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From the Rhône to the Rhine: Colmar

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Miraculously enough I had found an Airbnb in Colmar with both off-street parking and air conditioning, so we were able to pass a comfortable night despite warm and humid weather. It was a little more than a comfortable walk to the old town so on Wednesday morning we hopped into the car to visit Colmar's small covered market. Although the market was open hardly anyone was inside and none of the small restaurants were serving yet. We decided it would be better to return for lunch and drove to the west side of the city for the Marche du Quartier Ouest weekly market. Driving through Colmar was quite a difficult task because many of the roads in the center had been closed for construction and neither the car GPS nor Google Maps had been updated to reflect it, which meant I had to continuously ignore the directions and navigate away from all the direct routes to our destination. The market extended along one street and there was a strong emphasis on Arabic food and clothing with a corresponding customer base, which surprised me a little in Alsace. We didn't see anything particularly unusual or interesting so we got a few bites to tide us over until lunch and got back on the road to resume attacking our list of Alsatian villages.

Eguisheim was so close to Colmar that it was practically a suburb, if Colmar could be considered urban enough to have suburbs. The old town was laid out as series of concentric rings with the outermost road following the outline of a city wall that had been torn down long ago. Only residents were allowed to bring their cars into the old town so we parked in the designated lot and walked inside to explore a maze of ancient cobblestone streets. It was similar to Riquewihr in that we could randomly choose a direction each time we came to a crossing rather than just walk the length of a single long main street. The old town was compact enough that there was no danger of getting lost. One spot that was particular popular was at the place where two parallel lanes converged into one. At the apex of the fork was a tiny, narrow half-timbered house that was extensively festooned with plants. One small drawback of our random walk approach was that we missed the beautiful square in the very heart of the town, a fact I only discovered once we had returned home.

We returned to the covered market in Colmar for lunch and found that all the food stalls had opened. We had pho at a Vietnamese place and then oysters and shrimp at the seafood market. There were a few other places to sit down which we didn't try, an unusually large selection of restaurants for a small French market.

The market belongs to a small section of the old town known as Petite Venise, an ambitious description even with its diminutive modifier. Colmar is traversed by La Lauch, a small tributary of the Ill, that was enlarged into a canal in the mid nineteenth century. Petite Venise consists of a short section of this solitary canal that is lined by idyllic, postcard-perfect half-timbered houses that epitomize the Alsatian aesthetic. The views from the short bridges that cross the canal are featured in almost any article about travel in Alsace.

Colmar was a delightful town to explore. Virtually every place in the old town rivaled the most beautiful parts of the medieval Alsatian villages and we didn't run out of streets to explore after a half hour. Although Colmar was smaller than Strasbourg I probably could have spent the whole day walking in Colmar because it was so colorful and there was so much fascinating architecture. There were gourmet food stores and restaurants everywhere and everything looked to be of very high quality.

At the center of the old town is the Gothic church Collégiale St-Martin. The interesting pixelated effect created by using multicolored blocks of sandstone reminded me of the Dom in Trier. Another singular building in Colmar is La Maison Des Têtes, a historic mansion that is now the home of a boutique hotel and Michelin-starred restaurant. The building takes its name from the eccentric masonry boasting dozens of carvings of faces and heads. The impetus behind this unique decoration has long since been lost to posterity.

Once we had completed our exploration of Colmar's old town there was still plenty of time left in the day. We could have relentlessly plugged away at the medieval villages but the kids had grown somewhat tired of them and even Mei Ling and I were beginning to have some difficulty telling them apart. There was only one left that I felt was essential so we decided to head to a small lake with an artificial beach than I had discovered from online research. It proved to be quite a popular place on a humid July afternoon and the kids had a blast. I even joined them in the water for a game of tag. I was glad we had chosen a swimming break over yet another Alsatian village.

The last of the essential Alsatian villages on my list was Kayserberg. The familiar exquisite buildings were surrounded by lush hills partially terraced with vineyards. One distinguishing feature of the town was the small river that ran through the center and another was the ruined castle that overlooked the town from a nearby hillside. We knew this would be our last time experiencing this particular vibe and we made sure to absorb our surroundings as completely as possible. After Strasbourg, Colmar, and six smaller villages we definitely felt as though we had accomplished our goals in Alsace but we knew that we would begin feeling nostalgic for this dazzling corner of Europe as soon as we had returned home.

The vendors in Riquewihr had told us the town they would be catering to on Wednesday evening but the evening market I had discovered during my research was closer. If the Marché des Saveurs d'en-Haut in Orbey proved to be weak or nonexistent we would have an excellent back-up plan. Orbey was an interesting place because it was our first chance to see an Alsatian village that didn't have a preserved medieval heritage for tourism. It was a pretty town with a distinctive Alsatian character but with modern homes and regular businesses that catered to locals. We parked on a small lot off the main road from where we could see people sitting at tables on the other side of a narrow chasm with a stream at the bottom. We found a footbridge over the chasm that led us to the park where the vendors were located. Like Riquewihr it was a buy-and-cook market and it seemed to be just as good as what we had found the previous night. The back-up plan wouldn't be necessary. The crowd here seemed to be even more local than in Riquewihr and many of them seemed to be familiar with each other. Grilling our own meat and washing it down with glasses of Alsatian wine was a blast. At one point we saw a very happy-looking lady using a walker who appeared to be on her own and looked to be at least eighty. She was searching for a place to sit and we jumped up to make room for her but someone else beat us to it. It was a very positive, communal atmosphere and once again I wished I lived in a place where communal dinners like this were the norm.

The next day we would be leaving Alsace and France on Bastille Day, the French national holiday equivalent to Independence Day in the United States. Missing Bastille Day was somewhat intentional on my part because I figured that the widespread closures of markets and restaurants would have a net negative impact on our traveling experience. My only regret was that we might miss some celebrations that would have been interesting to see and fun for the kids. As we ate I remembered how we had missed Luxembourg's National Day by arriving on the day itself rather than the night before when all the festivities had taken place. I began researching if there were any events on the eve of the holiday and found that they were distributed almost evenly between this evening and the next. As it turned out one of the most promising Bastille Day celebrations for this night would be in Kayserberg, the town we had just departed that was only ten minutes away. As soon as we were done eating I bundled everyone back into the car and we retraced our steps to Kayserberg. As we drove out of Orbey I saw the elderly lady from the evening market cheerfully making her way down the street with her walker. Sadly the car was fully packed or I would have offered her a lift, despite the risk that Mei Ling would have kidnapped her. As soon as we drew close to the center of Kayserberg I could see that the main road was completely lined with parked cars and that it would be pointless to try and find a spot in one of the tourist lots. As we passed the main lot we could see it had been converted to a festival ground with rides and attractions for children and pounding music. I pulled over quickly and let Mei Ling and the kids out before driving onward in search of a parking spot. I didn't find anything for another kilometer and eventually found something in front of a modern apartment complex. Praying I wasn't in a designated residential spot subject to ticketing or worse I made the long walk back to where I had dropped everyone off. I found the kids having a great time with fistfuls of tickets and some very unhealthy looking candy. Mei Ling had clearly taken full advantage of my absence. The kids spent some time with the bumper cars and the bungee trampoline but most of the rides were geared to even younger kids so once the first batch of tickets was used up they were ready to move on. We returned to the center and got an entirely different perspective of the beautiful town in the glow of sunset before I went to retrieve the car.

There were two Thursday markets in the old town of Colmar but as I expected they were nowhere to be found on the morning of Bastille Day. On the bright side we had the atmospheric streets of the old town almost completely to ourselves and we did find an excellent place for breakfast. After this we were headed straight for the German border so it would be our last experience of France for at least a few years. This had been our fourth time exploring France as a family and it was impossible to say which had been the best experience. All I knew for sure was that we would keep coming back to this incredible country again and again until I was no longer able to travel. Despite our repeated forays into France we still had left Brittany, Normandy, and much of the center unexplored. I imagine in four or five years we will remedy most of that deficit with a long summer road trip dedicated almost entirely to France. After that we'll be able to step back and decide what part of the country would be optimal for a second visit.

Posted by zzlangerhans 18:01 Archived in France Tagged road_trip family alsace family_travel travel_blog eguisheim tony_friedman family_travel_blog kayserberg orbey

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