Alsace: When all you want to do is flâner…

…Because sometimes, you simply want to unwind with an undefined agenda and an unfettered mind.

Sometimes you just want to escape to a place reminiscent of a childhood fantasy. One that is filled with romantic castles, fairy tale villages, breathtaking scenery and heartwarming moments. A place to feast your eyes, free your mind and flâner (wander/stroll). Maybe, with a bottle of wine.

Picture “France” beyond Paris and visions of châteaux amidst lush vineyards fill the mind. Then, the stomach might rumble and images of Michelin Star eateries that serve difficult-to-pronounce dishes swirl along with visions of freshly-baked crusty baguettes, sinful creamy desserts and fabulous stinky cheese. Picture: Alsace.

Why Alsace?

Bordering Germany and Switzerland, the neighbours’ influence is evident in the region’s architecture and cuisine. With routes to suit most travel interests, Alsace is a great option for an open-ended trip.

  • For adventure enthusiasts and active travellers, the route des Crêtes with its national parks and Alps provides ample options.
  • For gastronomes or oenophiles, the route des vins with its outstanding restaurants is unmissable.

For the indiscriminate traveller, Alsace is the France of our dreams and the cherry on its green cake is colourful Colmar. Despite being one of the most romantic places in France, it also happens to be the perfect place to explore with family. So, we did. All nine of us…aged from 9 months to 60+ yrs.

When fiction becomes fact…

Frequently spotted on the list of France’s “Les plus beaux villages” or most beautiful places to visit, old town Colmar is a living fantasy. Little wonder then, that Colmar supposedly inspired the village setting for Disney’s “Beauty and the beast”.

Flowers spill out of potted plants, colourful houses, shops and restaurants line canals of an area aptly named “Little Venice”. Ducks happily quack away as the tourist train (yes, we sat in one of those!) ambles along. The tourist train, though unsurprisingly touristy, is a great way to get a lay of the land. Utterly enchanted by the scene before us, we sat,  commentary forgotten…until I accidentally dropped the baby’s milk bottle, spewing milk everywhere. Baby wipes to the rescue, I am happy to report that the train was spotlessly clean when we disembarked.

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Colours of Colmar

With no agenda, no cause for hurry and no pressure to sightsee, we simply set off and wandered as we pleased: beside the canal, over a bridge and onto hidden lanes. We stopped to pick juicy berries from the covered market, follow a Raclette cheese-like aroma to find a terrific restaurant called La Pergola, gorge on treats from numerous biscuiteries and pâtisseries, taste freshly baked bread in Bisch de Bruche, pop into scores of shops or boutiques and light candles in the glorious Saint Martin’s Church.

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Our meandering ended with a visit to a park, Champ de Mars. The kids ran free, rode funky trikes and hopped on a carousel, while we contemplated the blessed life with some delicious wine. It was pretty much a perfect day.

Dining tips:
While there are a host of options, check the restaurant operating schedule before you go.
  • For the regional specialty, tartes flammées, at Flamme & Co in Kaysersberg (Vegetarians: request a veggie version of their Flammée Tacos and top it off by the Petite flammée pomme). Caution: those with hearty appetites may need a more substantial meal afterward.

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    La Pergola: Good luck and great grub
  • For arguably the best roësti west of the Swiss border, dine at eclectic La Pergola. Run by the same folks as Wolfberger, the French onion soup, pasta, pizza and tiramisu are fabulous as well. Watch out for the witches on broomsticks lining the ceiling for good luck.

A few of our favourite things…

We chose to embrace the “simple” life. No fancy restaurants, no complicated itineraries and no frenzied shopping = great family trip.

Though we were utterly besotted by Colmar, beauty and charm abound everywhere in Alsace. Here are some of our favourite experiences:

Village-hopping: Riquewihr, Kaysersberg, Ribeauvillé…Alsace is filled with gorgeous and exotic-sounding towns/villages/cities of all sizes. Pick a name from the map and head over to explore.

…We picked Éguisheim, a flower-bedecked town on the route des vins that has a flea market on Sundays. Not for the shopping, but for the experience of stepping into a storybook and because the “plus beaux villages de France” really are incredible.

Travel tip: If choosing a destination is a challenge, Google images can certainly be very helpful!
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Fruit candyland – Le Comptoir du Fruit

Picnicking: Armed with fresh cherry tomatoes, gruyère cheese, bread, potato salad from the Éguisheim market and candied fruit from Le Comptoir du Fruit, we picked our spot and settled for a picnic lunch with a view.

Wine-tasting: Alsace is known for its fabulous wines. If in Eguisheim, try the elixir(s) of your choice at a wonderful cellar and tasting room by the 100+ year old winemaker Wolfberger. The modern cavernous room offers a stylish experience. The wine – especially the Belle Saison Muscat – is a revelation. For a toddler-controlled group like ours, it was the perfect way to sip a bit of Alsace.

Driving: The roads of Alsace are blessed with spell-binding views around every bend, but for a fabulous drive that ends with the best bird’s eye view of Alsace, head to Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg in Orschwiller.

Reportedly, the château inspired a bit of the set for Lord of the Rings. While parking can be a pain, the drive is fantastic and chateau itself is an impressive structure with stunning views overlooking the region.

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50 shades of green and blue – all in one frame

Luxurious living: When in France, stay in a luxurious château at least once. No better base to discover the dreamer’s France than from Château d’Isenbourg in Rouffach, a lovely town on the route des vins. A Small Luxury Hotels (SLH) property, the boutique château hotel is designed as a countryside retreat.

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Château d’Isenbourg

Quaint rooms, flavourful food and friendly service are accompanied by uninterrupted views of verdant vineyards on one side and the  medieval city of Rouffach on the other. Think: long, lazy breakfasts and gorgeous sunsets. Did I mention the indoor Jacuzzi that overlooks seemingly endless vineyards?

Travel tip: If requested a day in advance, the hotel is happy to provide Rösti (a delectable Swiss dish consisting of potatoes smothered in cheese) for breakfast. Also, those travelling with infants or toddlers receive special gift bags with a soft toy and yummy treats.

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The End…

Sometimes, it’s not about what to do or where to go next, but about staying where you are. Alsace is a place which inspires you to write your own travel story. There is no right or wrong story, just your unique travel story. One that might have an uncanny resemblance to all the beauty sans the beast.

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Sometimes you don’t need a happily every after…just a happy present.

 

How a game became an experience

A great game ends at the venue. A great sport experience extends beyond the game.

Why does a game of cricket turn a billion people into raving lunatics? Why do two warring neighbours put all else aside and watch 22 men battle it out with bat and ball?

Cricket is beyond a sport in India. It is a religion. Most businesses – except, perhaps, the less legal kind – come to a standstill when a crucial match is underway. Barring few, all radios and TV stations are tuned to match broadcast. For a brief period of time, millions of people project their aspirations and frustrations on 11 men in blue. Be it victory or defeat, each is celebrated or mourned as deeply as a personal win or loss. The greater the rivalry, the more intense the emotion.

Waving flags - Eden Gardens, Kolkata, India. T20 World Cup, 2016.

When arch rivals India and Pakistan play, fireworks follow. To watch India play Pakistan at a cricket ground in India is incredible. To watch India vs. Pakistan with a full house at the world’s second largest cricket stadium (Eden Gardens, Kolkata), in India, for a World Cup match, is epic. Not for the match itself – the movement of the ball is clearer on television – but for the wild energy and charged atmosphere.

Clash of the Titans…

The rivalry between the two nations – fuelled largely by the past – can be summarized by a simple statement: India may lose the cup, but cannot lose against Pakistan.

To add to this rivalry:

  • India had never won against Pakistan in a match at Eden Gardens
  • Pakistan had never won against India in any World Cup match
  • Political conflict between the two countries led to periods when the teams did not play each other
  • If India lost the match, it would end their hopes of gunning for the T20 World Cup

Given the hype and circumstances, it took some serious legwork by family and friends for us to score tickets for the knockout match in Kolkata.

The battle cricket ground…

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House full of fans

Memories of historic cricketing moments swirled in the air as more than 65,000 people chanted “Indiaaaa, India!” or players’ names at the top of their voices in Eden Gardens, Kolkata. Tens of thousands of Indian flags flapped and fluttered in the wind.

The event kicked off with the a live rendition of the Pakistani national anthem by Shafqat Amanat Ali. The spirit of sportsmanship was evident as the stadium filled with applause for the renowned Pakistani singer. This performance was followed by one of the highlights of the night: live performance of the Indian national anthem by India’s greatest superstar – Amitabh Bachchan. Echoed by the entire smartphone torch-waving crowd, the rendition was enough to induce goose bumps. The stadium filled with a deafening roar until it practically crackled with electricity.

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Draped in the spirit of patriotism

As the match progressed, the roar became louder. Silence could only be heard at the fall of Indian wickets. Thoughts and emotions were expressed freely, frequently and dramatically. Yet, the crowd was not anti-Pakistan; it was pro-India. Throughout, the digital revolution was evident as a majority of the crowd helf up smartphones in an attempt to capture memories of the historic encounter.

Besides the venue and match itself, crowd culture shaped the viewing experience. The crowd at Eden Gardens was LOUD. So loud that cheers for singles sounded like those for boundaries. On one side, a Bengali guy patiently asked people blocking his view to move by saying “Oh Dada! Eh Dada! Side jao” …”Hey Brother! Please move aside”. For every ball; throughout the match. On the other side, the view-blocking renegades broke out into jigs and dance moves that rivaled Michael Jackson’s. Award-winning melodrama followed every shot.

Capturing the moment - Eden Gardens, Kolkata, India. T20 World Cup, 2016.
Capturing the moment

Commentators were not just in the box – self-proclaimed cricket experts were all around. The dancing dude dispensed priceless tips – complete with full-blown action – for how Virat Kohli (star batsman) should swing his bat or what kind of bowling the relative newbie, Jasprit Bumrah, should do. His cronies chimed in with tips for how the brilliant captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, should set the field. With the amount of free advice dispensed, even cricket first-timers could become budding experts.

An innings to remember…

Virat Kohli’s undefeated 55 – complete with a raised bat salute to one of the world’s greatest cricketers, Sachin Tendulkar – sealed India’s win. While the match itself was not the greatest game, the people, place, energy, patriotism and passion made it an unforgettable experience.

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Haze of victory

To watch two great rivals battle live, is to watch history being written. Records were created and broken, emotional rollercoasters ridden and intense passion witnessed, but what remained was the memory of the moment of triumph and feeling of unbounded joy. The kind of joy that was shared by more than a billion people across the world.

When an event becomes an experience…

While the match viewing experience was fabulous, our cricket experience did not end there. The cherry on the cake was staying in the same property as both the cricket teams.

In stark contrast to the super-charged stadium, the hotel was a relaxed space with no evidence of any tension brewing under the surface. Despite their celebrity status, the players were surprisingly normal. While the rest of us struggled to recover from the incredibly stressful match, the Indian cricket team was back at work in the gym the very next day. Watching the men in blue work out was a revelation: they pushed themselves hard, but had fun doing it.

Our trip was full of more special fan moments: sending off and welcoming the team, sharing an elevator, walking on a treadmill, lounging by the pool or dining in the same space as past, current or future legends.

We did not hound any players for pictures, nor did we approach them for autographs or offer unsolicited advice. We did not congratulate them, nor did we follow them. We were happy to observe. It was wonderful for us to simply have a window into the world of cricket that extended beyond the game.

For us, picking the right property turned a memorable game of cricket into a fabulous experience.