Rendez-vous Place Stanislas: Summer Nights in Nancy

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Hot summer afternoons are keeping us confined indoors or at swimming pools during the day, but when the sun disappears well after 9pm, town squares and other attractions come to life as the French venture outside for some fresh air.

In Alsace’s neighboring region, Lorraine, they meet in the city of Nancy at the Place Stanislas, which has UNESCO World Heritage Site status and is considered one of the most beautiful plazas in the world. Commissioned by the Duke of Lorraine Stanislas Leszczynski in the 1750s, it’s the perfect place for a spectacular light show with gleaming gold-lined 18th-century palaces as backdrops.

As in many European cities, these light shows are a popular summer tradition and are usually centered around a specific theme. This year in Nancy, the theme is World War I. It can be viewed from June 13 to August 15 at 10:45pm each night and from August 16 to September 14 at 10pm. On July 11 and 14, the show will take place at 11:15pm. When we checked it out last night, we were pleased with the visual effects and impressed with the precision it must take to project every image exactly where it needs to be to light up every detail of the building: windows, doors, clock, and pillars- everything in its place to make the beautiful Hôtel de Ville spectacular in a million different ways!

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A Perfect Sunday in a Vineyard in Beaune

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Step 1: A simple but satisfying midday brunch on a sunny terrace in the town of Beaune, near Dijon in Burgundy, with good friends, mini-crêpes topped with Nutella, meat-filled bread slices, cold-cuts and a variety of cheeses along with a picture-perfect bowl of fresh fruit.

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Step 2: A cup of coffee over an hour-long conversation about the recent European Union elections and a smattering of other subjects that eventually lead to questioning the American at the table about crocodiles in Florida.

Step 3: Making our way across winding country roads to a sun-sprinkled vineyard and its thousand-year old crumbling storehouses, reminders of France’s 2000+ years of wine production. Move further away from civilization in both space and time.

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For more on Beaune, click here.

For more adventures in Burgundy, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Relaxation Guaranteed: Baden-Baden and the Black Forest

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This blog is supposed to be about France, of course, but living in Strasbourg means daily contact with the German culture, whether through contact with its people (the crowds of German tourists downtown or the local business owners of that nationality), food (restaurants specializing in sauerkraut dishes, soft doughy bretzel in every bakery…) or language (the Alsatian dialect that is heavily influenced by German). It’s not that I lack an interest for the German culture- quite the contrary- but my busy schedule for the past year has made it impossible to take a real vacation there (the few afternoons I’ve spent in Kehl, our neighboring German city, doesn’t really count as a cultural immersion).

But over time, after filling my stomach with delicious bretzels and kougelhopfs every week, I decided that this country deserved further exploration and I made up my mind to venture beyond the ten-minute car ride to Kehl.

So, on a sunny May weekend, I took off to Baden-Baden and the Black Forest with a friend for a weekend of travel, relaxation and hiking… With my three favorite leisure time activities combined into one weekend, I knew it couldn’t go wrong.

And it didn’t. Baden-Baden, an hour away from the French border, is an adorable, well-kept, medieval-looking town interspersed with bright modern apartment buildings, 19th-century stone mansions and steep winding hills.

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Its most attractive feature, however, is its thermal spas.

Upon arrival, we headed right away to the Caracalla Spa, the most popular in town, where we were greeted by a huge domed hall with a choice of bathing pools in all different shades of sparkling blue and varying temperatures. A rock grotto and an aroma steam bath as well as the massage and wellness center extend off to one side and more pools extend into the outside gardens where whirlpools, fountains and a waterfall offer excellent natural messages with refreshing mineral spring water.

For the more adventurous types, an upstairs sauna area is available on one condition: nudity, which is not uncommon in the German and Nordic cultures for sauna and spa areas. In fact, several other spas in Baden Baden are completely nudist (thus our choice of Caracalla where bathing suits are required in the pool area!).

For 15 euros for a two-hour visit, 18 for three hours, or 21 for four, the price can’t be beat and the benefits are impressive. We made our way to our hotel in a slightly dazed state of mind, already feeling far away from our daily lives in Strasbourg and feeling physically refreshed, all the way from our shoulders that labor over computer desks during the week to the smallest muscles in our feet, worn and tense from running from tram to bus every morning in our busy urban lives.

For a hotel, we had received a great deal on a 4-star hotel, the Hotel am Sophienpark, right on one of the main streets, the Sophienstraße. Not only is the level of comfort excellent but the beautiful interior decor and its private park and sunny terrace makes for a nice meal setting or a relaxing stroll.

However, adventurers that we are, sticking around a hotel while in such a beautiful town was out of the question, so after hanging out our bathing suits and towels to dry, we set out in search of an authentic German dinner, which we found three streets over in a quaint but modern-looking bistrot with an impressive beer counter (50-cent drafts !) and a menu packed with more varieties of wienerschnitzel than I can remember but thoroughly enjoyed.

The next morning, Sunday, it was time for a tour of the rest of the downtown area. We admired the buildings and fountains of this town whose population amounts to just 54,000, but we also were impressed with the well-kept streets and peaceful, calm atmosphere that goes hand-in-hand with the spa theme. It’s no wonder that it draws not only tourists but an extensive number of retirees hoping to benefit from these features.

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Then we were off to spend the rest of the morning and afternoon on the road, making our way south through the winding roads of the Black Forest- whose color turns out to be a rich green in many hues- and pausing occasionally for photo ops when a beautiful green valley would spread out below us from our vantage point on the road.

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We arrived at the Mummelsee in about 30 minutes, and after encircling the gentle lake that sparkled under a strong midday sun, we deciphered the hiking maps posted at the entrance by throwing together the little German we knew between us. Then, we headed upwards.

 

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We had chosen the shortest circuit of 4.7 kilometers (about 3 miles) called the Mummelsee – Dreifürstenstein – Hornisgrinde – Katzenkopf. In the end, though, it took us about three hours to complete since we stopped so many times to take pictures or to simply stare out into over the rolling hills and the tiny towns clustered amongst them, barely visible in the trees. Friendly Germans stopped to take our pictures before we even asked and serious hikers and mountain bikers in their colorful sports gear trudged away onto the more challenging trails that can take up to 5 hours to complete.

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At the very top, an observation tower provides even more altitude and a short walk through a field of golden waves of grain led me to doubt that I was still on earth but was rather being drawn into another dimension of the universe that could only be accessed by falling into an oil painting of a lazily flowing landscape.

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The descent proved much more rigourous, but after a 20 minutes of tiptoeing over boulders, clutching tree branches for support and almost losing our footing more than once, we arrived right back at the lake. We chose a restaurant with a patio overlooking the lake and watched other tourists making their way around it on the hiking path or across it in little green pedal boats.

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In the distance, we could see the peak of the mountain that we had just descended. We marveled that we had managed to climb so high, proud of our athletic efforts. Combined with the effects of the thermal water, we made our way home feeling quite healthy but also wondering if Strasbourg and everything we had left behind in France would still be there upon our return, as the outside world had seemed to crumble away during our stay in Baden-Baden and the Black Forest.

 

 

For more information:

Click here for more on the Caracallas Spa of Baden Baden.

Click here for more on the Hotel am Sophienpark.

Click here for more on The Mummelsee.

Click here for Mummelsee lakeside dining.

Click here for the Baden-Baden tourist website.

Click here for the Black Forest tourist website.

Click here for a Black Forest Cake recipe (also popular in Strasbourg !)

 

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Your New Year’s Resolutions, Alsace-Style

If you love all things Alsace and enjoy venturing off the beaten tourist path, here are some New Year’s resolutions that won’t be hard to keep:

1. Eat Better (Try the Best Tarte Flambée)

Without snubbing the many excellent tarte flambée restaurants in the center of Strasbourg, it goes without saying that in the touristy downtown area, prices are high for anything-goes quality of this regional specialty, also called flammekeuche in the Alsatian dialect. For a real, authentic Alsatian experience that assures high quality at a reasonable price, try the Auberge du Pont de la Zorn in the country town of Weyersheim, 15 minutes by car from Strasbourg (or 20 minutes by train). The tarte flambée is heavenly: crispy on the edges with perfect mixes of herbs and meat spread evenly over the just-soft-enough-without-being-mushy dough and topped with melt-in-your-mouth cheese of the best quality around (I highly reccommend the Munster variety). The atmosphere and decor mixed with the woody smells of the stone flammekeuche oven will wisk you away from the crowds and noise of your afternoon tour in the Strasbourg center and into an authentic winstub (“wine room” or traditional Alsatian bistro) inside of a typical 1717 house with dark wooden crossbeams, green shutters and a slanting red tile roof. The red-and-white checkered tablecloths, dim lighting and light yellow walls decorated with wooden clocks, tapestries of Alsatian embroidery, old wooden farm tools and framed photos of landscapes add to the ambiance but don’t suffocate you with clichés. This award-winning restaurant, which was recently named a Restaurant de Qualité by the Collège Culinaire de France, is often highly noted for its service and my visit confirmed the presence of a polite, professional and efficient wait staff.

For more information: Auberge du Pont de la Zorn, 2 Rue de la République, 67720 Weyersheim, France 03 88 51 36 87

You can visit their Facebook page by clicking here.

2. Increase Intellect (Find the Best Reading Spot)

If you’re like me and adhere to the theory that the place in which you read can impact a book’s spiritual effects, the Jardin de l’Orangerie (Orangerie Garden) in the northeast of the city is the place to go. Choose from several spots- on the edge of small lake, its waterfall and fountain that erupts in rainbows on sunny days; an old stone bench etched with family names long forgotten and hidden among a cove of trees; or a vine-covered walkway colored with many shades of green and yellow. If reading isn’t your thing, bring a picnic and lazy away the afternoon watching the elegant white swans splashing around on the edge of the lake.

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3. Be More Adventurous (Explore Hidden Wine Cellars)

What if you were stuck in a hospital for a few weeks, feeling a bit down, and I told you that underneath the building was a huge stock of wine barrels filled with the finest Alsatian vintages? If you’re attracted to France for its wine, your hospital stay might end on high note with a visit to the underground wine cellars of the Hôpital Civil of Strasbourg– doctor’s permission permitting, of course!

The main attraction, hidden behind iron bars, are three dusty old wine barrels. The smaller two hold wine that has been maturing there since 1519 and 1525. The largest contains the masterpiece: 300 liters of wine produced in 1472, the oldest barrel of wine in the world. It has only been served 3 times: in 1576 to thank the army from Zurich who came to the aid of the city, in 1718 to celebrate the reconstruction of the hospital after a fire, and in 1944 to thank General Philippe Leclerc de Hautecloque for liberating Strasbourg from the Germans.

1458672_10202586049109916_805948289_nHow is it possible that such an old wine is still in existence today? The 1200 square-meter cellar was built in 1395, when the hospital was a religious institution that also provided room and board to travellers and pilgrims from all over Europe. To finance these activities, it relied on the inheritance of vineyards and their wines: sometimes, hospital fees were paid by a donation of land or a share in the grape harvest, usually by landowners hoping assure a spot in Heaven with a generous gift to the Church. The hospital thus stored its wines in their cellar and even provided it to patients to ease their pain, a practice that slowly died out beginning in the 17th century as medicine became more advanced. Due to financial restructuring and heavy competition, the wine cellar could have disappeared in 1995, which was prevented by turning it into a storage area for local wine growers and a wine shop that also provides wine tastings and other events, such as an open house with local winegrowers. However, the site remains one of Strasbourg’s best-kept secrets, a site reserved for the most passionate wine-loving tourists and locals. It stocks the best of the region’s Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Muscat, Pinot Gris, crémants and much more. Not only are its wines a marvel, but the barrels that hold them are works of art in themselves with beautiful carvings in their sturdy oak covers.

You can visit Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. as well as Saturday from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. For more information and a map, click here.

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4. Exercise! (Outdoor Swimming with an Excellent View)

I was a bit skeptical last year when my friend invited me to join her for a swim in an outdoor pool… in December. But thanks to a great heating system, we stayed nice and warm as we swam a few 50-meter laps through the steam-covered water and enjoyed a nice view of the European Parliament at the Piscine de Wacken, a state-of-the-art pool located near the stop “Wacken” of the B tram. It is handicap accessible and provides outdoor swimming year-round at a very reasonable price thanks to governement subsidies (3,80 euros for adults or 1,90 euros for students and children) as well as several other activities in the summer: a massage parlor, a children’s pool and play area, volleyball courts, ping-pong tables, water aerobics and other classes, a concession stand, picnic tables, and lots of grassy areas for a cool-down stretch or to lay out in the sun after a hard work-out. And if you forget your goggles or even your swimsuit- no worries. A vending machine at the entrance provides for all of your swimming needs.

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Champagne at the Top of the World- A Day Trip to Langres

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I left at 7 in the morning by car and as I headed towards the region of Champagne-Ardenne– the region where champagne is produced, of course– just north of Dijon and southwest of Strasbourg, cars and houses and even powerlines fell away little by little and our radio crackled into pure static until I was surrounded by long, flat deserts of green and yellow. Around 9, what seemed to be a castle floating in the bright blue sky emerged in the distance and it was only when I was within a few miles that the fog hiding the hill it stood upon made its appearance. I started a slow climb up a winding two-lane road to one of the seven gates of  the town of Langres. The entrance was an ancient arch of yellow-brown stones covered in moss and chipped away in every corner. I hopped out and squeezed my way through the arch- the road that passed beneath it curved sharply on the other side and cars rumbled down its cobblestone surface and only just managed to fit through the narrow opening, which had obviously been built light-years before the invention of any type of automobile.

With no map but guided by the ramparts surrounding the town, I circled the eastern wall of the city and caught the last few minutes of sunrise glaring out over the cluster of houses below, the green fields and hills spreading out from them on all sides, and in the distance, a gray-blue lake, the Lac de la Liez.

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After a few minutes of marveling at how far away the bustling Christmas Markets of Strasbourg seemed to be at this moment, I turned back to the stillness of this town of 8000 inhabitants, continuing along the ramparts to the south. Two middle-aged women out for a morning walk offered me a friendly “Bonjour,” and as I arrived at the end of the eastern wall, an elderly gentleman with a fresh baguette tucked under his arm and a black beret perched on his head did the same.

I followed the smell of bread to the corner of Rue Diderot, the town’s main street. To the left, it led under another magnificent arched gate called the Porte des Moulins (dating back to 1647) and then fell away over the hill. To the right, it continued along between bakeries, pastry shops, a restaurant here and there and a few clothing and accessory shops. I wandered down it, stopping to stare into a few shop windows in search of a few last-minute Christmas gifts. Most were closed on this sleepy 23 of December morning, so I left the street in search of the western ramparts, thinking that perhaps the town center would come to life in the afternoon, which normally happens on Saturdays, Sundays and vacation days in France.

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It’s impossible to get lost in Langres: keep walking straight in one direction and you’ll hit the ramparts in no more than 20 minutes. The view from the western side is less spectacular but leads to the historic neighborhood where it is difficult to distinguish between run-down and antique, between rickety and charming.

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Crossing this neighborhood will lead to the other end of Rue Diderot and the plaza where the statue version of famous writer and founder of the encyclopedia, Denis Diderot, born in Langres, keeps watch over the sparse traffic circling its way around him and towards the Saint-Mammès Cathedral to the north. I made a quick stop at this magnificent site, constructed between 1150 and 1196, admired its charming old-ness, and then realized that its ancient walls hardly kept out the cold. It was almost midday at this point, so I headed back to the main street to search for a warm meal.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI then found a housing decor store that corresponded perfectly with my Christmas shopping list.  When I explained that I was a tourist and just picking up some last-minute gifts, the friendly woman behind the counter kindly agreed to keep my purchases in the store until I could pick them up at the end of the day so that I could “better enjoy the town” and not be bogged down with shopping bags. I then asked her where I could buy wine in Langres and she pointed me to the caviste at the end of Rue Diderot to the south. So I circled back and creaked open the wooden door of the wine shop with its fading and chipped red paint and then creaked across the old wooden floorboards covered in randomly-placed wine barrels and a ceiling-high shelf crowded with bottles of wine and liquor that sparkled several shades of red, pink, yellow, gold in the sunlight that glared through the dusty window panes.

I was looking for mirabelle liquor, normally a specialty of the Lorraine region to the north where this yellow plum is supposed to be the most delicious, but produced in the neighboring regions of Champagne-Ardenne and Franche-Compté as well. The jolly old caviste talked me into the last variety he had left and then at my request pulled out a few bottles of the best champagne in the region. He warned me against “false” champagnes that are sold throughout the world- the only wine with the right to be called “Champagne” is produced in Champagne-Ardenne, yet many foreign wine growers stick a “champagne” label on their lower-quality bubbly and sell it at high prices, giving the buyer the impression that he or she is enjoying a luxury French product that in reality is inferior to the champagnes of this region. When I made my final selections-varieties of Pommery and Jacquart for the Christmas festivities- he wrapped them up proudly while chatting with another customer- apparently a regular- about the latest news of his family. In fact, I seemed to be the only person in the town who didn’t know everyone by name- as I strolled past the florist, the shopkeeper called out to the passers-by with a “Bonjour, Maryse” or a “How’s the shoulder doing today, Jean-Michel?” and the bakers slipped in a few words about the latest on their daughter studying far away in Lorraine or their son’s new apartment just across the street. In fact, the caviste’s first words to me, after a Bonjour, were “Well, well, you look like a tourist,” even though I had stashed my camera out of sight long before entering the shop.

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By one o’clock, I had already seen practically the whole town and decided to go down to the village at the base of the hill to see what life was like in that seemingly unmoving plot of homes and dirt roads.

Getting there was quite a challenge. A long, curved, bridge-like ramp offered a great view of the ramparts and village, but was slippery with last night’s rainfall. I descended slowly and found myself on the small, two-lane road we had taken that morning. I crossed it to a steep paved staircase that cut through the woods and small garden plots kept by the villagers. It took me down to the residential area but it was so steep and long that it took a lot of effort to keep myself from falling forward down the hill!

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The village was indeed silent with an occasional car or bus zipping past in the direction of the train station. The old buildings sprinkled among the houses- tiny cafés without names, a corner store called “Food,” and a night club called “Night Club” seemed worn and tired but in a charming way, as if, despite the passage of time and the flight of residents to the big cities, they still stood proud and upright, determined to last for ages still to come.

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The climb back to the hilltop proved physically taxing as well; as my legs started to burn, I wondered that the cars on the street following my upward path didn’t somehow give out halfway uphill and come tumbling back towards the tiny round-about that marked the center of the village below.

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With a good 2 hours to spare after my downhill expedition, I decided to finish the section of ramparts that I hadn’t yet explored to the north. This led me to the Tower of Saint-Jean, which served as a carrier pigeon outpost from 1883 until the First World War, all the way around to the northwestern gate of l’Hôtel-de-Ville, and back into the main town center.

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I finished the day with a few purchases– a small traditional chocolate log cake and some postcards– and then tucked myself away in the Café-Brasserie Le Foy at the very center of town for a cup of hot chocolate. The wind on the hill is impressive and despite an otherwise sunny day, had frozen my nose and cheeks. I took a seat near the window on the indoor patio and watched as a small marching band of 6 or 7 retirees with white and gold uniforms and large feather hats circled Mr. Diderot in the center of the plaza. As expected, families had started to emerge from their homes after lunch and formed a sparse crowd around the musicians. Children were hoisted on shoulders and young couples holding hands swayed back and forth shyly. Meanwhile, the sun crept towards the western ramparts and reflected off of the millions of gleaming yellow-brown stones that made up this hilltop paradise in the center of the land of Champagne.

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Discovering the Fête de la Musique

As late the first week of June, I was starting to think that summer would never come to Alsace. Gray skies and constant rain were starting to take a toll on everyone’s mood. So last Friday, after a week or so of sun and clear skies, we had more reasons than ever to celebrate the Fête de la Musique.

Created in 1982 by the French Ministry of Culture, the Fête de la Musique is an annual summer festival that showcases French musical talent and ushers in the summer. Thousands of musicians across the country rock and roll the night away in the streets of their cities, from Lyon to Paris to tiny little villages lost in the Jura.

Here in Strasbourg, I was amazed by the number of people packed into every street in the city. Everyone from toddlers to teenagers to retirees milled about, occassionally stopping to shake and shimmy in front of a hip-hop group’s Zumba show, join in a line dance with some country artists, or simply grab a beer from a bar or nightclub that had moved their activities into the street for the night. We made our way to Place Kléber in the very center of Strasbourg to see the main event: the French musician Cali (know for his hit “Je m’en vais,” which you can listen to by clicking here). The plaza was completely packed and those living in the surrounding apartments watched the festivities from their balconies.

Cali Rocks Place Kléber

Cali Rocks Place Kléber

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… and finishes his concert in style.

I was impressed by such a large-scale, city-wide event that went on without incident- okay, a siren blared here and there from time to time and a little police presence was obvious, but the musicians rocked away until the morning hours and I fell into bed that night convinced that a great summer was here to stay.

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To Normandy and the Mont St. Michel

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThanks to a few religious holidays in early May that shut down cities and commerce in Alsace, I was able to escape for four days to the northwest of France.

It all started with a brochure that I found in my local church announcing a pilgrimage with young people from all over Europe and from all different faiths. At 140 euros, I knew it wouldn’t be luxury (Strasbourg to Normandy by bus is no picnic and the fact that a sleeping mat was required hinted at the lack of five-star accommodations), but who can say no to a visit to the magnificent Mont St. Michel that I’ve heard about since childhood, and a four-day international experience at a less-than-student price?

We met at a church in Strasbourg at 4am, bleary-eyed but enthusiastic. All of the Strasbourgeois were named grouped leaders, so we were all split up among the 120 or so foreigners hailing from Germany, Austria, Italian, Belgium and Poland. I can understand German okay, simple Italian is understandable thanks to its proximity to French, and the Belgians were from the French-speaking part of their country. Polish? Clueless.

I ended up in a 100% Polish bus except for my French seat buddy. Almost everyone spoke English, but not all. A few spoke French instead of English, so our conversations were either three-way translated or involved a lot of miming. Nevertheless, we arrived in Lisieux in the late afternoon with some great new friends (and as for me, my Polish vocabulary had increased by a whole two words!).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALiseux is the hometown of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, a 19th-century Catholic saint who died in her twenties of tuberculosis after a lifetime of serving the church as a Carmelite nun. She is known for her teachings of the “Little Way” in which she acknowledged her insignificance in this world but insisted that small acts of goodness are more important than being a big hero.

The city has been transformed into a celebration of her life (very touristy but it is, after all, the second most popular pilgrimage destination in France): the Basilica of Lisieux was constructed in her honor, the 12th-century St. Pierre Cathedral where she prayed has been carefully preserved, and her body lies in a magnificent tomb in the chapel of Carmel. We were lucky enough to visit all three. The experience was very touching; seeing the tomb of someone who had lived such a good, kind life and is now adored for it by thousands of visitors who sometimes shed tears as they add a candle to the hundreds already adorning her statue can be appreciated by people of any faith or lack thereof.

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Basilica of Lisieux

Basilica of Lisieux

Basilica of Lisieux

Basilica overlooking the city

Basilica overlooking the city

St. Therese relic and memorial, Basilica of Lisieux

St. Therese relic and memorial, Basilica of Lisieux

Dome of Basilica of Lisieux

Dome of Basilica of Lisieux

Interior, Basilica of Lisieux

Interior, Basilica of Lisieux

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Crypt of the Basilica of Lisieux

St. Pierre Cathedral

St. Pierre Cathedral

St. Pierre Cathedral and St. Therese

St. Pierre Cathedral and St. Therese

Chapel in St. Pierre Cathedral

Chapel in St. Pierre Cathedral

Chapel in St. Pierre Cathedral

Chapel in St. Pierre Cathedral

Statue above tomb of St. Therese

Statue above tomb of St. Therese

On Friday morning, we awoke early and left the residence hall in which we were staying (I couldn’t complain about the view from hilltop where it stood overlooking the cute city and its many steeples). We headed by bus to Deauville, a small French town with grand summer homes overlooking the beach and plenty of farms and rolling hills stretching out around it. I couldn’t help but think of Asterix as we made our way through tiny brick streets lined with ancient thatched roof-houses. We made our way along the beach for hours, admiring the view, stopping occasionally for snacks or to gather seashells among the piles that had washed ashore.

Normandy has a reputation for being gray, cold and rainy; and that’s how our walk was minus the rain, thankfully. We had started out in a huge group but as the day wore on, people began breaking down into small groups of four or five… and then pairs… and then we all spread out alone for miles, each lost in their own thoughts and admiration of the surroundings.

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Around 7p.m., after a nearly 15-kilometer march, we were greeted by this view of Houlgate:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe then headed to our accommodations, exhausted but quite proud of ourselves. We fell asleep as soon as we curled up in bed but were awoken what felt like seconds later. It was 6 a.m. and time to head to the Mont. St. Michel, the goal of our journey!

We drove to Genêts, a quaint Normandy town just across the bay from the Mont St. Michel. After a small service at Notre Dame, a small, 13th century Roman architecture church, we enjoyed a lunch on a hill overlooking a field of sheep. In the distant fog, the Mont St. Michel stood alone in the expansive bay; I didn’t know at the time that it would actually take a three hours to walk there.

Genets

Genets

Notre Dame

Notre Dame

Lunchtime view

Lunchtime view

So we started off with our guides, two retirees who spend each day leading groups of tourists across the sticky, wet bay before the tide comes back in the evening and surrounds the island.

“Have people died?” my buddy asked our guide as we took off our shoes on the edge of the bay.

“Of course!” he said cheerfully. “But that’s because they go alone and they don’t know that there’s quicksand and flash floods and…” I covered my ears and watched our group take their first steps into the bay. They sank a foot into the mud, slipping and sliding from left to right at the same time, some laughing their heads off, some screaming and others praying as if the end was near. The guides moved forward as if it was completely normal, telling everyone to do the same so that we wouldn’t completely sink into the gray slime.

What have I gotten myself into? I thought and took my first steps, sinking calf-deep. I pushed forward and even when I did come across a patch of solid ground, it was so slick that my heart dropped during every step. This went on for almost an hour. Finally, we arrived at some tiny streams where people had to lift each other across to avoid the quicksand underneath. Just when I thought about calling a helicopter taxi to come save me (must remember to find and enter helicopter taxi number into phone before my next trip there), we reached a sandy area. Wet, but not perilous.

All throughout the march the guides were sure to remind us of the many ways in which we could lose our lives, the most impending being the tide that was due to arrive in a two and a half hours. I sped up.

At one point, we came to a river of about 100 meters across.

“Yup, that’s the first part of the tide,” our guides announced excitedly and then they left us on the bank to test the waters alone. When they returned, we were cleared to go, on the condition that we form three rows and link arms with those next to us.

“There’s a lot of quicksand,” the woman announced with a broad smile. “So keep moving. Even if you feel that you’re sinking, keep moving.”

Gulp.

After watching a few groups make it safely across, I felt better and the fact that the people next to me ended up lifting me and the other vertically challenged members of our group across the deepest parts of the water made me feel much better. We reached the other side, looked up, and saw that the island was just a few yards away.

Or so it seemed.

It took us another hour to finally reach its mossy banks and collapse onto some rocks, pausing for a few minutes to rest and look out over the enormous expanse of sand we had just crossed, silent with awe and (mostly) exhaustion. We avoided the eyes of puzzled tourists ogling us in fascination—they had arrived by the bridge connecting the island to the mainland on the other side and couldn’t understand why were dripping with gray sand-slime. Then, with feet too muddy to put on our shoes again, we hurried through the city to find a spigot (never, I repeat, never walk on ancient cobblestone streets without shoes…), get clean, and grab a bite to eat. As tired as we were, we wanted to explore the 11th-century edifice that served as a reminder of the sweat (not many tears and fortunately, no blood) that we had shed during our journey towards it. It was well-worth the wait. If you’ve seen the Lord of the Rings movies and are familiar with Middle Earth’s cities built into cliffs, you can sort of begin to imagine how the island looks. Every narrow street goes uphill or downhill; there is hardly a square meter of flatness on all of the island. They wind and turn and lead to tiny passageways or small rocks that jut out over the sea. Tourists rush around and the smells of coffee and beignet (French donuts) float through tiny shop windows.

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Luckily for us, we were also able to experience a peaceful, quieter version of the island after 9p.m. when the tourists empty out and head to their hotels via the bridge that connects the adjoining village to the island. The city was absolutely silent except for our group; we lit candles and climbed endless stone steps in a procession. We reached the basilica and nightfall and glimpsed an amazing view of the water that now filled the bay we had crossed just a few hours earlier.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe isolation you feel when you look out over the water is the good kind: the kind that makes you feel as though you’re on another planet, cut off from the rush and noise of everyday life. Perfect for the ten or so priests and nuns who live there, I thought, and perfect for the monastic life they lead (although one revealed to me later that they have to leave the island every few months to walk on flat ground, because constantly climbing up and down the mountain is a psychological challenge, not to mention physically bad for one’s knees).

The feeling of being cut off deepened around 10p.m. as we sat in the quiet, dark basilica at the very top of the mountain in complete darkness except the candles we each held as well as a few that were lit around the church. Wind continually and forcefully pounded the centuries-old stone walls and windows, rocking the entire building, but we were nestled among the flicker of our candles, the calming smell of burning incense, and the hum of the priests and nuns as they chanted their prayers: that night was enchanting, bewitching, and I’ll never forget how I felt in that instant that the rest of the outside world had suddenly evaporated and that we had been transported not to another planet but another place and time in the universe.

They say that life is a long, hard road before eternal rest in paradise; they also say that a pilgrimage is a symbol of life. The bay was the road and the night atop the Mont St. Michel was definitely a brief moment of heaven here on Earth.

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