I now know colorful Colmar is one of the most “Instagrammable” places in France, but I was completely naive before I kind of stumbled upon the idea of visiting there. We were going to Paris to shoot some videos for our Finding France series, and afterward I thought it would be fun to find a place out in the country to relax, do some bicycle riding and of course, drink wine. (We had a great time doing that the year before on the Côte d’Or in Burgundy.)
As luck and fate would have it, my Googling lead me to AlsaCyclo that offered self-guided e-bike tours. Their website said they had an “easy” 25km route through wine country. Perfect! It was near a place called Colmar in Alsace.
Turns out Alsace is just now becoming known to American travelers even though it’s a favorite destination for all stripes of Europeans. I learned Colmar is part of the Grand Est, one of France’s new regions. It’s a combination of the old separate regions known as Alsace, Lorraine and Champagne-Ardenne. In 2016 France reduced the number of its regions (they are kind of like our states) from 22 to 13 to streamline administration. And they gave these new regions new names virtually rewriting the map of of France.
I tell you this because you will see mentions of the Grand Est on signs, tickets, billboards, etc. when you travel to Colmar. You will not necessarily see Alsace. You will also see the designation of Haut-Rhin when referring to the French department Colmar is in. The Haut-Rhin and the Bas-Rhin are the two departments that made up the old traditional Alsace. Confused yet? Just know if you say “Alsace” (pronounced al-SASS) most everyone will know you mean the region of France that borders Germany to the North and East, Switzerland to the South and the French Vosage Mountains to the West. But beware; train signs and road signs, maps, etc. might use any of these other designations!
Taking the Train
We decided to take the train from Paris to Colmar. It’s about 354 miles. We opted not to drive because of the cost of the toll roads, gasoline and rental car. But even more attractive is that the train is so relaxing and much faster. Most people go to Strasbourg, the capital of the Grand Est, but we were going to be in Paris for almost a week and didn’t want another “big city” experience.
Our route went direct to Mulhouse which is a large city but much smaller than Strasbourg. It’s known for the largest automobile and railway museums in the world and two other remarkable museums. So, if that is something you are interested in, you might want to stay there on your way to Colmar.
Our train left out of the Paris Gare Lyon, but there are trains going to Mulhouse from other stations as well. We went Second Class mainly because the train departure times worked better for us than the First Class trains, and of course, the price is less. It took close to three hours to get to Mulhouse where you change trains for a very quick 25-minute ride to Colmar. Google says driving from Paris to Colmar would have taken almost six hours! Instead of hassling on the highway, we kicked back with a glass of wine, a wonderful sandwich and watched the French countryside whiz by!
Cozy Comfort in Colmar
In Colmar we stayed at Hotel Le Rapp. Besides the easy walk from the train station, it is in walking distance of most everything you will want to see. Le Rapp is right in the middle of the historic old town and has a famous restaurant. The view out of our top floor room showed an amazing tangle of old roofs and was a visual reminder of how this little city has built around and on top of itself for centuries.
Despite being in the historic center, the hotel has an indoor swimming pool, hot tub, sauna and steam room. They offer a very large and interesting Alsatian breakfast for around 14€. This buffet contains all kinds breads, cold cuts, cheese, cheese and, did I mention cheese? You will not find an American-style breakfast here. No fried or scrambled eggs, pancakes or corn flakes. There are hardboiled eggs, if you need an egg, and muesli for the cereal lovers.
I wanted to eat at Le Rapp’s lovely restaurant but a number of special events had booked the place while we were there and we could not get reservations. That is something important to note. You need dinner reservations well in advance for any of the “name” restaurants in the historic part of town! Tip—Be sure to make a reservation for dinner for your first night before you arrive because if you come in the afternoon, as we did, you might have trouble getting one depending on what is going on in town. Remember the marathon? We had to walk around to find a place that would take us. But we did, and it was delicious!
Petite Venise: Colmar’s Colorful Canals
My main visual delight was the canal in the Petite Venise de Colmar (Little Venice) area. Because I live by the canals in Venice Beach, I was very excited to see this! We were there in early September and Petite Venise was busting with blooms. (For more on the flowers, check my article about the French Flower Villages in Alsace.)
The Petite Venise canal is lined with half-timbered buildings that date back to the 14th century. Today they are all painted in brilliant colors. Some say they look Germanic, but make no mistake this is France! The buidl feature beautiful French shutters, wrought iron signs, lace curtains and window boxes full of geraniums. You will feel as if you are in a fairy tale, and maybe you are!
A Nighttime Fantasyland
Colmar is as pretty at night as it is during the day. Along the canal colored lights illuminate the buildings and the water. In other areas, old fashion street lamps cast amazing long shadows making it so fun to wander around the darkened twists and turns of the narrow cobblestone streets. Colmar is so photogenic it looks like a movie set!
Exploring the Historic Town Center
The old town center is Place de la Cathédrale, which is dominated by the Collégiale Saint-Martin originally a Gothic church rebuilt in the 18th century. I learned this church is not actually a cathedral because a bishop is not seated there. (The word Cathedra is Latin for “chair.”—get it? Seat = Chair) It is full of history and amazing monumental sculptures on the outside of the building.
There are plenty of museums as well. Considered one the best in Europe is the Unterlinden. Another museum is dedicated to one of Colmar’s most famous residents, French sculptor, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. He designed the renowned work entitled “Liberty Enlightening the World,” that you might know as the Statue of Liberty! (Yes, the one in New York Harbor)
The streets all around Colmar’s historic section are named for the professions of the merchants who made Colmar one of the most important trading places in the Middle Ages. Colmar was a designated “market town” which meant trade could be conducted on “market days.” These markets began to introduce the concept of a cash-based economy. Remember at this time the economic system was barter. There were no uniform weights and measures, no standard currency and different tax systems every couple of miles.
Colmar and other market towns birthed a different economic order that lead to a new socio-economic group—merchants. Today, Colmar’s center is full of classy boutiques and funky souvenir shops making shopping another great attraction, as it has been for centuries.
Wine Country Bicycling
It was time to get out in the country for some bike riding. We took a taxi six kilometers southwest of Colmar to the small historic village of Eguisheim. To give you and idea how long this exquisite village has been around, it is the hometown of Pope Leo IX who was in office 1049-1054. Eguisheim is quainter than Colmar, if that is possible.
In Eguisheim we rented e-bikes from AlsaCyclo, and spent the day on a self-guided tour peddling up and through the sloping vineyards that surround the village. When making this climb you will appreciate the “peddle assist” feature of the electric motor. We rode past three castle ruins on top of the hill overlooking Eguisheim and over to more picture-perfect villages for wine tasting.
We were there in September during the grape harvest and got to see all of hustle and bustle going on in vineyards. In the wine village of Voegtlinshoffen, we found among others, the Cattin Winery. Established in 1720, it is now operated by the 12th generation of the family. It is a very modern complex despite the centuries old heritage and the surrounding architecture. If you go to Cattin, you will want to check out the panoramic view from the upstairs tasting area and outdoor terrace. All of the wines are excellent and we put a few bottles for later into our bike panniers. (In Texas we call them “saddle bags”—Ha!)
Don’t Forget an Old-School Map
From Voegtlinshoffen we continued biking south winding around more villages and vineyards on tiny smooth agricultural roads with little to no traffic. It was all downhill as we glided into the town of Rouffach. AlsaCyclo Bike Shop gave us a very cool GPS phone app that had our round trip route mapped out. But by the time we were ready to leave Rouffach our phone batteries were dead! We no longer had the GPS guided tour and we didn’t bring a paper map!
We didn’t want to go back the way we came because it would mostly be UP those very steep hills we just coasted down. Even with the power of the electric bikes that kind of climb was too much for me. We thought we could figure it out, but soon we realized we were LOST! We worried we would not make it back to the bike shop before closing time. Then we remembered those castles on the hill. We used them as our guide and found paths through the vineyards that finally led us back into Eguisheim. We felt very proud of ourselves for finding our way home.
Epicurean Bicycle Tour
The next day we had no more “map” issues. The owner of AlsaCyclo, Maxime Helderle, escorted us on our six-hour “Epicurean Bicycle Tour.” Maxime met us with e-bikes in Colmar and gave us an e-bike tour of the town. He is a great guide with all of the answers to our questions about the town. Then he took us on a beautiful back-country bikes-only path through a forest, along a stream and through a vast corn field. It was great because we didn’t have to navigate. We just had to follow Maxime and enjoy the scenery.
We traversed a much more interesting route to Eguisheim than when we went by taxi. You just see so much more on a bicycle. In the village we had a delightful late lunch of salad, tarte flambée and of course, wine.
Then we made our way over to Emile Beyer Winery for a private tasting. But just as we were ready to take off on the bikes again, a completely unpredicted and very heavy rainstorm suddenly blew in. It refused to go away. Of course, we left our raincoats back in Colmar. Maxime told us just to taste some more wine (which we happily did) while he found a car to take us back to our hotel in Colmar. Thank you, Maxime! I was very happy not to have to ride the 6K back in the chilly, pouring rain. The hotel’s indoor pool and sauna felt especially great!
We absolutely loved everything about our stay in Colmar. We actually didn’t want to leave. But after four days it was time to rent a car and explore more medieval villages along the Route Des Vin. I’m going to tell you all about that part of our trip as well. So stay tuned. Allez!
Some Colmar Travel Tips:
- Make sure you make dinner reservations. If you want to go to specific restaurants make them as far in advance as you can. A great app for dinner reservations I found is TheFork.
- A small raincoat, poncho or umbrella is a good idea to take with you even if its sunny, as storms seem to come out of nowhere on the Alsatian plain.
- Always keep a paper map with you because as good as the maps are on you phone you might not have cell coverage or your batteries could die, like ours did.
- Parking a car can be difficult and expensive. Check ahead of time to see if your hotel has parking or can assist you in finding some before you arrive. Most of the historic districts in the small villages don’t allow “outsiders” to park inside the city. Public parking can fill up fast.
Finding France for Yourself:
AlsaCyclo—(bike rentals and tours)
Cattin Grands Vins (reservations needed for cave tours)
Emile Beyer Winery (reservations needed for tastings)