Andorra: almost adorable

What a bizarre little country, Andorra. Nestled into the mountainous terrain between Spain and France, Andorra is basically a series of tiny little mountain towns. They’re completely unlike, say, Swiss mountain towns, in that each town consists of a small cluster of giant buildings. No cozy wooden mountain huts in sight. As a trade off there were some cute crossing signal men.

We decided that Solden was the cutest of the Andorran towns we drove through, with its pretty stone buildings lining the street. It, like pretty much every other town in Andorra, seemed to be gearing up for the coming ski season.

Catalan is the official language in Andorra, but there’s plenty of French and Spanish around, too. With all those other languages taking precedence, there’s a little less English around than you find in other Western European countries.

Andorra is known for its low taxes, and is thus a big shopping destination for luxury goods, liquor, and gasoline. We were stopped by French customs agents on our way back into France. As we pulled up next to a car that was being thoroughly searched by several agents, we were happy that we had nothing but a bottle of whisky and a jar of Spanish olives to declare.

On our way home from Andorra we stopped in Foix, France, for dinner. After wandering around the old town’s narrow, cobblestoned streets to take in the offerings, we settled on the very popular Le Jeu de l’Oie (17, rue Lafaurie). There was no English menu but the staff was very friendly and humored our crappy French language abilities. I had a delicious cheese plate. Mmmmmm French cheese.

France: public hygene, art, and tarts in Albi

Albi is a charming old town about an hour’s drive from Toulouse. Its architecture is a fascinating mixture of tumbling down ruins, beautifully-restored old brick houses, and modern embellishments.

The public showers were open and ready for business. How convenient that you can tell that smelly person sitting next to you on the bus, “Here’s a euro, please go have a shower on me.” Of course he’d probably use it instead to buy a bottle of yummy local wine.

I’m usually in a perpetual state of church burn-out, but Albi’s was worth a visit. We paid a couple euros for an audioguide which did a good job of pointing out some amazing details, such as the richly-colored ceiling frescoes which have never been restored.

The big highlight of Albi is the Toulouse Lautrec Museum. Albi was his birthplace, and the museum holds an excellent collection of his paintings and prints.

The museum is housed in the former bishop’s palace. I’m sure these fancy gardens must have helped the bishop do god’s will or something.

Street signs in Albi are posted in two languages, French and Occitan. It’s amazing how many languages you’ve never heard of you can find lurking around Europe.

We ended the day with a fabulous dinner at Ambroisie, a cute little restaurant specializing in tarts.

France: Charming Toulouse

Lufthansa was having a sale on direct flights to Toulouse, so how could we resist going to meet up with our friends who have a house just outside the city? I only wish we had gone sooner, because as a vacation destination it was fabulous.

Toulouse itself is a wonderful city for wandering. One day we roughly followed a walking tour laid out in a guidebook, which took us from big market squares, past monuments and public art, to small, winding, gallery-filled streets.

For lunch we stopped at vegetarian cafe La Faim des Haricots. There you can choose a combination of salad bar, savory tarts, dish of the day, and/or dessert bar, and eat as much as you like. It was filling and yummy.

An item on my must-eat-whenever-in-France list is macarons (not to be confused with macaroons, those coconut cookies). These little mouthfuls of joy consist of two light, flavored cookies smooshed together around a flavored cream. We picked up some at Poussin Bleu (45 rue du Languedoc), and amazingly they survived the trip all the way home (but not much longer after that). The caramel and pistachio flavors were my favorite.

Toulouse was one of those cities where I found myself contemplating whether I’d want to live there. It had a good vibe. I’d at least like to go back for more wandering.

Notes from a weekend in Paris

We recently got home from a fabulous long weekend in Paris, but I’ve been putting off blogging about it because I can’t think of anything to say. I mean, I could tell you about what we did, saw, and ate, but none of it seems particularly insightful, entertaining, or original. But hey, that doesn’t stop me from blogging on other days…

Paris is a big, dirty, stinky city, which means I greatly prefer it in the winter, when the grime feels less greasy and the smells are a little less smelly. The same goes for New York, Milan, London – pretty much any city big enough to have a subway system is better in the cold weather.

The forecast called for rain all weekend, so we figured we’d be spending a lot of time in museums. But the rain never really came, and we spent most of our days wandering aimlessly through the city. It’s nice to have a vacation without an agenda every now and then.

One of the things I love about Paris is its stylish, cozy little cafes. We went for wine and happy-hour cocktails rather than beer (which costs 8 euros a glass here – quite a difference from Munich). Mmmmm wine.

One other detail I will mention is the hotel we stayed in, Hotel Relais Bosquet, which was clean, well-located and a good value. We could even see the Eiffel Tower when we stuck our heads out the window.

I’ll let the photos tell you the rest. Paris was a great place to play with our new camera. More here.

Strasbourg: more than France’s Christmas market town

I don’t have anything particularly profound to say about Strasbourg, since I only spent about 6 hours there this time around. It was nice to see it without the massive crowds that were there for the Christmas market. Strasbourg definitely has its charming side, and I wouldn’t mind going back another time.

We attempted to hit a casual vegetarian restaurant called Adan (6 rue Sedillot) for lunch, but alas it was closed for a week of vacation. That left us scrambling to find a suitable lunch place that was still serving (eating lunch after 1 PM = bad idea in France). We were turned away from a couple places which couldn’t be bothered to take our money in exchange for food before coming across the restaurant Le Fossile. Not only were they still serving, but the place was packed and had a great vibe. The menu (which the waitress took time to translate for us) basically consisted of steak and more steak. I had a yummy-but-not-so-filling salad and a bunch of Ali’s French fries (blech). But I still came away liking the place. Perhaps it was the wine?

We basically spent the day wandering around, window-shopping and admiring the views. Like Colmar, Strasbourg also has its share of adorable half-timbered houses. Its cute waterside neighborhood is called Petite France (I was expecting a miniature Eiffel Tower, but no), and makes for some good strolling. Overall I’m giving Strasbourg 3 out of 5 stars. (I don’t know, I just felt like giving it a rating.)

Colmar: France at its most charming

Day one of my recent trip to Alsace was spent in Colmar, an adorable little town full of narrow cobblestone streets and half-timbered houses painted in vivid colors. It’s just a 2-hour train ride from Zurich, changing trains in Basel (I’m being nice in this post, so I’m biting my tongue about the cleanliness and punctuality of that second train).

After dropping our bags off at the hotel and wandering around a bit, we headed for lunch at Le temps des delices (23, rue d’Alspach), a tiny Italian restaurant recommended by Ali’s guidebook. It offered up some of the best food I’ve ever had in France, and the waitress was friendly and charming. And it was non-smoking, so one could actually taste the food. Great place!

With our bellies satisfied, we headed towards the Musee d’Unterlinden. This museum is touted for its fabulous altarpiece by some guy I had never heard of. I went in a skeptic and came out a convert – it was a pretty fabulous altarpiece, and the rest of the collection contained some real gems, too. A very good art museum for such a small town, that’s for sure.

Then it was off for some more wandering. We roughly followed the walking route recommended by the friendly guy at the Tourist Information Office. (Pretty much everyone we encountered in Colmar was friendly – can you imagine? Way to bust down those stereotypes about snotty rude Frenchies, Colmar.)

One particularly charming neighborhood of Colmar is referred to as ‘Petit Venise’ due to its muddy, dirty canals. One could imagine the patios lining the streets and canals full of tourists on a day only slightly warmer than the one we had; it must be packed in the summer, but we had it mostly to ourselves.

We stayed at a gorgeous, recently-renovated hotel in the middle of town called La Maison des Têtes (um, the head house?). It was a little too newly-renovated, actually – you could still smell the fresh paint. Their breakfast was decent but cost 14 euros extra; next time I’d skip it in favor of finding my own at one of the gazillions of pastry shops around. Seriously, how do the French eat all those pastries and stay so thin?

Overall Colmar was a big hit, and I’d really like to return. Next time I’ll go by car so I can explore all the wineries in the surrounding area – Alsace, like many other regions of France, is full of charming wineries. Who knew France could be so much fun?

France is growing on me

I never used to be a big fan of France. I wasn’t out renaming fried potato products just to spite its citizens or anything like that – I just wasn’t that into it. The language sounds ridiculous to me. The food is meaty. The trains… well, you know about the trains.

But my last couple trips there have turned out to be quite enjoyable. I just returned from a couple days in the Alsace region, and they were downright fun. The towns were adorable, the people were friendly and helpful, and I even managed to find a little bit of decent vegetarian food. And a lot of decent wine. And only one of my trains was late. Pictures and trip report coming soon…

Oh, and did you hear that Switzerland invaded Liechtenstein this week? Maybe that will liven the place up…

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