Dinner with friends.

Caviar and Sprats.
On the left are Riga sprats with thinly sliced lemon and parsley, and I think some butter. That is not marmalade on the left, but caviar of some type. But you probably knew that. I have to take a deep breath before eating either one, but they certainly look lovely.

I put this post into the “What we’re cooking” category even though it’s not about my own cooking.  I think it counts, though, because we were very much enjoying someone else’s cooking, and especially since we were enjoying it with them.  Food is always so much better when you are sharing it with good friends, and then when you’re sharing it with friends and sharing a few bottles of really good wine- well, that takes it to another level altogether.

We are fortunate enough to have friends on many continents (I love that) and from many different backgrounds, so saying that our Ukrainian friends fall into the “Most Interesting” category is no small thing.  But they are definitely that.  They are interesting in so, so many ways, beginning with the dinners that they serve.  These people know how to host a dinner!

This is how it goes:  You arrive at around 6:30 and are nearly immediately seated at the dinner table, which is laden with cheeses, a platter of cucumbers, tomatoes, and chopped fresh dill, a plate of cold cuts from an Atlanta institution called Patak Meats, cooked mushrooms of some type- either cooked in sour cream and covered with cheese, or wrapped in pastry, a platter of Olga’s homemade pickles, another piled high with Olga’s homemade bread, and if you’re lucky, that beet salad made with unrefined sunflower oil that might convert even the most diehard of beet haters.  Sometimes caviar and smoked fish.  And of course there’s wine.  There’s always wine.  I’ve learned to sip very, very slowly and remain constantly vigilant against Oleg and his stealthy pouring; apparently, he is opposed to empty wine glasses and takes his job as glass filler quite seriously.  And for the next 2-3 hours, you will sit and eat all the delicious things that have been piled on that table, and you will talk.  World politics is a favorite topic, with the Pilot and I often playing the role of avid listeners as Olga delivers passionate discourse on topics such as the state of the Ukraine.  She had me in tears the other night over the current situation; they have family still in that country, after all.  Olga’s passion is countered only by Oleg’s calm, quiet demeanor as he gently suggests that she take a moment to calm down with a cigarette (they are Europeans, after all) out on the balcony.  She always takes his suggestions.  This time, I joined her.  Sans cigarette, of course.

Literature and history are also favorite topics.  Did I mention that these friends are highly educated, both having trained as engineers at the Kiev Polytechnic Institute?  And then immigrated here when the Soviet Union fell apart, where they worked hard to learn not only a new language but a new career, or two?  They are both brilliant and fascinating, and this makes for incredible conversation when you add my equally brilliant husband into the mix.

After you’ve spent 2-3 hours enjoying the cold cuts, vegetables, and cheese, it’s time for the main course.  Yes. The main course, at 9 p.m.   I learned this when I traveled to that part of the world back in the 90s:  Don’t be fooled by the copious quantities of food in front of you that this is all there is.  And certainly don’t fill up, because there will be more food, and lots of it.  And you will miss out if you’re already full.

The other night, the main course was a stuffed cabbage dish called golubtsy.  It’s a classic Ukrainian dish that’s also made by Russians (but PLEASE do not mention that around Olga these days) and it is filling and delicious.  It consists of cabbage leaves filled with meat and rice and then cooked in a pot on the stove till everything is tender and the flavors blended.

Served, of course, with more wine.  And more conversation.  And then, usually by around 1 a.m., when I can’t even imagine eating another bite and can barely keep my eyes open, I manage to get the Pilot’s attention and suggest that it is quite possibly time to head home, against the pleas of Olga that “It’s early still!  You can’t go!”  coupled with the hint of a dessert that is yet to be served.  I have yet to be able to eat dessert at their home.  But I always leave completely satisfied, filled to the brim with friendship, good food, and the promise of the next time that we will see this lovely family.

 

Educational travel, Parisian style.

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Paris.  I think it’s pretty clear that I’m enamored with this place.  This hasn’t always been the case; we rarely stay here when we travel to France- we’re always on our way to someplace else in country, and I confess that I am a little crazy about the rural parts of France.  The fresh, cool air, the green fields filled with cream-colored cows, the vineyards and their grand crus… I’m describing my beloved Burgundy now.  But Paris is special, and this last trip reminded me of just how unique this city is in the world.

While in London, it was easy to focus on the educational part of our trip.  Travel in the name of education and all that.  Yes, a tour of the colleges of Cambridge, a tour of the British Museum- fabulous.  Christian Heritage!  Love it.  Please, teach me more history.  But it’s not so easy to maintain that serious educational outlook when I hit the border of a place I love so viscerally.  When my brain switches into French speaking mode, I feel like part of me has come home.  Which is strange, I know.  I’m not French.  I’m from Texas, for goodness sake.

So I’m going to have to try to reign myself in so I can describe our educational trip from a more objective point of view.  And we did learn a lot.  Oh yes, the tour of the city by bus was wonderful.  I highly recommend it.  I also recommend the tour by boat; I got some amazing photos of the Ile de la Cite, in particular Notre Dame.  It is so clear from the water that the Ile de la Cite is in fact an island.

But that same day, I got the chance to go off by myself on the pretext of needing to find a pharmacy for some headache medicine for my daughter, and that walk alone was one of those moments that make your breath catch in your throat.  Strolling those leafy streets, so residential and yet so close to the Eiffel Tower, was a treat of the best kind for me.  You walk along, and then suddenly a side street opens up a view of the most iconic image of Paris that there is: La Tour Eiffel, in all its glory. Sycamore trees, les platanes, shade these streets that are lined with cafes, bistros, brasseries, and yes, people’s homes.  And here I am, digressing into the sensual feel that the city has for me…

Okay, I can’t do it.  I can’t separate the feel of the city from what I am supposed to have learned about it.

So instead, here’s a list of images of Paris:

An omelette, a galette, and a bottle of sparkling water in an underground wine cellar turned restaurant near our hotel in Bercy Village… A carafe of wine as well, of course.

Accordion players in the Metro, so quintessentially French, playing Edith Piaf just in case they aren’t already Gallic enough to make me cry.

Montmartre- even though it’s crowded and dirty and touristy, I love it anyway.  I love Sacre Coeur, perched on its hill.  A glass of wine and a dish of pistachio ice cream in a café in Montmartre with my daughter while the rest of the group shopped.

Versailles, with its over the top, crazy gorgeous gilding and painting on every possible surface… Fountains, gardens, glass, mirrors, extravagance.  Extraordinary.

The Louvre.  What is there to even say about the Louvre?  Except that it’s overwhelming and astonishingly beautiful, with its strange, modern pyramid juxtaposed against 17th century palaces and filled to the brim with art of every kind (except modern.  And those crazy Impressionists).

Market day, on Saturday, where we shopped for ripe red currants and cherries and bargained for linens and scored inexpensive yet stylish lace tops and sun hats (10 euros each, thank you very much), drooled over cheese that cannot be taken home, and then took a lunch break where we had the most amazing glass of Beaume de Venise.  If I close my eyes I can still taste it.  Who really cares about the rest of the meal when there is Beaume de Venise?

The Latin Quarter, early on a Sunday morning after seeing the exterior of Notre Dame and its sculptures for what they truly mean…  Quiet, pensive, the feeling of the serious spiritual learning that is its history not so far away.

A waiter, kissing my hand as our group departed after a good meal and a delicious bottle of wine, near the Tuileries and the Champs Elysees.  I don’t know why he kissed my hand, but who needs a reason for such things when you’re in Paris?

Breakfast in our hotel, of all places.  I’m always happy to start my day out with a slice or two of Comte.  And a café au lait.

An early morning, insomniac walk through the Paris streets, just me and the folks cleaning the streets.  Most Parisians do not wake early.  But the city was sparkling and fresh, and I’m glad I got to experience it this way.

Paris, with friends, and Paris through the eyes of young people.  And all the joy that comes along with those things.

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Faces under a bridge along the Seine.
A glimpse of the Hall of Mirrors at Versaille.
A glimpse of the Hall of Mirrors at Versaille.
Notre Dame, on Ile de la Cite, from the boat.
Notre Dame, on Ile de la Cite, from the boat.
Me and my girl, at Versailles.  I love, love, love this place...
Me and my girl, at Versailles. I love, love, love this place…

An education in wine.

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Our course of study.

Last year, another of the places I loved and wanted to get to know better in the Burgundy region was the city of Beaune.  I was able to visit several times, but it was always, of course, with at least my own kids in tow and often several others as well.  And this does not lend itself to participation in the one activity I had really wanted to indulge in while in Beaune:  Wine tasting.

You see, Beaune is the “capital of Burgundy wines” , and as such, there are loads of wineries in and around the city.  It would take a very long time to visit them all, and since we only had 4 days we had to be very selective.  In the city itself, you can walk to any number of places selling Burgundy’s wares, from wine shops that promise that they can ship anywhere in the world (ha- I challenge them to try to ship to Georgia!) to wine bars where you can just have a glass.  Outside the city, but very nearby, a number of caves await.  But my mother and I did not begin there.  Instead, we found a little shop that was offering classes that would teach you about the wines of Burgundy, and promptly signed up.  We wanted to know what we were doing for our short 4 day tour of Bourgogne wine country!

Our instructor delivered the “lecture” in beautifully accented English- our fellow classmates, as it turned out, were Brazilian, and English was the common language.  And in that short two hours, we learned quite a bit.  One comment she made really stood out to me:  “If you want to know French wines, you must know French geography.  And if you know French geography, you know French wines.”  When you consider that the plots of land considered worthy to grow grapes labeled “grand cru”  or “premier cru” have been selected over the last thousand years, you can begin to understand how right she is, and truly, how connected the land and the wine are.  And when you realize that the French don’t label their wines, as we Americans do, by the type of grape but by the region, or the village, or the exact plot that those exact grapes came from, that geography connection makes even more sense.  And that is how it works, in a nutshell: To name a French wine, you name it by where it comes from.  In fact, it would be silly to name Burgundy’s wines by the grape, since nearly every grape grown there for red wines is a pinot noir, and nearly every grape grown there for white wines is a chardonnay.  (There are a few exceptions:  the gamay grape and the aligote, but those grapes are very minor and they don’t do much with them besides using Aligote mixed with creme de cassis to make Kir.  As for gamay, I believe it is what gives us Beaujolais. But these are relatively minor players.)

However, the only grapes that mattered that day were the ones that were waiting for us to taste there in their lovely bottles.  We began by tasting the reds, and learned about color and what it means in a red wine.  We also learned how to detect and describe the different aspects of each wine (whether it was acid or tannic or mellow) and the flavors (which are too numerous for me to even begin to remember).  Then we did the same thing with five whites.

I have to say that it was the best school day for me ever.

No, I’m still far from being an expert, but that doesn’t matter.  What mattered was that it was great fun, being there in that tiny shop with my mom and four lively Brazilians, with our teacher and her gorgeous accent, sipping wine and talking about the geography of France.  Really, does it get much better than that?  Wait, talking about and then tasting the geography of France.  Because really, that is what you are doing.  And that makes me smile.

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Education continues, in white.
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One of the many lovely shops selling wines and offering to ship. We never went into even one of these places.
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Pinot noir, ripening on the vine. For its last few moments, I’d say, as the harvesters were already in the field.
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The harvest in full swing.
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The countryside around Beaune. The slopes make for the best wine growing, apparently.

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Le dîner chez nous.

That's the bottle of wine, a wild boar saucisson, and the melty Mont d'or.  You can just see a bit of the Roquefort I used for the sauce as well.
That’s the bottle of wine, a wild boar saucisson, and the melty Mont d’or. You can just see a bit of the Roquefort I used for the sauce as well.

That’s French for dinner at home, in case you were wondering.  Which is what we do most nights- we don’t eat out that often- but last night’s dinner at home was special.  Eating well is part of the story of our time in France, a very important part of the story, and so I just want to write this little bit down so I can remember it.  And so, you get to know about it too.

We’ve been hanging on to this one particular bottle of wine for two months now, waiting for the right moment to open it.  Our time here is getting short, so we kind of decided it was now or never and made our own special occasion.  This bottle of wine is special for several reasons:  our Norwegian friends bought it for us while they were here, and spent WAY more money on it than we usually do.  And, this particular bottle was a grand cru, the best wine made from the best grapes of Burgundy.  It was a 2006 Echezeaux, from the Caves Réunies du Couvent des Cordoliers du 13eme Siecle, in case that means anything to you.  It does now to me.

We didn’t do much- who needs to, when you have a wine this good?  I simply warmed a round of Mont d’or cheese, sliced some baguette, cooked some of those skinny little French green beans, and sauteed a couple of steaks (the local charolais, of course) in a pan.  I did cave to the Pilot’s wishes and make a blue cheese sauce (and it turned out delicious!), but that was it.  As far as I’m concerned, we could have stopped at the Mont d’or and baguette.

I’ve often thought that the world of wine can seem a little pretentious.  I’m not a wine snob, and I really don’t know that much about it- I drink what I like, and think you can find a perfectly good wine for a reasonable cost.  But then, a wine like this comes along to show that you do get what you pay for.  There are no words to describe how delicious this was.

The French certainly do know how to live…

I feel the same way about this that I do about the Mont d’or cheese:  if you are a wine lover, then do yourself a favor, at least once, and try a Burgundy grand cru.  You won’t regret it.

La foire! Market day!

These are Charolais cows who live near us, curiously checking out my little dog. Though these guys weren’t actually at the “foire” that day, I suspect they eventually will be.

I absolutely love market days in little French villages.  The market day for our town happened last Tuesday, and I was not disappointed.  Our town is the center for the raising and selling of the Charolais cow, and thus this was no ordinary market.  In fact, it only happens once a month, and thus is considered a “foire” and not just a “marche.”  I had no idea there was a difference.

French markets are a cacophony of sights, sounds, and smells.  The chicken-roasting guy is one of my favorite market staples- you can buy a whole rotisserie-roasted chicken (for MUCH cheaper than you can buy the same chicken, uncooked, from the butcher!) with potatoes that have been roasted down below all the turning chickens- delicious, and smells heavenly.  There is usually a spice stand, with bulk spices that are fresher, and cheaper, than you will get at the store.  They also typically have things you won’t find elsewhere, like the tikka masala spice I bought.  I’m not entirely sure what to do with it, but I couldn’t resist.  Of course there are fresh vegetables, and the local bakeries are open and doing a brisk business.  And always a few butchers are on hand- I found one who promised that he could get me a whole turkey for American Thanksgiving!  I will solidify those arrangements next week at St Honore les Bains’ market day, which is a town about 10 kilometers away that has a weekly market, and I’m excited to have this taken care of.

One of my absolute, hands-down, all-time favorites of market day is the olive stand.  Usually, the olive stand is selling not only olives, but braids of garlic and onions and dried fruit of all kinds as well.  But it’s the olives that pull me in.  First of all, they look so beautiful, gleaming there like little jewels!  I was pretty serious this market day about food acquisition, so I didn’t bring my camera…  but trust me, it’s a visual treat.  And smells amazing.  And tastes…  yes, usually the olive guy will proudly let you sample his wares.  I tried and then purchased some tangy, fat black olives in oil seasoned with herbs de provence- I’m planning to make a “gardianne,” which is sort of like a beef bourguignon, which is to say it’s a beef stew made with wine.  The version of the recipe that I have came from a book by Lydie Marshall called “A Passion for My Provence ” http://www.amazon.com/Passion-My-Provence-Cooking-France/dp/0060931647/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1352624791&sr=8-2&keywords=lydie+marshall+cookbook   I discovered her cookbook last year when we were in France in a town called Nyons, where she is from.  If you like French cooking minus the metric conversions, this one is terrific.  Nothing too fussy, but everything I’ve tried has been fantastic.  Her version of a gardianne uses only a cup of red wine (my beef bourguignon recipe calls for an entire bottle!), a lot of garlic, and then, the finishing touch- a handful of briny olives tossed in at the end of cooking.  Here’s another link to the actual recipe… trust me, it’s good http://www.fetchmagbytaigan.com/food-drink/elizabeth-davids-delicious-legacy/  And so is the cookbook.

The cheese stands are also a favorite of mine at these markets.  Be prepared to wait your turn, because they are everyone else’s favorite as well.  But patience paid off for me- I found, in addition to the usual French cheese stands, a Dutch lady selling some incredible Dutch cheeses.  My kids love cheese, especially my son, and he insisted that we take home some of the goat Gouda that was being sampled at the stand.  I picked up another that was packed with cumin, and a little ball of chevre for my daughter since she loves it so much.

Of course, there are also the requisite clothing stands, and the table linen stands, and the stands selling various and sundry stuff.  And always the sock stands.  The underwear stand amuses me a bit.  I’d prefer to buy my undies indoors, thank you.  But they must do a good business, because there are always underwear stands.  You can buy inexpensive and often trendy clothing at these markets- I’ve gotten great scarves in the past!  But mostly, I stick to food.

And by the way, back to those white cows which our town is “the” place for:  what made our town’s “foire” special was that these lovely cows were on display.  I didn’t entirely understand what was going on, but I can tell you that the cows (who actually appeared to be young males) had been washed and brushed and fluffed, and some guy was calling out something over a loudspeaker- I’m betting they were for sale.  Yep, that is my completely inexpert guess.  The fact that is was market day helped me to reach this conclusion.

Be warned:  it’s easy to drop a lot of cash at these markets because you are so caught up in the swirl of delicious potential all around you, even without buying an entire cow.

Oh, the wonderful things that this place holds!!

Bergheim, Alsace, France.

This is not actually Bergheim. It’s a little town nearby called Eguisheim, which is on the list of the most beautiful towns in France. We stopped here briefly while driving up the wine route of Alsace towards Bergheim. It’s also where my camera battery died.

The kids and I recently drove from the Burgundy region of France to Heidelberg, Germany.  In theory, it should have been a six hour drive.  In reality, it was much, much longer.

The first snag we hit was that detour between Autun, France, and Beaune, France.  The main road was blocked, and there was a sign pointing the way to the detour, or “deviation” as they say in France.  The problem was that that was the only sign- once I left the main road, I was on my own!  I found Beaune, but I don’t think I was supposed to be driving actually through the vineyards on the one lane roads…  Needless to say, that added considerable time to my journey- though it was definitely the scenic route.  The second snag I hit the following day:  construction on the Autobahn.  Yes, the super-efficient, lacking in speed limit German autobahn had a speed limit in most places of 80 kilometers, at least on the A5 from Freiburg to Heidelberg.  Thank goodness, though, that this snag was on the second day.

When planning this trip so we could meet the Pilot in Germany, where he had to go and work for a few weeks, I decided to break it up into two days so that we could take our time and see another part of France.  I settled on the Alsace, mainly because it’s the last part of France before you enter Germany.  I knew I didn’t want to be in a city, so I did a bit of research on pretty towns near Germany and came up with the town of Bergheim.  I chose a hotel off the internet as well.  I had no idea that both would be as beautiful as they turned out to be!  What a fantastic stop for the first day of our travels.

You might have a difficult time finding Bergheim on a map- I certainly did.  As I got closer to where I thought it should be, I navigated towards Ribeauville, which is a larger town nearby.  But, once I found Ribeauville, there were signs pointing to Bergheim, so it wasn’t a problem finding it.  Luckily, it’s a small town, and our hotel was right off the square, so I found that right away as well.  The weather that day in the Alsace was a perfect, sunny, 70 degrees, so everyone was out enjoying it.  We arrived later than I would have liked due to our detour through a few vineyards back in Burgundy, but we still had plenty of time to look around the town, which was completely charming:  half-timbered buildings, cobbled streets, very French, but with an obvious German influence as well (it was sparkling clean…)

Of course, the kids were so impressed with our hotel room that they didn’t really want to do much walking around!  I have to say that it was quite a hotel room.  Not luxurious like an American chain hotel, by any means, but oh, so cozy and quaint and infinitely more welcoming and charming.  We actually had a two-story room:  two beds, and bathroom and a sitting room downstairs, plus two more beds in a little loft area upstairs.  They loved it, and so did I.  Here’s the link to the place we stayed- I highly recommend it.  I really wish I could have taken photos…  http://www.cheznorbert.com/

When I first arrived, the woman who checked me in asked if I’d like to dine in the restaurant that evening.  I said yes without hesitation- I was tired and didn’t want to have to think about finding a restaurant for myself that night.  Plus, the courtyard between the hotel and restaurant was so inviting that I couldn’t imagine finding a better place.  However, that night when we arrived for our reservation, a sign next to the door made me pause for a moment:  the restaurant is mentioned by Michelin.  No stars- I’ve still never eaten at a restaurant with stars but a mention.  My first thought:  this is not the place for me- I’m alone with two kids!  We shouldn’t be ANYPLACE fancy…  but my exhaustion won out, and I gave the kids a quick lecture on restaurant manners and best behavior- you get the idea.  The menu looked good, and I quickly decided on a prix fixe menu, which I highly recommend when traveling in France:  pick the menu du jour that has courses- it’s almost always a better deal and you get to try things you ordinarily wouldn’t.  Like the terrine that was my first course.  I would never order that on my own, but they brought it to me and it was absolutely delicious.  Or the pave (a mild white fish) over a creamy risotto that was the second course.  And I certainly wouldn’t have chosen the delicious (though extremely pungent) Muenster cheese that was dessert.  No, I wouldn’t have picked any of it, and I would have missed out!  As for the kids, I trusted our waiter to bring them something of the chef’s choosing.  What he brought them was a perfectly cooked and sliced steak, tender and juicy, with pommes frites, and vanilla ice cream for dessert.  We were all very, very happy.  And as an added bonus, this little feast was surprisingly affordable!  Thank goodness- that little Michelin sign had me worried.

The next morning, the good weather was over and the rain and cold had begun.  I went out and walked our dog before the kids were even out of bed, and happened upon one of those wonderful outdoor markets that France has:  Muenster cheese, saucissons, fresh vegetables.  I could have gone a little overboard buying this amazing food if it hadn’t been for the fact that I was headed to Germany to stay in a hotel room for two weeks instead of back to my wonderful French kitchen.

Bergheim, France- yet another place that I wish I could spend more time in!  But, we had kilometers to go before our destination in Germany, so we said goodbye to this lovely place, and within less than an hour, we were in Germany.  I couldn’t have picked a better rest stop for our six-hours-turned-into-eight-hour drive to Germany.

Bernkastel.

Our long-awaited, much anticipated adventures have begun.

We spent the last week in Germany, and it was wonderful.  Talk about a history and geography lesson!  To prepare, we spent a couple of weeks doing a unit study on Germany that I found on the internet called Passport Germany.  I would recommend it, although I found it impossible to do in the week you’re supposed to complete it in- WAY too much information in this for a week!  I liked it well enough that I am thinking about buying another one, this time for France.  Here’s the link in case you’re interested:  http://www.unitstudy.com/PassportGermany.html.

We stayed in Landstuhl, Germany, which I mentioned in my last post, and thoroughly enjoyed our week in a walking city.  Mostly, though, we used it as a home base for our many other adventures.  One of those adventures took us to the city of Bernkastel, located in a beautiful wine-growing area of Germany along the Mosel River.  This link, http://en.bernkastel.de/events/christmas-market-in-bernkastel-kues.html, will show you the city when I’d REALLY like to be there, at Christmas!!  But, it is beautiful and charming pretty much anytime, as far as I could tell.

In order to get to Bernkastel, we took the Autobahn (yikes) and then exited where it crossed the Mosel River.  We then followed a small road that wound along the river till we found Bernkastel.  The scenic route was certainly worth the extra time- the river twisted its way through mountains with grapevines planted on every imaginable, possible spot.  How they harvest there I have no idea- some places the vines are growing on ground that is so steep that I’d consider it mountain climbing to go check your crop.  But apparently it works well, and I can attest to the fact that they are growing some tasty white wines here.  I don’t think the picture above really does the steepness, or the beauty, justice.

The city itself is as beautiful as its surroundings, and we had a great time exploring its narrow cobbled streets.  I absolutely love half-timbered buildings, and this is the place for that.  There are several town squares- you know, the type where people gather and walk around and interact with one another in a non-road rage sort of way?  You can tell I think they are a good idea. But these town square are surrounded by tall half-timbered buildings on every side, and the effect is stunning.  Flowers in boxes under every window add to the beauty. 

And it’s real, not a Disney set!

Of course, lunch was a top priority for this family, and we had a delicious meal (in one of those half-timbered builidngs!) of schnitzel- the kids’ new favorite food, and potatoes cooked with bacon.  Oh, and that delicious salad that the Germans make that seems to involve shredded vegetables of various types and dill in some form.   I know very little about German cooking, but it is very good, very hearty stuff.  Not light, but tasty!

On that note, we ate a lot of schnitzel over the past week.  I admit with great shame that though I took two years of German in college, I don’t remember much, and schnitzel was something easily recognizable on the menu.  However, words were starting to come back to me by the end of the week, so perhaps there is hope.