We really loved the Haus Lipmann. They had a friendly staff (and very friendly owner, and its’ location on The Mosel is terrific). It was peaceful and relaxing (well, as much as we can ever just relax) to watch the boats pass by our window.
Tracy and I set off in our ugly blue car (although, strangely, it was starting to look a little better) toward Alsace in eastern France; our Michelin directions that we had printed out at the ready. We sped (and I mean sped) through some beautiful countryside in Germany and were only a few miles from the French border when we reached a town that is now verboten to speak in our family. The town is Saarbrücken, just a few kilometers from the French border. We just could not figure out which way we should travel those few kilometers. We had our via Michelin directions in hand, but they were proving to be of no help.
The via Michelin website is, for the most part, a great research tool for calculating distance and time between your starting point and destination. You can print out the mileage, the different roads you will travel and maps to help you navigate. Occasionally, however, it doesn’t quite give you enough information.
The directions were a little fuzzy as we drove through the maze of streets and traffic known as Saarbrücken. No signs pointed to the direction that via Michelin had provided. Every ten minutes or so we found ourselves in the same spot as we had been previously. “Maybe we’ll just settle down here,” Tracy said. “We can become Saarbrücken tour guides.” All I could think about was some wine along the Routes Des Vins.
One of the pitfalls of a spousal driving excursion through Europe is the prospect of getting lost. No matter how good your navigator is (and Tracy does an incredible job), when one keeps on ending up in the same section of town, the calm of a vacation can be replaced by such lovely exchanges as:
Tom: “Jesus, are you sure you’re reading the map correctly?!”
Tracy: “Damnit, I told you not to go left at that light, and you nearly killed that little kid with your stupid driving!”
Tom: “I wish I had. That way I could get out of this damned car.”
Yes, love means never having to say, “I’m wrong.” I also believe it was at this moment that Tracy gave me “the look”, but she denies it to this day.
Our voices began to rise to a decibel level where I half-expected Richard Dawson to pop up in the back seat and yell, “Welcome to Family Feud!” I stopped at the local Europcar facility. Surely the guy inside would know the road that heads toward Strasbourg, because his office is virtually on the border. His answer was “nein,” which coincidentally seemed like the number of hours we’d driven around this stupid place.
The Talking Heads song “We’re on A Road To Nowhere” popped into my head when Tracy yelled, “Make a right!” When the navigator yells, I listen (usually). In a few minutes we saw the best sign ever witnessed. It simply read “France.” The sign was in the middle of a cow pasture, but it looked udderly fantastic to us.
I put the pedal to the metal, revved the Golf up to 160 kmph, Tracy closed her eyes and we were screaming toward our destination, instead of screaming at each other. We veered off the highway to a smaller road, and about as fast as I could say “gewürztraminer”, we were on the famed Routes des Vins in Alsace. I believe it was also at this point that Tracy and I resumed cordial relations.
We passed charming village upon charming village. Rosheim looked like a quaint place, worth going back to on another visit. I was just happy I drove through the little fake castle without hitting any pedestrians.
We stopped in Obernai to ostensibly grab some lunch, but we had happened upon the dreaded time of 1:30 p.m., a moment when many restaurants and shops throughout continental Europe shut down faster than Courtney Love on heroin.
Obernai was captivating, but as we were to find out, it was not as charming as some other villages along the route. Back in the car, we drove through other beautiful little towns like Dambach-la-Ville (very nice) before we came upon a little gem of a place rarely mentioned in travel books. It was the tiny town of Itterswiller.The town’s nicest hotel had spectacular views, beautiful vineyards but, even more importantly, it had a patio restaurant that was open. Nourishment was near (or so we thought). Tracy was concerned at first. The lodging’s name: Hotel Arnold. “Will a muscular man come out and grope me?” she asked. I think she was kidding.
The hotel and restaurant located inside looked great (we were later told the Hotel Arnold is a terrific place to dine – 30€ for a delicious four-course dinner). It is another hotel stored in our database for a future trip.
I don’t hold the following story against the hotel, because I doubt the girl in question will be working here when we return. Three couples were sitting at tables on the patio when we arrived. One couple had already been served, but there was something about the waitress.
This girl had the vacant expression of one of the women in The Stepford Wives. Not happy. Not sad. Just blank. I had never seen a human work this slowly, and I go to Starbucks on a daily basis.
After we sat down, the other tables began filling up, but this girl only worked tables one by one. Slowly. If somebody ordered a cappuccino and a sandwich, you waited while she made their cappuccino and sandwich and did not order until that previous table had been served. If, when she brought out the sandwich, the customer asked for some water, she would bring that water before moving on to the next victims (“sorry, hungry people”). The knowledge we were next in this slow progression made this scene much funnier to us than it did to the people who were tenth in line.
Many of them believed they might end up at a graveyard I had seen along the way before they were ever served lunch.
We finally were waited upon, ate and left. The tip is in the mail. In the interim, she had served only two other tables. I suspect many people who came in that Saturday afternoon were served some time that evening.
Upon reaching the outskirts of Ribeauville, we spied a sign for our hotel, “Le Clos Saint – Vincent”. The hotel is situated in a vineyard above Ribeauville, but you can also see other hill towns from its location. There are spectacular views from virtually every vantage point.
The restaurant in the hotel had received rave reviews as one of the premier restaurants in the region, so we asked the guy at the front desk if we needed reservations. He said, “No. Just come anytime between 7:15 and 8:30 (two course meal – 33€; three course meal – 41€).”
The day had become progressively hotter, unusual for this time of year, and the room had no air conditioning and virtually no ventilation. Quoting my wife from her trip report, “Our room had Rob and Laura Petrie twin beds and the decor is most probably the original from the 1960s. The hotel appears to be hoity-toity and an old person’s place judging by the attitude of the staff. The tired conditions of rooms lacked any charm.” Her final comment was the decor was “shabby chic.” I said, “Tracy, please don’t hold anything back.”
The majestic castle ruins, which command a dramatic position on the hills overlooking the town, are named after the Lords of Ribeaupierre, who were also the protectors of the traveling musicians and actors who filled the town every September 8th, the birthday of The Virgin Mary.
In Ribeauville, Tracy bought a couple of fancy tablecloths. She said the prices were much less than home. I was drinking wine, so I did not disagree. We returned to our hotel a little before 8 p.m., eagerly awaiting our upcoming meal.
(Enter the snotty French woman)
“Do you have reservations?” she asked in a haughty, upper-crust tone. In terms of the old PBS series, she was definitely Upstairs while we were decidedly Downstairs.
“Non, Chambre neuf,” I replied confidently.
“Well you have to have a reservation,” she said, her nose about ready to touch the ceiling. “No one comes here without a reservation.” This woman made Medea look like Salma Hayek. Trying not to look directly at her face for fear I might be turned into a newt, I politely told her that the guy at the desk said we did not need them. The restaurant was not full, so he seemed to be correct.
She huffed and puffed until we finally got in. The dinner was fantastic, especially the crème brulee. The waiter and waitress were very friendly, and the waiter was extremely helpful in answering questions regarding the area.
Although it was a good meal, we decided not to put up with Cruella DeVil’s antics again and decided we’d dine elsewhere the following evening. I’m sure she was heartbroken.
The hot, stuffy bedroom made it difficult to sleep. There was no window, only a door with wooden shutters. We opened the shutters, latched them and kept the door open. Figuring that the rest of the “hoity-toity” guests had a lot more money than we did, we were confident we would not be robbed. We weren’t.
It was Sunday morning, and the view over the vineyards into adjacent towns was totally awesome.
After breakfast (no snotty French lady in sight), it was on to Haut-Koenigsbourg castle, the “most visited place in Alsace.” After a curving, beautiful drive through the Vosges Mountain range, we reached the lower parking lot. There is a non-strenuous 15-20 minute hike up to the castle.
We lucked out, because on this particular day it was free to get in. We bought the audio guide with English translation and toured the castle for about an hour. Unfortunately, we bought one audio guide with two jacks for the headphones, so we looked like the Keystone Kops when we tried to move in different directions. The views weren’t too shabby either.
The Routes des Vins southern swing was next on the agenda. Our first stop was Riquewihr. This is an extremely cute, yet touristy (some might say too touristy for its own good) town. It was quite crowded, but Tracy and I liked it immensely. We walked the cobble-stoned streets for about an hour and bought some delicious orange macaroons (the Atkins Diet was not going well on this trip).
We thought about having lunch in Colmar, the most visited town in Alsace (if you are a Colmar lover, please skip the next few paragraphs), a place that had disappointed me two decades ago. At one of the roundabouts on the way to Colmar, we had a near large tour bus head-on collision. Of course, it was my fault, but damn those things are big. I believe the bus driver had brown eyes, but I could not discern the French expletives he was directing my way.
To digress a bit, I first saw Colmar on my honeymoon in 1984 with my first wife. My first wife and I were very disappointed in Colmar (I believe that might have been the last thing we ever agreed upon). I had chalked up our negativity to being young and not knowing the nuances of Europe. Upon further review, I still don’t like it. First of all, Colmar is not small, not quaint and not really pretty. We arrived at the city center finally) and meandered (when in Europe, meandering is a way of life) to little Venice, or Petite Venise, as it is called. My first thought was, “Real Venice should sue for defamation of character.”
Petite Venise is to Venice what a cheesy carnival is to Disneyland. I truly find it not alluring, especially with all the other beautiful towns dotting the Routes des Vins that dripped charm. We did get two decent pictures that make it look nicer than it is.
The rickety boats cruising the faux canal looked like they would sink at any moment, especially loaded with overweight American tourists with t-shirts reading, “I’m with Stupid”. The whole place was rather depressing. We strayed into the hotel where we almost stayed, Hostellerie de Maréchal. We thought about eating there until we saw the menu and prices.
We shot the Golf back toward Riquewihr via Kayserberg. Kayserberg is another gem with a medieval setting and a castle on a hill. We could have eaten there, but we wanted to have lunch in Riquewihr, which we decided was our favorite town on the Routes des Vins.
Not even a wolf trying to pour wine on Tracy could stop us from our appointed meal, however I had forgotten to take account of the time. Shock! We arrived at the non-eating hour of 1:45, but fortunately we found the Au Vieux Riquewihr restaurant doing a booming business.
We got an outside table on the main walking drag, a perfect location for people watching. If you want to make a lot of money, buy a restaurant in one of these towns and keep it open while all the others close.
Tracy had a delicious Quiche Lorraine with a big green salad, while I dined on the incredibly curious pairing of escargot and pommes frites (maybe I’m pregnant, I thought). Since it was 2 p.m., it meant that it was 5 o’clock in L.A. (no matter that it was 5 o’clock in the morning), so we had some champagne.
We shopped at bit at Kathy Wohlfahrt’s Christmas Store (similar to her store in Rothenburg, Germany). I’ll never forgive this store because there I was, in the middle of September, humming Christmas Carols, but we did deck our halls later in the year with some Christmas ornaments we bought that afternoon.
Digression: Throughout Alsace they have these cool, huge nests on tall platforms where storks (the symbol of Alsace) hang out. We loved ’em. I thought, “They must have a lot of babies born in Alsace.”
The tablecloth guy had recommended Le Caveau Stebola La Brassiere for dinner in Ribeauville. I had a great meal of steak with an incredible mushroom sauce and pommes frites (just can’t get enough of them fries).
Tracy had a veal cordon bleu that was not as exciting. What was exciting, however, was the dessert of chocolate au gateau with crème anglaise, whipped cream and gooseberry garnish (I just gained five pounds writing that). It was unbelievable and won Tom & Tracy’s Best Dessert of the Trip Award (an award coveted by chefs around the world).
Two days in France had ended and we vowed to return to The Routes Des Vins someday, but tomorrow we would wake up and drive to Switzerland. As I fell asleep, I wondered, “When driving in Switzerland, must you keep your car in Neutral?”