Life is annoyingly all or nothing: this past November, after months of languishing and stressing about money, I finally got a job, but this coincided with some nice dating, a 20,000 word deadline, a study guide for a silly porny novel, organizing a Thanksgiving meal for eight, and preparing to go home to the US for the first time in a year for almost three weeks. Not the time to try to cram in some random travel goals.
Or is it exactly the time to cram in some random travel goals?
In my first year of living in England, I only managed to get to other parts of Europe twice – and once was a re-visit to Amsterdam, a lovely city, one of my favorites, but someplace I had already been. Thus my 34×34 goal to see five new European cities/countries. Of course the travel needs of my book plus constant fretting amount money made this seem like a bit of a dreamy stretch. But when my fellow expat/faux-Mancunian friend RE-expatriated herself to Strasbourg, France for a limited time of four weeks, and I found a Ryanair flight for GBP35 – less than a train ticket to visit her in Manchester – I once again reflected on life happening while you’re busy making other plans.
Obviously, I booked the flight.
Two days after Thanksgiving, fridge still groaning with leftovers, I headed to Stansted for the short flight to Strasbourg. What sold me on making the trip was the fact that it was the first weekend of Strasbourg’s Christmas Market. Some quick internet research informed me Strasbourg has one of the best and biggest holiday markets in the world. My Mancunian and I had meandered through the Manchester Christmas Market last year when I visited her for Thanksgiving, and I thoroughly enjoyed my sausage and mulled wine (though not mead. Never again, mead.) I had bought some Christmas presents and a nice fair trade scarf. If Strasbourg was better than Manchester I was in for a real treat.
I was fortunate enough to be there on the first Sunday of the month, so many of the city’s attractions were free – we were able to visit the Musee des Beaux Arts where I saw a Raphael and a El Greco and a Corregio that I liked very much. We were also able to wander around the Cathedral, which is famous for its enormous astronomical clock. Mostly I just noticed the creepy grim reaper figure within it. We climbed about 330 steps to the cathedral platform, where we had amazing views of the entire city, having lucked into some cold but fair weather.
The Christmas Market itself was disappointing. I was expecting local handicrafts with a French and German flavor (Strasbourg being in Alsace-Lorraine, an area of France handed back and forth between Germany and France multiple times in the twentieth century), but mostly what we found was junky trinkets made in China. I bought some silly springy Santa hats for my nieces and nephews, also surely made in China, but otherwise left empty-handed.
Even my goal of eating my way through the market was underwhelming. I was dying for a soft pretzel, a local specialty, but the one I ate was stale. Ditto the beignet chocolat, a sugary stuffed donut that was cold and filled with little more than pudding. We did get some spaetzle and sauerkraut and sausage that was salty and delicious, but overall, the food left my poor edible heart broken.
However, besides just getting to see a dear friend and catching up, a worthwhile use of GBP35 if ever there was one, as well as drinking a ton of good local Alsatian Rieslings, the entire trip was worth it for the fondue.
Oh fondue, sweet nectar of the gods.
My friend and I went to a well recommended place called Cloche au Fromage, jam-packed with locals at lunchtime. We made a small error by ordering two types of fondue – thinking they would come in individual servings that we could share. Instead, we were faced with two VATS of melted bliss-inducing cheese. We got a basic and one with Munster and herbs and – okay, I’m not a food blogger so all I can say is that one tasted stronger and stinkier, but in the good cheese way. Trust me.
The fondue was pricey but “all you can eat” – I mistakenly thought I could live up to this challenge. Despite the bottomless pit that is my stomach combined with my inappropriate love of cheese, I couldn’t finish even one pot, let alone ask for more. I think these before and after photos can attest to the harrowing yet worthwhile emotional journey of my experience.
Anyway, Strasbourg is a beautiful little city, and I wish I could have explored it more, perhaps in summer when it wouldn’t have been so brutally cold. It was nice to try and recall all the French I learned over a decade ago in school. I was really surprised to find I wanted to speak to merchants and vendors, to see if I could communicate. Since the days of taking Latin I have long feared speaking foreign languages, and have shunned them at every opportunity. I think my experience on the Camino last year made me slightly braver, and more willing to try to speak and understand languages. So hurray for that.
One city down, four to go. I have a lot of travel plans this year, so let’s see what I can make happen.