. It is important for travelers to keep these disruptions in mind when planning excursions in or out of the country.
Here in Strasbourg, the number of trams in operation today was extremely limited. While this was a mere annoyance for my friends and myself,I can just imagine what it would be like for daily commuters.
* EU Anti-Terrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove discusses the threat and the EU’s response from Strasbourg.
Despite the fact that the US/UK issued travel warning is over a week old at this point, signs that the EU are taking the threat seriously abound. France has raised its threat level to RED and has significantly increased its police presence at major tourist sites and transit hubs. In Germany last week I noticed a very large police presence at Oktoberfest and around the city of Munich in general.
While none of this will stop me from traveling and enjoying my time in Europe (nor should it stop you), a healthy level of cation is always prudent. Be aware of your surroundings, especially when using public transportation or when touring popular sites. Use general common sense and you should have no problems.
If you are anything like myself, a traveler on a serious budget, keeping yourself fed during your time abroad is a constant challenge. While we would all love to spend breakfast, lunch and dinner exploring every exquisite French restaurant around, the current exchange rate and your waist line will probably team up to thwart you. Therefore, for the sake of your health and your wallet, knowing your way around the local supermarche is a must.
So, for your convenience I have assembled some essential tips to keep in mind when planning your trip to the store… as well as a sample of what you can get for 15 euros or less.
- Forget your favorite brands. Unless it’s Coca Cola you are unlikely to find any of the familiar brands you are use to back home. Most products will be either regionally produced or a subsidiary brand of the supermarkets’ parent company. The good thing is that this gives your a fabulous chance to branch out and explore how the the rest of the world survives without Frito’s and Mountain Dew.
The tax is included in the displayed sales price. This is one of my favorite things about shopping in Europe. Instead of trying to estimate, usually incorrectly, the sales tax to be added on to each item you buy, Europeans have come up with a novel concept… have the price on the sticker be the same price at the register!
Local food is cheaper. Unlike in the states, where we pay for the privilege of enjoying the fruits of local labor, in Europe you will notice a noticeable drop in prices for items not imported from outside the region. As you might expect then, wine, cheese and baguettes can be had for a pittance. Take advantage.
Invest in a reusable grocery bag. There is a 30 to 60 cent charge for each plastic bag at checkout. For a few euros you can purchase a colorful tote that, regardless of the environmental benefits, will also save you tons over the long run.
Don’t dally in line. When it comes to getting in and out of the checkout line… the french like to do it quickly. Have your money out and ready when you get to the register and bag your items as they are being scanned. Failure to do so will result in a whole years worth of evil glances and muttered insults.
Cash is King. While your American credit and debit cards will usually be accepted at most major supermarkets… using them is likely to be more trouble than their worth. Cashiers hate processing them because it slows the line down and will tell you so… vigorously. Also, many banks love to tack on extra fees and processing charges that can murder your budget. Be smart… carry cash.
As promised here is a sample list of what can be bought for about15 euros.
8 Pack of fruit flavored yogurt- 1.89 euro
Baguette- 0.69 euro
Slab of Goat Cheese- 1.48 euro
Generic version of Nutella- 1.90 euro.
Pasta: Large bag- 0.89 euro
Can of tomato sauce- 2.49 euro
A large slice of Gouda- 2 euro
Canned Mixed Vegetables- 1.14 euro
Bag of Potato Chips- 1.15euro
Grape Jelly- 1.56 euro
Total – 15. 19 euros.
FYI- Keep in mind current currency exchange rates.
Though he was born in the German city of Mainz in 1399, Johannes Gutenberg made his most important contributions to the literary world as a resident of Strasbourg.
In 1411, an uprising in Mainz forced the Gutenberg family to flee their hometown to the west. Not much is known about Gutenberg for the next 15 years except that he may have studied at the University of Erfurt. The next time he resurfaces is in a letter that places him in Strasbourg. It was here, in the suburb of St. Arbogast that Gutenberg is believed to have researched and perfected some of his most important innovations. The movable type, oil based ink and the first printing press were all conceived presumably while Gutenberg lived in a house just off the city center.
Today, in old town Strasbourg, Place Gutenberg is one of the most visited areas of the city. Located just west of the Notre Dame Cathedral and right along the A/D Tram lines the square is usually at the center of the action on any given day. There is a thrice weekly book fair that brings dozens of dealers selling everything from first edition antiques to cheap paper backs.
The square is also a huge draw for families because of its huge old fashioned carousel, and the famous Christmas Market that is held here, beginning in November.
If you’re in the city visiting and have access to a computer, I would recommend going to http://www.otstrasbour.fr to see what festivals and fairs may be happening during your stay.
In the south-western most part of Strasbourg, just past the Vauban Dam, the River Ile splits off into five tributaries. These tributaries snake and wander through the city, fracturing it into several small slices. The largest of these slices, La Grande Ile (The Main Island), made an ideal spot for tanners and fisherman to set up shop and became known as La Petite France (Little France).
Today, Petite France is a gem of preserved Medieval architecture and great place to spend an afternoon. Fine restaurants and charming hotels are everywhere. The streets are all cobblestone and many of them are closed off to cars. On the roofs of the half- timbered houses you can frequently see storks nesting and old wagon wheels. Many of the city’s famous river tours depart from this area of town.
Shopping in Petite France is plentiful but not as upscale as in the center of the city. For lunch or dinner I highly recommend these fantastic restaurants-
Maison des Tanneurs- A old tannery that was converted into a restaurant in the early 1900’s. The fare is a French/German mix and all of it very very good. If your feeling adventurous try the escargot with butter garlic sauce or for a classic German meal, the Sauerkraut and Schnitzel. Service can be a little lacking due to the high volume of customers.
La Cloche a Fromage- I loved this beautiful restaurant not far from the center of Petite France. They specialize in Cheese and have over 200 different varieties that you can try. Stop in for the fondue or the raclettes, which will blow your mind. This place is a bit pricey but completely worth it.
Stretching more than 170 kilometers from the village of Marlenheim to Thann, La Rue du Vin is one of the most fascinating and beautiful stretches of road in France. Dotted with more than a dozen picturesque villages and acres of rolling vineyards, you could easily spend days and many rolls of film appreciating the views and the culture.
My friends and I tagged along on a trip organized by the University, meant to “educate” us on the culture of the Alsace region. I was curious to experience a part of France not totally overrun by tourists and hopefully hear some of the region’s native language, Alsatian. I wasn’t disappointed on either count.
We left Strasbourg early on Saturday morning and drove south-west for about two hours, finally arriving at the Monastery of St. Odile. As the story goes, in the 7th Century the Duke of Alsace became enraged when his wife bore him a blind daughter instead of the son he craved and attempted to have her killed. The girl, Odile, was rescued by her nurse. Years later, Odile was christened and her sight was miraculously restored. She then decided to dedicate her life to God, setting up a convent in the castle her remorseful father eventually bequeathed her. Today the Monastery sits on a stunning mountaintop with views that stretch for miles and miles. Inside we toured beautifully ordained chapels and were able to see a number centuries old catholic relics. What stuck me the most however, was the amazing sense of peace that surrounds the place. Its really not so surprising that the nuns are content to live their whole live on that mountain. There are certainly worse place to be.
Tearing ourselves reluctantly away, we next journeyed further south along the Wine Road to the Castle of Haut-Koenigsbourg. Situated again, high up on a mountain top the castle was originally built back in the 12 century. It was restored by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1899 to serve as a symbol of German domination of the Alsace region. Today it is one of the most visited sites in France and with good reason. Unlike many castles which are today only ruins, Haut-Koenigsbourg is a almost to good to be true example of Middle Ages architecture. Its a history buff’s dream and a must see if you happen to be in the area.
For lunch we stopped in the picturesque village of Ribeauville and then made our way to Riquewihr. Both small villages are bursting with European charm and beauty. Stop off for locally made chocolate and cheese and then continue on to the baker for a fresh baguette. Just being here is guaranteed to make you want to buy cottage and spend the rest of your life growing grapes. The spell is only broken once your back on the bus and headed home, but you cant erase the memories of a fantastic day wandering around one of Europe’s most picture perfect areas.
It’s not hard to guess why, of all the experiences I’ve had so far in Europe, the one that has most excited my friends back home was certainly my trip to Munich for Oktoberfest. Even as someone who really isn’t a fan of beer (yes even German beer) I can defiantly understand the draw. Oktoberfest has this almost mystical quality for foreigners that is encouraged by its attitude towards excess (6,940,600 litres of beer consumed) and its proximity (over 4000 miles away from NYC) . It is, in short, the ultimate dream of the beer or festival lover that seems, much like visiting the Olympics, a nearly impossible destination.
I am very happy to report that nothing you may have heard about the famous beer festival is exaggerated. I arrived by bus with a few of my friends early early last Saturday morning. It is essential to arrive before the sun if you hope to have any chance of getting into one of the giant beer tents. The mass of people is so huge that even at five in the morning there are thousands queuing up (or maybe “moshing” up) in front the Paulaner tent. It took more than three hours and several near tramplings before I finally got in. I had lost my friends in the mob but there was no shortage of drunk Germans to drink and chant with. The atmosphere was unlike anything Ive ever experienced. Take the wildest, most insane party you’ve ever been to and you wont even get a taste of what six thousand drunk Europeans with liter sized beers and giant pretzels are like.
Even outside the Beer Tents Oktoberfest has so much to offer. A likeness to the best state fair you’ve ever attended would be a apt description; hundreds of stands selling Chicken and Bratwurst, the best Custard you’ve ever tasted and dozens of giant rides and games. This healthy mix between debauchery and wholesomeness means you don’t have to be a drinker to enjoy Oktoberfest, or even an adult.
So I realize that it has been quite awhile since my first post and I hope you will forgive my lack of a reliable internet source. However, now that I am well taken care of in that arena I hope to be posting quite regularly.
Yesterday, I was able to tour the Cathedral of our Lady of Strasbourg. Completed in 1439, it was for over 400 years the tallest structure in Europe and considered by many to be one of the finest example of Romanesque architecture.
Despite the fact that I had heard of its insane beauty before i arrived, I was certainly not prepared for just how overwhelming its presence truly is. It towers over you as you turn the corner of Place Gutenberg and the first thing you notice is unbelievable level of ornate detail on the outer facade. The interior is no less stunning….thousands of candles guide your way past displays of 14 century Christian relics and the stain glass windows highlight the beauty the massive chamber.
What truly fascinated me was the astronomical clock. Standing over 18m high and over 300 years old it is a astounding piece of art, capable of telling solar time, equinoxes, the sign of the zodiac and the phases of the planets. At 12:30 figurines of the 12 apostles emerge from the clock and make their journey around the clock face past Christ. An angel, meanwhile turns over an hourglass.
If you come on a weekday you are also allowed to climb all the way to the top of the tower and are treated to breathtaking view of the surrounding city.