I’ve been living in Deutschland for almost 7 months now. Never have I been this far from home for this long. And while I miss my people back in the States, I haven’t felt the first tugging of homesickness. My heart and soul belongs in Europe. From the dragon scale roof tiles, to the random little villages and towns that seemingly pop up out of nowhere, the slower way of life, and the ancientness of every stone, river and blade of grass: I am home.
And it still amazes me – baffles me – leaves me completely breathless – that I live here. I’ve never felt it more than I do sitting here in the courtyard of my Airbnb – imagining Voltaire scratching away at Annals de l’Empire right across the cobblestoned road; the fish monger’s selling their fresh catches up and down Petit Venice; the meshing of German and French culture… it has everything my little heart desires.
Geographically, Colmar resides near the border of Southwestern Germany and Northeastern France. It’s located within the Grand-est region and Haut-Rhin department, and is the third largest commune in Alsace. It’s wedged rather nicely between Germany and Switzerland, isn’t it? During the late 1800’s- early 1900’s, then again from 1940-1945, the area was German, which contributes to it’s mixture of cultures. Colmar is well-known for being part of the Alsatian Wine Route, it’s preserved architecture, and famous residents.
When driving, I’ve discovered that I rather enjoy taking the backroads from place to place. Germany is scattered with little villages here and there between the hills and mountains, and this area of France appears to be the same. As I drove out of the hills of Deutschland, the road slowly leveled as I entered the plains, and eventually the shadows of mountains painted the distance. According to Britannica.com, these are the Vosages Mountains that run parallel with the Rhine River, and to the South lie the Jura mountains. This highly fertile plain between these mountain ranges give the Alsace region its abundance of delicious wines. Castles capped the top of the mountains like corks in a wine bottle. It was such a beautiful sight.
The history of Colmar dates back to at least the time of Charlemagne as he mentions it in his writings of the Saxon wars. In 884, the Carolingian Emperor Charles the Fat held a diet (a political assembly) in Colmar. Later, Emperor Frederick II (King of Sicily, Italy, German, and Holy Roman Emperor) granted Colmar the status of a free imperial city. However, during the Thirty Years War, Sweden held the city for two years before it was conquered by France in 1673. In 1871, Alsace was annexed by the German Empire until the end of the First World War; then again by the Nazi’s in 1940-1945. It has remained a part of France since.
Driving into Colmar was a bit of a hassle for the simple fact that the road I needed to get down was closed and my GPS wouldn’t route me around it no matter what I tried to do. Further, what looked to be roads on the GPS, did not look as such from my windshield – they were crowded with people, lined with goods to be sold, and hardly large enough for a small car, let alone my SUV. I finally gave up and got in touch with the host of my Airbnb after circling the old streets for nearly an hour (yes, I’m a man when it comes to asking for directions). She guided me down one of those roads that looked like a sidewalk, and there I was, pulling into the courtyard to my home for the next two nights.
It was the perfect little European studio with double doors that opened out into the courtyard. I enjoyed sitting at the little table in the morning and evening; hearing the church bells or music from one of the other apartments. The main reason I selected this little Airbnb was because it’s right off a side street and an easy walk to all the popular sights within the old city. But when I chose this little place, I hadn’t known that it was across the cobblestones from the house Voltaire lived in while he worked on Annales de l’Empire.
The home he resided in for little over a year, belonged to Madame Gall, wife of the mayor. The house was built in the 15th century, then rebuilt in 1609. Voltaire took up his residence as a guest in October of 1753 (Visit Alsace). It was easy to imagine him pacing the balcony, lost in thought; scribbling away, his quill scratching parchment; or arguing with the Jesuit brothers that opposed his work. Voltaire described Colmar as, “…a half-French, half-German and quite Iroquois city.”
I very much enjoyed passing this home on the way to the main streets and would make a point to pass it both returning to and leaving the apartment, even if it meant walking out of the way. I’m also unsure if it’s possible to tour the home. There was a sign posted for the self-guided city tour one follows on a Colmar tourist map, though the inner courtyard (behind the pictured fence) was gated off as private property, and the house itself appears to be home to a real estate agency.
Since I’d spent so much time circling around the closed off street, most of the stores had closed for the evening. That was fine as it was pleasurable to just meander the streets, imagining myself in a 16th century gown, my heels clicking along the cobblestones. Walking through Colmar is like walking into a time capsule.
I walked around until I found a restaurant that wasn’t overwhelmingly crowded: Le Zinc. The server was exceedingly kind with my poor French – she translated the menu for me, coached me through pronunciations, and gave me recommendations. I chose the Le Risotto de St Jaques, which was absolutely delicious. Without any reason to rush off, I sat and enjoyed the beautiful weather, the excitement of seeing people out and about, and the beautifully old architecture. Never having solo travelled before, I relished this slow time on my own.
After dinner, I once again set to walking about, discovering one beautiful building after another. I stumbled upon La Petit Venise and the infamous bridge seen in photographs. One could take a boat ride along the river, but unfortunately I was unable to find where though I followed the signs.
Heading back to the apartment, I stopped at one of many ice cream stands and enjoyed an evening treat.
Later that evening, back at the apartment, I took some time to map out the following day. Seeing as it was Sunday, and being much accustomed to the Deutsch habit of closing everything on Sundays, I assumed I’d simply be sightseeing once again. And so, I pulled out the only English tourism map that was provided in the apartment and set to planning.
Previous visitors had taken the liberty of doing the same – how lucky for me! The location of the apartment was marked with a heart. It was then that I discovered that there was a tourist marker near the apartment and learned of the residence of Voltaire.
After mapping out one direction, I moved to another. They had circled another location that wasn’t on the map and marked it “Bourdain – Wistub de la Petit Venise.” At first I was perplexed, but then thought that maybe it was a location that Anthony Bourdain had visited on one of his shows. While enjoying Bourdain and what he stood for, I admit that I’m not fully knowledgeable on all things him – so when my Google search resulted, I was rather… amazed?… shocked?… baffled? to find that while, yes, he filmed at the Michelin star restaurant, it is also believed that this is where he divulged in his last meal before his death. It was en route to another location, so I decided to make a point to add it to the day.
The next day, I set off close to noon. I walked past Voltaire’s and into the main thoroughfares. As expected, a majority of the stores were closed, but there were still plenty people enjoying the cafe’s and souvenir shops. I was delighted to find that the Hansi museum and gift store were open. I loaded up on goodies in the gift store, but ended up skipping the museum and little village. The artwork of Jean-Jacques Waltz, or better known as Hansi, is seen all over Colmar. Restaurants served coffee and drinks in glasses and mugs painted with the delightful little drawings.
Near the Hansi museum is the Maison des Têtes, or House of Heads. Restored in 2012, it was built in 1609 and designed by the architect Albert Schmidt for Anton Burger. There are 106 heads or grotesque masks scattered across the face of the building. The statue at the top was sculpted in 1902 by Auguste Bartholdi. (Visit Alsace)
I meandered my way back to the other side of town to try and snag lunch at Wistub de La Petit Venise, however it wasn’t open for lunch, so I moved on to find a bite to eat at one of the brassiere’s around the water. I ended up sitting in the fountain square and eating a delightful salad with little goat cheese empanada-like pockets. A cold glass of Riesling and a good humored conversation in French happening at the two tables next to me made for an endearing setting.
The rest of my day was spent wondering the streets; running my fingers along the walls of the old buildings; imagining myself back in time – then heading back to the Airbnb for a rest.
In the evening, I attempted to eat at Wistub de La Petit Venise, but they were booked until 8pm. So, I made my way to another restaurant I was interested in. After dinner, I once again spent time meandering the streets, enjoying the beauty of the village at night. The smell of all the brassiere’s and honeysuckle bushes mingled as the street lamps glowed through the flowers creating an ambiance that healed my soul. Colmar is a gem.
I left the Airbnb the next morning both ready to head home, and hating to leave. My first solo trip was a success. I felt both empowered and relaxed, but by the second day, I felt slightly lonely. Now thinking on it, I’m not sure I’d be willing to share the feelings I experienced as I immersed myself into Colmar. I’m relieved that they are my own and special just to me, something I don’t have much anymore. Will I solo travel again? Well, that’s to be determined.