Oh, Colmar, France. Slow down for a few days in the region and discover a beautiful mixture of French and German culture. The capital of Alsatian wine is a great place to unwind for a bit with its storybook streets and vibrant timber houses. Whether you’re into history, art, food, or biking, Colmar has it all.
Alsace, a Brief Exploration
Alsatian history is complicated. If you want to understand French-German relations in the last two centuries look no farther than Alsace. The area is so distinct because it’s changed hands four times in 75 years from 1870 to 1945.
Colmar was one of the last liberated places in France during WWII. Most of WWII damage is invisible now, with only monuments surviving. But, you can still stand in some of the photographed areas.
It’s important to know a bit of this painful history to understand the mix of culture. (And, on a lighter note, why you can get amazing wine, beer, pretzels, macaroons, quiches, and kraut all in one place.)
When visiting it’s unlikely you’re stray too far outside of the old town. The joy in Colmar is strolling, whether it’s getting lost near a church or Little Venice.
In this article, I’ll explore art, traditions, and the wine route in Colmar.
Colmar Art and Traditions
I wanted to note a few fascinating things to understand in Colmar.
You’ll likely come across stork imagery emblazoned everywhere. Storks are a famous symbol of Alsace. Storks were almost extinct in Alsace by the 1970s due to industrialization. But they have made a comeback and you might see one!
We were lucky to go when it was Easter. Colmar hosts an enchanting Spring Festival with 70 vendors and music to boot. You’ll find houses and eggs decorated to the brim with grasses, glimmering colours, bunnies, and lamb-shaped bread. Also, my favourite, excruciatingly detailed eggs for sale.
Easter and Christmas time are great times to visit. It’s not as crowded and you’ll get an extra insight into local traditions.
Another thing I adored was the custom painted signs. When walking around the streets, make sure to look up!
Delightful paintings like the one below can be found in tourist shops, boutiques, bookstores, and on the walls in restaurants.
These are by Jean-Jacques Waltz, or as he’s more commonly known, Hansi. A Colmar native son famous for his idyllic French-focused Alsatian images. Usually lively children in traditional dress meander through almost saccharine streets and fields.
I haven’t seen his work outside of the region, but there’s a museum dedicated to Hansi’s fascinating life and work in Colmar. It’s great for souvenirs and learning more about Alsace’s turbulent period during WWI and WWII through his lens.
Colmar and Bartholdi
You may see a familiar image when walking around colourful Colmar that you probably did not expect to see: The Statue of Liberty. There’s even a large replica near the airport.
Born in Colmar, the sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, had humble beginnings. See his work before he became the man behind one of the most famous sculptures in the world.
If you see a sculpture or fountain, check it, his name will most likely appear on a plaque.
Bartholdi was a fascinating man and far more than the face behind the Statue of Liberty. The Musee Bartholdi, his childhood home, hosts a plethora of his work.
The most interesting pieces show evolutions of sculptures into the iconic works they are today. Look at these Egyptian statues of Liberties and moody Lion of Belforts. It’s rare to see so many models in progress of monumental works.
Unterlinden Museum’s Isenheim Altarpiece
Another important museum in Colmar is the Unterlinden Museum. In a converted 13th-century monastery, you’ll find a museum with one of the ultimate masterpieces of Northern Renaissance Art: The Isenheim Altarpiece.
This altarpiece is in a league of its own. To me, it’s more in the same league as some of the finest Italian Renaissance pieces. It’s shocking, surreal, and moving. It reminds me of if Lucas Cranach (who also has a few pieces here) and Hieronymous Bosch had a baby. My husband and I still find ourselves talking about it in awe.
Grunewald’s masterpiece shows Christ suffering and resurrection and the journey of St. Anthony. The polyptych was held in the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim (a few miles south of Colmar) where victims of ergotism stayed and tried to heal. They saw their suffering in Christ and his grisly appearance. (Read up on that disease and some of the hallucinatory images may make a little more sense.)
There are some horrifying depictions, so be aware it’s gruesome.
Biking in Colmar – The Alsace Wine Route (Route des Vins)
Lovely scenery. Lots of vineyards, babbling brooks, and quiet villages await!
We didn’t get to bike as long as we would have liked as those stunning clouds soon turned in to a cold rain. Actually, we had pretty terrible weather the whole time but the loveliness of the area shone through it all.
But, we did make it to Kayersberg, and that made all the difference.
This year France named Kayersberg as its favourite village. When we went, hundreds of happy families also lined up at bakeries and admired the Easter decorations.
It’s a town on a very small scale yet it packs all the charm and richness of a larger one. Its cobbled streets, green ivy, picturesque river, storks, delectable pastries, and lack of cars make it a treat. Kayserberg’s medieval centre is picture-perfect in a valley surrounded by vineyards and a castle.
Before you pop back on your bike and go wherever you will go, get a bite by the charming river and a pretzel (or a macaroon).
I know we want to go back and visit the other villages – especially Riquewihr and Ribeauvillé. Make the journey your own!
An Animation Buff’s Final Thoughts
I can’t deny what first brought my attention to Colmar was the film Howl’s Moving Castle. (A culmination of one of my favourite authors, Diana Wynne Jones, and favourite directors, Hayao Miyasaki.) So I ignorantly thought these masters of fantasy came up with a location so fantastical, beautiful, with achingly sweet colours, it couldn’t be real.
Boy howdy, I was wrong.
If you’re obsessed with that movie or with Beauty and the Beast – definitely go. But, there’s so much more to Colmar. Alsace is one of the most fascinating places I’ve been. This seemingly fairytale land has been intertwined with some of the most horrifying events of recent European history. Yet, that same history has created a wonderful blend of cultures.
Where to next? Germany and Switzerland await you in an under an hour. And of course the rest of France. You could even bike to Germany in two hours time if you so wished!
We went to Colmar between visiting the cities of Basel, Switzerland, and Strasbourg, France. But the beauty of the location is the very varied choice. Go explore.