Twenty-Four Hours in Colmar
Rather than exchanging gifts on birthdays, Arnaud and I travel and have experiences. When birthdays fall on weekends—as mine did last year, when we went to Verbier, and his did this year—we get to take long weekends and celebrate the actual birthday on the actual day.
Given that we didn’t have a proper long weekend available on the weeks near Arnaud’s birthday, we took a quick trip to Colmar, France, a region of France neither of us had visited that we could easily reach from Lausanne by car on a Friday, returning on Sunday evening.
I’d done the planning, giving Arnaud two options of destination. I confess to nudging him a bit in Colmar’s direction, purely because our Lonely Planet guidebook gave it such raves.
Only later did I find out that it has received accolades far and wide as a destination city, and heard that Germans, Belgians, and Swiss consider Colmar a must-see hotspot. (Learning this gave us a bit of trepidation: What sort of crowds and craziness would we find?)
The Architecture of Old Town Colmar
The architecture in Old Town Colmar positively pops. We stayed in a hotel near the train station and, upon arrival, wondered what this town could possibly offer that put it so high in the Lonely Planet recommendation list. A short walk after dropping off our bags changed our minds.
Once we crossed the Champ de Mars and Place Rapp on foot, we entered an area of meandering cobblestoned pathways traversing winding canals bordered by medieval buildings in candy-heart colors.
Fearing rain that mostly never appeared (we had only a brief patch of showers just before dinner on Friday night), we spent our first few hours in the town seeing the architectural highlights:
Maison des Tetes, an ochre- and terra cotta–colored house covered in the heads of people, mythical creatures, and animals
Maison Pfister and the Maison zum Kragen, two attached houses—one featuring a carved wooden merchant on the outside corner of the second floor and the other with a wrap-around wooden balcony and painted wooden panels
Ancienne Douane, with its open loggia and wooden balcony, hosting a presentation of local wines during our visit
Eglise des Dominicains, with its one-windowed wall and much-lauded triptych, La Vierge au Buisson de Roses, by Martin Schongauer
Collegiale St-Martin, a gothic cathedral so large in such a small town that I couldn’t get a proper picture from the vantage point of the tiny streets
The stand-out quarter, Little Venice, with its picturesque Pont Rue de Turenne, felt almost like a set from a movie than an actual place.
The Musée Unterlinen felt, well, disjointed.
It hosts a wide-ranging collection, from current-day modern art, to art of the 18th and 19th centuries (including lesser works by Picasso and Monet), to Renaissance artwork and a late-Gothic altarpiece—the featured attraction—by Matthias Grünewald.
Interestingly, one of the upper floors of the museum has a room that once held a community swimming pool, which the museum (or a previous spaceholder) covered over. The room has photographs and a slideshow of the swimming pool in its prime.
Worth seeing? I don’t know. However, if you love art from this region of the world from the middle ages and early renaissance, you’ll want to spend time with the Rétable d’Issenheim.
Can’t-Miss Colmar Restaurants
Mainly, we picnicked—as usual. However, when in France, a person should eat. And when in France for someone’s birthday, a person should feast.
And feast we did.
On Friday night, we made dinner reservations at La Table du Brocanteur, which we would never have found tucked down a little side street not far from Little Venice if our guidebook hadn’t given us the tip.
I had a salmon tartare starter followed by a plat gourmand filled with seafood—surprising choices for me, as I don’t adore seafood, yet these looked amazing and delivered on their promises (and then some). Arnaud had the terrine du jour followed by a lamb dish, both of which looked hearty and delicious (and tasted it as well, per Arnaud).
For the birthday Saturday, we had dinner at JY’s. We missed entirely the restaurant’s offer of a tasting menu, so we ordered starters, main courses, and desserts a la carte.
Arnaud won the main course round with a delicious scallops and gnocchi dish (not that I couldn’t do anything other than close my eyes and “mmm” over the stuffed, roasted chicken I ordered), and we tried each other’s appetizers of savory sweet-pea tart and tuna tartare and thought them equally exquisite. I confess to not sharing a bite of my deconstructed lemon-lime pie for dessert, yet Arnaud didn’t share his chocolate-coffee concoction, either. All of this came accompanied by several between-courses amuse-bouche treats sent from the kitchen, just to push us even further into culinary bliss.
We had to give France a sincere bow yet again for having some of the best food on the globe.
Things We Didn’t Do
Though we saw the plaster Statue of Liberty replica at the roundabout on our way elsewhere, we didn’t stop by the museum of the monument’s designer, Musée Bartholdi, in central Colmar.
Also, we didn’t visit the numerous activities on offer that families might love, including Colmar’s Musee du Jouet and its Natural History Museum. Also, the small-boat tours on the Colmar old city’s canals looked fun—we just didn’t have the time!
Picture-Perfect Colmar: Recommended
Colmar clearly renovated its Old Town to cater to tourists, who have flocked there. However, although crowded, Colmar didn’t feel overwhelmingly so. As perspective, I’ll share a photo of some of the heaviest crowds along the Pont Rue de Turenne in the Little Venice section.
Also, Colmar seems to attract a reasonably well-mannered tourist population made up predominantly of families with young children and older people on group tours.
Beyond the Old Town, you don’t have to travel far on foot to get to the larger, more residential and local sections of Colmar—yet these areas don’t have anywhere close to the same appeal to visitors.
For a twenty-four hour visit, Colmar made for an idyllic stop—and the perfect hub for a visit to the larger Alsace region of France.