Hi Frugalistas! As I’m about to start posting about my stay in lovely Colmar, I’m delighted to bring you a guest post by Susan Heiligman on walking in this gorgeous part of the world. Susan has written a beautifully evocative piece that I am sure you will enjoy as much as I did:
My sister is the lead when we walk. I’m the tag-along, forever following a few steps behind.
She’s also the type that bounces out of bed, puts on her Nikes and is ready to go. I, on the other hand, crawl out of bed in desperate need of a cup or two of strong black coffee. I also have a need to attend to a few sacred morning rituals, namely a little make-up and hair do. Otherwise, I feel I look slightly scary. With a last warning that she’s out the door, I rush after her and we’re off.
In preparation for the volksmarch we’ve signed up for over the weekend taking place in France, we agree we’ll walk the vineyards along the Rhine River each afternoon. My sister lives in Wiesbaden, Germany. She’s a lucky dog, and I have come to visit. She resides in a place that couldn’t be more beautiful or better situated if you love the ambiance of an old-world European spa town nestled along the Rhine and a stone’s throw from some of the most picturesque villages of France like Colmar and Reims.
It is customary to walk along the tractor pathways of the sun-drenched vineyards in the lee of the rolling hillsides of the Rhine above the quaint village of Rudesheim. The renowned Rheingau region is protected by the upland Taunus mountain range which creates a microclimate favorable to viticulture, started by the abbeys centuries ago.
We leave my sister’s apartment mid-afternoon to arrive and park at the Schloss Johannisberg castle. We walk the sloping vineyards which are lush in the springtime and known to produce crisp rieslings and floral pinot noirs. The estate wineries are dotted in a fashion that after a mile or two they seem to appear in the nick of time to provide a well-earned respite for drink and refreshment. I must remind myself I’m here to walk first and foremost and sip later. I worry we look like the Americans we are, simply dressed in walking shoes without the double hiking staffs used by the Germans. In awhile though I realize all is well.
We walk happily along with our German friends, out for an afternoon abundant in warmth and nature’s beauty. Our afternoon regiment is capped off with an elegant tasting at the castle’s wine estate. Lucky us, this time.
A little reluctant at first, my sister has twisted my arm to go with her on this volksmarch.
She’s participated in numerous ones in her area. This will be my first. Like a good doggie looking to earn a treat, I agree to go. After all, she tells me, we’ll spend the weekend along the Alsatian wine route at a gite, an official country inn designated by the famous French rooster signage, in a perfectly charming small French village rife with luscious French country cuisine and local Alsatian wine. Within reasonable limits I’ll do almost anything for that kind of reward at the end of an uncommon feat.
I’m excited when Saturday morning comes and the BMW is packed. We head down the autobahn on our way to Ribeauville, France. I have another advantage. My sister is fluent in French and well traveled in country. She’s a travel expert in all things French. Leaving Germany and crossing into France she knows to stop for brunch at a French aire de service (rest stop) where we nosh on warm salty boiled eggs and a freshly baked baguette that blissfully combines a hard crust with a light soft center. The cup of French coffee is rich and divine. In true French style I discover perfume is dispensed like soap in the W.C. This volksmarch weekend has become a French adventure that’s calling my name.
Arriving in Ribeauville we track down our inn. My sister knows the proprietor so we’re trusted with the run of the house. Our accommodations look like something out of a House and Garden spread depicting that gorgeous French country style. I’m awed as we turn off the main road down her driveway toward the tile-roofed, ivy-covered chateau and its enchanted gardens planted in pink pansies and yellow-centered violets. Our spacious upstairs suite is complete with a sitting area, private bathroom, small kitchen and a baloney with a view so lovely it takes my breath away. The afternoon light that spotlights the beautiful courtyard setting below is true eye candy bursting with color and texture.
Dinner time arrives and we find tarte flambee on the menu at a small nearby brasserie. The tarte flambee is regional Alsatian cuisine served hot and consists of a flaky flat crust just substantial enough for the gooey gruyere cheese and savory caramelized onion topping. As we finish the accompanying carafe of riesling grand cru, we laugh wondering if we’ll both need a few cups of strong coffee in the morning. We stroll the evening- lit passages winding through the village. Ribeauville is full with Frenchmen out for a weekend of relaxation on the wine route, much like San Franciscans head to the Sonoma and Napa Valleys for a getaway. No stopping for a night cap tonight. It’s time to hit the sack and we return to our inn excited about our impending volksmarch adventure. We sleep well on those heavenly French beds. How do they make them so luxurious?
Ah, and too soon, morning breaks and the early rise is on.
Coffee brews and is quickly consumed while sacred rituals are set on fast forward. With anticipation, we head to the volksmarch check-in point. Today we join a volksmarch that we will take us through hill and dale of the French countryside in the valley of the Vosges Mountains. The country dwellings will reveal themselves in quaint half-timbered cottages set back with white picket fences and families of garden gnomes standing watch in the yard. French blue in flags and chintz curtain fabric is on display everywhere. French pride abounds. I am the happy wanderer as the path has us criss-cross through the nests of houses to reach the open countryside.
We stop at a local café for a bite of lunch, consumed standing at one of the patio counter-height tables. We make it quick and press on. Seasoned volkmarchers have long passed by and we begin to feel we’re bringing up the rear. We’re cheered on at frequent rest stops with friendly smiles and paper cups of the traditional volksmarch sweet tea. I’m energized and we spring along through the small forests and stream beds towards the path’s end.
The volksmarch is finished after ten kilometers. I have made it. We reach the command post early in the afternoon to have our volksmarch record books stamped. I’m elated and feel so official. The reward for a day of walking the woods of France is an offering of steamy mugs of hot cocoa and chocolate brownies. Oh, the French do chocolate right. I may never leave.
We sit down to enjoy the refreshments and bask in the warmth of the early Spring sunshine. I marvel at finding the heart of French culture in the countryside of Alsace. It only took my own two legs, a well-plotted trail and my sister for inspiration and guidance. The German prelude, walking the vineyards of the Rhine and its wine finish, found me undecided which walking experience I most enjoyed. Truth is both were wondrous experiences I wouldn’t want to have missed.
If my plans work out, I’ll be walking around Germany and France again soon. Lucky me.
Susan Heiligman is a freelance travel writer and blogger. She has studied the travel industry and travel writing at the University of Hawaii and the University of New Mexico. She is a member and Vice President of the Palm Springs Branch of the National League of American Pen Women. A retired adjunct professor and educator, Susan works part-time as a professional development trainer for a non-profit organization which provides courses focused on the unique needs of military-connected children. She lives in Palm Desert, California. Besides travel, her passions include film, wine and her 5-year old granddaughter.