Off the Path to Feeling Beaten: Eguisheim, France

“Left! Left!”

“Fuck!”

“Get the fuck out of the way!”

“Yeah, fuck that dude.”

Wheels banging on the cobblestones, rocking like a ship breaking up on reentry and all the while, I’m in the navigator seat, pointing at turns, tapping through maps, cursing at strangers. Strasbourg out the windows of our van like a half timbered Mario Kart level, vehicles screaming out of alleyways, pedestrians lunging out from behind cars. When we finally emerged from the fog of battle, the freeway was sliding beneath us and the sun was out and we were breathless.

“How far is it to Basel?” Dad asked.

“About 2 hours.”

“Ugh shit,” he said, and a silent nod passed through the car. A nod of sweaty heads and worried brows. Were we really ready to try and navigate another city right now? Did we want to try to have to park this rattletrap in a new country with new pedestrians and new street signs?

 

The gas tank on the dash blinked empty and we collectively decided that our resilience 

Egu on the road

had bottomed out as well. We pulled into Comar, puzzling our situation  over while the car guzzled gasoline and when we pulled away from the pump we felt no closer to an answer. All along the hillsides, skylining against the crystal blue, castles stood bristly and exotic to our American eyes.

“I wonder what’s over in that area,” Dad said, mostly just to fill the silence.

“Let’s go see,” Mom said. A considerate silence followed and then there was tapping and scrolling and yelping and suddenly we were off the beaten path and off the path to feeling beaten.

Egu on the street

Eguisheim is a swirly snail shell of a town. Half timbered houses from the 10th century huddled around a steeple at the base of a hill topped with castles. Vineyards stretch out away from it, down the olive green hillside,  beneath a pale blue sky. We parked on the outside of the town, left our jarringly modern van with its backup cameras and satellite radio sitting beside a curb that had been there for centuries. Prehistoric birds circled on six foot wingspans, bony dinosaur legs tucked up underneath them, javeline beaks swiveling back and forth, scanning. We followed the winding streets and an alluring smell to the center of town. Restaurant Kas’Fratz drew us to her and we were seated at a table outside in the sunlight. My eyes snatched up a menu item that checked all of my boxes. Fried potatoes: Check. Cheese: check.  That’s pretty much all my boxes if I’m being honest. In the interim between ordering food and eating it, when there is nothing to do but sit and wait, we did just that.

Egu on the patio

The ancient birds clicked their gutteral clicks in their massive nests on all the building tops and the village streets were filled with the subdued tinkering sounds of a small town doing small town things. Scraping at a gutter, water running in a sink. The occasional shutter of a camera, clink of a glass.  No cursing, no honking, no white knuckles on a steering wheel. If we were starting to feel like we’d made a good decision coming here, the arrival of lunch drove that nail home with a flourish.

Egu Potato cake

What I’d initially mistaken on the menu for fried, cheesy potatoes with ground beef mixed into them turned out to be a perfectly prepared cheeseburger with fried potato patties for buns.

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Where have you been all my life? The potatoes were perfectly seasoned and the crisp on them added a texture that many burgers are missing. The cheese held what could have been a real mess together and the meat was earthy and rich.

I got up into that meal. Fingers were licked, and beer was glugged and happiness was abound.

Those birds in their bushy nests stopped regurgitating into each other’s mouths, looking down on me, thinking, that guy is a disgusting eater.

We spent the next couple hours there, winding through the streets looking at knick-knacks in shops and inscriptions above doorways. We basked in the sunlight and smelled the flowers and when the time finally came to fire up the rattletrap, we were ready. We were rested, we were energized, and most importantly, we were well fed.

Egu the hills

 

Check out Restaurant Kas’Fratz facebook here.

 

 

 

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20cc’s of Basement Wine: Day 2 in Strasbourg

     Standing on the balcony of our hotel, looking down into streets of Central Strasbourg, almost free of cars, almost free of people. The sun hung orange and heavy in the cloudless sky and Melissa lay out on the elegant bed behind me, trying to sleep off the stress of the drive in. On the street beneath me, a four man police patrol in riot gear threaded their way along the sidewalk, peeking into alleys, routing homeless people off of benches and away from garbage cans. Another four man team passed them and they all nodded to each other and continued on their way. I felt the contrast between Strasbourg and Baden Baden acutely at that moment and part of me longed for the coziness of that quiet German town. This a dangerous spiral to fall into as a traveler. Looking back over your shoulder wistfully, when you should be hopefully looking ahead. You IMG_4910.JPGcan’t compare cities, any more than you can sunsets or excellent cookies, and trying to do so just takes you out of the moment and leaves you frustrated. Nobody falls into a death spiral on purpose, though, so I stood there on my balcony looking down on this new place sighing bad vibes out into the afternoon air until there was a knock on the door. I opened it on Mom.

 

“We’re going to do something cool,” She said. “Wanna come?”

The Strasbourg Hospital was built in 1395. Because of the medicinal value of wine during that time, it had a cellar in the basement where they stored the wine that gave to their patients. That cellar is still in operation to this day. It produces 150,000 bottles of wine each year and houses over 40 ancient barrels of the stuff, at least one of which dates back to 1472. We walked to it in the stagnant sunlight, doing our best not to be the suicidal pedestrians from our earlier drive. Slipping through the throngs of people, HBW1hearing Russian and German and French and Spanish all gurgling past us, babbling brook. We found the hospital through a wrought iron gate. The cellar down a flight of stairs. Cool air wafted through the place. The kind of chill you associate with cellars. The kind of damp and brick construction as well. We handed Euros to a woman at the front desk and she handed us listening devices, which were shaped like an old TV remote with a speaker phone on one side of it. Mine lights hung from the ceiling joists, covered in their ancient spider webs, growing their ancient mold. Wine casks the size of VW’s hulked behind massive iron bars with dates embossed on them. 1576, 1624. Unfathomable times that put America in a weird perspective. This place had beverages older than our country. It’s booze from 1796 wasn’t ready yet. What made us think our nation was? We wandered through this underground maze of history, learning about the medicinal uses of wine and the dissections that used to occur down in the place before the Inquisition and we unwound a bit down there. surrounded by ancient booze and the macabre, a PBS voice in our handset, murmuring factoids at us.


When we’d finished our tour, we went searching for libations of our own, moving with the masses between the buildings, soaking in the sights and sounds. Strasbourg hot potatoed between Germany and France for centuries and you can hear it on tongues and see it in the half timbered houses. Smell it in the cooking smells and taste it in the food. We sat on a French speaking patio, drinking German beer watching crowds shuffle past us, headed somewhere. We wouldn’t know where until the beers were gone and the tab was paid. Freshly oiled on hops and malt we coasted between two buildings and another Notre Dames leapt out at us. It did so the way the one in Reims had and ,again, I found myself absolutely transfixed by the grandeur of it. Rising from the city floor like the wrath of god itself. Excluding the shock value, though,the similarities between this building and the one in Reims were few and far between. Strasbourg’s Notre Dames was prickly and  intricate. Absolutely bustling with busy little images, topped with a green roof that resembled oxidized copper. This building was different from ones we’d seen before. Different as the cities that built them. But no less beautiful.  

ND1

More info:

http://www.strasbourg.info/sights/wine-cellar/

https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g187075-d1394523-Reviews-Cave_historique_des_hospices_civils_de_Strasbourg-Strasbourg_Bas_Rhin_Grand_Est.html

 

From Breakfast to Bedlam: Day 1 in Strasbourg

Morning, Baden Baden

The sun rose over the  hills of Baden Baden, shining around the prickly spires of castles, and found me like a wet noodle in our hotel bed. The festivities of the day before had left me loose and limber and I slithered out of the sheets to the bathroom, where Melissa was getting ready to take a dip in the indoor pool beneath our hotel. I told myself I wasn’t going to go swimming with her, but I quickly did the math on how many pastries I could eat if I backstroked a few laps and the figures added up. I slapped around gleefully in the jungle heat of the underground.

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Afternoon, Strasbourg

Our crumpled can minivan huffed and puffed and doddered down the autobahn in the slipstream of sports cars that sizzled past it. We were inbound to Strasbourg

“Does the email from the hotel  say where to park?” Dad threw the question into the back seat and mom began flicking through her phone for an answer. We took our exit into Strasbourg.

“Not really,” she said. I peeked back at her, saw her brow all knitted up. “It says something about a parking lot near a park, but I can’t find the park on the map. Oh, wait… No… Hm.”

Strasbourg climbed up onto our windshield, buildings looming up against the sky. We all began to spastically type the name of the park into our maps as Dad steered us to the city center blindly. Finally, we found something that seemed comparable to what was on described in the email and I began to navigate us to it.

 

Morning, Baden Baden

After my relaxing swim, we all walked along the Oos in dazzling sunlight, gawking at the houses along the gurgling water, up the streets of Old Town Baden Baden, mostly empty in the early morning. Cafe König was tucked down one of veins that carried foot traffic away from the heart of Old Town and we had wandered past after closing time the day before and almost broken into the place to get a better look. Cakes and pies and tarts like something out of a Willy Wonka wet dream set up behind the glass sparkly and exotic. Yelp had a lot to say about the place, and none of it was negative, so we stopped in for their breakfast menu, crowded ourselves around a table awash in the clinking and clanking of polite company and waited for the show to start.

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Afternoon, Strausbourg

A half mile from the center of Strasbourg, the streets filled up with brake lights, cars laying on horns and steering down impossibly narrow alleys, side views slapping against bicyclists, who just rode on, BMXing their way between fenders, whispering into traffic like they weren’t made of meat and pain receptors.

“Fuck.” Dad muttered into the steering wheel, draped over it, sweating. The closer we got to the middle of things, the worse it all got. Pedestrians stepped out into the street with their phones in their hands, oblivious to squealing of horns and tires. Testing brakes and reflexes with their souls.

“Fuck.” we all muttered, like an anthem. We finally pulled into the parking lot, sweatier, and dumped a handful of change into a meter. “PAID”, it said.

    The walk to the hotel wasn’t as hectic as the driving. We pounded feet between old high rises full of new businesses, SUPERDRY and LULULEMON and MCDONALDS looming in neon overhead. Busier than Baden Baden. Grittier.

“Your room is ready,” the woman at the hotel reception said and there was a ‘but’ just below the surface of it. “But it sounds like you’ve parked in the wrong area.” She unfolded a map and drew an X on it. Then she drew a squiggly line back across the mayhem through which  we’d just driven, over bridges and down alleys to a gate that she would open when we got to it. We left our bags with her, snaked our way back to the car.

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Morning, Baden Baden.

Breakfast was delightful.  A tray of pastries that we tore into with fervor. Cheeses and meats curled on plates, and we mashed them into croissants and folded them into our mouths. Organic eggs upright in a little dish and we cracked half the shells off, scooped out the gold with a spoon. Orange juice, coffee, butter and jam, bliss in several consistencies. We left a tip and a mess and we floated out into the daylight, wondering what other treasures the day had in store for us.

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Afternoon, Strausbourg

We found two men combing the parking lot, looking swarthy, on the prowl. One was wearing a multicolored tracksuit,  ill fitting shoes, decked out in all gold, bracelets and necklaces and earings. His compatriot looked exactly like Nico Bellic from Grand Theft Auto 4. Down to the leather jacket and sweatpants. I watched them wave a car into the Image result for Niko Belliclot. Took money from the confused looking driver to pay the “parking fee”, pocketed it. Nothing about them said, “city employee”. As we approached our car, Tracksuit started to sing a song, and it was the kind of nervous singing favored by men who want to look like they aren’t nervous. My hands left my pockets. My family continued to the van and I intercepted tracksuit behind it.

“You pay,” tracksuit said, and his hand opened and closed between us like, gimme gimme.

“we paid.” And I pointed at the meter, still green.

The car started, reverse lights painting us white, toe to toe. GTA 4 smelled trouble and started over from his corner of the lot, stuffing cash in his pocket.

“You pay.” Tracksuit said again, gimme gimme. All the happy-go-lucky fell out of his voice and I remember deciding that if there was going to be a fight I needed to start and finish the Tracksuit portion of it before GTA 4 got there. Tracksuit’s carotid was banging away next to the spot that I’d picked on his jaw, GTA4 still in route, picking up the pace and I saw Tracksuit smell the serious in the lot and decide that whatever scam they were running would survive just fine without my portion of the parking fee.

“Tranquil” he said, tripping over his feet stepping back and I thought, if  I hit him now, he’ll fall down, even if I don’t knock him out.

“Okay, Okay, Calm down” he said and I followed him back and the van followed us back and the door slid open and I was in it and we were gone. Tracksuit standing next to GTA4 in that parking lot looking shaken in the rearview. We jostled back through the fray of car horns and suicidal pedestrians, rattling over cobblestones and holding our breath in claustrophobic alleyways, screaming obscenities at other cars. We got lost. We found our way. We got lost again. When the front desk lady finally threw the gate open for us and we crash landed the van into the parking area there was a breathless silence in the car that was finally broken by Melissa.

“ Well that’s two weeks off the end of my life.”

And we all laughed and wondered what the fuck had gotten us from breakfast and Bedlam.

Pale Wieners and Stolen Cake: Day 2 in Germany

11:47am on a Wednesday, and I. Was. Naked. Steam hanging like a fog, ass planted on a bench, naked in a sea of naked strangers who were milling about with a calm indifference that I wanted to embody but could not because I. Was. Naked. I was at station one of the Friedrichbad spa in Baden Baden, seated in a steam room with my feet planted on a thermally heated floor, and my eyes fixed on my toes, wrestling with all my American sensibilities and western prudishness. A man shuffled past me holding hands with his wife, and I reflexively looked up from my toes to make sure that I wasn’t in their way. Who’s got two thumbs, no pants and would not be having a pale wiener with dinner that night? This guy. The clock on the wall ticked over to 11:50 and my fifteen minutes in station one were up. I shuffled off to station two.

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     The Friedrichsbad Irish/Roman bath house was opened in 1877. It sits atop the ruins of a Roman bath house and pulls most of its heat and water from thermal vents in the earth. The place is legendary for its rejuvenating and regenerative abilities. It’s also famous for making squeamish Americans cover their genitals in the presence of the opposite sex, which is exactly what I spent the first 3 stations doing. I sat in a hot room, covering my genitals. Then I sat in a hotter room, covering my genitals. Then I took a warm shower, covering my genitals. Finally, half way through a soap scrub, soft brush covered in milky soap grinding the exhaustion off my skin in the soupy heat from the center of the earth, I realized, nobody gives a shit about your genitals, dude. And I let go like a knot unraveling, fell into the place with abandon. I breathed mineral infused air and floated in a pool of thermal water. I slipped into room after room and let the air and the moisture and the heat and the silence take the stress that had grown like a cancer in me over the course of the first few days. I pulled deep breaths down into me and there was no room for spiraling into a pseudo-stroke on an airplane or standing in front of a foreign hospital with no shoes on. No room for May Day riots or panic attacks. Just warm thermal air and hot, still, waters. I mean, someone swaddled me in heated blankets for fuck’s sake. Try to keep worrying  about a lady you don’t know seeing your beanbag while that’s happening. You can’t.

     I walked out of that spa, into the light of midday and everything was different. Melissa, who had opted for the clothed spa next door (a royal fuck-up if you ask me), met me on the cobblestone street out front, apprehension in her eyes.

“How was it?” She asked.

And my face said it all.

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On our way back to the hotel, we ran into Mom and Dad at a restaurant nearby. I sat and ate a bunch of their leftovers, like a cow grazing in someone else’s pasture. Docile and unashamed. When that was done, I floated back to the hotel along the Oos river, grass glowing in the sunlight, water gurgling over stones.

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In the lobby of our hotel, a dessert buffet was laid out and the smell of it drew us on our tip toes like in a cartoon.

“Do you think that’s for hotel guests?” she asked.

 

“Sure.” I said.

“Really?” and there was skepticism in her voice, because we were both avoiding the obvious next step, which was to just go ask someone, because there was a pretty good chance it wasn’t for us in which case, someone would have told us not to take any, which would make it pretty egregious if we did.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s for us,” I said, still coasting on the high of total relaxation. We took cake and helped ourselves to coffee and we slunk off to a little corner of the lobby giggling at our mischief and elating in our stolen confection (which definitely wasn’t for us), because once you’re able to relax naked in a room full of total strangers, it’s hard to play by anyone’s rules but your own.  

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If you’re interested in seeing Rick Steves waaaaaay too naked: