During most of our week in Strasbourg, Therese was in workshops with her company and its client, while I was free to roam about and explore. Toward the end of the week, though, her workshop finished and we had the better part of two days to explore together before we headed back to Paris, and from there, back to Charleston. We decided to use one of those days, which also happened to be France’s independence day or Fête Nationale, to do a daytrip. And while there are a number of storybook Alsatian villages not far from Strasbourg, we settled on visiting Colmar for two reasons. One, it was a place that Therese had heard about but never yet visited (I always love to travel with her to places in Europe where she’s never been), and two, I heard that Colmar was home to the Unterlinden Museum and its famous Isenheim Altarpiece.
The train from Strasbourg to Colmar is very easy to navigate. Since there are many trains a day (I think there is one about every half hour to hour), it was possible to buy them from the train station just a couple days ahead. And it is a short ride, only about a half an hour. The Colmar train station is small but functional – probably the most noteworthy thing I noticed was its machine that dispenses pharmaceuticals (I have never seen that before anywhere, and I have traveled on five continents!).
The train station is not far from the center of town, but to save our energy for traipsing about the museum and the town center, we took a short taxi ride to the Musee Unterlinden. It is directly across the street from the town’s Tourist office (which we stopped in to get a city map, all the better to navigate our way through the town’s highlights), and both opened around the same time, I believe it was 10am.
This was the second year in a row that we were in France on their Fête nationale, and we were curious to see how much would be open on the holiday. The previous year, we had discovered that not much was open in Rouen on that date. And in this case, we had chosen to travel on the holiday because my research showed that there was not much to do in Strasbourg on the holiday. Well, to make a long story less long, it turned out that nearly everything was open and operating on the holiday in Colmar, starting with its famous museum.
The museum is housed in a former convent (more on that later), and after buying your tickets, the first thing you do is pass through the cloister of the convent. Then you pass in to a series of galleries – I’m not sure if this was a permanent installation, but it highlighted the work of local Renaissance-period artist Martin Schongauer.
We found Schongauer’s attention to detail exquisite and his portrayal of the characters’ features to be very personal – you could really imagine what these people would be like if they stepped off the canvas and came to life.
There were other period works mixed in with Hongauer’s works. The most intriguing one for me was an anonymous depiction of St. James and the Miracle of the Roast Chickens. The story goes that a father whose son was unjustly hanged goes to Compostella (the Medieval religious center that honors St. James the brother of Jesus) and prays for his son, and when he returns, he is told that his son is alive. Being at dinner, the man says “my son is no more alive than these chickens!” Immediately, the roast chickens jump off the plate and dance around the room. To us, this may sound ridiculous, but if you study medieval stories of miracles, so many of them are a lot like this.
At the end of this series of galleries is an entrance into what must have formerly been the convent’s chapel. It is now home to the Isenheim Altarpiece.
The altarpiece is many layered, with a sculptured carved altar created by an artist named Niklaus Hagenhauer at its base. Attached to this altar are several paintings created by Matthias Grunewald depicting different religious scenes on hinges, so that depending on which of these wings were opened or closed, the penitents attending mass might see one or more of these scenes, including the Crucifixion, the Nativity, a concert of angels, or the trials of St. Anthony.
For the sake of viewing the entirety of this masterpiece, the many layered paintings of the altarpiece are displayed separated, hanging in sequence down the middle of the room, so that you can see both sides of every canvas (since the paintings are double-sided). On the wall next to the paintings, a small wooden model shows how it all fit together, and you can open and close the various wings to see what scenes are mixed with which.
Calling this collection of religious art a masterpiece doesn’t do it. The serenity on the face of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child, contrasted with the disturbing beasts tormenting St. Anthony, show an artist of supreme talents working at the pinnacle of his art. I’m sure that many people come to Colmar just to see this artwork, and I am also sure that they walk away completed satisfied. It’s magnificent.
Displayed around the former chapel were also some representative art of the period, and some details of the chapel itself that have survived, such as a fresco of the Crucifixion.
After seeing that, the question was, does this museum contain anything else? Well, they did have a temporary exhibit on cast and wrought iron – one of our favorite things since seeing the Musee Secq des Tournelles in Rouen last summer. Much of the pieces were signs used to identify shops during the Renaissance. Lots of fun stuff!
Also there were a couple small rooms that contained various artworks. I enjoyed seeing the mold of Strasbourgeoise, the woman in typical Renaissance Strasbourg clothing, with the incredibly wide hat. I had seen a woman depicted in similar clothing in Strasbourg’s Beaux Arts Museum earlier in the week, so I knew exactly what this was.
The time was passing quickly, and it was already time for lunch. Just a few blocks away, in the middle of the city, were several restaurants with outdoor seating. We sat down at the Brasserie des Domicains. I ordered a dish of three sausages with fries, pretty simple stuff, but good. It was only after I began eating that I realized that one of the sausages was stuffed with cheese! Well, the truth was, two sausages and lots of fries (and a green salad) was plenty to fill me up.
Just as we finished lunch, it began to drizzle. As we walked a block to our next destination, the Dominican Church, the drizzle turned into a deluge. We scampered into the church, along with a bunch of other folks escaping the rain. When the docents inside the church announced that there was a small fee (I think like 2 Euros) to see the church, most of the people left, braving the rain. But of course we remained.
Happily, this rain shower was short-lived, and when we left the church a little while later, the sun was already coming out. So rather than visit more churches and such, we decided to make the most of the sunshine and good weather by walking to the area of Colmar known as “Little Venice” for a boat ride. While it doesn’t look much like Venice to us, there is a canal here, bordered by old houses and some forested sections. It reminded me more of taking a boat ride in Bruges, Belgium.
Anyway, we found a tavern (called Wistub La Krutenau) that sold tickets for the boat ride, and not long after, with the sun now blazing away, we went for the half-hour ride. Ducking under the low bridges was fun, and the few minutes in the woodsy part of the ride were a respite from the urban feeling of the town.
Now, nothing to me goes so well with a hot afternoon as a nice bowl of cold ice cream (or sorbet for me). And sure enough, about halfway back towards the middle of town, we found a nice place to get both, the Sorbetiere d’Isabelle. They had many varieties of sorbet for me to choose from, and lots of intriguing ice cream desserts for Therese. Indeed, I don’t usually include pictures of food that isn’t dairy free in my posts, but I thought her dessert was so attractive looking that some would enjoy seeing it.
With our bellies happily full of dessert, we walked through more of the fairytale streets of Colmar (especially Rue des Marchands). Some of it seems a bit overdone for the sake of the tourists, but there are streets that give an authentic feeling of Medieval urban living. And of course, you can find houses with the typical shutters with heart-shaped openings. The story goes that houses with those shutters have eligible young ladies inside who are waiting for men to come and sweep them off their feet. But I doubt the shutters are changed frequently enough to keep up with the love affairs of those houses’ residents!
The afternoon was passing by, but we had a little more time to kill before we had to steer in the direction of the train station. I thought it would be fun to see their Covered Market, about which I had heard good things.
Ah, but what do you know? This was the first thing we found that was closed for the holiday! Oh well – it was nice seeing it from the outside.
My Colmar map showed several other noteworthy places to stop along our walk back to the train station. So we headed that way, and took note of what we saw – mainly statues of local celebrities, created by Auguste Bartholdi, a resident of Colmar who we Americans know for having been the designer of our Statue of Liberty. We also saw a large fountain in the middle of a lovely park whose sculptures we found less attractive than those made by Monsieur Bartholdi.
Not long after, we were on the train and back to Strasbourg. We took the tram back to our hotel, and arrived there just in time to enjoy the “happy hour” snacks and drinks in our Hilton Hotel Strasbourg‘s executive lounge. Ah, what a successful and lovely day!