Sometimes when you are driving, your brain shifts to automatic mode and your thoughts can drift. That's the state I was in, driving through the French countryside, imagining what I might have for lunch, when I was jolted back to full attention. On the outskirts of this country town in the heart of Europe, I was confronted with the Statue of Liberty.
Really? Lady Liberty in the middle of Alsace? Had we taken a wrong turn?
Aah, but the town was Colmar, the small Alsatian city that was the birthplace of Frédéric Bartholdi. He is the sculptor who created the iconic statue that now guards the entrance to New York. This replica, towering over a traffic roundabout, was a tribute to one of the town's most famous citizens.
Later, in a café on the Rue Saint-Martin, with a sun-washed wall behind me and an espresso and pain au chocolat in front of me, I thought about how serendipitous it is when a destination exceeds your expectations. Colmar certainly did. It is a small city of 70,000 or so, relatively unknown to North Americans but a getaway of choice for French tourists, especially busy Parisians. The TGV high-speed train can get passengers from Paris to the centre of Colmar in three hours, prices here are more affordable than in the City of Light, the food and wine is sophisticated and the cultural offerings are first class. Plus, it is one of the sunniest and driest places in France.
Colmar is in the Haut-Rhin section of the Alsatian Wine Route, about an hour's drive from Strasbourg and a popular destination for wine touring. Dating from the ninth century, the old town centre has survived wars, invasion and revolution and still retains its early architecture – Gothic, Renaissance, baroque and neoclassical buildings that line the streets in the city's heart. I had expected to be charmed by the paintbox beauty of Colmar's well-preserved buildings and the visual pleasure of its canals bordered by outdoor cafés. That neighbourhood isn't called Le Petite Venice for nothing. But on this sunny day, the pink and blue and amber half-timbered buildings, carefully restored, were more than eye candy. The narrow and busy cobbled streets, the bustling shop windows filled with lovely things to eat and the multilingual jumble of conversations produced a sense of a real city that had kept its layers of history. It was easy to picture market day in the Middle Ages in the squares and along the sides of the canals.
Age has given the cobbled streets of Colmar a gentle patina. The walls of the Guard House, on Place de la Cathédrale, first mentioned in documents from 1286, have weathered to a pale blush pink, and time has softened the golden Vosges sandstone of Saint Martin's Church. My eye was caught by the carved stone faces above many doorways, particularly one of a wild boar above a former butcher's shop. The House of Heads, at 19 Rue des Têtes, dating from 1609, still displays a series of grotesque faces that grimace at passersby.
Look higher, above the rooftops, and you'll see another Alsatian specialty. I hadn't anticipated the storks. From where I stood on the Place de la Cathédrale, I could clearly see a massive nest perched on the top of the steeple of Saint Martin's, with a stork looking calmly out over the city.
The birds return from their winter retreat in Africa each spring to inhabit and repair their same nests. Storks have always been important in Alsace as symbols of good fortune, fidelity and fertility. Noticing my attention to the bird on top of the church, the lady beside me smiled, "Storks are always faithful. That one comes back every year."
One of my reasons for coming to Colmar was to see Matthias Gruenewald's Isenheim Altarpiece. Housed in the newly renovated Unterlinden Museum, which officially reopened earlier this month, I saw the work in a temporary site at the Dominican Church, about 200 metres from its usual home.
The altarpiece was donated to the city by the Monastery of St. Anthony in nearby Isenheim. Washed with light from the church's stained-glass windows, the central panel of Gruenewald's work revealed Christ's emaciated figure covered with sores, his hands splayed in pain, his body pierced, bloody and clearly suffering. It was poignant and moving, as are the other panels of the altarpiece. Nearby is the Madonna of the Rose Bush, from 1473, an important masterpiece painted by Colmar native Martin Schongauer.
With the altarpiece back in the Unterlinden Museum, visitors can also tour the new modern and contemporary art wing (with works by Picasso, Monet and Léger) that has opened after a three-year, nearly $70-million renovation and expansion. Even before the renovations, the Unterlinden was regarded as one of the best small museums in Europe.
Exploring Colmar proved to be surprisingly easy on foot, so I kept moving through the old city until I found the Frédéric Bartholdi Museum, founded in 1922 in the house in which he was born. It's an intimate space, set in a quiet square and worth a visit. One room is devoted to the design and step-by-step creation of the Statue of Liberty. Other works by Bartholdi, fountains and monuments, can be found in several places throughout the town.
The culinary culture in Colmar is also beguiling and surprisingly stellar, with eight Michelin-starred restaurants in the area. Throughout history, the region has changed hands many times and that shows up in the local specialties.
I needed to try the famous flammekueche (in Alsatian) or tarte flambée (in French), a pizza with crème fraîche, cheese, onions and lardons on a thin crust. It was delicious, light and crunchy, and matched perfectly with a chilled local riesling. Foie gras is prevalent on menus here, too, since Alsace is one of three centres of its production in France. German-inspired dishes such as choucroute garnie – sauerkraut with potatoes and ham – and charcuterie, including boudin sausage and kassler, a cut of salted and smoked pork similar to Canadian bacon, abound. Baeckeoffe is a slow-cooked meat and vegetable stew, originating from dishes that local women made on wash days, putting everything they had into a pot sealed with dough, and dropping it off at the local baker's to cook for the day while they caught up on the laundry. I also tried kugelhopf, a crown-shaped cake studded with fruits that went perfectly with my afternoon coffee.
And since I was in Colmar during white asparagus season, spargla was on every menu, served usually with mayonnaise, potatoes and ham.
And then there's the wine. Colmar is considered the heart of the Alsatian Wine Route, which stretches a total of 170 kilometres passing 100 wine villages. Visitors can tour it by car or take bicycles along the relatively easy roads that wind between the Rhine and the Vosges Mountains. The Grand Crus of Alsace are rich and smoky, honeyed yet dry. Be sure to sample the local riesling, available everywhere in Alsace; it is different from the German style, more aromatic and dry. In addition, the area produces pinot blanc, pinot gris and gewurztraminer.
Colmar is a convenient base for exploring the region, and you want to be in the city for the evenings. On weekends, as night falls, Colmar is illuminated by a sophisticated series of static and dynamic lighting systems that wash buildings in colour and enhance the architectural details of the town. It's lovely and romantic, and a fine excuse to sit outside with a glass of something local.
A visit here delivers on many levels: art, architecture, fine regional cuisine and vintages from the capital of Alsatian wine country. It's less expensive than Paris but more sophisticated than you might expect. There's a reason why Parisians come here on holiday.
IF YOU GO
Colmar is an easy 72-kilometre drive from Strasbourg. There is also regular high-speed train service – three hours from Paris, 30 minutes from Strasbourg, 45 minutes from Basel, Switzerland.
Visit tourisme-colmar.com/en for information about tours, sites and museums.
Riquewihr is a gorgeous wine town that's 14 kilometres from Colmar. You can get there by car, bike or local bus. Go early, before the tour buses arrive. The wine bars, restaurants and architecture are beautiful, if a little touristy.
Ribeauvillé is 17 kilometres from Colmar, and is another pretty, though less frequented, wine town with three castles.
For cycling maps and suggested route ideas, visit cyclinginalsace.com/en.
Where to Stay
La Maison des Têtes (House of Heads) is centrally located, modestly priced and architecturally interesting. Rooms from $299, room only. 19 Rue des Têtes; la-maison-des-tetes.com
Where to Eat
Try Restaurant-Wistub Pfeffel for German and French dishes. The flammekueche is delicious, light and crunchy. 1 Rue de Rempart; restaurant-pfeffel.fr.
Restaurant JY's offers upscale dining in the centre of the Petite Venice neighbourhood. 17 Rue de la Poissonnerie; jean-yves-schillinger.com