Cruising Along the Rhine

We recently attended Bill’s annual organization day, an opportunity for the staff and their families to enjoy a day away from the office and engage in some social time. This often takes the form of a cook-out, or some pastime like bowling. Ah! But this is Europe, and so we took advantage of one of the opportunities that living and working here makes possible. The event? A round-trip river cruise from the lovely town of Rüdesheim (sort of pronounced “rude-es-heim”) down the Rhine to the charming village of St. Goar. We stopped there for several hours to see the sights and enjoy lunch at a sidewalk café.

Getting started at Rüdesheim

The weather Deities smiled on us that day; we had sunshine and blue skies, with a slight breeze to make the journey pleasant. If you ever plan to visit Germany, a Rhine cruise is a really nice way to spend a day. They are relatively inexpensive—roughly $25 round-trip per adult for a trip similar to ours. And you have a wide variety of origins and destinations to choose from. You could even ride the boat one way and take a train back. All the towns along the river (in this area, at least) are well served by Deutsche Bahn, or German Rail. Enjoying the views of the many vineyards and castles that have made the Rhine Valley famous is a memorable experience.

Castles, castles everywhere!

As I noted, our day began in the picturesque town of Rüdesheim. Germany has a number of places that attract a lot of tourists but are always fun to visit anyway. This popular destination is famous for its Riesling wines (and brandy) as well as the historic Drosselgasse, a very narrow street lined with shops, taverns, and restaurants. There is plenty to see and do but we will cover that in another post later. For this day, Rüdesheim was our jumping off point for a voyage down the Rhein!

And another…

The ride was smooth and even though there were three decks on the boat, most of us enjoyed the outside top deck. There were plenty of tables and chairs to relax and enjoy a cup of coffee or a glass of champagne. We expected the prices for beverages and snacks to be steep but we were pleasantly surprised to find they were about the same as we would find at a typical restaurant in our own neighborhood. We drifted past charming villages, each one sporting onion-domed churches, half-timbered buildings, and of course, vineyards hanging from the steep slopes. And oh, The castles! After about the first five we cruised by we lost count.

In the middle ages, the Rhine was the primary transportation route from south to north. If you had goods to transport, this was pretty much your only option, if you were going any distance at all. Every baron with the power and money to do it took advantage of the outstanding vantage points along the Rhine gorge to erect a castle so he could levy tolls on vessels using the river. Today, there is hardly a spot between Rüdesheim and Koblenz where you can’t see at least a couple of castles. Most are ruins but several have been well preserved and you can even book a stay in a few. Anyway, it’s all a feast for the eyes.

One of many riverside villages

We also cruised past the famous Lorelei, a 433-foot-high rock on the right bank of the river. Legend has it that a golden-haired siren would perch atop the rock and enchant the passing sailors, who would be lured to their deaths on the craggy rocks below. Not exactly a happy thought, but an interesting bit of history nonetheless. Today, it often serves as a venue for outdoor concerts.

We docked at Saint Goar for a few hours to explore and have lunch. We decided to take a walk up to Castle Rheinfels which was built in 1245. There is a tram of sorts that can also take you up, but its schedule seemed a bit erratic to us. We made the journey on foot, to ensure we would have time for lunch before getting back on the boat. It was a steep path with quite a few uneven stone steps, but it wasn’t overly taxing. With our stomachs rumbling, we elected not to take a tour of the castle once we reached it but the views of the valley and the river were well worth the hike.

Pfalzgrafenstein Castle on an island in the river

After the trek back down the mountain, we stopped on the main street and enjoyed a wonderful lunch al fresco. Finally, we got back on the boat. The return trip to Rüdesheim was a bit slower than the morning’s cruise, since we were going against the current. But it was no less pleasant for that. The open top deck of a boat on a warm summer day with just enough of a breeze to make it comfortable is a recipe for a very pleasant and relaxing afternoon. We will certainly be doing this again.

Automat Memories and One Very Tasty Meal

Good things await inside.

Automat. The word conjures up memories of old movies from the 40s where frugal New Yorkers on their lunch breaks could grab a bite to eat. It was the original fast food. The hungry secretary or executive-in-training would pop into the Automat to find rows of little glass-fronted doors, each with a coin slot. Behind the doors were little cubbies holding anything a famished person could want—sandwiches, soups, pie—all awaiting the drop of a coin to release them from captivity.

This little blast from the past was brought forward to the present day for me last weekend. We were invited to have lunch in a small town in Alsace, France by Gudrun, one of our German neighbors who lives down the street. She is a marvel. She has traveled extensively throughout her life and explores the world fearlessly. Her tales of travel, food, and people she has met along the way have enthralled and delighted us. We want to be just like Gudrun when we grow up. So when she asked if we would like to join her for lunch in Alsace along with her daughter Katarina, who was taking a holiday break from her Master’s Program, we heartily answered, “Yes!”

A meal to savor

Being able to go to places like France in a matter of a couple of hours is one of the aspects of living overseas that we love. So lunch in Alsace it was—and what a lunch! We arrived in the small village of Roppenheim at a quaint restaurant named Auberge à l’Agneau. The half-timbered building welcomed us with flower boxes overflowing with pink and red geraniums. The interior was the model of cozy comfort that decorators can only imitate. Its dark wood paneling and brightly painted yellow walls were adorned with vintage farm tools, enameled pots, and grapes hanging from the weathered beams. This, folks, was the real thing, and we prepared ourselves for a special meal.

Heaven on a plate

We were not disappointed. Our lunch began with a small tasting-sized bowl of cream of mussel soup to whet our appetites.  We opted for the bean soup for our starter with thick slabs of crusty bread. Our main course was tournedos of beef in a rich, savory sauce with Roquefort cheese crumbled over the top. This was served with the sweetest carrots I have ever eaten and lightly fried patties of grated zucchini. A large communal dish of French fries was served up, as well as a garden-fresh salad. The meal was one of the best we’ve eaten in a very long time. We finished up with espresso and dessert. I had the homemade chocolate mousse with vanilla sauce and Bill had the sour cherry ice cream served with a vanilla cream sauce and whole marinated cherries. Truly a wonderful lunch.

roppenheim-8aWe went for a small walk through the tiny village after our feast and something caught our eye from across the street. It was a farmer’s version of an automat. It stood beneath a sort of lean-to structure and had a series of little glass doors with signs boasting that their “ATM farm products” were available 24/7! Sure enough, we saw farm fresh eggs, bunches of newly picked garlic, bags of onions, potatoes, bottles of hand pressed canola oil, and more. The prices were handwritten on each selection with a small number to identify them. Pop your coins in the slot, key in the number on the central keypad and presto! the door opens and the item is yours. But instead of the piece of pie or sandwich of yesteryear, it was fresh produce to fix dinner with.

New potatoes

Europe has not quite been overrun by the retail 24/7 phenomenon, and we like it that way. Stores are closed on Sundays, but we can feel the slow infiltration of longer opening hours. Yes, it makes life a bit more convenient, but I hate to see everything being turned into an all day, all night, everyday shopper’s wonderland. This produce automat seems the perfect compromise. For a minute, I felt like I did when I was a very little girl on a trip back east when my parents took me to one of the last surviving automats for lunch. It made an impression on me and for a moment, I was transported back to the time I gazed up transfixed at all those little glass doors with wonderful surprises behind each one.

“Plan B” Travel and Really, Really Good Chocolate!

It’s safe to say that Bill and I LOVE chocolate! We’ll admit it, we’re chocolate snobs, although sometimes it’s hard to beat the perfection of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Living overseas has allowed us to try some of the best that Europe has to offer. Up until now, Belgium reigned supreme when it came to the smack-down competition for the best confections. But–we might have a new champion!

Heaven waits within.

We just returned from a glorious three days in Troyes, France. We had planned on going to Lille, France for the annual flea market. This historic event runs for 33-hours straight and has taken place each year for the last couple of centuries (except during wartime). It’s a lollapalooza spanning the city’s streets with millions of visitors in attendance each year, except this one. Unfortunately, the city mayor canceled this year’s bacchanalia of bric-a-brac due to security concerns.

Where to begin?

Disappointed–but not dejected–we came up with a Plan B; Troyes. We will go into much greater detail in a later post about this wonderful city. But remember, I started with the subject of chocolate and that is our topic for today’s dispatch.

We have a knack for spotting chocolate shops wherever we go and this time was no different. We seem to have an inner GPS pegged on “search for chocolate” and our internal compasses did not fail us. The shop was called “Pascal-Caffet” and they sold some of the most delicious artisan chocolates we had ever tasted. They utilize only the finest chocolate from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Madagascar, and many other exotic locales for their sweets.

The lovely lady behind the counter greeted us in English and began singing her siren song. “Would Monsieur or Madame like a sample?” She slid the clear acrylic cover to the side and the luscious aroma of the confections hit us like chocolate pheromones. Her delicate gloved hand searched for just the right arrow that she knew would pierce any rational thought. “Does Monsieur or Madame like pistachio?” By this time a tiny trickle of drool was starting from the corner of my mouth. Grasping for words, all we could manage was an uncontrollable nodding of our heads. But inside we were screaming, “Yes! Yes! For God’s sake YES! Pistachio!!”

You must try one of these.

We were done for. She plopped the petite indulgences into our eager little palms and we popped them into our mouths. What happened next? It’s difficult to say since we were enraptured by one of the most delicious flavors we had ever experienced. “First you taste zee Venezuelan chocolate, zen, the pistache, zen you finish with zee chocolate last. Non?” We could hear her lilting French accent off in the distance, but the world melted away like the chocolate on our tongues. Forget Godiva, or Dutch, German, Swiss, or Belgian chocolate. This was a mind-blowing religious experience! I almost felt like I needed a cigarette. We left with a small bag of about 100 grams which was about 8 pieces for roughly 10 Euros (or $11.50) and worth every Euro cent.

We asked about their operating hours since we knew we’d make at least one more visit to buy a few treats for the road. We needed to get them while still in town. They have shops in France, Italy, the UK, and Japan and none of them ship outside those countries. Due to possible delivery delays or less than optimal temperatures while in transit, they cannot guarantee freshness on arrival. So being able to purchase a few more grams before our drive home was imperative. Needless to say, the chocolates never made it all the way back.

And it’s more than just chocolates…

Here is the link for the UK site in English. Even though you can only live vicariously, it’s worth a look to see what these tasty morsels look like.


Who the Heck drives 2½ Hours for a Sandwich?

Okay, it wasn’t only for the sandwich, but that was the moving force behind the day’s journey a month or so back. The sandwich in question was in Strasbourg, France and it really was that good. Just before Christmas two years ago, we took a day trip to Strasbourg with our dear friends and former neighbors from Würzburg, David and Daniela. Strasbourg always has a really nice Christmas market and it was as good an excuse as any to re-visit this lovely (and conveniently nearby) Alsatian city. The drive was pretty uneventful but when we got there, our usual parking garage was full. Fortunately, I was able to squeeze our Honda Odyssey into a Smart-Car-sized space in another garage with a bit of backing and filling, and we set off to find Yuletide treasures.

Aladdin's Cave?
Aladdin’s Cave?

As morning turned to afternoon, David and I wanted to grab a bite. Daniela and Mary weren’t interested so we decided we would just grab a sandwich on the run. Luckily, we found ourselves in front of a very small and inconspicuous boulangerie called Panette in the city’s “Petite France” district. They had an assortment of freshly made sandwiches under the counter and David and I selected a couple that looked likely to keep body and soul together for the rest of the afternoon. The woman behind the counter popped them into a small oven for a couple of minutes (definitely not a microwave!), then handed them over, nicely toasted. Since there was no seating, we took them with us to enjoy as we walked. We both took a bite and immediately looked at each other wide-eyed to see if we were both having the same experience. This was the best sandwich I could remember eating in my life—and anyone who knows me knows I’ve had more than a few! David was apparently having the same reaction.

A Library of Bread

It’s hard to say what made it so special. As sandwiches go, it wasn’t elaborate and there were no exotic ingredients. It started with a small baguette, baked fresh and topped with sesame seeds. This was spread with butter (Breton, I suspect) but no mayonnaise or other spreads. To this was added ham (definitely not from the refrigerator section), some local Munster cheese, fresh leaf lettuce, and finally, a light sprinkling of fresh herbs. Nothing fancy and nothing odd—just the very best ingredients working in perfect combination. My taste buds danced a can-can in celebration! I made a mental note of the bakery’s location and we vowed we would come back to Strasbourg, if only to prove to ourselves we weren’t over-reacting.

Petite France

Fast forward to July of this year. We went to Würzburg for the opening day of the Kiliani Fest, an annual celebration to honor St. Kilian, an Irish monk who introduced Christianity to the city in A.D. 686. As we sat in the fest tent enjoying the fruits of the vintners’ art from the local Franconian wine district, I asked David if he would be interested in going to Strasbourg a couple of weeks hence to grab a sandwich. “Of course!” he replied, without hesitation. Our calendars were open so we set the date.

It really is this pretty…

I won’t go into most of the details of our visit, except to say that the sandwiches did not disappoint the second time. We found the boulangerie without incident and stood in the street under our umbrellas, savoring every bite in the pouring rain. Daniela and Mary had made sure they brought their appetites with them this time and were able to provide independent confirmation that these were something more than your typical run-of-the-mill ham and cheese. We did notice that the bakery had won several quality awards since our last visit. This is no small achievement in France; the competition is stiff. Just this morning, we drove home from our latest French adventure in Troyes. We picked up a couple of ham and cheese sandwiches for the road. They were on brioche rolls rather than baguettes, but still absolutely delicious. Were they as good as the ones we got in Strasbourg? I’m not sure. But I think I’ll probably need to make several more visits to Panette before I can be really certain.