VISITING COLMAR: FRANCE’S FAIRYTALE TOWN
VISITING COLMAR, ALSACE
Colmar was apparently the inspiration for the village in the Disney film Beauty and the Beast, and it’s not hard to see why. Walking through its streets is like seeing childhood fairy stories come to life. There’s a wooden turret which would be just perfect for Rapunzel to let her hair down from, tiny cottages that would make the ideal home for seven dwarfs and a candy-coloured bakery that Hansel and Gretel would love to get their teeth into.
In real life, Colmar is a small town which is located in the Alsace region of northeast France. The Alsace is where France meets Germany, and ownership of the region has been passed back and forth between the two countries over the years.
The result is a unique mix of their two cultures – think of it as France with a twist. Colmar was conquered by the French in 1673 but Germany claimed the whole Alsace region in 1871. It stayed German until after WWI when it was given back to the French, then was temporarily occupied by the Germans during the Second World War.
It was the last town in France to be liberated at the end of the Second World War and has been a part of French ever since. But its history means it’s no surprise that you can see a German influence in Colmar’s architecture, culture, food and drink.
THINGS TO DO IN COLMAR
Colmar doesn’t have huge list of must-see attractions, but what it does have is scenic spots by the bucketload. Pack an extra memory card or two – I can’t remember the last place where I took so many photos. Everywhere you look are colourfully painted waterside houses, wooden shutters, twisting cobbled streets and window boxes draped with blooms.
Colmar is the perfect place to wander around and see what you come across. The locals seem justifiably proud of their homes, and everything is neatly painted and maintained.
Some buildings are decorated with hanging lamps, clocks and hearts – then there are a few who’ve have taken it to the extreme by hanging bikes, chairs and who knows what else out front. In Colmar it seems your house is an artwork as well as a place to live.
In among the houses are a mix of cute boutique shops selling local produce like chocolate and wine, as well as art and antiques. Some shops have ornate wrought-iron signs hanging over the street to show what they sell. Then there are also plenty of waterside cafés and tucked-away cellar restaurants. And if you’re visiting Colmar at Christmas, the streets are draped with lights and filled with market stalls selling local food, drink and gifts.
The town does have a few museums to explore, including the Unterlinden Museum with its famous 16th-century Isenheim Alterpiece. There’s also a Toy Museum and the Bartholdi Museum, in the house where local artist Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi was born.
Bartholdi is most famous for creating the Statue of Liberty, and you can find a 12-metre-high replica of it on the road between Strasbourg and Colmar, a few miles out of town.
Also worth a visit is Gothic St Martin’s Church with its colourful tiled roof and 13th century stained glass. The Pfister House is one of Colmar’s most distinctive buildings with its wraparound wooden balcony and octagonal turret. And the Koïfhus was the town’s former customs house built at the meeting point between two major streets.
There’s barely an ugly building in the centre of Colmar, but things reach peak prettiness in the area near the Quai de Poissoniers which has been nicknamed Petit Venice. Colmar’s Little Venice is where you’ll find that picture-perfect row of half-timbered houses painted in pastel shades of pink, yellow and sky blue running alongside the canal.
COLMAR’S PETIT VENICE
Petit Venice was where Colmar’s merchants lived, who transported their goods around by boat along the River Lauch. The story goes that different colours were used to display different types of businesses – so if you were a fisherman your house was painted blue, or a butcher would have a red house. And they’ve been perfectly preserved since.
For a different view of Petit Venice you can take to the water on a boat trip. The canals are pretty shallow in parts (I saw a duck standing on the bottom at one point), so the tours use small, flat-bottomed boats which are similar to punts.
Boats leave from the bridge Saint Pierre, which is next to Restuarant Le Caveau Saint-Pierre. They take small groups on a 25-minute tour through Petit Venice and out to a leafy residential area, with trips costing €7 for adults or €4 for children aged 4–10.
Petit Venice isn’t exactly a secret though, so on a sunny afternoon you’ll be jostling for elbow room with hoards of river cruisers and day-trippers from Strasbourg and Paris to capture the perfect shot. Strasbourg is only 30 minutes away by train and has a similar feel to Colmar, along with a few extra big-city attractions, so the two are often combined.
A lot of visitors only spend a day visiting Colmar, but if you have time to spare it’s worth staying at least one night. The best reason to stay overnight is that in the early mornings or at dusk you can almost have Petit Venice to yourself. When it’s blue hour, with soft street lighting and perfect reflections in the still waters of the canals, the fairytale is real.
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