Is It Germany, or Is It France?

Trip Start Jun 12, 2006
Trip End Nov 28, 2006

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Friday, October 20, 2006

He Said:

At first, it's hard to figure out whether Colmar is German or French. You hear both languages, you see both styles of architecture, and you smell both cuisines. The blending makes sense, though, as the provinces of Alsace and nearby Lorraine have changed hands between the two countries for centuries. The Germans think the border is the mountains to the west; the French think the border is the Rhine River to the east. Since World War II, you mostly hear French, even if it's rougher sounding and harder to understand.

Despite the different cadences, upon returning to France I immediately noticed that it was much easier to hear and speak the language than three months ago when we first arrived in Montpellier. Even though we've been to many countries of late where most of the people speak English, I again enjoyed navigating through basic challenges using another language. It adds another element of enjoyment, from being able to understand bus stop advertisements to keeping a French hairdresser from shaving euro signs - € - into the back of my head to seeing how far I can get in a conversation before having to ask if they speak English, which, much to my surprise, happened only once during our first stint in France.

Colmar was very different than any of the cities we saw in the south because it really did look German. The half-timbered homes and red-green tiled roofs were spared by Allied bombers, so today Colmar is probably Alsace's most popular tourist town, despite the fact that Strasbourg to the north is more well-known. Around every corner we found another series of gingerbread-looking buildings, sliced by a small river creating an area called Petit Venise, or Little Venice. I'm not sure how many "The Venice of ______s" we've seen so far, but though none have really looked like Venice, all have been photogenic in their own right.

After our initial exploration, we headed for dinner - French onion soup; tarte flambées, which are basically Alsatian pizzas with bacon and onions; and a local white wine called Gerwurtztraminer, where the 'w' is pronounced 'V' as in German and the 'er' is pronounced 'A' as in French. The wine had an interesting spicy taste that was the perfect complement to the bacon and onions of the tarte flambée. It was so perfect, in fact, I had the same thing the following night.

The next morning we left our little wine shop / bed & breakfast and headed to Colmar's Unterlinden Museum. It was raining and was one of those mornings that is made for museums. In its entirety, the Unterlinden wasn't that spectacular - they did have some nice paintings of local scenery, autumnal cloisters, and an interesting antique toy collection - but their one main claim to fame was, alone, worth the seven-euro price of admission.

The Isenheim Altarpiece was painted by Mathias Grunewald to help medieval hospital patients endure horrible, incurable skin diseases. In a sense, it was medieval morphine painted onto massive wooden panels that opened from the center like a bookcase. The altar was designed to have three different displays that changed according to the seasons - one depicting the crucifixion, one showing the resurrection, and the final setting displayed images of St. Paul and the reclusive St. Anthony, who actually had a skin disease named after him. The passion with which it was painted, along with its brilliant colors and unique design, made for one of the most enjoyable pieces of art I have seen. I say "I" because I think Alli was bored out of her mind in that museum.

The weather broke, and we enjoyed the rest of our time in Colmar walking down its cobbled lanes and streets named after the type of work traditionally performed there. We went from the fishermen's road to the locksmith's road to the tanner's road to the little tanner's road and saw many of the former merchant homes, such as the House of Heads, which once filled the trade-happy city. We enjoyed the statues scattered throughout town created by Auguste Bartholdi, who also sculpted the Statue of Liberty. And we even had a few hours to figure out our future plans.

Recently, we both started realizing that we're nearing the end of the journey, so we sat in our half-timbered loft and used the free internet. We crunched some numbers and then re-crunched them (whatever the hell 'crunching' means), which was actually the first time I'd done math in close to ten years. Anyhow, we tried to figure out whether we had enough capital to head to Burgundy and the chateaus of the Loire before moving on to Paris. The other option was to make a b-line to Paris after a night in Champagne.

Unfortunately, we no longer had the guidebook we had used previously in France (and we didn't write down enough information from Ed's extensive travel library), so our decision-making process was a bit more difficult. We admit, we've become Rickniks, an often-used term we've only recently discovered that avid Rick Steves guidebook readers use to describe themselves. So, imagine our surprise when we dug through the magazine pile in our room, and on the bottom of it, we found a 2002 copy of Rick Steves' France buried underneath copies of Vogue in 13 different languages. After all, he's saved us a lot of time and a ton of money thus far, so we certainly used his input to help us decide where to go next.

She Said:

The night before we left Ed's house, we looked though some of his guide books for information about what we thought would be our next destination, Strasbourg. However, Chad had been doing some reading about a town called Colmar, and after a discussion with Ed, we began to think that we should go there instead. He showed us four postcards, two were of Strasbourg (one was a picture of a cathedral and the other of the town center), and the other two were of Colmar (one showed a small river from a bridge with the title "Little Venice", and I didn't even have to look at the second one). Both were small French towns with a strong German influence since both were so close to the border. But Colmar seemed to have that less touristy, small town cozy thing I have been enjoying so much, so the decision for me was easy.

We agreed on Colmar, so the following afternoon, after taking the bus to the streetcar to the train station, we arrived in Colmar (three more train connections later). We walked to the old town area and began looking for a place to stay. The first thing I noticed about Colmar was the curvy, cobblestone streets lined with shops, restaurants and hotels. I spotted the small river from the postcard, earning itself the title of "Little Venise". Although the water was pretty dirty with a not-so-fresh smell, many flowers were still blossomed giving off a nicer aroma as they hung from the vines.

We read about a place called Maison Jund B&B, which also doubles as a winemaker. As we entered the gates of this Rick-described "medieval tree house", there was a distinct smell of fermented wine in the air. With that smell comes tiny, little flies all hovering around the smell (we saw this a lot in Germany, and at one winery they actually provided drink covers to prevent them from flying into the wine). Anyway, the place was very interesting from the outside (half-timbers and all), but as we made our way through the flies to the attic-like room with good heat and a big, comfortable four post bed, we decided to take it (despite the fact that the second B in the name didn't actually stand for breakfast, per se, but really stood for the empty coffee pot and hot plate situated in our bathroom/kitchenette).

We freshened up and began to explore this small town of only 70,000 residents. Apparently, this town was spared of bombs during WWII solely because of its beauty. Like many towns we visited in Germany and the Czech Republic, there was an abundance of half-timbered buildings, tiled roofs, and cobblestone streets still intact. We were anxious to try the cuisine of the region, so we chose a woodsy-looking, crowded and lively restaurant claiming to have the best Alsatian cuisine. We had some delicious French onion soup and shared a local specialty called tarte flambée (like a thin crust pizza with sour cream, onion, and bacon bits - sounds weird, but it's very tasty! People were speaking French, German, and English, so for me, it was quite confusing deciding which language to use just to say thank you.

After a good night sleep, we woke up once again to rain and dark skies. Hoping it would pass quickly, we started the day indoors at a local museum with exhibits of Roman Colmar, medieval winemaking, paintings, and sculptures. The self-proclaimed highlight of the museum is a series of three paintings hinging on shutters designed to move and reveal further paintings. The scenes in these paintings are depictions from the bible, and although the religious aspect of the art was somewhat wasted on me, the display and reason for its design were quite impressive. It seems that this series of paintings was designed in part to help people in a medieval hospital suffering from excruciatingly painful skin disease. They would be placed in front of the crucifixion, for example, to help them cope with their pain - seeing that their savior also suffered great pain and understood their pain as well.

After a few more floors of the museum, including medieval armor suits and weapons used during battles, I was anxious to get outside and explore the town. I only had to whine a little to get Chad to join me so we could begin the formal walk of Colmar. The walk began at the 15th-17th century, still pedestrian-friendly old center with 45 buildings classified as historic monuments. We saw an old Customs House with a statue of the infamous Bartholdi out front, arms raised like Lady Liberty (I had no idea this guy sculpted the Statue of Liberty)! We walked through old Tanners' Quarters where rooftops were used to dry freshly tanned hides. We walked over a few small bridges and eventually ended up in La Petite Venise, where homes, restaurants, and one fancy hotel line the canal. A few turns later, we were admiring the EXTERIOR of two churches before finishing at The House of Heads (a famous merchant house built in 1609 decorated with 105 faces and masks).

After Chad's second haircut of the trip (and what an experience that was trying to make sure she didn't shave him bald), we rested up and changed for dinner. We picked another local place with Alsatian cuisine, as there was one more dish I wanted to try called Baeckeanoffe (potato, meat, and onion stew). We ordered a local wine that we both really enjoyed the night before, and I ordered what I thought was hot stew. Well, it was meat, potato and onion, but there was no stew about it. It was basically a crock pot with all the aforementioned ingredients which were quite tasty, but apparently, stew in France doesn't have the same meaning as it does in America!

We were at a cross roads of which way to go in regards to geography, as we knew that we still had at least two major cities to see, Paris and Amsterdam, before we ran out of money. Although the plan was to head to another small town in the Champagne region, closer to Paris, we were so close to the Burgundy region that we decided to make a stop and try some wine instead. So, we planned for the next morning and found a train to Beaune.
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