Tag Archives: France

Alsace and Schwarzwald – a photo essay

Alsace has been described as “where France crashes into Central Europe”. I don’t know about Central Europe, but it is definitely where France and Germany collide, albeit today the collision is much more peaceful than it was in the past. I just came back from a two-week vacation spent in Alsace and its German counterpart – Schwarzwald. Since I am a bit short on time to write about the trip, and since I have some great photos, I will just show you where I’ve been.

Classic Alsatian views in Colmar

Classic Alsatian views in Colmar

Toy museum in Colmar is fantastic

Toy museum in Colmar is fantastic

Dozens of trains in the Colmar toy museum

Dozens of trains in the Colmar toy museum

Colmar itself is not bad at all

Colmar itself is not bad at all

OK, the weather in Colmar helped a lot, too

OK, the weather in Colmar helped a lot, too

Hiking with children in France...

Hiking with children in France…

...and in Germany

…and in Germany

The vineyards in Freiburg are right in the city

The vineyards in Freiburg are right in the city

Sweet grapes of Alsace are ripe for the picking

Sweet grapes of Alsace are ripe for the picking

Smelly Munster cheese goes great with Gewurztraminer

Smelly Munster cheese goes great with Gewurztraminer

A Schwarzwald kindergarten

A Schwarzwald kindergarten

A young farmgirl :-)

A young farmgirl 🙂

Freiburg market from the catherdral tower

Freiburg market from the catherdral tower

Alsace and Schwarzwald 6

Radhaus square in Freiburg

Unmistakably Gothic  Freiburger Münster cathedral

Unmistakably Gothic Freiburger Münster cathedral

 

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Mont Blanc

A few days ago, I’ve published here part I of the story of my ascend of the Mont Blanc – the acclimatization climb of the Weissmies. The Mont Blanc part has since been published on www.streettrotter.com, and I can post it here as well.

Day 8 – Chamonix

We arrive by the Mont Blanc Express to Chamonix. The forecast is not encouraging – thunderstorms for tomorrow and what comes next only God knows. We manage to squeeze our tent into a spot on the campsite where at least 200 tents are already pitched on what supposed to be 80 places. Almost everyone here have already tried ascending the Mont Blanc or are about to, and it looks more than anything like the circus is in town.

Day 9 – Desert de Pierre Ronde

In the morning, we leave excess luggage at the camping and go to town to rent gear. At the store, the attendant enquires in a thick French accent “and whitch mounta’n arrre you goin’g to climb” “Mont Blanc”, I answer, in the most casual way I can, enjoyng the disappearance of the smug expression from his face. “Oh la la! In thise shoos and with thise crrrampons? C’est no possible!”, and he runs off to sharpen the edges of my crampons. Good thing I didn’t add it was my second 4000’er and that the first was only three days ago. He might have gotten a stroke.

Erik in the Desert de Pierre Ronde, with Grand Colouir in the background

Erik in the Desert de Pierre Ronde, with Grand Colouir in the background

Geared up, we take the bus to Les Houches, 1100 m, the Téléphérique to Belleveu, 1800 m and the rail to Nid dAigle, 2400 m, and step right into the epicentre of the circus. Some 25 000 people (twenty five thousand!) attempt to reach the summit of the Mont Blanc every year (and dozens die in accidents), and the slopes are filled with climbers and tourists. Mothers with strollers, grandmothers with plastic bags, people in shorts and slippers mix with fully equipped alpinists (like us). Hiking up to the base of the Grand Couloir takes us 3 hours of strenious hike through the so-called Desert de Pierre Ronde. Literally this means “desert of the round rocks”, and its a French idea of a joke. There’s not a single round pebble among the mass of jugged boulders there. We camp near the Tête Rousse hut, at 3187 m, pitching our tent between Scots, Norwegians, Poles and Americans. The view of the Grand Colouir is excellent, and we see people climbing up and down and rocks flying (only down). This is the most dangerous part of the climb, and it is advised to pass early in the day, before the sun melts rocks out of the ice and snow. As night falls, the thunderstorm hits, but darkness, pouring rain and lightnings striking the rock face do not stop people from climbing, even at 2:00 at night.

Day 10 – Grand Colouir

As usual, we rise before dawn. The thunderstorm still rages, so we wait until it clears a bit. Around 9:00 we can finally start our ascend. It really is not that difficult (PD+ at most), but… Firstly, there are the steel cables supposed to make it easier to climb. Unfortunately, their fixing points actually ruin good grips and some of the cables have been there for a long time already, so they almost come off. Secondly, many ‘climbers’ do not pay any attention to what they’re doing, including groping a cable someone else is already hanging onto, which on an almost vertical rock face is really hair-raising. We pass safely and by 11:00 we already set our tent in the snow, above the Aiguille du Gouter hut, 3817 m, burying the pegs as deep as possible and lie down to enjoy the view for the rest of the day.

Our tent above the Aiguille du Gouter hut, at almost 4 km altitude

Our tent above the Aiguille du Gouter hut, at almost 4 km altitude

Day 11 – Summit

We rise at 2:30 and by 3:00 we already join the line of people light up by headlamps and sounding like a slave caravan with all that gear clittering. We are plowing our way up the mountain through the immense snow fields at -10 degrees. Nearby the Bivoac Vallot refuge, 4362 m, the first light reveals the hundreds of people lined up to the top like an ant track. Above the refuge the trail becomes a snow ridge, with horrendous gaps on both sides, hundreds of meters deep. The sun rises, lighting up the sea of clouds from below by the most gentle shade of pink for a brief minute, before flooding the sky and the snow by the brightest light.

Sunrise en route to the summit

Sunrise en route to the summit

The last stretch to the top is the steepest, and the wind is at gale force, being on a snow ridge a handpalm wide at almost 5 km altitude is no joke under these conditions. It is so good we took the time to acclimatize, otherwise these last meters would have been a nightmare. By 6:30 we’re at the top, the view is better than anything else in the world, but we are absolutely freezing up here. Clicking photos until the fingers start losing their grip on the camera, and we’re headed down. About 150 meters below the top and a bit out of the wind we sit together and rest for a few minutes. Going down is easier that up, but tiredness starts taking its toll. On the way down we hike up the top of the Dome du Gouter, 4304 m. Drowned in snow, its the flattest of mountains but it is classified as a separate peak. By 9:00 we are back at the tent. Kick off the shoes, put the kettle on and lie down on the matrass outside the tent in the morning sun — WOW!

Erik on the summit

Erik on the summit

Day 12 – down, down, down

Early start, again — we want to pass the Colouir before the masses. At 3:00 we dig out our tent pegs. The wind almost blows us off the mountain with tent and all. By now we’re working together too good as a team. The tent is already packed but it is still pitch dark, so we have to wait for the first light to go down the Grand Coulouir. Erik has already had enough of this and starts to grumble at whoever came up with the idea of climbing the Mont Blanc. I remind him that it was his idea, that shuts him up. Finally, first light, and we fly down the Coulouir in 1.5 hours. Erik releases the tension by screaming out loud at the Mont Blanc. I can understand his relief; it was already his third attempt here, and just this spring he spent a week alone in his tent under the Colouir waiting unsuccessfully for good weather, dodging avalanches. By 10:00 we are already back in Chamonix, where the guy in the gear store is hugely releived to see us back alive and well. We take the Mont Blanc Express back to Switzerland, to Michabel camping, where the tent frame snaps and breaks. A suitable ending to our adventure.

Michael (and a cup of tea) on the summit

Michael (and a cup of tea) on the summit

Camping rules:

‘Wild’ camping is technically forbidden. But authorities generally ignore the campers as long as they camp out of sight, above the tree line, do not leave trash and do not light fires. The golden rule ‘Leave the place cleaner than it was before you‘ was applied by us throughout the trip.

A word of warning:

The Mont Blanc is a serious climbing undertaking that requires a great deal of fitness, a full set of mountaineering gear and preferably an experienced guide. A fantastic alternative to actually ascending the summit is the Tour du Mont Blanc hiking trail around the mountain. Erik, who has continued climbing since, reaching as high as Mount Everest, would be happy to be your guide on that trail.

A list of GEAR you will most definitely need: 

  • Thermal base layer
  • Fleeces and waterproof outer shell
  • Rigid crampon-compatible boots
  • Glacier-proof sunglasses
  • Helmet
  • Headlight (with spare batteries)
  • Hat
  • Over-gloves
  • Liner gloves
  • Gaiters
  • High-factor sun cream
  • 30 to 50 meters of rope
  • Harness
  • Slings
  • Karabiners
  • Ice axe
  • Crampons
  • Deadman/snow fluke
  • Avalanche beacon
  • A snow probe
  • A shovel
  • Garbage bag — take everything down with you!

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“Charlie Hebdo” = Epic Fail

The events that will probably remain labelled “Charlie Hebdo terror attack” are largely over. The shooting, manhunt and hostage crises are finished, and while some suspects are still at large, victims are not yet buried and wounded are still in hospitals, it is by now possible to start summarizing this tragedy. And I can only summarize it as “Epic Fail”. If you think it is not yet the time for harsh words, or feel that you may otherwise be insulted or offended by what you may think is inappropriate, it is time to stop reading. Because I’m not in the mood to be sensitive. In fact, I even its time to stop being sensitive. Because everybody failed in “Charlie Hebdo”.

We all, as a society, in all European countries have failed. Europe has proved to be a fertile ground for growing increasing numbers of insane fanatics who kill everyone they disagree with. And we’ve failed to find the reasons why and to rectify them.

The Muslim communities of Europe have failed. They have failed to see that turning a blind eye to the spread of militant fanaticism and the hate of the other among them is not making the problem go away. I don’t want to enter the numbers discussion, but studies show that support for IS among some Muslim youth in Europe is less an exception but more of a mainstream. Rather than admit to have a problem, Muslim organizations opt to blame the studies for being “wrong”. They have failed to realize that the hate hurts us all, including Muslims. They have failed to stop the haters among them, by failing to do the only rational thing to do – turn them in. And don’t tell me the Muslims of Europe do not know who the dangerous radicals in their communities are.

The politicians of Europe have failed. They failed to identify and discuss the massive problem that the militant Islamism in Europe presents. They still fail, as they not dare say that militant, radical Islamism is a problem, declaring instead that the terrorists are not Muslims. They are Muslims, bad, violent Muslims, but Muslims nevertheless. Pretending they’re not is rather counter-productive to say the least. And they enjoy support among the Muslim communities, too – see #JeSuisKouachi hashtag.

But to me, the most terrible, the worse fail was the operational one. The French President Holande said “the country is proud of the forces of law and order”. Well, I think there’s very little to be proud of. The forces of law and order have failed miserably all along the way.

The intelligence services have failed. They were tracking the murderers, who were convicted criminals with known extremists ties, and have failed to prevent them from committing the attacks. Why bother have ‘intelligence’ services, why pay them and severe personal freedoms and privacy, if they can’t stop (known!) terrorists before they strike?

The French police has failed to protect Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish community. Despite warnings and previous attacks, the protection was appallingly insufficient. The murderers have basically done as they pleased.

The police officers responding to the various incidents have failed when called upon, getting themselves killed in the process. I can understand how a lone guard at the Charlie Hebdo offices can be overwhelmed by armed terrorists. But how and why the officers responding to the shooting have, instead of taking the shooters out or at least pinning them down until the arrival of more heavily armed units, have allowed them to escape? Why a day after the attack, a known associate of the Kouachi’s shoots and kills a police officer and is able to escape from the scene, in a city literally flooded with security services? Not only was he able to escape, but was also able to take hostages, killing several of them in the process! You’d think that a Jewish supermarket would be heavily guarded a day after the attack on Charlie Hebdo. Adding insult to injury, his girlfriend and accomplice seems to have escaped police and reportedly fled to Syria, where she no doubt will become some sort of celebrity. Furthermore, as the Kouachi’s have taken a hostage of their own, the security forces were unable to prevent the hostage-takers from communicating with each other, making a laughing stock of the efforts of the police negotiators.

About the only thing we can find comfort in, is that the terrorists have failed, too. Yes, they killed several people and frightened many. But if they intended to stop the spread of cartoons depicting the Prophet, they’ve reached the exact opposite. If they intended to reduce the suffering of Muslims, they failed. Because it is Muslims that suffer the most of the hands of fanatics and of the consequences of their actions. If they intended to reach paradise by dying as martyrs, they failed, too. Because if your god is insulted by pictures, but is celebrated by murder – you are worshipping the devil. And your reward will be eternal suffering, because the devil is not known for being good in rewards, even to those who worship him.

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Je suis Charlie

This is not what I imagined my first post in 2015 will be. But I do not think I have much choice. I believe this is the only reasonable answer we can come up with, the only thing that will work. Repeat after me: “Je suis Charlie!”

Faut pas se moquer – Thou shalt not mock

And now that you’ve said it, try to remember these words next time you hear about a terror attack in Israel.

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Picture perfect Burgundy

Everywhere in France, the dead of the Great War are commemorated

Everywhere in France, the dead of Great War are commemorated

Its been a month since we’ve returned from our Grey Wave camper adventure, and its time to close the report. As I’ve revealed in the last post, for our main event we were going to France. France is one of the largest countries in Europe. But even big European countries are built up on the remains of a vast array of smaller ones, melted to a certain degree into a centrally governed state. Some of these semi-states, like Catalonia, are well-known and are actively striving for independence. Others, like Bavaria, while also well-known, seem content being part of a larger whole. And yet others, that in their time have themselves been a major player on the European scene, are almost entirely absent from the public eye, only marginally important even to their inhabitants. We were going to such a “forgotten state”.

A typical Burgundian village square

A typical Burgundian village square

As the September nights in the North were getting colder and colder, we drove 400 km south, and it was the best move we could make. We came to Burgundy. Once upon a time, merely 5 centuries ago, the Duchy of Burgundy was one of the most powerful states in Medieval Europe. Nowadays it is reduced to a minor region of France, hardly known outside the story of Jeanne of Ark, Burgundy wines and beef bourguignon. Its an excellent destination for tourists looking for peace and quiet. Not quite Mediterranean, but surely not Atlantic. Not entirely continental, but too far from the nearest sea. Not yet the Alps, but on a bright day you can see the Mont Blanc from a Burgundian hill top. If this is not the heart of France, I don’t know what is.

A street in Tournus, Burgundy

A street in Tournus, Burgundy

The weather here was ideal – sunny, in the low 20’s during the day, and not dropping below 10 at night. We’ve spent an idyllic week on a camping in a castle’s garden. Ask me what we were doing there the whole week and I will honestly tell you I have no idea. One of the days we cycled to the nearby city of Tournus. The only rainy day we’ve had we took the camper for a road-trip through the hills, ending up in spectacular Cluny. Where did the other days go? Beats me. I went running along the Saône river a few times, we’ve cycled a bit around the camping, but most of the time we just spent doing nothing – a rare occasion in today’s world. The only disturbance (which has added some spice into our week) were the low-flying jet fighters roaring over our heads from time to time.

Our trusty camper

Our trusty camper

We were almost the last to leave as the camping was closing for the winter, moving a mere 50 km northwards to Beaune, our last stop of the adventure. I’ve never heard of the place before, but if you’re even slightly interested in wine you probably have – its the wine capital of Burgundy. The vineyards around here are already on the short-list for the UNESCO World Heritage List – continuously cultivated for two millenniums! Of course, in early October the town was full to the brim with grey-hair, but it probably is in any season. Beaune is a bit like Bruges, but with every other building being a wine merchant instead of a chocolatier. Wine business is done on all levels in Beaune, from vin en vrac for as low as 1.50 per litre, to the famous Hospices de Beaune wine auction selling wines for over 100 000 Euro per  456-litre barrels. Beaune was an excellent place to close our adventure – urban yet laid back, surrounded, as I’ve mentioned in the beginning of my narrative, by the most perfect sunset scenery known to man. All we had to do was drive the 700 km back to Rotterdam. At least, all I had to do was drive – due to a minor technicality (expired driving license) the wife was doing 0% of the driving. But I didn’t mind – driving a 3.5 ton camper around Europe was an adventure on its own right.

And even thought I won’t get a kick-back from them, should you consider renting a camper while in The Netherlands – check out this website: http://camperfun.nl/

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Guests welcome at Small European Country!

This week, I’ve welcomed my first guest contribution, titled “The music of Estonia“. And I will be pleased to host more guest contributions on Small European Country.

In general, short posts of 500 to 1000 words are welcome. I would prefer to host unique and personal contributions – that is, written from your personal experience and about specific things, rather than generalizing. So, writing “Last week I enjoyed the best wine I ever had in Chateau Migraine near Lyon” is better than saying “France has some great wines”.

If you’d like to share your experience travelling or living in a small European country, have ideas on what makes a country big or small, would like to debate the definitions of Europe, want to discuss the differences between small European and non-European countries, or have any other meaningful contribution to this blog, please send your contribution using the form below.

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The Alps – bite this!

It doesn’t get much more European than the Alps. The great mountain range pretty much defines Europe, stretching over 1200 kilometers and 8 countries, large and small. Careful here – it’s one bite-sized region you may not want to leave.

  • Why go there?
    The Alps have been developed for tourism for the past two centuries and are now filled to the rim with all a tourist can wish for. I mean, seriously, do I need to promote going to the Alps? They are big and diverse though, so don’t underestimate the undertaking of “going to see the Alps”. Its a bit like “going to Europe”. Just cooler.
  • What’s it best for?
    The place to be for a serious adrenaline junkie. If it’s extreme – you can do it here.
  • When is the best time to go?
    Any time. With the amount of tourism infrastructure, you’re guaranteed to have a good time in any season. My favourite time here is May and June, when the mountain pastures are blossoming.
  • How to get around?
    The train network of the Alps is famous for a reason. Use it.
  • Why is it best to avoid?
    Can be pricey. Avoiding Switzerland can help a lot though.
  • Where to go if you just have one week?
    Well, as I said, Switzerland is pricey. But you get serious quality for your money. Just choose a canton or a valley and stay there – the train prices are a real joy-killer.

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