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Yes, I already know that the unchallenged main city of the region is Strasbourg, capital of both Alsace and Europe.
But my heart belongs to Colmar, the fairy-tale town located amidst La Route des Vins d’Alsace –the wine route- at the southern edge of the Vosges Mountains. The perfect place to begin your travel through this beautiful land.
Having remained pretty unchanged over the centuries, Colmar is a pure and genuine example of the typical Alsatian architecture, with its half-timbered buildings varying from the colorful fishermen’s houses of the riversides to the imposing 16th and 17th centuries’ houses of the bourgeoises.
WHEN LESS IS MORE
I’m not a minimalist, but this is one of those occasions when this sentence gets a clear and perfect sense.
Colmar is small, and its cute, inviting old district is even smaller. This allows you to forget any hurries.
You can rumble at an easy and relaxed path, stopping at one of its cafés or restaurants to have a coffee, a drink or a meal -and I urge you to do so-, and yet being able to fully enjoy the town, while keeping enough time and energy to widen your visit to its beautiful parks or to some of the museums like the Unterlinden, if you are in the mood.
We will begin a short, kind of “back in time” journey, following a 2.5 kilometers walk to discover my preferred sites among the many treasures of this city. Formerly an important marketplace, artistic and educational center, it developed an impressive legacy which can still be found in the Old Town with its picturesque cobblestone streets, and in the canal-side quarters with their remarkable appeal.
Our path will start in the southern part of the old Colmar, at the crossing of Quai de la Poissonnerie and Rue des Écoles, just in the verge of the most well known -and perhaps most photographed- part of the town.
Here we get the first feeling of the relaxed, unique charm of this town, a feeling that won’t leave us throughout our entire walk.
Now, the absolute first place to see is just a few steps away from where we are.
1. Petite Venise
With no doubt, this is the most attractive and scenic quarter, housing much of the town’s most representative and appealing architecture. Your eyes will be amazed and amused by the wide, brilliant palette of colors shown by the distinctive tiny half-timbered houses framing the narrow, wandering Lauch River. Beautiful both in sunny days, when the brightness increases the contrast between the different colours, and in cloudy or rainy days when it looks like a gentle, mild spot of color amid the gray environment.
While in its origin this borough was on the outskirts of the town, being shelter mainly for fishermen, tanners and wine producers, it’s easy to understand why today is one of the main tourist attractions of the ville, and the ideal place for a dinner at the riverside restaurants.
I must be honest : as you should see by your own, it actually does not look at all like the real Venice, but who cares? It not only offers outstanding views, but a hard to describe sense of intimacy along with a completely unique ambiance.
2. Maison Pfister
Originally built in 1537 for Ludwig Scherer, a wealthy hatter from Besançon, the house soon became one of the symbols of the old town. Its current name is owed to the family that occupied and restored it from the mid 19th century.
It is said to be the very first example in town of Renaissance architecture while retaining some medieval details, with its prominent two stories tall oriel –it’s the “bay window-like” structure in the upper story-, the wooden gallery and the tall octagonal turret.
I know, sometimes –usually- the history behind things can be boring. For me, in this case the most significant facts are that this exceptional house was built almost 5 centuries ago, when America was still a “New World”, and -even more important- that with its marvelous and exquisite carved wooden balconies and gallery, and the elaborated painted panels of the facade, I find it one of the most beautiful ancient buildings I’ve seen.
3. Musée Bartholdi
Located at the very heart of the Old Town, this was the birthplace of the famous sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi.
Now the building houses a museum entirely dedicated to the emblematic artist, displaying models of his monuments. Of course, a special place is reserved for the original models of Bartholdi’s two masterpieces: the Statue of Liberty in New York and the Lion of Belfort.
Also open to visitors are the former living rooms, showing the artist’s furniture and personal belongings.
Being a classical Alsatian burguers’ house, I feel that its core attraction is the fact that the most famous city’s son, creator of the Liberty Statue, was born and lived here.
4. Maison des Têtes
Usually described as a unique example of German Renaissance architecture, the building is named after the 106 small human and grotesque heads ornamenting the oriel and the irregular mullion windows.
Built in 1609 for Anton Burger, a marchant who later became maire -mayor- of the city, this remarkable building was originally attached to the old fortification walls of the city. Its façade has two square stories and three upper levels composing the pignon. The massive and notorious oriel occupies two floors in the middle of the building.
The pignon -the gabled top- is crowned by a statue made by Bartholdi, by command of the Bourse aux vins –Wine Exchange Office-. Today the building houses a restaurant and hotel.
A famous and original landmark, undoubtedly, but I must be completely sincere here : its unusual, even strange decoration is the main actual reason why I suggest to visit it. I’m not an expert, so I may not be able to appreciate its architectonic merit.
5. Collégiale Saint-Martin and Place de la Cathedrale
This is the most important church and perhaps the main gothic monument in Colmar.
Usually -and improperly- named “Cathedral of St Martin”, probably because it was was consecrated as Cathedral for about a decade during the French Revolution, but then consecrated again as Collegiate -just to clarify this, to be a cathedral a church has to be the seat of a Bishop; St Martin never was-.
Built between 1240 and 1366 over the remaining foundations of a previous 11th century church, along its history it suffered three different major fires that required significant reconstructions, the last one in 1575 when the bell tower was burnt down and replaced by the current “bulb-shaped” dome that gives the church its distinctive and characteristic appearance.
The red and golden sandstone from the Vosges Mountains used in its construction, its colorful tiled roofs, the stylized stained glass windows and the massive columns of the facade give the building a rare but appealing architectural style.
Again, I’m not an architectonic expert or fan, nor a religious guy, but the Collegiate is one of my favorite churches in Europe.
You may say it’s neither as impressive as famous cathedrals like St Paul in London or Notre-Dame de Paris, nor as moving as Santa Croce in Firenze or the Cathedrale St Vincent in Bern, to give a few examples, but I feel always touched by its exceptional carácter, serenity and charm.
6. Rue des Clefs – Grand-Rue
We leave the Collegiate to find the Rue des Clefs, a walking comercial cobblestone street with some main brands shops; a fair road in our way towards the Grand Rue, a 500+ meter long, curved lane crossing the center of the Old Town.
I want to remark a place on the Grand Rue: the Hotel St. Martin, an old mansión dating from 1361. It retains the Louis XVI style facade, and most of its original character in the rooms and the reception area, while its intimate central courtyard keeps a Renaissance turret with a stone staircase, showing the year of construction carved on one of its walls.
After a short walk through this narrow street flanked by restaurants and souvenir shops, our road continues by the Place de l’Ancienne Douanne, heading to our next destination.
I feel this is the best part of our walk, the one that resumes at its best the spirit and magic of Colmar. The magic of its rhythm, its atmosphere, and the quiet, simple beauty of the half-timbered medieval houses and cobblestone streets -I know, I know, I already mentioned this at the beginning of this post-.
For me, this is the hardest quarter to leave… I might keep walking these streets endlessly, and start again the circuit around the St. Martin Church.
But that’s just me, and you surely will not be happy if I finish my post doing that, so let’s move on.
Formerly the customs’ house, constructed between the 15th and the late 16th century, today it’s place of many fairs and exhibits, mainly during holydays like Easter or Christmas.
Finally, taking by Rue des Tanneurs and crossing the bridge over the channel, we reach again the Quai de la Poissoniere to end our brief journey at our starting point.
Hold on… my very first post ending without any reference to local food? No way.
Let’s take a quick look at a few of the delicacies we should -must- taste here:
– Tarte flambée, or Flàmmeküeche
I absolutely refuse to consider it the Alsatian version of pizza. It’s by far a lot more than that.
Imagine a very thin crust of dough baked in wood-fired ovens, topped with a rich layer of crème fraîche (soured cream) or fromage blanc (white cheese), thinly sliced onions, small dices of smoked bacon, or a choice from a wide variety of vegetables or meats. You will understand why this is one of my favorite French meals. Simple, unpretentious, and yet delicious.
– Choucroûte garnie
Traditionally a Sunday lunch meal but nowadays available on most restaurant menus every day of the week at any time, it might probably be the most famous Alsatian dish for the non locals.
Consisting of choucroûte (sauerkraut) braised with white wine, beer or cider, seasoned with bay leaves, caraway seeds, black pepper, and juniper berries, is usually served on a large platter topped with a variety of meats -preferably prepared in duck or goose fat- mainly bacon, sausages, ribs and other smoked pork products, sided by cooked carrots and boiled potatoes.
(I must confess : I don’t like choucroûte, at all. But hey, what do I know?)
Meaning literally “bakers oven”, is a hearty stew prepared with layers of sliced potatoes, beef, pork and lamb meat, cooked altogether in white wine inside an earthenware casserole.
Traditionally prepared at home on Sunday evening, women left their casserole to the baker, who sealed it with leftovers of bread dough and then cooked it slowly on Monday, in the slowly cooling oven, while women went down to the river to do the family’s laundry. They later -after finishing their laundry- picked their casseroles up, together with a loaf of bread.
I love stews, so this earns a privileged place in my list of selected choices for a cold noon.
Time for sweeties and desserts.
Colmar -like the rest of Alsace- offers a wide variety of desserts and patisserie (pastry) to fulfill any expectations. My choices :
A richly flavored, smooth-textured cake stuffed with almonds or raisins, baked in a special fluted mold and rolled like a turban.
Traditionally eaten in Sunday breakfast, can also be served in the afternoon with tea or coffee and even after dinner as a dessert, dressed up with whipped cream and sweet sauces.
– Tartes aux fruits
The Alsatians have a well deserved reputation as excellent bakers of breads, cakes and tarts.
All year long you will find delicious and tempting tarts, from rhubarb and red fruits in spring to pears or apple in autumn.
A fresh, light sweet option if you don’t want a heavier pastry.
–Spécialités de saison
Colmar has a variety of cookies, little cakes and biscuits exclusive of the Holydays festivities.
At Easter time, you may try the Lammala, a lamb-shaped biscuit, and the classic chocolate Easter bunnies.
At Saint Nicholas Day -6 December- you can find the Mannala, a little boy-shaped brioche. Even if you are not a child, you may get a clementine -a fruit looking much alike a little orange-, a gingerbread, or perhaps the biggest price: a chocolate Saint Nicholas figure.
Throughout December, you should not miss the Bredeles, small cakes with distinctive names owed to their ingredients and shapes : spritzbredele (tiny breads parfumed with lemon zest), anisbredle (round pieces, scented with anis seeds), butterbredele (butter dough, lemon glazed), shwowebredele (almonds dough, gently brushed with yolk), among others.
Well, it should be a suitable moment now to have a last look at Petite Venise and its colorful houses, before leaving the enchant of this magical town.
My final advice :
Of course, I definitely advise you to visit Colmar and discover by yourself why it captivated me from the instant I arrived for the first time.
And I strongly suggest you to try any of the numerous Winstubs, formerly antique taverns often characterized by low ceilings and quiet atmosphere. Sanctuaries of traditional Alsatian gastronomy, they offer the opportunity to get a true taste of the authentic regional dishes and wines.
And, as I said before, Colmar allows you to enjoy your visit with no rushes, no stress. With a basic knowledge of the city and a simple plan, you can have one of the most worth-remembering days of any of your journeys.
Managing wisely your traveling time must not be running from one place to another, just for being able to see more than a dozen of landmarks or attractions within one day. But it hasn’t to be an aimless, random ramble either.
It should be the best balance between discovering the most a destination has to share with you, while finding your own pace to really enjoy the experience.
Just remember : “Life is about the journey, and not the destination”.