Sarah and I were married in June 2003, but we chose to put off our honeymoon for a few months. Other couples had advised us that planning a wedding and a vacation at the same time is just too much, and you just don't get to enjoy your reception because you're too stressed out about making it to the airport in time. The other reason we put it off was that we had burned up our vacation time on a trip to Antarctica a few months earlier, and we had to wait a bit to save up a full three weeks. That turned out to be just as well, because our friends were right about putting off the honeymoon. Besides, we were married in June and had read that one of the best times to visit Europe was in September: most of the tourists are gone, but the weather's still good.
Incidentally, you may need a visa to travel some places in Europe. A helpful resource for this is http://www.schengenvisainfo.com/tourist-schengen-visa.
If you're looking for information about planning a trip to Europe or elsewhere, you might try tripedia as a resource: http://tripedia.info/location/europe/.
First, of course, we saw Paris. We spent four days there, and managed to hit most of the tourist spots, among them Notre Dame and the Louvre. We got to the Eiffel Tower on a Thursday and had only a very short wait in line! I had expected horrendous lines (remembering our visit when I was a kid during the summer), and was surprised how easily we got into one of the world's biggest tourist attractions. A couple days later we saw what the lines were like on Saturday and were glad we had come in the middle of the week. A boat ride on the Seine added a very romantic touch to our visit to the City of Light.
Later we went to the Museum of the Middle Ages; it was really something to see artifacts from the Middle Ages after only ever seeing these kinds of things in books! (Sarah had felt the same way about the Louvre.) Strangely enough, though, the staff there wasn't very friendly. The security guards etc. in other museums were always reasonably polite, but here they were almost hostile--it was very strange. Sarah also humored my desire to see something I'd always wanted to visit, since my high school French teacher made a big deal of it--the Sewers of Paris! They have a whole museum (underground, of course) dedicated to it. She was very sporting to go along with this one, on our honeymoon of all occasions. I had to promise her we wouldn't visit that museum again, but at least I haven't put it into writi--D'OH!
Now if I had it to do over, I've have gone to the catacombs of Paris instead, but I didn't know about that museum/attraction at the time. Maybe someday I'll get down there.
Next we rented a car and drove to southwestern France, to visit my family in the province of Bearn. Personally I couldn't think of anything more fitting for a honeymoon than to introduce my new wife to my family in the Old Country.
We spent a little over four days with my family in Mazerolles, a town of 750 people near Pau, the regional capital. The family owns a butcher shop (which had increased Sarah's interest in the visit). The shop itself, and processing areas, are downstairs, with the living space above. I have to say that--as always when I've visited there--we were extremely well taken care of. In my experience, anyone who jokes about French hospitality being substandard has never visited French relatives.
During our four days there, my cousins Jean and Laurence drove us all over the area (this was one aspect of that hospitality--we never asked them to do that, and they insisted on taking their cars instead of our rental). They took us to neighboring villages to see a bunch of Romanesque cathedrals, which I found exciting: I had wanted to see a Romanesque cathedral since I first read about them in medieval history books--Gothic cathedrals get all the press most of the time, but the Romanesque ones are older. We also went to several local castles, including the Château de Pau, which had been Henri IV's capital as King of Navarre before he became King of France.
As you can see on the left, one evening they had a barbecue. It wasn't exactly Texas style; in fact, if I were to imagine a French barbecue, I can't think of anything more appropriate than saucisses grilled over local grapevines! My cousin Milou (in the middle, tending the barbecue) later showed us how they make Jambon de Bayonne, a cured ham similar to prosciutto. It's a regional specialty, and their shop is famous for them. The process is very involved; the hams spend so many weeks in this cooler, then so many weeks in that cooler, etc., each at slightly different temperatures, and with something different done to them at each step.
(Incidentally, Milou has since retired, and the butcher shop has closed. The family still owns the business, but it's shuttered.)
While staying with my family, I was pleasantly surprised to find that a revival of the local language is underway. This was the lingua franca of the Crusades, and was the language of the Troubadours (the French-speaking ones were called Trouvères). The name of the language is Occitan; in French it is sometimes called Languedoc (to distinguish it from the Langue d'oil tongues such as French and and Gallo). In English, the language is often called Provençal (which is actually one of the main dialects, not the language as a whole). Occitan occupies roughly the extent of southern France and is a highly decentralized language. It has four or five major dialects, depending who's counting: Gascon, Nord-Occitan (sometimes separated into Limousin and Auvergnat), Languedoc or Languedocien, and Provençal (the northern half of which is sometimes considered its own main dialect). These are divided into sub-dialects, and then into sub-sub-dialects, which can differ significantly from each other. I remember my great-grandmother saying that you could understand the people in the next village over, but not two villages away. Gascon (and Bearnais in particular, due to its separate history) is considered the most divergent dialect yet is also the most commonly spoken, such as it is.
In my parents' generation, the French educational system worked very hard to stamp out local languages (including non-Latin ones like Basque and Breton), with the result that Occitan isn't spoken much any more. When I spent a summer there in 1981 they were still calling the local languages "patois" (dialects, meant as a pejorative), as if they were just badly-spoken French. Honestly, it's silly (and clearly agenda-driven) to call Occitan a type of French: the words are different, the grammar is different, and the intonation is very different--it sounds more like Spanish than anything. Pronouns are rarely used--much like in Spanish, except you have to put the placeholder "que" in front of the verb, so "que soi" (I am), "qu'es" (you are), etc. The h is aspirated like in English, and depending on your sub-dialect, the word for "I" might be pronounced "you". Here's an example of what it sounds like: [WAV] (300kb) [MP3] (400kb). Below is a sample of the writing:
It seems that times have changed, however, and a lot of younger folk are learning the local language in school. I was delighted to see Jean and Laurence speaking to their grandfather and grandmother in Occitan (the grandfather is the one on the left in the barbecue picture; he's since passed away). It seems the region has even sprung its own separatist movement--when we were in Pau, we saw a poster put up by an extremist group called Anaram au Patac. You see a photo of the poster on the right; it's written partly in French, partly in Occitan--and yes, that's Ronald McDonald in the pot.
|The Basque Country|
Jean and Laurence took us around to visit nearby relatives, including a branch of the family in the Basque Country (in the province of Lower Navarre). To the left you can see some typical red-and-white Basque houses; most of the houses outside the cities look like this--they're remarkably uniform.
While in the Basque Country, we had the pleasure of visiting a cidery, the Eztigar Cooperative. Cider is a traditional drink in the Basque Country, and several cooperatives are reviving its production. My relatives are among those who work with Eztigar--they grow and supply the apples, and the cooperative makes the cider. Normandy is another region of France which is famous for cidermaking; my family told me that Basque cider is more tart than the Norman equivalent.
The cider isn't highly alcoholic, but it is tasty. It has an odd flavor that I've always noticed in my ciders. I never liked that flavor and thought I was doing something wrong, but apparently I had just been taking the wrong product as a model. Eztigar's is a more natural cider, where the ones we're used to in the States (such as Wyder's) are very controlled and use special methods (probably sulfites) to stop the fermentation early--which makes the cider sweet.
|Another place my cousins took us was Spain. My family lives just a couple hours from the border, and it's one of the standard places they take visiting relatives (much as we used to take foreign visitors to see Tijuana when I was growing up). I hadn't really expected to make it there on this trip, so Spain was kind of a nice extra. We also went much deeper into the country than we had the other times my family took me down; previously we had only visited border towns, but this time we made it down to Jaca, about a half hour south of the border. There wasn't much remarkable about this bit except just that we made it to Spain, although in one cathedral we did see a portrait of Christ wearing what looked remarkably like a dress!|
Next, Sarah and I drove to Switzerland to visit an old friend of my family, and her son and his wife. Switzerland was easily the prettiest country on this trip. The countryside is wonderfully picturesque, at least on the eastern side. It seems that the typically "Swiss"-looking areas are in the German-speaking cantons; the French-speaking part of the country looked a lot like France (which was pretty, but it wasn't what you think of as Switzerland).
The countryside here is very idyllic. The houses have firewood stacked so neat and tidy you would think it was there for show instead of for burning. The fields were lush and green; we saw miles of country like this on the left. Not least, the cows were very cool. Other places in Europe they put ordinary-sized bells on their cows, but in Switzerland, they put huge cowbells on them. As the cows move around, the bells sound lazily, slowly, deeply; you're surrounded by these open-range cows in pretty green fields, with an unhurried dong...dong... in the air, and get a feeling that life just isn't hurried there. We couldn't get any good pictures of them, though, as we were on twisty mountain roads with very few turnouts.
Since we were already in eastern Switzerland, a side jaunt to Liechtenstein was a must. In Vaduz, the capital, we saw Castle Vaduz, an imposing citadel perched on the side of a mountain. We parked and walked over to the castle hoping for a tour, but were greeted by "No Entrance" signs. We later learned that this is still the residence of the reigning family.
Liechtenstein is quiet, touristy, and small. We drove most of the length of the country and found that the towns there blend together; if it weren't for the city signs you'd think you were in one large city. Driving south we found ourselves in the capital before we knew it. There is one major road that runs the length of this tiny nation; a Liechtenstein bus drives up and down the country providing public transit.
Well, as long as we were in Liechtenstein already, it was a hop skip and a jump to the eastern edge of Austria. We crossed over the border to rack up another country, and to spend the night, since Austria is cheaper than either Switzerland or Liechtenstein.
This was the first of the many nights we spent in inns. Germany and Austria apparently don't have nearly as many hotels as France, and they seem to have very few in our price range (i.e., one- or two-star). Instead, they have a lot of inns--basically, bed and breakfasts. They were clean, pretty, quaint little places. The people there didn't always speak English, and I spoke very little German, but we could always get by pointing at something on the menu, plus my tagline, "twei Biere, bitte."
As we drove north through Austria, I spotted this ruin, Neu-Montfort (New Montfort), at the top of a hill just off the road, and on the spur of the moment I pulled off so we could have a closer look. It was fairly unremarkable--just a shell supported by steel buttresses inside--but it was neat to see just the same.
|The Black Forest and Strasbourg|
Next we drove through southwest Germany, through the Black Forest toward Strasbourg. Sarah wanted to see the Black Forest because she had heard so much about it. I wanted to see Strasbourg because I had heard there was a statue there to Jean-Baptiste Kléber, one of Napoleon's generals and my great-great-great grand-uncle or something like that. Sure enough he was there, streaked with pigeon droppings.
Another place we visited here was Petite France, a quaint, outrageously touristy section of town done all in half-timber houses. There we had a romantic lunch on a platform over the Rhine as the river winds its way through the city. Perfect honeymoon material!
After Strasbourg, we crossed back into Germany. Oktoberfest was supposed to be happening during our trip, but I was disappointed because Munich was too far out of our way to be practical. (We could have done it, but it would've meant cutting out the Low Countries, and even for me that was too high a price to pay.) But in Fodor's, Sarah found a mention of Stuttgart's Folk and Beer Festival, which is supposed to be just as good but less crowded than Oktoberfest, and it was supposedly taking place at about the same time. We drove to Stuttgart (which was much closer than Munich), only to learn that the Festival wasn't starting for four days. There was also a Wine Festival in the city, but we arrived one day late for that. Thoroughly discouraged, we moved on.
|Pigs & Castles|
Our next stop was the city of Bad Wimpfen, which is famous for its Pig Museum. Why a pig museum? It seems that, in Germany, pigs are considered good luck. We had to see this. So we toured the building, which is jam-packed with pig paraphernalia of any and all sorts. It was memorable and we're glad we did it--if for no other reason than that we took lots of pictures for our sister-in-law Mana, whose special animal is the pig.
Then we drove up the Castle Road, which offered surprisingly few castles to see. Disappointed, we moved on to another section along the Rhine that's famous for castles--and decided that that one deserved the name "Castle Road". There were castles around practically every bend in the road--now that was what we came for! We toured a couple of them, including Burg Sooneck, which you see here as we saw it when we first arrived--perched on a hillside, with the morning mist swirling up past it. Since no one else was around at the time, we even got a personal guided tour in English. Sehr cool!
Our next destination was Düsseldorf. This is a commercial city not generally known as a thriving tourist spot, but I was on a Beer Pilgrimage. The area around Düsseldorf is known for producing Altbier--the old style of German beer (an ale) that most of Germany has abandoned in favor of brewing lagers. But this area has continued to make the old style, and is very proud of its Altbier.
As luck would have it, one of the books I had brought to read on this trip was Zymurgy: The Best Articles and Advice, a compilation of best articles from the American Homebrewing Association's magazine. I just happened to choose to read that first, so here I was in the airport the first day of our trip, waiting for our flight to Paris, when I read its article about a very special brewery in Düsseldorf called Zum Uerige. The description was compelling--"On your way into the dimly lit rooms to find a table you must constantly dodge wooden kegs of beer being rolled to the serving stations, where two people lift them to high shelves for dispensing by gravity" (p. 29). I found myself asking "Sweetie? Can we go to Düsseldorf?" We had to. There was just no way around it.
So we came into this place and found a table. I then tried to ask our waiter in German for a menu, but instead apparently asked him for playing cards. Seeing the puzzled look on our faces when he responded that gambling wasn't allowed inside, a friendly local couple next to us asked if they could help. We got our menus (and a pair of Altbiers)...but decided there was nothing appealing there, food-wise. The other beer they serve at Zum Uerige is a wheat beer, so I asked our waiter for a wheat. He looked very confused, and we looked at each other with concern when he dropped salt and pepper shakers at our table. What we weren't prepared for was that he brought us the most unappetizing thing on their menu--half rolls topped with shredded raw pork. A few minutes later our neighbors bailed us out again--the waiter said something like "OHHHH!", and rapidly replaced the rolls with a wheat beer. (It seems he had heard "meat" instead of "wheat"--can't blame him for that, mishearing two similar words in a foreign language in a loud room.) It was then our turn to look confused when our neighbors told us those rolls were the best thing on the menu. Apparently it's popular in northern Germany. We're into trying local specialties, but that was just a little much for us.
We left the place to get some food, then came back for a few more Altbiers. The couple who had bailed us out were still there. We ended up sitting and talking with them the rest of the evening, and we ended up closing the place. Very cool. (Incidentally our neighbors explained that the wait staff there was known for not taking crap from customers, and it was kind of a big deal that they cleared out everyone else but let us stay till closing.) They then explained to our waiter that I wanted to get a picture of the guys rolling the barrels around, because we just don't serve beer that way in the States. He was very helpful and arranged some shots of him holding up one of their barrels (on the right).
The next day we drove to Amsterdam to visit an old friend of Sarah, who who had stayed with her family as an exchange student years ago but kept in touch. That's us with her family on the right. She and her husband showed us the red light district that evening. The next day we did some shopping, took a boat trip through the canals, and visited the Anne Frank House.
Here in Amsterdam we did something else that I don't think either of us had really done before: served as interpreter for two English speakers. Sarah felt I hadn't provided her enough exotic foreign pastries on this trip, so on our way to the Anne Frank House I suggested we stop at a bakery and sample some Dutch pastries. There was an East Asian (I think Chinese) woman behind the counter with a fairly heavy Asian accent. The woman ahead of us in line had a strong British accent, and the two had real trouble understanding each other. So much to our surprise we found ourselves repeating for one what the other had just said. We were native speakers and used to hearing both accents, so we could easily understand both--and I guess Californians have a plain, generic enough accent that they could both make us out, but they couldn't understand one another. It was odd, but it worked. The lady behind the counter wasn't real happy about it, but when you're standing next to two people who can't understand each other but you can understand both of them, it's hard not to step in. Anyway it got us to the front sooner so we could get our pastries. Right on.
On our way back to Paris, we drove through Belgium. We still had a day to spend, so we stopped in Bruges, which my father had recommended over Brussels. Bruges is a beautiful old city, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone passing through the area. Having driven both there and in Brussels, I would at least recommend avoiding driving in Brussels--it's confusing to find your way around, the pedestrians walk out in front of you, and the other drivers almost seem to be trying to cause an accident.
Being now in Belgium, the Disneyland of Beers, we had to tour a brewery. We visited Half Moon Brewery, and sampled a number of different local brews. Here in Bruges I found to my surprise that I actually kind of like Belgian beers. I had never liked them before--Belgian brews have a distinctive tang to them, and it may be that those in the States have too much of that flavor, so when I sampled milder brews I could develop a taste for them. After Bruges we went to Brussels hoping to tour a lambic brewery--that was where the drivers were trying to kill us, plus the street signs were damn near impossible to read, and we never did find our way to that brewery. So ironically, we never did taste a lambic while we were in the very country where they're made.