Alsace is the essence of a European experience. France's eastern salient, this province lies between a great river and wild mountains -- the Rhine and the Vosges. It is a kind of European common, with physical beauty, noteworthy cuisine, great wines, turbulent history and an enduring tradition of culture. Gutenberg first set type there, Goethe studied there, Albert Schweitzer was born there.
Alsace is French now, though it has been a free city and a part of Germany; it looks German and sounds Alsatian.
And the heart of Alsace, spiritually and geographically, is the city of Colmar. The unofficial capital of the Alsatian wine region, it is a compact (population about 65,000) community with enormous physical presence. Afoot, you can readily take the measure of Colmar's old medieval and Renaissance quarter, and the city provides a perfect base for exploratory motor forays into the wine country and into the mountains.
Walking the cobbled streets of the old quarter with its half-timbered houses and their carved balconies and leaded-pane windows, with its fountains and flowers, I found it difficult to recall that three major wars in just over a century have swirled around Colmar. Yet its delicate townscape has survived. Some of Colmar's neighbors fared less well: Toward the end of World War II, nearby wine villages like Ammerschwihr were almost completely demolished.
But in Colmar you can buy a fine bottle of 1983 Gewu rztraminer in the wine shop on Rue des Marchands that now occupies the ground floor of Maison Pfister, a five-story Renaissance house erected in 1537. It has a stairway tower that reaches clear to the tile roof (steeply pitched to shed snow) characteristic of Rhine Valley architecture. The entire facade of the second story is one long painted frieze with polychrome faces and figures around the stone-framed windows and even on the underside of the carved-wood balcony that juts over the street. That's not exactly a typical Colmar house, but neither is it unusual: The house next door is a study in black timbers and pale green stucco with life-size wood figures lurking at the corners and a balcony circling the entire fourth floor; it bears the date 1419.
There are blocks of such houses and public buildings in the old quarter that is the heart of Colmar. Defined by the waters of the Ill and Lauch rivers and by the many small canals, it includes neighborhoods called the Tanners' Quarter and Petite Venice.
Old Colmar is a walker's place -- indeed, there's a large pedestrians-only zone between the old customs house and the 14th-century Town Library. I passed hours there eyeing the patterns of timbers, the pastel stucco walls, studying the details of doorways and savoring the differences -- and wondering what it would be like to live every day behind the shutters and flowers. Finally, I asked around and learned that apartments in the old quarter averaged about $200 U.S. a month . . .
Probably it was not ancestral memory but only dim and imperfect recall of water-color illustrations in a childhood storybook, but the pale plastered buildings with their colorful random-accent stones looked familiar, friendly, evocative. Even slightly fantastic.
Indeed, on the spring morning I lingered near the stone and iron fountain facing the customs house, a blare of martial music reached as if on cue into the square. This forecast was followed by a smart little band in blue uniforms and white gloves. The dozen men and women stepped along with their trumpets and red-wrapped drums. Before the arches of the customs house, they formed up to play a bright march. After another selection, they marched around a corner and out of sight, playing all the while. It was a fire department band, but no one seemed to know what prompted their appearance.
The old quarter of Colmar centers on the brown tower of the Saint Martin Collegiate Church begun in 1230, but it's not all historic monuments. Evidence of contemporary life is there as well. Walking the twisting lanes in its shadows reveals snug cafe's, the Fer Rouge (an excellent restaurant built into several levels of a half-timbered house), some good booksellers and all manner of other shops.
It is a perfect place to explore at random, but if you need some way to organize your walk-about, remember that Colmar is the birthplace of sculptor Auguste Bartholdi, creator of our Statue of Liberty (and of the fountain at First Street and Independence Avenue in Washington). Although Bartholdi lived and worked in Paris, Colmar is rather crowded with other -- and smaller, naturally -- examples of his civic statuary. So I set out to see what else Bartholdi wrought:
His mathematician M. Hirn appears affable, seated as he is surrounded by fence and flowerbeds in a small park just outside the old quarter. Schwendi, a 16th-century general, stands tall above a four-spout fountain in a Tanners' Quarter square. His Roesselmann, a town provost of the 13th century, strikes a solemn stance facing the Rue St. Jean. They are a stiff and orthodox lot, about life-size but not very lively.
Bartholdi's "Monument to the Alsatian Wine Grower" has a wholly different air: A happy youth is seated in a half-shell alcove near a Tanners' Quarter canal. He's holding aloft a small keg, its spout splashing water into his mouth and down his front -- depicting the undeniable rewards of sloshing down Alsatian wine.
Bartholdi's best sculpture -- in my view -- lies beyond walking distance in the cemetery on the north edge of Colmar. It is a minimal and macabre memorial to the combat dead of 1870 (the Franco-Prussian War): From beneath a stone slab that looks as if it abruptly dropped in place, one brawny arm and the other hand -- both in life-size bronze -- reach out. It is a troubling and surprisingly antiheroic work, a fit war memorial and a reminder that the sculptor who brought us the Statue of Liberty was indeed a man who could express an idea. It is every bit as essential a symbol as the Saint-Gaudens "Peace of God" memorial to Henry Adams' wife, and the morning I was there someone had left a rosebud under one hand.
There are two renowned museums in Colmar, and one of them is devoted to the life and works of Bartholdi. The Muse'e Bartholdi is located in his birth-house and the former residence of his mother, near the Saint Martin Church. In this year of Statue of Liberty hoopla, it's becoming something of a shrine.
Inside, the items of moment are Bartholdi's drawings and sketches of American scenes and his early ideas about Liberty. The evolution of the Statue of Liberty concept can be seen in a series of tiny trial models that look like souvenirs of a symbol to come. In one corner stands the "final draft," the 1875 presentation model that was followed by the real thing -- which was built in Paris.
In Bartholdi's home town, his art is in very fast company. Colmar's other museum, Unterlinden, contains two extraordinary altarpieces: "Issenheim," painted by German artist Matthias Gru newald, and "Orlier," done by Martin Schongauer in about 1470. The former is probably Gru newald's strongest painting (the National Gallery has a Gru newald "Crucifixion"), and it's full of fiery emotion. One of the central panels, the "Resurrection," is a luminous swirling vision one might've expected from a William Blake.
Unterlinden, once a cloistered 13th-century Dominican convent that is itself a work of art, includes other worthy collections: primitive paintings, local archeological finds, Gothic and Renaissance sculpture and decorative art. Among the 18th- and 19th-century objects it is easy to see the antecedents for Pennsylvania Dutch styles in painted furniture and ironwork.
Colmar lies in the middle of Alsace's farms and vineyards. It is linked to nearby Alsatian cities, Strasbourg and Mulhouse (the National Motor Car Museum is not to be missed: 120 perfect Bugattis) by rail and road, and to the adjacent wine country by an array of inviting roads.
The wine road is a serpentine two-laner that skirts the base of the Vosges and traverses, every couple of kilometers, another village more picturesque than the last. Every village has its square, its walled gardens, welcoming wineries and stork nests..
Along the wine road, the vineyards stretch to the east and the Rhine (that's the Black Forest in Germany on the far horizon), while on the west the sun declines toward the dark-green convolute ridges of the Vosges. The high Vosges horizon is interrupted frequently by the dark ruins of real castles. Castle ruins in Alsace number about 200. Most were wrecked during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) and never restored; best known, and restored and open to the public, is the vast stone castle at Haut-Koenigsbourg.
Riding back and forth on segments of the wine road, I took special note of villages worth a longer, return visit (especially in the spring when flowers are blooming or in the autumn when the grapes are harvested, but not in July when tourist traffic is in full flower). Thus: the "gingerbread" town of Guebwiller; Barr, with its salmon-pink city hall; Mittelbergheim, which has the narrowest vehicular streets possible; Ostheim, with its fully occupied stork nests; Ribeauville', with a stream curling past walls draped in wisteria, where both lilac and chestnuts were in blossom and filling the air; Bergheim, truly medieval and fortified, with clock tower and moat and views across to the Black Forest; and Ammerschwihr, which has been convincingly rebuilt since 1945 and now boasts a two-star restaurant, Aux Armes de France, presided over by the Gaertner brothers. We stopped for a seven-course meal that was scarcely credible, from filet of rouget (red fish) through langouste and pigeon to raspberry crepes. My list of "must return" villages grew to impossible length.
On one wine road offshoot, heading up into the Vosges, we rounded a bend onto the fortified stone bridge of Kaysersberg. Lining both sides of the noisy brook were little shuttered houses with cunning doors and curving stairs and red roofs standing out against the green hills above -- each house different, each house perfect. If Schweitzer was born here and he was so smart, why did he ever leave?
Kaysersberg guards one of the roads that passes from Colmar up through the Vosges and down to the rest of France. Farther up into the mountains, we reached another village, Lapoutroie, that's the site of something even more essential than the wineries below: a distillery.
Through the windows of a low building by the edge of the road leading into Lapoutroie, the stills of G. Miclo, distillateur, gleam brilliantly. You can walk in for a visit. The steaming steel cylinders are hot to the touch; inside, the crushed fruits of this favored land -- strawberry, raspberry, mirabelle, apple, quince, pear -- are cooking down, boiling off and condensing into a concentrate, a special Alsatian alcohol called eau de vie. It is very pure, with no sugars or anything else added. Served cold, bearing just a hint of fruit flavor, it is clear, silky and potent. It promotes a core of warmth.
We stopped at Chez Miclo, a family-run distillery, in time for the tag end of a local ceremony. Another brass band tootled on the loading dock (Alsatians seem to throw festivals on the merest impulse), with more varied ages, instrumentation and uniforms (some teen horn players wore jogging suits) than the fire band of Colmar. Music followed us into the steamy still room where, among heady vapors, a local cheesemaker offered his wares, including a soft, subtle and ripe Muenster cheese. It does not, apparently, travel and shares only its name with the bland, resilient erasers we know as "Muenster."
High above the village of Lapoutroie (the Vosges are on the same scale as the Blue Ridge), a rustic mountainside farm inn called Kebespre serves a lunch of Alsatian specialties. Afterward, in view of the pines and steep hills turned yellow by buttercups and blooming mustard, lunch concludes with a digestif of chilled, pear-scented Alsatian eau de vie.
What could be more essential than that?