Sunday, February 26, 2012

Obernai - arty village in Alsace

Since the Sedan photos keep on playing hide and seek with me, I have decided to continue with Alsace, the eastern region of France, north of the Alps and bordering Germany.  If I think of Alsace I think of colourful houses with timber frames, white grapes, pinot gris wine, storks, pottery, munster cheese, kugelhopf, bäckeofe, flammekueche, the Vosges mountains, the Rhine, as well as Hansie en Grietjie.  You might ask what are all these things I'm talking about. I'll try to cover it in this post and the one I'll do on Strasbourg.
Alsace has an interesting history, bordering the Rhine.  Archeologists found traces of Celtic history, then of course there were the Romans.  The Franks (the French) established the duchy of Alsace in the mid-7th century.  Then there was the time of German influence.  There were two dynasties that had a major influence on Alsace, the second being the famous Hapsburgs from Austria.  Alsace asked the King of France to liberate them from the Hapsburgs and kings of France (Louis XIII and Louis XIV) formed an alliance with the German princes against the Hapsburgs.  Alsace had to go through the Thirty Year War, the War of Succession of Spain and of Holland before it finally became entirely French in 1679.  In 1871 the Germans occupied Alsace, part of the reasons for WWI. In 1918 it was returned to France until the Germans ruled Alsace again from 1940-1945, whereafter it was again returned to France.  Like in many other regions in France, the Alsacians have their own local language that they use in their everyday life and it is not easy for the French to follow the language! Our neighbours are an Alsacian married to a Champenoise and for her it is difficult to follow what they say when they visit his family.  It is a region where you will see and hear so many Germans, you'll think you are in Germany.
My mom and I followed the same route that JL and I did the year before, visiting Strasbourg and a beautiful village, Obernai - 25 km south west of Strasbourg.  Obernai was born as a fortified city (see the old wall below) of the Romans and Gauls and later transformed into a Frankish royal residence.  Many buildings are built in the renaissance style and there are some remarkable roofs that reminds one of the roofs one find in Bourgogne (Burgundy).

Fichier:Obernai france vue toit.JPG
It is a village surrounded by vineyards and fruit trees and today the vineyards are Obernai's principal source of income.  Although you would easily believe it to be tourism.  It is a touristy village with craft shops lining the main street and even side streets, filled with beautiful pottery typically Alsacian and embroidered articles.  Despite the tourists, I'll still recommend that you include this village in a visit to Alsace. It is sympa village, as we'll say in French, the little shops a pleasure to visit and seek some special pottery from the region.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Why are French women not fat?

That is the question I get asked so many times.  Especially when people hear what we are eating in France (and see that I have lost weight since living here).
I must be honest, I can only guess what the answer can be.
Let me explain to you the difference in my diet in France compare to in SA:
For breakfast we drink coffee from a huge bowl (yes, huge, all our visitors can confirm that as they all comment on the size).  And I drink mine with milk.  And we share half a baguette.  My cholestrol conscious hubby eats cholestrol lowering margarine on his, I eat full creamy butter on mine.
In SA I hardly drank coffee, mainly when taking a coffee break in Sandton with my friends. And bread I avoided as far as possible as I gained weight just looking at it.
Due to the cost of living we do not often go to a restaurant, perhaps once or twice a month (often in SA when working late or trying to avoid the traffic between Jhb and Pta or having an empty fridge due to no time for shopping). We rather cook at home.  We eat beef (like in SA), veal (less in SA), duck (not in SA), rabbit (not in SA) and lots of fish (less in SA).  We try to eat cheese only when having visitors, but with cheeses like Beaufort, Comté, Morbier, Roquefort, Reblochon, creamy Camember with running shoes, Pont l'eveque, the list can go on and on, who can not help to buy more cheese than what the visitors will be able to finish :) ? (It will take us another week to finish the Morbier that I've bought for the visitors we had on Saturday evening...).  Even potatoes I eat more often than in SA.  And using cream in dishes.
I eat a lot of aubergine (egg plant) and fennel (not in SA), but hardly any broccoli, spinach and far less tomatoes (even though I love it, JL is not fond of it).
With JL having a chocolate tooth, we're having a square or two of dark chocolate, almost every evening after dinner.
So I feared for the results when I had to go for a check up yesterday morning.  And to my surprise my cholestrol is lower than before leaving SA and my good cholestrol for the first time being higher than my bad one!  And my calcium (I took calcium tablets every day of my life and none since living in France) is higher. 
Hence, all I can say is the quality of growing the food matters in France and I think it does play a role, especially in the flour.  And people walk a lot and clean their own houses, as R200/hour is expensive to pay for some help. So come and eat to your heart's desire! (just bring a fat purse....)

A smooth sales lady, a narrow staircase and a couch

Since we've arrived in Verzenay we've said that the mezzanine will be our library.  Due to our exceptional narrow staircase I refused that we even try to put JL's big heavy old couch, having been replaced by my set arriving from SA, on the mezzanine.  More than a year have passed before we commenced a serious search for a canapé.  In October we went several times to a new commercial centre with several furniture shops.  With my measuring tape.  Finally we've decided on one, but uncertain about the size of the canapé vs the size of our staircase, we went home to measure again.  And I went back on the Monday, with measurements of the height of the window on the first floor, as the only option would be through the window.  We didn't want to pay a fortune for such a type of delivery, so had to be sure whether they will charge us extra and if so, how much. Being the final decisive factor whether we buy it or not.  Ensuring us that the transport company won't charge us extra, that it is no problem to pass it through the window, etc etc, we went back in the evening after JL returned home.  I kept on emphasising the fact that il es impossible to go up the staircase, receiving the same answer, no problem. To make a long story short, she ensured us we'll have it before Christmas, a Saturday delivery is possible (so if it is ready while I'm in SA, JL can receive it on a Sa morning) and NO problem to pass it through the window at NO extra cost.
The canapé was ready while I was in SA.... 
A Saturday delivery was not possible, they'll do it during the week after my return.....
The team arrived under the impression the canapé has to go up the staircase... no equipment to lift it through the window...and realise it is impossible to go up the staircase....
By now it was already late in January and after many calls to the furniture company, the same delivery company arrived with a second team end of Jan. 
They were not informed by the first team that the canapé cannot go up the staircase... 
No equipment with them to lift it through the window... 
On my question how many teams do they have in the company I was told four, so I asked them to please inform the other two teams that it is not possible to go up the staircase.  Half an hour after they left, the first team arrived.  Without the required equipment.  Running up and down and up and down with their dirty shoes on my clean staircase.  And me getting more and more frustrated as no results are achieved except for a staircase that is now dirty.  Finally the guy measured it to say he thought it will pass.  I have just bitten on my teeth, because he didn't do his job in the first place and now he thinks I am so stupid to not remember that he did measure it the first time and if he was so sure, why didn't he deliver it in the first place. I had to sign on the delivery sheet that they need special equipment. Which I did and I told them if the canapé cannot be delivered, they can keep it, we want our money back, but we're not paying for such a circus.
After more calls to the furniture shop about the 'famous delivery in Verzenay', a new company arrived on Saturday morning.  Fortunately it didn't rain.  Fortunately they had the right equipment with them.  But we've realised that the window of the mezzanine is above the flower box, so not possible to make the lift stand beneath the window. By then I was really fedup with the drama.  The door between the office and the mezzanine seemed to small to pass the canapé through there, as I understood from JL they couldn't pass it through the front door (and me thinking in the back of my head I didn't hear the garage door opening for the delivery in the entrance, but in the chaos didn't want to ask more). Eventually it turned out they did deliver the canapé through the front door, it will be possible to get it through the door between the office and the mezzanine and the process of lifting it through the window of the office started.  It was a nerve wrecking exercise, especially when it reached the top, as it was difficult to get it into the window.  By the time the canapé was on its place, I told JL we'll sell it one day with the house. Enough is enough!
But for those clever business people, the day was an interesting proof of an interesting lesson.  It was the first time that the company had to do a delivery for the furniture shop. And I am sure after mission impossible being achieved, definitely not the last time.  They have a competitive advantage (the other company didn't have such a lift) that helped them to gain market share!
The narrow staircase:
Above: you can see the decorative barrier in front of the window that had to be unscrewed and tilted - just below the canapé
And finally:

Friday, February 10, 2012

Picture pretty castle in Bordeaux

I just had to share this photo which I have receieved yesterday.  The castle is in the Bordeaux region and is producing a lovely Fronsac wine (I promise I'll do an explanation on the AOC regions in France in one blog). 
It is still freezing cold, but the sunshine compensates for the cold!
I had a hectic week (to study or not to study, that is the question... - and what to study!). Will try to post Sedan's medieval fête during the weekend.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Baie de la Somme - natural reserve and migrating birds

As we could find accommodation for 1 night only in the Wallonie and it was a long weekend, we've decided on our return home to see if we can find accommodation in the Baie de Somme (see the map below).  Our luck was in, so after 1 night home, we left early the next morning, putting our bicycles on the back of the car.
Baie de Somme - the bay of the Somme, it is where the Somme river flows into the English Channel.  The Somme is also well known for the Battle of Somme, one of the big battlefields during WWI)
The area is a natural reserve of which the Parc du Marquenterre forms the heart of it, comprising about 3 000 ha.  It is an important area for migrating birds between Europe and Africa.
On the map below: we've stayed in Saint-Valéry-sur-Somme and the last day we've passed Le Crotoy to Parc du Marquenterre, north west of Le Crotoy and bordering the Channel. If you look further north on the map you'll see Le Touquet-Paris-Plage, another beautiful place and popular beach, that we have visited in 2009 when I came to visit JL.  Still further north are Cap Gris-Nez and Cap Blanc-Nez, apparently beautiful, so still on my 'to visit' list.
Fichier:Côte d'Opale topographic map-fr.svg
Saint-Valéry-sur-Somme is a beautiful medieval town, situated on the estuary of the Somme.  Another village where I followed the footsteps of Joan of Arc, as she was kept here in prison on her way to Rouen.
Everywhere you'll find moules frites on menus, so after some of the best mussels I've ever had, we took our bicycles to continue exploring the town and to search a restaurant to book for dinner.  By now we know it is wise to book a restaurant in advance, especially if it is weekend, and so much more a long weekend!
After booking a restaurant (there weren't a lot of tables still available), we chose one of the few cycle routes and drove off to one of the neighbouring village.  It is a relative young route, compared to the cycle routes of Ile de Ré, but we found it lacked some information, such as distance below the names, and it followed the road, whereas in Ile de Ré the cycle rooutes are mainly away from the main roads.  However, I think their main restriction was the marshes that cover a big area.
Here we've arrived at the village, where we had a waffle, another speciality of the region.  After we left the village, we took our own route for a while and it turned out that we had to take a huge turn to link back to the route again (after thinking at one stage we're lost and that I'll never make it back to the hotel! But the route eventually led us through some cattle farms which offered a much finer view than the original route)
Above: strange sight, isn't it? I  couldn't understand why on earth all these people are sitting on the pebbles looking out on the sea.  To hear they are waiting for the phoques (seals, and in French you pronounce it 'fok'...- I guess it comes from the Latin phocidae)
Below: JL in front of our restaurant of the evening, another place you can try as we had an excellent meal with very good service
The next morning we took the car to Parc du Marquenterre (impossible to cycle there after the long ride of the previous day).  We've realised we won't have enough time to visit the park, it was either that or cycle. We've decided to return during the migration period for the park and to rather cycle.  We cycle all the way to another coastal town, Quend-Plage-les-Pins, with a big sandy beach.  From there it goes all the way north to Berck (see map), a popular place for surfers and hippies.
Quend-Plage-les-Pins, where we had another good meal before returning by bicycle (I needed the break!)

Monday, February 6, 2012

When a polar front arrives

We've been warned for a few days that a polar front is on its way.  Well, definitely not a warning one is used to if living in sunny SA!  By Friday night, while waiting for JL and his son to arrive from Reims, I've been watching the news which mainly focused on the cold weather.  We've been one of the regions that have been put on alert for the extreme cold weather on its way (even though we already had a few days behind us of day temp below 0°C!).  While no snow have been predicted for us, snow was predicted for north of Paris and it already started to snow in Lille.  News coverage showed their big square covered in snow and I was thinking of a year ago when they had the best weather in France.
I phoned JL to ask at what time they'll arrive, that I can have the food ready on their arrival.  To hear that it started to snow.  Amazed I opened the blind and the chairs were already covered in white.  I've realised the jasmin which I'm trying to pamper back to life (uncertain whether it is possible) is still outside, so brought it inside (fortunately it's been standing on the window sill, so I didn't have to go out).
I warned him that he might have a problem with our gate.  A friend of mine popped in for a quick tea late afternoon so I went to the boulanger only at 6.  My hands were frozen, in my hurry I forgot to put my gloves, I couldn't touch the steering wheel after the while and formed loops with my frozen fingers to keep the wheel inside of that.  And on my arrival back home it was already dark. The parking assistance went crazy until I finally realised I'm going to crash into the gate unless if I stop.  I got out and realised the gate opened only halfway (the one, the other one not at all).  I ended up parking in the street and pushed and pulled that gate which didn't want to open or close, until I've finally managed to get it close again.  Even the garage door is making a terrible squeek protesting against the cold, like our electric blinds in front of the windows.  But I've managed to close all.
Fortunately JL and his son arrived home safely and managed to get the gate open and close again.  On Saturday morning it was in the news that Reims hit the record in France with -19°C (I think it was for the built up areas, as I'm sure in the mountains it was much colder).  And we woke up to a winterwhite snowcovered fairytale world.  Despite no snow expected for the region, they were quick to open the roads and we could drive to Reims, as I wanted to attend the open day at Reims Management School to see if there's any course that might prevent my brain from rotting. The trees were so beautiful, the branches were all silverwhite and I wished I had the camera in the car.  Passing Sillery I was astonished to see the canal one solid white frozen piece.  It was freezing cold, but all our surroundings so beautiful.
On Sunday we've decided to brave the -7°C outside and go for a walk in the forest to get fresh air.  The car nearly didn't start, but to our relieve it eventually did.  The road to the forest was fine to drive and at the snow covered parking there was hardly any cars, so we could choose a sunny spot to park the car.  You could see footprints of animals in the snow.  The forest has such a different look in winter, you can see deep into the forest.  Some paths were difficult to walk as deep rows ploughed by mountain bikes were frozen, making the road uneven.  Very quickly I've regretted that I haven't thought of putting long johns under my pants, my legs were freezing.  Arriving home, they were itching and when I took a look, they were red red as if I had sunburnt under 40°C! All of the cold.  Tomorrow it will be worse than today, with a min day temp of -7°C.  So I am thankful for central heating inside the house!
JL was wearing a ridiculous funny knitted thing over his head that he bought somewhere years ago, but in this cold you rather do anything you can to stay warm and don't worry about the looks!
Even les faux look different in winter, you can see all the twists in the branches.  I think on Saturday morning with the snow still on the trees it must have been a very pretty sight

Friday, February 3, 2012

Lille - ch'ti country

This weekend it will be a year ago that we've decided on the last minute to go to Lille for the weekend.  The winter was getting to us and we felt we need a bit of an escape, even if that means going to a region famous for having worse weather than here. (However, after having to chose between that,Nancy or Dijon, it turned out that Lille had the best weather forecast for that weekend, in fact the best weather forecast in the whole of France - something that does not happen often...) And it was bingo when we've managed to book a 5* hotel for the price of a 3* star hotel. 
The hotel was established in 1462 as a hospice and uninterrupted it welcomed old sick people until 1995!  The building had to close down as a hospice as it was considered unsafe at that time for the purposes of a hospice.  Fortunately it became a project of the region to convert the hospice into a hotel and in 2003 that dream was fulfilled.  I was very impressed with how they have converted the building into a hotel and we have enjoyed our stay in this lovely place with so much history.
Below: inside the hotel, the courtyard is closed, hence I had to take the photo's through
the window, so sorry for the reflection!

Lille is the capital of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region and nicknamed Capitale de Flandres.  It only became part of France in 1668 under the reign of Louis XIV.  When you drive around in the area, it is quite confusing, as the names of various places in the north of France and in Belgium have both French and Flemish names.  And believe, me, if you know the one name, it is quite confusing to suddenly see another name on a road sign!
Like many other cities, Lille didn't escape the world wars.  But they have an interesting tale - during WWI they have tricked the Germans to believe that they have a lot of artillery, where in reality they only had one canon! Despite that the Germans bombarded more than 2 200 buildings and once they have realised that they have been tricked, they've burnt down an entire section of the town!
We've spent the day wandering around, admiring the buildings that is far more the style that you'll find in Belgium than in France - and so much more colourful than in our region.  Even the people were more friendly and I could hear a bit of Flemish spoken. 
But this is really ch'ti country.  It is a regional language, related to French.  An hilarious French movie from 2008 dealt with the people from the north of France and the ch'ti culture and language (and misperceptions other French people have about the north).  It was a record in France's box office for a French movie, attracting more than 20 million spectators.  I happened to see the dvd and sure, it gives you a good laugh! Unfortunately it is one of those movies that you just cannot translate, you will loose too much of it - so you'll have to sharpen up your French to watch Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis. The same producer brought out another movie from that region last year, translated meaning 'nothing to declare' (about doing away with border posts in Europe).  Still hilarious, although most people, me including, prefered the first movie. 
Like in the Wallonie, they cook the chicken and beef in beer here, called carbonade flamande. The meat is so soft and tasty, you'll have to try it if ever you visit the area.  A famous cheese from this area is maroilles, quite a strong cheese, but you'll find it on all the menus, combined with different food.  Strong, but delicious (easier to manage than the munster...). Despite us having booked a restaurant with a show for the evening, we couldn't resist the carbonade, so I was just hoping I'll manage with the 3-course meal in the evening (believe me, SA restaurants are ripping you off on French cuisine - you never have to search a KFC afterwards...).
Above: a building that hosts the regional newspaper
Below: the tower of the chamber of commerce sticking out - you might remember that I've said in the Oporto blog that their city hall followed the towers in this region. And in front, the narrow yellow building with the red sign on top is where we had our carbonade.  The restaurant is on 3 storeys, with waiters and customers all using the same narrow staircase. It is situated on La Grand'Place, like the building above.  The square is Lille's biggest and most important. There used to be a market in the middle ages.

An old monastery and you can see the narrow winding streets in the old part of the city.  The cobblestones hurt your feet - by late afternoon our feet protested too much, so we've returned to the hotel to recover before walking to the dinner. 
The citadelle of Lille, another of Vauban's creations

Above: inside the old stock exchange, that day there was a brocante, a market with differnt old and second hand things
Below, the opera building next to the bellfry building that hosts the chamber of commerce
The old stock exchange on the outside. 
Our evening was a delightful show of a man and woman singing a range of French songs while we were served a three-course dinner.  When you enter the restaurant, you  go down with the staircase, filled with photographs of famous old French singers, to enter the restaurant that looked like a vaulted cave.  It turned out that the owner lived in Reims for a long time, working in the champagne trade.  One thing that still astonish me is how many young people know old French songs - meaning that they know it so well, they know the words and sing along.  We were not a lot of people that evening (although the owner ensured us he had a busy Feb ahead), but it included a couple with their children celebrating the mom's birthday.  And I couldn't help wondering how many children (teenage - young adults) in SA will go and celebrate their mom's birthday if the entertainment comprises old songs...

The next day we've tried to go to the famous flee market of Lille, but couldn't find parking anywhere close, so gave up and went to Le Palais des Beaux-Arts.  It is one of the biggest museums in France (and also one of the first).  To our delight we've heard upon entrance it is the one day per month when entrance is free, we don't have to pay!  We've spent much longer than planned, but it was so interesting with so much to see. And even the building is to admire.