A lot of people visit France’s Alsace region to see its star attraction, Strasbourg. But Alsace has more to offer: on my recent Viking cruise of the Rhine, I visited another Alsatian city that’s a paradise for lovers of history, food and photography. Medieval Colmar is known as the capital of Alsace’s wine district. But it’s more justly famous as one of the most beautiful small cities in Europe. And despite a cold and grey afternoon, this excursion was well worth taking.
If Colmar has one famous attraction, it’s the Unterlinden Museum, housed in a 13th-century convent (seen here) and home to the beautiful Isenheim Altarpiece, a magnet for art lovers. However, given a choice between spending the afternoon in a museum and walking the city’s maze of ninth-century streets, the decision was easy.
Medieval cities come in two different varieties. Some are partly intact, with modern buildings mixed in here and there,. And some are almost completely original, or at least restored; at their best, they’re filled with half-timbered houses and shops, standing in the spots where they were built hundreds of years ago. Colmar is the second variety, full of picture-perfect buildings that give it a fairy tale feeling.
Medieval Colmar is a showcase of French and German Renaissance architecture. And the most beautiful are the half-timbered buildings, seen in a number of variations. Many have the second floor jutting out over the street: apparently, this was to avoid being taxed on the amount of street space the building occupied.
Our Viking guide also explained a few things about this ancient type of construction. The name “half-timbered” comes from the wood framing that was used in these buildings. The “timbers” were unmilled logs, and to save wood, the medieval builders split them in half, then installed them with the flat side showing. The space between the timbers was filled with plaster or other materials. In most cases, the half-timbers were used on the second and higher storeys, while the first was built of masonry, since it was stronger and less vulnerable to things like attacks and floods.
As well, she pointed out Roman numerals carved into the timbers here and there. They were to show exactly where the timber was located in the buildings. That way, it could be taken apart and put back together in case of changing fortunes or natural disasters — a kind of medieval Lego set.
Aside from the beautiful streetscapes, medieval Colmar is a showcase of architectural detail. Buildings throughout the town are studded with intricate stone and wood figures depicting everything from angel to devils, plus a menagerie of animals, real and imagined. Take a look at the cast of characters on the façade of the German Renaissance-style Maison des Têtes, built in 1609 (click on the photo to see it full-size).
There’s also a whole gallery of fanciful signs, like the one featured in my recent post about the whimsical butcher of Colmar. Here’s another, done by the same famous cartoonist, who went by the name “Hansi”. This one commemorates General Kléber, a soldier with a checkered career who gained fame in the Spanish Civil War. What he had to do with Colmar, I don’t know.
If you wanted some curios to take home, there were quaint shops to browse. And since it’s Alsace, we passed lots of restaurants and food and wine shops along the way. Tables set out on the street sold tasty-looking snacks, like this display of nougats and candied fruit.
Of course, you can’t leave Colmar without paying a visit to the city’s favourite son: Auguste Bartholdi, who designed the Statue of Liberty. The house where Bartholdi was born is now a museum, with some of his artwork, papers and models of the famous statue.
At the end of the old town was one final treat: a neighbourhood called La Petite Venise, or Little Venice. Originally a community of wine growers, market gardeners and boatmen, this section of town is cut in half by the Lauch River, providing beautiful views — and scenic boat rides, for those who want to get off their feet for a few minutes.
Europe is full of wonderful discoveries — amazing places with world-class beauty that are unknown to most North Americans. And stumbling on one of them is always a revelation. Luckily, the folks at Viking introduced me to medieval Colmar. And now I’ve returned the favour by introducing it to you.
I was a guest of Viking Cruises on this trip; however, the opinions I express are my own