It is hard to imagine a more picturesque, and ideally situated city than Colmar. The capital of the Haut Rhin departement, harmonious – and impossibly beautiful – Colmar is a maze of cobbled pedestrian malls and centuries-old Alsatian-style buildings, many painted in surprise tones of blue, orange, red or green. And what’s more, Colmar is an excellent base for exploring the Route du Vin, or the German university city of Freiburg and the delightful Swiss city of Basel. It is, in every sense of the word, at the center of Europe.
However, unlike the city of Strasbourg – the capital of the Alsace region – the first official mention of Colmar didn’t occur until the 9th century. Yet historians are certain that humans have been in the Alsace region for thousands of years; the Celtic Gauls controlled France for several centuries until the Romans invaded France in the last century BC. By 52 BC the Romans had tightened their grip over France, although for the next couple of years the indigenous Gauls fought a campaign of guerrilla warfare and stood up to them in several match-drawn pitched battles. Ultimately, though, the Romans reigned supreme and controlled most of Western Europe for centuries.
That was until the 5th century AD when the Western Roman Empire collapsed and Gaul became ripe for conquest. The Alemanni – an alliance of Germanic-speaking people who occupied the Rhine region in modern-day Germany – invaded the Alsace region and parts of Switzerland in 406 AD. They managed to keep control over Alsace until 496 AD when the Alemanni were subjugated by the Frankish King Clovis I at the Battle of Tolbiac. Alsace was governed by a Frankish duke as part of the wider kingdom for several centuries. The first mention of Colmar occurred in 823, referred to as ‘Columbarium Fiscum’ by a monk called Notker Balbulus. History records that after the treaty of Verdun in 843, Alemannia became a province of the eastern kingdom of Louis the German, a precursor to the Holy Roman Empire. In 800, Charlemagne, son of the Frankish ruler Charles Martel was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor – a vast territory which was split into further smaller kingdoms.
Colmar thrived as part of the wider Empire, however, in 1226 the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II granted Colmar the status of a free Imperial City, endowing its citizens with a certain amount of autonomy. Enjoying its newfound freedom, Colmar seized upon this opportunity and prospered as an increasingly wealthy merchant town. In 1354, Colmar joined an alliance of ten Imperial Cities in the Alsace region, known as the Decapole. Strasbourg remained outside of the alliance, surprisingly, but the Decapole managed to endure until 1679 when it was disbanded.
In the 16th century, the Reformation swept through Europe, the Protestant teachings of John Calvin finding an enthusiastic audience in regions across Western Europe. The Wars of Religion (1562-98) broke out between the Huguenots (French Protestants who received help from the English), the Catholic league (led by the house of Guise) and the Catholic monarchy. Colmar adopted the Protestant faith in 1575 and in 1598, King Henri IV issued the controversial Edict of Nantes to guarantee the Huguenots many civil and political rights. However, ultra-Catholic Paris refused to allow the new Protestant king entry to the city, and a siege of the capital continued for almost five years. Only when Henri IV embraced Catholicism at the cathedral in St-Denis did Paris submit to him.
The events of the 17 and 18th centuries were no less tumultuous. At the tender age of five, the Roi Soleil (Sun King) ascended the throne as Louis XIV. After the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), Louis created the first centralized state – Colmar was ceded to French control by the 1679 Treaties of Nijmegen.
Colmar remained part of the French state until the 19th century. Following the French Revolution and the subsequent rise to power of Napoleon Bonaparte, France eventually came under the control of Napoleon’s nephew in 1851. He proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon III of the Second Empire and involved France in several ruinous wars, the most devastating being the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Prussia actually took the Emperor prisoner – upon hearing the news, defiant and very hungry Parisian masses took to the streets demanding a republic.
Unfortunately, there was nothing beautiful about the start of the Third Republic. Born as a provisional government of national defense in September 1870, it was quickly besieged by the Prussians, who laid siege to Paris and demanded National Assembly elections be held. The first move made by the resultant monarchist-controlled assembly was to ratify the Treaty of Frankfurt (1871), the harsh terms of which – a 5-billion franc war indemnity and surrender of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine – promoted immediate revolt. Colmar was now a province of Germany. Yet despite the difficult start, the Third Republic ushered in the glittering belle epoque (beautiful age), with art-nouveau architecture and advances in science and engineering.
Colmar’s role in the major events of the 20th century was significant. At the conclusion of WWI, the territory of Alsace was returned to France as part of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. However, the region was subsequently annexed by Nazi Germany in 1940. In 1945, a joint US-French operation cleared out German troops from southern Alsace – the operation was known as the ‘Colmar Pocket.’ The scars of the war, however, would take far longer to heal; 140,000 Alsatians, as annexed citizens of the Third Reich, had been conscripted into Hitler’s armies. These conscripts were known as the ‘Malgre-Nous’ (literally ‘despite ourselves’) because the vast majority had gone off to war against their will; over half never returned from the Russian front and post-war Soviet prison camps. Nevertheless, divisions healed over time and in 1949 Alsace was chosen as the seat of the Council of Europe and, later, the European Parliament.
Colmar recovered from the conflicts and turmoil of the 20th century with real gusto and determination – today, it is a fitting symbol of peace and prosperity. A city that despite its popularity within France, has not succumbed to the allure of mass tourism, which is only to Colmar’s advantage. Many tourists complain of overcrowded streets and squares in Paris, Venice, and Rome, despite the awe that these cities inspire. Our advice is simple: for a dose of tranquillity, superlative gastronomy and cultural enrichment without the maddening crowds, Colmar is very hard to beat.
Gastronomy & Wine
While not every French man, woman, and child are a walking Larousse Gastronomique, that bible of all things culinary, eating and drinking well is of prime importance to the citizens of Alsace. Rarely will you see empty cafes and restaurants in glorious Colmar – socializing and enjoying local food and wine is one of the great joys of exploring this venerable region.
As you might expect, Alsace’s long and complex history (which has often been intertwined with that of Germany) has had a profound effect on the culinary staples in this part of France. Parisians only half-joke that Alsatian cuisine is more German than French – a classic dish you’ll encounter in Colmar is choucroute alsacienne (also called choucroute garnie), which is sauerkraut flavored with juniper berries and served with hot sausage, bacon, pork and/or ham knuckle. Alsace is renowned for the quality of its charcuterie and Colmar is bursting with shops displaying every conceivable type of cured meats, sausages and terrines. Visitors also swoon over the local foie gras – Alsatian foie gras owes its reputation to the foie gras pâté created in 1778 by Jean Pierre Clause, the cook of Marshal Contades, who was the military governor of Strasbourg at that time. The region’s personal take on Coq Au Vin is Coq Au Riesling; cockerel slowly braised in the signature white grape of Alsace. Equally delicious and readily available is Flammekuche – a rectangular pizza, topped with crème fraîche, thinly sliced raw onions, and lardons or small strips of bacon. Patisserie is also very popular in Colmar and locals like to indulge their sweet tooth, as do we! Tarte alsacienne is where you’ll want to start, a moreish custard tart made with locals fruits like mirabelles (sweet yellow plums) or quetsches (a variety of purple plum).
But now let’s get serious – what about fromage? As Charles de Gaulle himself recognized, nothing arouses stronger gastronomic passions in France than cheese. A classic pairing is Alsatian Gewurztraminer and Munster; the cheese has had its own AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlée) since 1978. Produced on both sides of the Vosges Mountains from cow’s milk, the name Munster derives from the French word for monastery, Monastère. Its pungent rind-washed aromas and creamy texture make it the ideal foil for aromatic grape varieties such as Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris.
Two varieties, incidentally, that Alsace holds the virtual French monopoly on. This is truly a land of delectable wines – mostly white – although the Alsatian Pinot Noir of late is strikingly good. The region, however, still produces almost exclusively whites wines from varieties grown nowhere else in France – another sign of the heavy Germanic influences in Alsace. Paired with local dishes, they are the recipe for a perfect evening. Today the four principal grape varieties are noble Riesling; the pungent and highly regarded Gewurztraminer, the robust Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. Cremant d’Alsace, the local sparkling, is another delicious and affordable style to seek out. Colmar’s numerous restaurants and cafes will always stock a healthy selection of local wines, and some choices from further afield, if you dare to order them!
The medieval streets of Colmar’s old city are lined with dozens of restored, half-timbered houses – and lots of attractive shops – that are great for an aimless stroll. The numerous cafes that line Grand Rue and Rue des Clefs are effortlessly inviting and demand a detailed exploration!
This outstanding museum, whose pride and joy is the Issenheim Masterpiece, is set around a Gothic-style Dominican cloister in which several dwarf-mutant hazelnut trees grow. Medieval stone statues, prints by Martin Schongauer and an exceptional collection of 15th century Upper Rhine Primitives let visitors peer into the medieval European mind.
Another fantastic museum, Musee Bartholdi displays the works (including models) and memorabilia of Frederic Auguste Bartholdi in the house where he was born.
This truly is a postcard-perfect town, situated just 10km northwest of Colmar. In the center stands the ornate Renaissance hotel de Ville, and next door, the red-sandstone Eglise Ste Croix, a 12th-to-15th-century Catholic church whose altar has 18 spectacular haut-relief panels depicting the Passion and the Resurrection.