26 July 2009

Zermatt to Strasbourg, Day Nine.

En route from Zermatt, Switzerland to Colmar, France, our navigation system asked us to drive on to a train. We resisted at first, but a kindly toll-booth operator told us in flawless English: GPS knows best!

Switzerland has one of the best systems of roads we've ever seen, with endless kilometers of perfectly smooth highways. In the mountains, they've constructed a series of options for travelers to shave hours off certain trips. There are tunnels, bridges, and trains, all with fairly high tolls, that cut right through mountains instead of looping around them. Thrilled at the idea of shaving 90 minutes off our drive to Alsace and having more time to spend in the region, we paid a $25 toll and drove our rental car on to an "auto train". The open-air train holds a single row of cars and nothing else. You drive on, engage your handbrake, turn off the engine, and the train does the rest. At first it felt like a gentle ride at Disneyland. Then the train moved into the tunnel-- a tunnel with no lights whatsoever.

And that’s how it continued: approximately 20 minutes of utter blackness, accompanied by the clacking roar of the train. We sat bemusedly in the dark until suddenly we emerged into bright sunshine and stopped. In less than a half hour of total elapsed time, we cut an hour and a half of driving – around 150 km – by means of a single 15 km tunnel. It’s known as the Lötschberg Tunnel, built over a seven year period from 1906 to 1913. Since diesel costs over a Euro per liter, and since we have been averaging a bit over 6 liters per 100 kilometers, our gas savings alone were about 10 euros – add in the time savings and the toll-booth operator was right: our GPS gave us some good advice on this one.

We continued to roll down through the Alpine foothills and into the rolling hills that make up much of Switzerland’s northern half.
We crossed over the Rhine River into the Alsace region of France and made our way to the small city of Colmar – a previously unknown destination, but one that was recommended by a couple of our European friends. Colmar lost its "hidden gem" status the moment we learned it had not one but two Sephora stores. Sephora's a plague on the landscape here, like McDonald's, and it's such a massive bummer to see one built into the ground floor of an otherwise beautiful old building. Nevertheless, the Germanic, half-timbered, car-free center of town was a scenic place to spend the afternoon. Thanks to our Rick Steves guidebook, a map, and a little help from our phone's GPS, we found L'un Des Sens, a delightful wine bar hidden on one of Colmar's winding side streets. We needed a break from meat, so we ordered a cheese plate and what looked like a salad on the day's chalkboard. The owner explained that it was not a salad but rather "seasonal vegetable caviars". We couldn't imagine what that meant, but we were interested to give it a try. We mentioned that we liked Riesling, so she also asked if she could select some wines for us. Her choices were excellent. One young German, one older Alsatian. The vegetable "caviars" were like pestos... or tapenades... one was made with juicy olives. Another had tomato and oregano. One had zucchini, another had eggplant, and our absolute favorite with a bright red pepper "caviar" that was similar to romanesco. The cheese plate included Delice de Pommard, a cheese that we'd never had before this trip but has quickly become one of our favorites. It's a triple cream goat cheese rolled in mustard seeds, and the piquancy of the mustard is beautifully balanced by the freshness and richness of the cheese. Our fingers are crossed that we can find this one at home.

We said goodbye to L'un Des Sens and then stopped at Pâtisserie GILG for macarons. We weren't sure how long it would take to get to Strasbourg in Friday afternoon traffic, so Melissa decided to give Colmar's pay toilet a whirl. Yup, she's in there in the picture. It's an interesting concept. It's like a vending machine, only you pay to leave something behind. It's not a bad deal for €0,30. Each time someone exits, the interior self-cleans. It doesn't self-dry, so it's important to convince yourself that in this case, a public toilet covered in droplets won't kill you. On to Strasbourg.

Strasbourg lies at a geographical, political, and cultural intersection between Germany and France.
It looks German, smells German, and feels German, but it sounds French. We booked one night at L'Hôtel Cathédrale, just steps from the magnificent Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-Strasbourg. The 1980s era decor in our room was badly outdated, but the room was huge and the view was amazing. We took that picture to the right from our room's window. Later that night when the whole town converged on the square to watch the Cathedrale's light show, we had a front row view from our room. The show itself was both beautiful and bizarre, with multicolored lights pulsing in tune with classical music. It's the gothic cathedral's answer to Laser Floyd.

And on to Paris.

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