Tag Archives: wine

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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How to choose a (small European) country

As the term of my contract at the university is drawing to a close, I begin to ponder on the next move. It is by now obvious we need another place to live. Our small European apartment has been a perfect place for the two of us, and we’ve managed very well to make it suitable for a baby, but with two children rapidly growing up it is becoming rather crowded here. We have few wishes – I dream of a kitchen with room for a dishwasher and the wife has always wanted a garden, even if a handkerchief sized one. The chances of finding an affordable place with a garden in a decent neighbourhood in Rotterdam with our current income are… well, not high. Besides, its not that I don’t like Rotterdam, on the contrary, but the air quality here is the worse in all of Western Europe.

Rotterdam is a pretty cool place to live

Rotterdam is a pretty cool place to live

Leaving Rotterdam – but where to?

Since in order to improve our living quarters we would have to find a new town,  I thought “why not tackle bigger issues, while we’re at it?”. There are many plus sides to living in the Netherlands (more about it in one of the next posts), but I would really like to live in a place where you don’t need to look at the calendar to know which season it is. But where to go? And how to decide? I sat down to compile a set of criteria my (our) new home would have to meet. The goal is to apply “Parkinson’s law for hiring”, and to reduce the number of possible places to move to. When applied right, in the end, the choice will be very, very simple.

Van Nelle factory - a Rotterdam architecture icon that is on the UNESCO World Heritage List

Van Nelle factory – a Rotterdam architecture icon that is on the UNESCO World Heritage List

A properly run country

First of all, I want to live in a properly run country. You may ask “How do you know whether it is run properly?”. And I will tell you it is very easy to tell whether a country is run properly. Simple question – is it safe to drink tap water there? I think it is a perfectly reasonable thing to ask. Turns out, it already rules out huge chunks of the world. All of Africa, all of South and Central America and most of Asia don’t have drinkable tap water. What’s left is Western, Northern and a bit of Central Europe, supplemented with the Anglo-Saxon division (USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) and the outliers of Asia that only prove how much they do not belong there (South Korea, Japan, Israel, Singapore, Hong Kong and Brunei).

With a pleasant climate

Having thus excluded most of the world, I went on to think about what makes a place pleasant to live in. I mentioned the climate, but how to define what makes a pleasant climate? And I am proud to say I found a way to do it – wine! I will quote this passage from www.earthmagazine.org in full, because it illustrates my point so well (emphasis added):

“Are there ideal weather conditions for growing winegrapes? Although no two vintages in any region are exactly alike, growers everywhere would be ecstatic with adequate precipitation and warmth to grow the vine and ripen the fruit, with no weather extremes (like frost, hail and heat waves) and disease. During the dormant period, this would equate to enough soil-replenishing rainfall and a cool to cold winter, without vine-killing low temperatures but with enough chilling to ensure bud fruitfulness the following year. The spring would be free from wide temperature swings and frost, and have enough precipitation to feed vegetative growth. During flowering, the weather would be cloud-free with moderately high temperatures and high photosynthetic potential to allow the flowers to fully set into fruit. The summer growth stage would be dry, with heat accumulation to meet the needs of the variety and few heat stress events. The ripening period would be dry with a slow truncation of the season toward fall, with moderately high daytime temperatures and progressively cooler nights.”

In other words, a wine-growing area has a properly cold winter, but not a bitterly cold one, a pleasant, sunny spring without the wild mood swings the Dutch springs are so famous for and a dry, warm summer, that gently slides off into a cooler, but still dry autumn. Look at this picture below and you will see that wine-growing areas are primarily in places like Southern France, California, and Southern Australia. Coupled with the clean tap water requirement it already leaves us with preciously little places to choose from. For the ease of further comparison I will exclude exotic wine-growing areas like Sweden or Canada – I am sure you understand that is not what I mean by “a pleasant climate”.

World Wine Areas, image by Denkhenk

Where I speak the language

Next, I decided I want to live somewhere I either already speak the language or where I can learn a language that is widely used. This leaves out destinations like South Korea and Slovenia. Not that I am not open for attractive business opportunities from Japan or Poland, but I am trying to find ways to cut down my list here.  I already speak Dutch, English, Hebrew, Russian and a bit of German and Spanish. French is a language that would be extremely useful to learn as there are so many French-speakers in the world, and Italian gets a wild-card for ease of learning (from hearsay) and its usefulness in enabling you to at least understand French and Spanish (again, hearsay). This trims down the list to France, Spain, Italy, Australia and New Zealand, USA, Israel and the German-speaking countries.

In Europe

The choices become more difficult, as all the above are rather attractive places to live in. But one has to make choices. The USA is out for preferring guns over nipples. While Australia and New Zealand are really fun, living there would take me rather far from my friends and family, almost all of whom live in Europe. Again, given the right incentive, I will sail for Australia and never look back, but I would prefer staying closer to the ones I love. I’ve already lived in Israel and its just too warm there for me. What’s left are “just” France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Austria to choose from.

Close to mountains

If there’s something I love its mountains. Hiking, climbing, canyoning – even just watching mountains makes me happy. Maybe its the years spent in the flatness of the Netherlands that make me want to live within easy reach of a serious mountain chain. And I don’t mean something like the Massif Central or the Ardennes – I mean mountains with glaciers and all. That narrows the options down a bit further – of the mountain chains in the countries that made the short list, only the Pyrenees and the Alps have glaciers. The Pyrenees glaciers are quite small, and since I’m in the business of making choices here, I’ll leave the Pyrenees out for the moment. Its just the Alps then.

Swiss mountain lakes...

Swiss mountain lakes…

And not too far from the family

Coming to think of it, since we’re pretty settled on staying in Europe, it would be nice to live somewhere reasonably close to the family in the Netherlands. That way, we could drive down to visit grandma and grandpa for the holidays, the cousins can come over to us for a long weekend. So not moving away too far – but how far is not too far? My experience is that driving 800 kilometers is about the maximum for a single day without breaking yourself. And there’s a great tool to help with that, called “How far can I travel?“. I’ve filled in “800 kilometers from Rotterdam”, and the nearest place with mountains hits the spot – its Switzerland. Incidentally, its also the country with the highest salaries and the lowest taxes. Cows, mountains and cheese, here we come! The tough part of having to decide where to go has thus being taken care of, all I got to do now is finish my PhD and find a job. Piece of cake.

Matterhorn - a super strong argument for Switzerland

Matterhorn – a super strong argument for Switzerland

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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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Luxembourg is more exciting than you may think

The third country on our Grey Wave adventure was Luxembourg – the smallest we’ve visited on this tour. Since I’ve recently devoted a separate post to Luxembourg, and our stay was rather brief, I won’t devote many words to it. Save that its probably the closest place to the Dutch border where you can buy wine from the tap, and that I’ve been here a few times already in the autumn and am amazed how bloody spectacular it is.

I've caught sight of the local royals departing the palace.

I’ve caught sight of the local royals departing the palace.

Picture-perfect European scenery in Luxembourg.

Picture-perfect European scenery in Luxembourg.

The city of Luxembourg is mostly built on, in, above and around massive fortifications

The city of Luxembourg is mostly built on, in, above and around massive fortifications

The wife has infected me with her fascination for leadlight, I'm afraid.

The wife has infected me with her fascination for leadlight, I’m afraid.

The rain has gone, but the nights were becoming bitterly cold. It was time to make the big leap southward. I’ll spare you the nail-biting guessing period of not knowing where we went – it was France, of course, but a rather special part of France. Details coming up soon.

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Ugly past of a beautiful place

September campsites in the Ahr valley are full

September campsites in the Ahr valley are full

The second leg of our Grey Wave adventure took as across another border – this time between Belgium and Germany. Just a short drive, less than 150 kilometres, but since we took to the scenic roads rather than the highways, including a small stop at Signal de Botrange, the highest point of Belgium and one of the weirdest spots on the continent, it took us the best part of the day just to get there. The roads here wind through dark forests and deep valleys, the bottom of which seemed one big campsite at times, as one infinitely long camping seamlessly converged onto the next. And they were all full to the brackets, with elderly wine-drinkers I presume, as the last week of September is the time of wine-festivals here. The Ahr valley, where we camped, looks (and smells) as if it could be in the mountains of Switzerland or Austria, with the steep gorge flanked by numerous vineyards, that, in September, spread an unmistakable odour of rotting fruit. Castle ruins on hilltops and abandoned fruit trees terraces make the romantic setting complete.

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The next morning we took the bicycles for a ride down the valley, to the pittoresque little town of Ahrweiler, the capital of the wine growing in the area, where I had a rather curious encounter with the ugly German past. I have visited Germany on many occasions, and I have even lived in the country for several months. I’ve seen and experienced a number of Holocaust sites and of course I am aware of the history. For me as a Jew, Germany will inevitably be connected to this most ugly chapter in human history. But I don’t hold a special grudge against modern-day Germans, nor do I think that the Germans of the past are more accountable for the horrors than all the other people of Europe. Except the Danes, perhaps, who deserve special credit for their courage and success in saving almost all the Danish Jews.

As I’ve said, I know my history and am not often overwhelmed by emotions about the Holocaust. But as we strolled through this peaceful, sunny little town, we’ve come across the old synagogue, which in the Jew-deprived Ahrweiler is now being used as an art exhibition space. This is where it hit me. I stood there and read the plaque, telling about the desecration of the synagogue in 1938, and how not a single of the town’s Jews survived the Holocaust and I just didn’t get it. I could somehow acknowledge that in the relative anonymity of a big city, where you don’t even know your neighbour’s name bad things can and do happen. But here, in this small remote town? How could it happen in the 20th century, in a wealthy European country, that the town’s people, educated, cultured folk, who lived together with their Jewish neighbours for 7 centuries, who probably knew each and every one of the several dozens of the town’s Jews by name, got together and burned down the synagogue, and send their neighbours to the gas chambers? I just couldn’t fathom it, I still can’t, and I was most surprised how despite all my knowledge of the Holocaust, I still fail to understand, and probably will never be able to understand, how otherwise nice and decent people can be capable of unspeakable cruelties to their closest neighbours.

We haven’t stayed too long in Germany. The weather became cold and rainy, and we’ve made our escape, stopping briefly in ancient Trier, before heading to the next country on our list. Attentive readers will probably have already guessed which one it was.

Golden decorations on a Trier palace - how German can it get?

Golden decorations on a Trier palace – how German can it get?

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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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Caucasus – a spicy bite of adventure

I have to admit – the last time I’ve been to the Caucasus was more than 30 years ago. I was 3 years old and I’ve spent a summer with my family on a bee farm in Dagestan, or so they tell me. I have very limited recollection of the events myself. Nevertheless, the countries that now compose the Caucasus – Russia, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan (and the multitude of semi-countries like South-Ossetia or Nagorno-Karabakh) were part of the Soviet Union, so technically, I once lived in a “Caucasus country”. The region has been at the top of my wish list for a while, so I’ve gathered sufficient knowledge to write about it (*).

  • Why go there?
    In recent years, the Caucasus got a lot of bad publicity. Wars, poverty and crime have scarred the region. Most of the Russian Caucasus is a no-go area, where the security situation is best described by “what security?” However, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan have by now mostly recovered from the dramatic events of the past decades and are enjoying a vastly improved security situation, even though the international relations in the region remain very tense. With the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, the area is suddenly in the spotlight as a viable tourist destination. And if you’re ready to look past the dramatic headlines, you’ll find a region rich in sights, culture and most of all, exceptionally rich in excellent food and drinks.
  • What’s it best for?
    This is the place for the adventurous traveller. Of all European regions, the Caucasus has the highest content of what I call “the National Geographic sensation” – when you feel like a true explorer. Most of the region is still virtually untraveled by outsiders, so you’ll be as much of a revelation to the locals as they will be to you.
  • When is the best time to go?
    ASAP. Now. Before mass-tourism arrives and the prices go up, before you can read the menu’s, before the roads are paved. Go now, and be the first of your friends and colleagues to drink from a ram’s horn at a Georgian wedding, the first to pick pomegranates in an Armenian mountain village, the first to dip in the mud volcano’s of Azerbaijan. Amazing travel stories guaranteed.
  • How to get around?
    The transportation system in the region is improving, but is still badly hurt by years of conflict and economic hardship. Many rail and road connections are severed by conflict lines. The road will be a large part of your adventure in the Caucasus and especially in remote areas, hitchhiking might be the best way to get from A to B.
  • Why is it best to avoid?
    If you’re uncomfortable being close to active and dormant armed conflicts – stay away. In any of the region’s countries, having the “wrong” stamp in your passport or photographing a seemingly innocent building may lead to anything from a lengthy interrogation to expulsion, a heavy fine or even imprisonment in the extreme case.
  • Where to go if you just have one week?
    Georgia has it all – beaches, mountain resorts and wine cellars. Unlike many of its neighbours, Georgia is a democratic country, which earns it some bonus points. And Georgia is unique in being the home land of the Chief of all American Tribes, Father of all Nations, the Sun of the People, Jozef Stalin. The museum dedicated to Uncle Joe in his birthplace Gori is a must. Last but not least Georgia is well connected – it has rail connections to Azerbaijan and Armenia, you can get in by road from Turkey and there are even ferry connections to Istanbul and Odessa. Perhaps doesn’t mean much to you, but in the Caucasus this connectivity is pretty unique.

(*) – All images used in this post are from Wikipedia. I’ve done my best to credit the photographers, to all of whom I with to experience my gratitude for providing such beautiful images.

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