If you haven’t noticed by now, we kinda really love being in France. It’s definitely our thing, and to say we feel at home once we get there is an understatement. One of the best things about France is it’s location in Europe. On our many trips here we’ve been to the beautiful, sunny, warm Côte d’Azur, the mountainous warm fields of lavender in Provence, the cold highlands near Roquefort with its famous sheeps milk Bleu cheese, the Atlantic coastline near Bordeaux up to Normandy where the climate changes from warm breezes with vineyards to craggy coastlines with cold water. Then of course there is the eternal city of lights, Paris, which we can go to multiple times and see something new even after going many times.
This blog post is about a different area though, one that we are visiting for the second time, Alsace. This enchanting eastern part of France has a shared history of both French and Germanic roots, hence most names will be more German sounding, like Strasbourg, Colmar and the beautiful hilltop Chateau du Haut Koenigsbourg.
The idyllic town of Colmar was our first destination after heading out from Geneva, again enjoying the beautiful lake views, and then another deluge of torrential rains. Luckily after 5 hours of driving, the rains cleared up and we were greeted with a beautiful day to walk around Colmar. Dean has been to Alsace a few times and has always wanted to visit this town and after showing me a picture of “Petit Venice” I knew we needed to go on this trip. Petit Venice is the beautiful part of town with a small canal that has swans lazily swimming, slow boats chugging along filled with tourists and the most picturesque flower filled bridges you could imagine with brightly painted timber framed houses as the backdrop. It’s like you’re on a movie, or you’ve entered into a painting. The whole town almost doesn’t feel, or look, real. We spent a good amount of time on the bridges jockeying for position with the other tourists trying for that perfect shot, but the town is beautiful and colorful everywhere you look. We wandered around the town, checked out the market hall and soaked in the beauty. It’s surely worth a visit if you come to Alsace, plus as an added bonus, it is surrounded by the sunny facing vineyards of the famous Alsace wines in their signature bottles. Score!
Our main attraction on this stop was Strasbourg, the capital of Christmas! We had come to Strasbourg a few years ago because Dean insisted that we go during the picture perfect Christmas markets that are spread throughout the town. We had a magical time drinking mulled wine, shopping at the Christmas stalls and warming up small restaurants. We loved it and wanted to see this beautiful town during the summer as well. Sure there wouldn’t be the same amount of holiday cheer brought on by vin chaud (mulled wine), but we got greenery, flowers, sitting outside and not having to bundle up! (Here’s a few snapshots from our last visit there, so you can get a fun sense of what it’s like over the holidays!)
Strasbourg is a busy city, not only is it a tourist destination but it houses the European Union parliament. While it’s busy, it has a small town look and feel that’s fun to get lost in. Finding a hotel was easy for us since we had been before. We booked through Ebates on Hotels.com at Hotel Mercure Strasbourg Centre. We enjoy this hotel last time and again enjoyed on this trip. It has a perfect location close to the sights you’ll want to see, restaurants and shops near by but removed just enough from the hustle and bustle to enjoy quietness. You can walk to Place Kleber in a few minutes and hop on Homme de Fer (Iron Man in English), the citywide tram, although the city is so walkable you probably won’t need to!
There are a few main attractions that are must see in town. First, the gothic cathedral that dominates the view. We have many pictures here as it is quite a site to see. During the summer at cathedrals all across France, they do elaborate, bright and colorful light shows on the sides of the cathedral. How cool?! Having read about these all summer we knew we had to catch one of the nightly shows. The hotel staff gave us the times and we headed out, getting to see the amazing show with the stunning lights, perfectly timed music sequence just before the skies let loose with a refreshing summer rain storm. It was incredible. If you’re in France over the summer, it’s a must see at whichever cathedral is in that town, trust us!
A great part of town is Petit France, a beautiful historic section that is intertwined with the waterways, timber framed brightly painted houses and one of our favorite places to eat, Academie de la biére! (We’ll get into that a little more later).
Place Kleber is the main square on the Grande Ile, the main part of the city, and close to our Mercure. When we arrived there was an afternoon market going on filled with farmers selling their freshly picked produce, bookstores selling old dusty French classics and old prints. During the Christmas markets there is a beautiful tall fir tree in the squares center cheerfully decorated amongst the small wooden huts selling everything from ornaments, to gifts, to Bretzels (what they say for Pretzel) and sausages. The plaza is magical anytime you go.
To us, the best part of Strasbourg is walking about and visiting the beautiful plazas, squares and for once, the shopping that is intertwined throughout! During the beautiful summer time you can cross many of the bridges, each adorned with beautifully positioned flowers, perfect for any photographers discerning eye.
Our best advice is to just look through our pictures, or anyone’s pictures and you’ll see why it’s worth a visit!
Au Petit Bois Vert (The little green tree): We have eaten here both times that we’ve come to Strasbourg, and it’s been great both times. The only downside was that they don’t open for dinner until 8pm (they are open for drinks and small plates a tad earlier though), and by this stage in the game of world touring, we are usually tired out after a day of sightseeing by 6pm or so. This cute family run restaurant under a now Huge green tree (hence the name) along the banks of the Ill River is worth the wait. It’s a nice place without feeling too uptight and stuffy. A place you can get a good meal with good service all while still being in your travel clothes from earlier in the day. Dean’s favorite thing to get there is the Choucroute Garni, an Alsatian specialty! A plate of warm house-made sauerkraut, boiled potatoes, Knacks (we call them frankfurters), a local style Strasbourger sausage, some pâté and some melt in your mouth tender braised pork belly. So, typically not something that you’d equate with a warm summers night meal, but when it’s this good, and you just can’t replicate it at home, you eat a plate of hot sausages, boiled potatoes and warm fermented cabbage even if it is 85 degrees out. He’s gotten it both times we’ve come here and it never fails to fill him and make him one happy guy. Alsace is pretty much the land of meat, so it’s a little more difficult for me to find a hearty meal, but luckily they have another specialty, the tarte flambé! Also called flammkuchen in German. It’s a thin cracker crust style pizza. Anything pizza-like is great with me! The traditional variation has pork lardons, creme fraiche and white onions. Since thick slices of pork product are not really up my alley, I was relieved that they offered more choices. I chose the variation with creme fraiche, fresh figs, sweet local honey, tangy rich boucheron (aged goats milk cheese) and scented with lavender flowers, plus, the odd half of a tomato! (Ew!) It was probably a garnish, but gave us a laugh. It was amazing and definitely a good choice. Something we will definitely replicate at home!
Academie de la biére: Otherwise know as The Beer Academy, is another of our faves! Not only do they have 3 locations all with excellent happy hour pricing, but the food and beer selections are top notch! We found this place on our last trip to Strasbourg and loved it so much we went multiple times! Needless to say, it was one of the first stops we made upon getting to the city. One of their specialties is again, the Tarte Flambé! They have many varieties and it’s hard to choose what to get! We decided on the classic with creamy, tangy creme fraiche, salty smoky pork lardons and sweet onions on the thin cracker like crust. For our second, (because who can get just one?) we were deciding between one topped with either mushrooms, or Roquefort, or their daily special, but just as we were narrowing it down, one jumped off the pages to us and screamed “pick me”! The winner was Tarte Flambé topped with the typical creme fraiche, lardons and onions, but this one was topped with the local Munster cheese as well. Munster, the world famous cheese, but it being local to Alsace added a nice bite, and a bit of that stinky washed ring cheese funk to our tarte. It was absolutely perfection! Since happy hour meant half priced local Kronenbourg 1664 (from Strasbourg) and more, we were still hungry! (Plus, those think cracker crusts don’t take up that much space when you’re starving!) The French have a thing for the very American hamburger, which is very nice when you’re traveling, a taste of home! Plus, they’re cheap and delicious. Dean joyfully devoured his very American double cheeseburger and fries. For me, as soon as I saw the Patates Gratinee, or Potatos Au Gratin, with Camembert, I was sold! Creamy, silky cheese baked with tender potatoes perfectly gratined with a golden brown crust. They served it with a simple salad to cut all the richness and the entire thing became a perfectly balanced meal!
Le Grand Shanghi: Wait a minute….. Chinese food? What about all the great Alsatian food?! If you know us, you know we love our kebabs, but our other vice is American Style Chinese food. Lucky for us, there are Chinese immigrants all over the world, and with them is their localized variations of Chinese food. We had tried it a few years ago while in southern France and it wasn’t the best, so we were a little weary to try it again, but sometimes you just can’t get the craving out of your head! Le Grand Shanghi definitely didn’t disappoint! It was also impressive to see many locals there eating. We won’t bore you with pictures or describing the amazing cooked to order Mongolian grill style food or the green tea ice cream for dessert, just know, if you want some great fresh Chinese food after you’ve had your fill of Bretzles, Sausage and Sauerkraut, Le Grand Shanghi will get you your fix of very westernized Chinese food!
Sadly, that’s it for Strasbourg, Alsace and even France for the whole trip. What an amazing part of the country. Next up, a fun few days of getting from France to England via Germany, Belgium and family friends!