Thursday, September 30, 2010

Hanspach, France

I can't find this village on a map but these picturesque houses are not to be believed.

I'm sure the village has rules written or unwritten as to what color a house can be painted as no two houses next to each other are painted the same.

No problem here with grafitti or litter on the streets.

Betcha people don't have to lock their doors.

Note the window sills with flowers.

So, leaving this beautiful village surrounded by farmland I stop to check out a clump of trees near the side of the road as they just look out of place.

Closer inspection finds World War II pillbox.

I'm sure the locals wish they could do away with reminders like this but unfortunately these concrete slabs can't be bulldozed or easily taken apart.

I'm on a backroad making my way back to the German border (about six miles) and amazingly I keep coming upon more World War II sites.

This above ground concrete fortification is called a casemate. You get close-up and can see large chunks of concrete missing. War details: the Americans attacked this casement and the Germans retreated. The Americans took over, were attacked by the Germans with the Americans having to retreat. The Americans attacked again (with air support) and finally secured the premises.
Only a mile from the casemate I come upon a privately-run World War II museum. It's a fascinating visit because scattered about the grounds are all kinds of military vehicles and equipment used during the war including amphibious transporters, jets, tanks, artillery pieces and so on.
Vivid displays in this underground bunker shows photos of what happened in this area during the war. The nearby town was leveled with the Americans and Germans battling house to house (with tanks) while locals huddled in their basements. The death toll for civilians was very high. The Americans captured the town, the Germans counterattacked and took it back, then the Americans attacked again and held the town or what was left of it. It's a fascinating and at the same time sad place to visit.

Several large sheds on the property contain tanks being repaired.

Lots of military vehicles sit in the open waiting (if ever) to be repaired.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Fort Schoenenbourg, France

Oh baby! on a scale on 1-10 Fort Schoenenbourg rates an 11! Started in 1931 and finished in 1938 this gigantic underground concrete and steel fortress is an amazing place to visit.

First, some background. After World War I France was leery of being invaded again and between 1930 and 1940 built a formidable defense system along its borders with Germany and Italy. This vast fortified network was made up of 44 large artillery forts, 62 medium size infantry forts, 365 casemates, 17 observation posts, 89 midway shelters, over 159 turrents of all kinds and several thousand blockhouses. This architect of this massive defensive plan was France's Minister for War Andre Maginot--hence the name Maginot Line. The French were so proud of this seemingly impregnable line that I think that's when they started walking around with their chests puffed out. When World War II broke out and Germany invaded France this supposedly impregnable line was made worthless. How? Two things. One, the Germans did an end around by invading neighboring Belgium (thus bypassing the line) and two, the German Luftwaffe (air force) simply flew over the Maginot Line.
Located in the midst of a heavily-wooded forest you could pass right by Fort Schoenenbourg without having a clue as to its location and size. This is the largest Maginot fort open to the public AND (the best part) you are not restricted to guided tours! It was built to house a garrison of 630 men who could resist attack for several months without receiving supplies.

This electrified narrow-gauge train was used to transport supplies and ammunition through the long, long corridors.

You go through this entry and take stairs down, down and down to begin the tour---almost 100 feet underground! It's 90 degrees outside but down below it's cold, very cold. Thankfully I was prepared and brought a jacket.

The self-guided tour takes about two hours and you end up walking something like four miles. Reaching the farthest point it then took 25 minutes of fast power walking to return to the beginning.

Clearly marked arrows show you which way to go through the maze of tunnels and closed-circuit cameras are set up throughout the underground complex so visitors don't get lost.
Remember about five blogs ago when I visited Fort Mutzig, the underground fortress built by the Germans back in 1890? Any immediately noticeable differences beween the two? If you recall poison gas was used in World War I. Here, the air pumped in gets put through a double filtration system to foil any poison gas penetration.

Above ground nothing is visible except fortified observation posts and huge gun turrents. What you don't see are the massive platforms below ground which the guns are mounted on. This photo (below) shows part of a three-story cannon platform.

Of course the place has its own gigantic power generators, water tanks, full on hospital, kitchens even a chapel.

Kitchen pantry.

This is a fortified observation post which watches over the entrance where ammunition and supplies were brought in.

Leaving the fort I cycle past village after village with colorful houses.

I have fond memories of cycling through the sparsely populated and flat farmland of the midwestern United States and from miles away one could see an approaching town thanks to colorfully decorated water storage tanks and corn silos. Well, here's the first one spotted in France.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Wissembourg, France

Rolling hills lined with ripening fields of wheat and corn as far as the eye can see dot the countryside. It's 10 o'clock Sunday morning as I roll into the village of Wissembourg (population 6,000). I'm now back in France but not by much as the German border lies about a mile away. Looking at my map, I'll be passing through quite a few villages like this today and it might be a problem because Sundays usually finds everything closed----which could be a huge problem for my stomach. So, my first priorty is checking out main street for any open patisserie (pastry) or boulangerie (bread) shops. Bingo! two shops are open. I purchase several sandwiches and cookies to eat later for my lunch and then proceed to buy a chocolate elcair, large chocolate macaron and an apple pastry to wolf down now. With the belly taken care it's time to give Wissembourg a quick tour. Wow, this place is an absolute delight!

The parish church is huge for a village this size. A canal lined with hanging baskets of colorful flowers and filled with lazy streaming water zig-zags its way through the village.

Half-timbered homes are everywhere.

Parts of the medieval fortifications that at one time enclosed and protected the village can still be seen.

Unbelievable, here's another picture of that same chief hawking a restaurant's menu. Traveling through Europe I've probably taken pictures of him several hundred times standing outside restaurants, Hmmm, I'm beginning to think he isn't real.

Love this water fountain especially the faces. Water is ice cold and very refreshing on a day like today when it's suppose to hit 90 degrees.

So, I'm heading out of Wissembourg and take a street which I hadn't been down earlier because it looked like there wasn't anything of interest on it and spot another patisserie. Of course my bike stops automatically (it's been trained to do that) and I check out the window display.

Those colorful bite-size round things in the front of the display case in the photo above are macarons----best I've ever had!

Oh man! everything looks delicious and my usual modus operandi would be to try two or three items. However, idiot me mistaken thought my options were limited to the two shops on main street and pigged out (BIG mistake) on sweets there (which were nothing special). Never-the-less, blogging as Paul the Junk Food Junkie requires me to do a taste test so I opt for a half-dozen macarons. I'm going to now interrupt this commentary to give you some background on macarons.
French macarons are NOT to be confused with American macaroons (different spelling) which are dense chewy treats with sweetened coconut. This delicate French confection is made with egg whites, ground almonds and sugar. The hard outer shells are sandwiched together with a soft creamy center that can consist of a variety of flavors from chocolate, pistachio to the more exotic like rose petal and violet. To me, the ideal macaron shell is a cross between chewy and crunchy. Macarons have short shelf life (one or two days) and it's very tricky buying them because you can't tell by looking at 'em through a glass display case if they're fresh or been sitting there for a week. Read any article about macarons and the name Laduree will be mentioned. Laduree in Paris ( is world famous for macarons and guess what, several years ago stores were opened in Geneva and Lausanne (where I hang out). I've tasted macarons at easily more than several hundred places in France, Belgium, Switzerland and USA (Trader Joe's sells 'em frozen), and Laduree ranks number one. HOWEVER, that changes today as I knock Laduree off the top pedestal and replace it with Daniel Rebert's devine delectable delicacies.
The magnificent macarons I have at Daniel Rebert's shop in Wissembourg ( are the best I've ever had! After wolfing down the half-dozen I go back in and buy a half-dozen more. The caramel, vanilla and pistachio are my three favorites. However, I have a conundrum. If I buy any for the road they won't last long in this heat. I also calculate the odds of my ever coming back to this place as it's very out of the way. I also figure in the rules for posting sweets like this on the "Tasty Goodies" section of my website ( which states that I can't post any "goodies" on my website unless I've sampled said "goodies" on three separate days. This clause was inserted to make sure potential nominees were consistent in the quality of their offerings. Hmm, I compromise and elect to return to the store and buy a half-dozen more macarons for the road--thus ensuring that I tried the macarons on three separate occasions.
I ask the woman in the shop (who speaks zero English) for a business card and after figuring out what I was after gives me several magazine articles on Daniel Rebert. It turns out various trade publications rank Daniel Rebert's store as one of the best in France---and don't forget I'm just eyeballing the pastry side of the store and didn't even bother checking out the other half which is filled with chocolates.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Neustadt a.d. Weinstrasse, Germany

I've left France for a few days and crossed the border into Germany. Didn't arrive in Neustadt (population 53,000) until 6:30 PM and wish I didn't have to be on the road the next morning by 6 AM as it's a delightful place with the old town area having a slew of gorgeous half-timbered homes. There are over two dozen towns with the name Neustadt in Germany. The official name for this place is Neustadt a.d. Weinstrasse--which translates to "new city on the wine route". Yep, Neustadt is the beginning to one of Germany's most popular wine routes. About 50 miles long, the area is known as the Tuscany of Germany as it enjoys the warmest climate in the country.

After dinner and walking through the old town I look up on a hillside and spot a castle. It's about 8:30 PM and still plenty of light so I grab my bike and head up to check out the castle. That's not the castle in this first photo but a large mansion (now a hotel)--the castle is directly behind it.

Can't get a picture of the whole castle as the road ends but on the left of the photo you can see walls of the castle.

Again this is just a side view of the castle--it's a private home. Though they are in German I can understand what the signs say that are posted where I'm standing taking this photo. "no trespassing". Posing as a dumb American tourist I can get away with pretending not to understand the sign------- as it's not too much of a reach for me to play dumb.
The hillside area is filled with many, many beautiful turn-of-the-century mansions and from what I gather most were built by wealthy wine merchants.

The reason for this excursion into Germany is to visit Landau, population 40,000, located about 20 miles from Neustadt. Back in the 1600's this region was part of France and during King Louis XIV's reign he ordered famous French miliary engineer Vauban to build a citadel (fortress) in Landau. As you know I'm hot on the trail of Vauban's works. The citadel was built between 1688-1699 and even in 1789 when the town's population was only 5,000 inhabitants--this place was considered Europe's strongest fortress. Several books read on Vauban mention Landau being one of his best works. One book mentioned the citadel being torn down and replaced by a university but, several parts of the fortress could still be seen amongst the undergrowth.

Major disappointment as medieval fortifications were now where to be found! These two photos are of the main square. Lots of beautiful turn-of-the-century buildings in town as many prosperous wine merchants lived here.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Strasbourg, Nancy & Metz, France

I sent you pictures from Strasbourg last year. But, was cycling through the city around 7AM on my way to Nancy and snapped a few photos. Strasbourg is one of my favorite cities--thanks to ownership being wrestled between France and Germany four times in the last 120 years.

This is still Strasbourg.

I don't particularly care for Nancy (population 105,000) but, Stanislas Square ranks as one of the most beautiful squares in the world. In 1983 UNESCO made it a World Heritage site. Think of UNESCO, part of the United Nations, as a world historical site agency.

This is one of several surviving magnificent medieval gates to the city center of Nancy.

Nice walkway.

I love this tower gate guarding the entrance to the city center.

Another gated entrance to Nancy's old town.

Backside to gated entrance in photo above.

Close-up of golden gates in Stanislas Square.

Tree-lined walkway to government building in Nancy.

I've been to Metz (population125,000) before but I'm back for two reasons. Medieval French military engineer Vauban (I'm on a mission to visit his works) oversaw the reinforcements of the city's fortifications in 1674 and during World War ll the city was heavily fortified. Well imagine my disappointment to learn there's nothing left to see. Zilch, nada, zippo. Everything has been either torn down or as in the case of some World War ll structures in the outskirts of town--lost to the undergrowth. Other than the yellow limestone cathedral pictured here, Metz scores low on my list of "favorite cities in France".