In putting together our itinerary for this trip Colmar was always going to be a bit of an unknown quantity. Neither of us had been to this part of France before and so our knowledge was entirely gained from Dr Google and Prof Wikipedia. We had heard that the region of Alsace was unlike any other region of France because of its unique Germanic character. Over the centuries it had alternated ownership between France and Germany so many times that maybe it was unsure as to which country it really belonged.
On our first full day in this area we drove to the centre of Colmar and spent a couple of hours wandering the old city. The buildings were certainly completely unlike any we had seen anywhere else in France. Rather than the stone buildings that are so common everywhere else in this country, here we found a kaleidoscopic assortment of topsy turvy structures, all huddled closely together at odd angles. It seems that it is a requirement that each building must be painted a different colour of the rainbow. The overall effect is to make a magical wonderland of narrow streets and fairytale houses.
Just about every building is adorned with brilliant floral displays hanging from every window and a strange assortment of odds and sods on every available space. Obviously storks are considered to bring good luck and so many of the homes have model storks on chimney pots, doorways, fences, etc. Many homeowners actually build nests on their homes, hoping for a real stork to make its home there.
We also noticed that the council had been at work putting up Christmas lights above the main streets in the centre of the old town. Many of the businesses had already decorated their windows with Christmas wreaths and other Christmas trappings. With the temperatures plummeting around to around 4C it really felt that Christmas was rapidly approaching. We were both glad that we had brought our thermal underwear with us from Australia, although I was not so glad that my winter beanie had not survived the packing cull and had been left behind in Melbourne.
During the day I received an email update from Dave and Carol Yates. It made for such entertaining reading that I decided to include it in this account.
I have just finished reading your latest blog in which you describe some of the hair raising driving experiences you have had since collecting you hire car. I completely understand and can relate to your angst as I have been reduced to a quivering ball of jelly on quite a few occassions driving in both France and the UK. Like you we have had this romantic notion that driving on the back roads we allow us to see more of the real France and England. Unfortunately some of these secondary roads quite quickly detiorate in to little more than goat tracks with barely enough room to negotiate your car through without the shear terror of another vehicle approachng from the opposite direction. In the UK we have hired a Ford Mondeo station wagon which is black with dark tinted windows.When driving it I feel that I should be wearing dark glasses, a black hat and suit and have a revolver in my shoulder holster. I have always thought of a Mondeo as being at best a medium size car however when driving over here it seems absolutely enormous! If anything driving around Cornwall is even more terrifying than in France. Many of the roads here must be centuries old as they have worn down to at least a metre below the surrounding land. In addition tbey are exremely narrow,wind around n a ridiculous fashion and have two metre hedgerows growing so close to you that you feel like you are driving in a green tunnel from which heavily laden farmers tractors suddenly appeararound very tight bends. Anyway I have learnt two important lessons about driving in Europe which I feel I should pass on to you before you make the same mistakes as I have. They are:
NEVER GIVE A FRENCHMAN THE FINGER
After we left Le Croisic we had quite a long drive to Normanby to visit our friends. We chose to drive on the aforesaid minor roads which made it much longer and nerve wracking. Towards tbe end of the drive I became trapped behind a very large French tractor hauling a large trailer loaded with hay. The road was very narrow and winding and I was stuck behind him for a considerable time during which a queue of cars collected behind me. Eventually an opportunity to pass came along and I dropped the car in to second gear pulled out and planted my foot expe ting to quickly sail pass him. Well the accelaration I anticipated did not occur and I had apparantly selected fourth or even sixth and tbe car took off like a very tired snail who hadtaken to many valium pills. This aggravated the driver behind me who had also pulled out to pass and he started tooting his horn aggresively.Well I was feeling tiredand emotional and also trying to find tbe correct gear so I reacted instinctively and gave him the finger.It seems tbat he took offense at this and pulled alongside me and made a very angry face at me and was mouthing what Iam sure were very rude French words. This is where common sense should have caused me to wave apologetically and hopefully that would have settled him down. Well I didn,t did I i nstead I gave him the finger again which was not a smart thing todo. He pulled infront of me and slammed on his brakes coming to a rapid halt amost causing me to rear end him. He then jumped from his car and came towards me and tbis was when I realised how foolish I had been.He was probably about25 to 30 built like a weightlifter with full sleeve tattoos on both arms a black t shirt and an angry look on his face. Seeing my life race before my eyes I did what any sensible person would do in similar circumstances and threw the car in to reverse and tried to retreat. Imagine my chagrin when after travelling no more than a metre I realised that a car had pulled up behind me and I had nearly reversed into him. As it happend tbe upset Frenchman changed his mind and after much finger pointing and again saying very rude things in French got back in to his car and much to my relief drove off.
DONT ALWAYS TRUST YOUR GPS
I have generally found the lady in my GPS to be very reliable and in fact I have become quite fond of her however on one occassion she let me down badly. I set the GPS to take us to St Ives in Cornwall which she duly did. Unfortunately we ended up on a very narrow one way road on the foreshore of the oldest part of the town. That in itself was ok however when directing us out she tooks us up a very very narrow road, or at least at that time I tbought it was a road. After about 200 metre we came to a corner that was impossible to get around without scraping the side out of the car.While I was contemplating how to get out of tnis dilemma several aggreived poms advised me that tnis was not a road and was infact a footpath and that even if I did get around tbe corner it was a dead end. There was nothing to do other than to reverse back down the footpath with what seemed like no more than a few millimetres to spare on each side. We retracted tbe mirrors and with Carol letting me know how close we were on her side we slowly, very slowly inched backwards. To add to my humiliation an art shop owner whose window I had come close to breaking as I tried to negotiate that corner startrd to photograph or video my slow retreate. Probably to show to his friends to remind them how stupid tourists can be.
So I hope you can learn from my experiences and not make tbe same mistakes.
It certainly sounded like they had been having a wonderful time and were enjoying their car driving experiences as much as Carol had enjoyed the hotel shower in Angers. Maggie and I spent some time chuckling at their adventures before looking for a place for dinner. Just outside of Colmar there are a couple of smaller medieval towns – Eguisheim and Riquewihr. We had read about a little restaurant in Eguisheim and thought that it sounded like a good option for dinner. We programmed the address into the GPS and headed off into the dark.
If driving in France is a challenge in broad daylight, it is an even greater challenge on a dark night, especially when your headlights don’t seem to penetrate the inky darkness at all. Maybe it was because I still did not know how to turn them on properly, but all I knew was that I could barley make out the road ahead. We crawled along at about 30 kph, glad that there were no other cars on the road at this time. Apparently all the locals know that only mad dogs and Englishmen drive at night.
Somehow the GPS managed to get us to the village without a major accident and we parked the car anywhere that looked suitable and staggered out. My palms were sweaty and my heart was thumping. I didn’t feel hungry, but we had come this far and it would seem stupid not to find the place we had driven all this way for.
We had not walked for long before my mouth gaped open in wonder. In the dim lights from the windows this place really did look like a magical world. I had to admit that we had never seen anything like it and it even made the streets of old Colmar look plain by comparison. We did eventually find the restaurant and enjoyed a wonderful meal there with the locals. In this region many of the locals speak a special dialect called Alsation. It is related to German but is actually quite distinct. Sitting in this tiny restaurant gave us a chance to hear it spoken. We were the only English speakers in the place and we got the impression that very few visitors would come here after dark. It was a lovely night that we will never forget.
Finding where we had left the car presented some challenges but we did eventually find it in the dark and I was so grateful for the GPS to help me get back to our B & B for the night.
The following day was a Sunday and, since we had enjoyed the dinner in Eguisheim the previous night, we thought it would be good to drive back and see it during the daytime. In the bright light of day it still looked wonderful, but perhaps not quite as magical as it had in the darkness. The streets are narrow and cobblestoned and the houses are built so that each floor is cantilevered out above the floor below. It would not have seemed entirely out of place if Bilbo Baggins came out of one of the front doors, it was just that sort of place.
Like Eguisheim, Riquewihr is also a tiny medieval village on the outskirts of Colmar. In many respects it is like Eguisheim, however it has been much more commercialized. Although it was undeniably beautiful, it did start to feel a little like Disneyland, especially when the buses started to disgorge large throngs of tourists into the narrow streets.
There was one shop that really did impress us both as it contained the largest collection of quality Christmas decorations and novelties that we had ever seen. A narrow walking path led us through a myriad of levels, surrounded on all sides by enough tinsel and toys to keep any child mesmorised for a month. It was obvious that Christmas really is big here. A pity that we could not take any photographs.
Although we were glad we had visited this area, it really was not the France we had come to know and love. In fact we were not really sure what it was. There was no doubt that it was impressive, but somehow it did not seem real. After a couple of hours we were ready to escape the throngs and seek some peace and quiet again.
After three nights in Colmar it was time for us to resume our travels. The next few days were to start our journey back towards Paris and that meant that our trip was starting to move towards its final stages. Our plan was to first drive from Colmar to Besancon, a distance of around 250 km or so. We wanted to avoid all the toll roads and seek out only the quiet rural roads instead. Although this would take us a lot longer, we both felt that we wanted to return to the tranquility of the rural farmlands again.
After the past week of overcast and rainy conditions, it was great to see the return of the sunshine again. After leaving Colmar we soon found ourselves in beautiful rolling green hills that reminded me of Southern Gippsland. The autumn trees were all now well into the advanced stages of preparing for the winter and we often found ourselves driving through flurries of russet coloured leaves that had fallen to the road in front of us. We could see that winter would quickly follow in this region of the country.
As we drove further east we also noticed the return of the lovely old stone buildings that are so typical all over the country. Gone were the brightly coloured and rendered buildings we had seen in Alsace.
Our destination for the day was the mid sized city of Besancon. We did not know anything about this city other than that its location would make it a convenient place for an overnight stay. As we drove into the town we were surprised to find a thoroughly modern city with a fantastic infrastructure. The roads were new, the traffic flowed easily, the buildings were clean and modern and we even discovered a great tramway system that had only been built in the past twelve months. The old city has a long history and was even mentioned in the writings of Julius Caesar. One of its more recent residents was the writer Victor Hugo who was born here in 1802. Besancon was long a centre of the watch making industry, but its recent prosperity is due to a growing micro technology industry. It also houses a huge university and I was surprised to read that almost 20% of the current population are university students. In the short period of time we were here it certainly impressed us a city that was well managed and was rapidly forging a confident future for itself. We didn’t even see any graffiti anywhere !
In the afternoon we caught the tram to the city centre and sat on the banks of the lovely River Doub in the late afternoon sunshine eating a delicious kebab dinner.
The hotel we had booked for the night was the brand new Zenitude Aparthotel complex. It was an impressive brand new building situated high on a hill near the medical school of the university. It was unfortunate that the first room they allocated us had such a dreadful smell inside that we had to go back to the reception to ask for another one. The second room was immaculately clean and came without the stink, but it did come with another unwelcome feature. Whenever we entered the bathroom we were met by a strange musical sound. At first I thought it was music coming from somewhere, but we came to the conclusion that it must have been some paranormal manifestation taking place in the water pipes. It really was a little unnerving and we were glad we were not staying there for a more than a single night.
The next morning we only had a relatively short drive to Dijon. The sun stayed out all day and made our final day of driving a real treat. The Bourgogne Region truly is a lovely part of France and it would have been easy to settle into one of the many villages we drove through along the way. Tomorrow morning we return our rental car and we will be reverting to travel by train and foot for the remainder of our trip. Although the Nissan Juke really was lacking in power, it had proven to be reliable and surprisingly economical (around 7.7 litres/100 km). After driving it all over France, all that remained was the simple task of getting it the final kilometre to the Europcar Rental Office. Nothing could go wrong with that simple task – or could it ?