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Alsace

June - August, 2019


The vagabonds spend the summer and autumn in Europe.



In June we rent a gite’ (holiday house) in Barr, Alsace, a village of 7,300 people in northeastern France.


Alsace is farm country along the Rhine River valley. The land is devoted equally to vineyards and corn fields, and is dotted with little villages founded 400 years ago or more. Over the last 150 years the area has changed hands between the French and Germans four times. The result is customs, food, place names, and practices that are a hybrid between the two cultures; a place like no other.


Our gite’ in Barr is just a block off of the village center, separated from the cobblestone street by two big oaken doors whose stone archway is dated 1574.


On the inside of those doors it feels like another world; there are three acres of farm with apple and cherry trees; a large vegetable garden; herb garden; flowers; chickens; goats; various barns with scattered tools, tables, stones and wood pieces; stacks of firewood; two gites’ and the landlord’s house: a farm within the village.




Our landlords, Nicole and Jean-Luc, are engineers and take pride in what they can do for themselves: Jean-Luc makes vinegar and schnapps from the flowers he grows; he bought three huge wooden barrels at a winery sale and is reconstructing them, one will become an extra bedroom; Nicole tends to her herbs and flowers; and she plays the piano; together they hike in the nearby mountains, operate the gite’ rentals, and raise their three daughters – Lucy, Louise, and Matilda – who are in their 20’s and venturing into the world but retain a strong connection back to the family estate.


As a welcome, the family prepares an Alsatian specialty for us: tarte flambé, a thin crust pizza with cheese, onions, and ham or apples which Jean-Luc bakes in his self-constructed wood-burning oven.




Our gite is some 350 years old. It has three floors, steep and narrow stairs, uneven floors, some low doorways, antique furniture, and plenty of space to make us feel comfortable. Like all of Barr, there is no air conditioning and no screens on the windows. And there is a little deck in back that is perfect for taking summer meals and tasting wine.


We fill our days walking among the several other little villages in the area, shopping for our food at the various village markets, riding bicycles through the vineyard paths, hiking in the hills, visiting nearby castle ruins from the 12th century, attending fete du vin (wine festivals) in the area, and planning our future travels.


Before long our nephew, Ben, comes from London for a visit. He works remotely for a U.S. company, so has the flexibility to live wherever it suits him. He wants a summer holiday away from the city congestion, so coming to the French countryside – with good wine, fresh local foods, and country air - is right down his alley.

Ben is a bicycle-rider and a fan of the Tour de France. A big plus for his visit is that Barr is on the route of the Tour this year; the bikes will pass just 200 meters from our gite’! All of Alsace is as excited as Ben. There are special yellow flags, banners and bicycle artwork in every village.



On the big day the streets of Barr are lined with people hours before the riders are expected to come through. The mood is cheery, and the sun is bright with temperatures in the mid 70’s. Perfect weather for the event.


Sponsor floats periodically drive by playing music, throwing give-away trinkets and eliciting cheers from the crowd. Security vehicles, race official cars, and bicycle support trucks roar by too. Finally, the athletes arrive! The first group of four round the curve of the street and whizz by.


Twenty seconds later the pack comes into view: 150 colorfully dressed riders crowded together!


Then, in less than two minutes, it’s done. The bicycles turn around another curve and are out of view. The event is over for this location: the bikes continue on the route for another several hours covering some 60 km today. The excitement on the street dissipates. People mill around for a little while then begin walking home to watch the rest of today’s event on the television.


Together with Ben we also visit many of the villages and wineries in the area. The wineries of Alsace specialize in white wines, especially riesling, gewürztraminer, pinot gris, sylvaner, auxerrois … and one red wine, pinot noir. Almost all of the wineries are small and family-owned. We discover that many of these Alsatian wines are very well made and relatively inexpensive - so we can drink well every day for not much money!


One of the wineries is a real stand out. Domaine Seltz is located just 2 km from Barr in the village of Mittlebergheim. We walk through the vineyards to get there. The Domaine has been making wine since 1576, and is currently run by Albert Seltz, the 14th generation of the family.


Albert is passionate about everything in his life: bio-farming, his favorite grape variety – sylvaner, the way his wines complement specific foods, and his vintage Porche auto, for example. Overall his offerings are far-and-away the best wines we have in Alsace for the price-point. (Rolly Gassmann winery’s gewurtraminers are also pretty darn good, but Albert has him beat on the rest of the varietals.) Notice Albert’s shirt celebrating the ‘other Albert’.


In celebration of our good fortune in finding Monsieur Seltz, Ben teaches Mary the sabrage: the art of opening a sparkling wine bottle with a saber.


Success!


On other days we hike around to see the ruins of Alsatian castles built in the 1200 - 1300’s. . .




. . . sometimes with Nicole, Jean-Luc and their friends.


We buy our groceries at the local farmers’ markets. There is a large open air market in Barr every Saturday morning with about 25 stands selling vegetables, fruits, cheeses, bread, meat, yogurt, roasted chickens, and clothes. The food is fresh, tasty and inexpensive. It is one of the nicest dimensions of the town.


As the weeks progress, the offerings at the market slowly, steadily, almost imperceptivity shift to match the in-season vegetation: from berries to stone fruits like peaches and apricots; to apples and grapes; from green onions to baby turnips to carrots and fennel; from baby lettuces to large heads of lettuce. The early-season selections are still available, but the quantity is less and the price creeps upward.


On other days we wander through the vineyards near our village. . .


. . . visit the cathedral in nearby Strasberg. . .



. . . and catch a glimpse of the legendary storks that are the symbol of Alsace in their nests atop buildings.


Soon it is time to celebrate la Fete Nationale Francaise, French national day, or what we call Bastille Day. There are parades and festivals all across the country. In our village folk dancers entertain and there are fireworks in the evening.


Our friends Russ and Jomel also come to visit. It is their first time in Alsace. Each day we drive or hike to see the colorful countryside. In the evenings we gather for drinks, dinner and conversation.


One day we go to Mont Sainte-Odile, a convent founded in the 7th C. on a 2,300 ft peak with beautiful panorama views of the Alsatian valley.



Another day we tour the Chateau du Haut-Koenigsbourg, a castle from the 12th C. that once belonged to the Hapsburgs. It was restored by Kaiser Wilhelm in 1908 to create a visible symbol of Germanic rule over Alsace.



And, since this is summer, there is a fete’ du vin (wine festival) at one of the neighboring villages almost every weekend – like this one in Heiligenstein that celebrates the klevener grape, which is only permitted to be grown around this village.


One day for lunch we splurge at L’Auberge de Ill, one of the nicest restaurants in Alsace.



The Bessie’s finds their choice for lunch, as well.



Hikes through the vineyards, woods, and hills complete our pleasant time together. Jean-Luc tells Mary about harvesting wild mushrooms. This intrigues Mary: she finds 3 mushrooms on her next hike and brings them back for Jean-Luc to examine. He declares them edible and suggests a simple sauté with butter and onions.




Sometimes when we are through hiking, we stop for an afternoon treat at the patisserie in the village.


Then, on our last night in Barr, Nicole and Jean-Luc stage a farewell dinner for us.



Farewell Russ and Jomel, until next time!



What we’ve learned living in France:

Part of our objective in living in different spots around the globe is to learn what is special and interesting about the people who live there.

- This is our first time living in a non-English speaking country. We find that with a little effort to learn the basics of the language, e.g. bon jour, au revoir, bonne journee, s’il vous plait, merci, oui, non, un, deux, c’est tout, etc., we get along well enough. There are a sufficient number of English speakers to help us, and when there is not, a smile, a nod, and a point usually get the job done.


- The French believe that anything worth doing should be done well and thoughtfully. Taking your time is an important part of French culture. Food is good example of this: Meals are carefully planned and prepared; and quality is valued over quantity. One doesn’t ask for a substitution to a menu (the chef planned the dishes to be exactly as offered). And don’t ask for a to-go box or meal; the portions are planned to be “just enough” and doing it the French way means taking your time – not eating on the run.


- The rural / small village life in northern Alsace suits us well. We eat quality, local foods and enjoy wonderful local wines – and the cost is lower than in America or most other places we have visited. The pace is a bit slower (as noted, the French take their time). The area is safe (we only lock the doors when we are away). We walk a lot and especially enjoy our treks through the vineyards. Simplicity and enjoying life are valued here.


- The French national motto, “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” (Freedom, Equality, and Brotherhood) may explain their individualistic approach to life, also known as “L’exception française”, which loosely translates as “rules are for everyone else.”

- Perhaps also connected to their national motto, the French expect to be acknowledged, even in passing on the street. (Unlike Germany where it is uncommon to greet strangers you pass by – no need to acknowledge people.) A polite “Bonjour Madame / Monsieur” (or “Bonsoir” in the evening) goes a long way toward fitting in. We like this custom. It is an affirming way to recognize that all are interconnected and share the town / land.


- The French keep a boundary around their private life. While friendly, they don’t like talk about personal matters (e.g. careers, family) until they know you. They even keep most doors in their house closed to demarcate the areas that are private.


- The weather in Alsace is generally a bit cool with breezes from the mountains. Hot weather occurs from time to time (on those hot days the custom is to close the wooden window shutters at 9am until sunset), and there is no air conditioning, fans or screens. But it is not uncomfortable. For the winter,

most houses have wood-burning stoves.


- After living here and getting to know some of the locals, we see that the French (at least in Alsace) are industrious, but also highly value and prioritize leisure time. They certainly do know how to talk-and-talk among themselves (often about food and wine) before undertaking any group tasks. And the

20 - somethings find ways to take extended holidays – more than American youth do. The French are friendly, fun-loving and helpful people who

value independence.

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