We went to Colmar in March, grabbing cheap flights from Manchester (£27 return). To avoid a late evening train journey, we stayed near the airport after we landed about 8.30 pm. In retrospect, this was a mistake. The next morning, an hour’s train ride had us ensconced in Colmar, but we effectively lost half a day in the town as a consequence.
Shortly after getting off the train, on our way to our accommodation, we popped into a little café for a coffee. I hadn’t been to France for years and just this little place reminded me of the very ‘Frenchness’ of the country. I know that’s not very informative. The place was called ‘Charles Schmitt; Pâtissier, Chocolatier, and Traiteur’. Alongside the beverages, it sold cakes, chocolates and traitors. Rather expensive, but lovely stuff. The interior was all polished wood, and the staff wore starched uniforms like we were in a costume drama.
Alsace is on the French border with Germany (and Switzerland) and the ownership of the town has been a source of contention in the past. Germanic influence on Colmar is self-evident in its buildings and cuisine. Mercifully, Colmar survived the wars of the last few hundred years intact and it has many beautiful, medieval buildings. It’s almost as gorgeous as Rothenburg ob der Tauber, but it does not have the idyllic setting of the latter.
Do check the attached video for pictures of stunning half-timbered houses, most painted in pastel shades. All the town is yummy, the buildings alongside the canal in ‘Little Venice’ are perhaps the Instagrammable heart of the town, but the whole place is full of 16th century gems. We stayed in a little apartment near the cathedral, very central yet very quiet, overlooking a little courtyard, for £50 a night.
The gastronomic highlight for me was an awesome Tarte Flambée (or German Flammekueche). We had this in a canal-side café attached to the indoor food market. It’s just next to the ‘tanner’s district’. It was a lovely spot on a warm day. I’d had the dish before, but I’d forgotten how tasty it is. It looks like a pizza but thinner. There’s no tomato base. They use cream instead, and gruyère instead of mozzarella cheese. There’s a limited range of toppings, a bit of bacon and onions is standard, because the flavour of gruyere is the star of the show. They’re surprisingly filling and if you have one mid afternoon, it will spoil your evening meal, unless you are lucky enough to throw it up shortly after consumption.
It spoiled my evening meal, anyway. We ate at a lovely restaurant called ‘Caveau Saint-Pierre’. They had a nice seating area by the canal, but it was too chilly in the evening, so we went indoors. My peppered steak was very nice, but I was still a bit over-faced after my Tarte Flambée six hours earlier. I should also mention that there was a very nice Turkish restaurant on the Rue de Marchands where I had an excellent lentil soup (I can’t remember the name of the place, sorry). But there’s no shortage of good quality eateries in Colmar.
Of course, French cuisine is renowned. Colmar has four Michelin starred restaurants, and we did consider dining in one. The cost was prohibitive, though. Not insanely expensive, but you’d have to be really in the mood; and I guess we weren’t. It is worth noting that French inventiveness with food is partly born of a need to make the best of poor ingredients. Andouillette sausages are a case in point. I had them once. Cutting into one is the kind of spectacle a police coroner might be familiar with; it was like eating a soggy bag of undercooked giblets.
Inevitably, the town is a magnet for day trippers, so it tends to be much less busy at night, certainly in March, and easy enough to find a restaurant. Day trippers can make restaurants lazy, as they don’t have to appease a returning trade. In search of something basic one evening, we lighted upon ‘Brasseri Schwendi’ hoping to enjoy some frankfurter and sauerkraut with chips. I was inspired by the fabulous beer we’d had there at lunchtime. Mistake. The food was dismal, the sausage was cheap and cold, and the fries were tepid, though the sauerkraut at least was fresh out of the microwave. I handed my food back to be re-heated. The ‘chef’ simply threw the lot back in the deep-fat fryer. Consequently, the chips were crispy, hollow and tasted of burnt fat. Do not eat here.
But it was a one-off. Colmar is a lovely place, beautiful and quirky. It is typically French in that every manner of edible product is itself an area of arcane mystique and expertise. So, you can find a ‘Biscuiterie’; a shop reserved solely for selling jammy dodgers and custard creams. There was a bespoke ‘chocolatier’ for your Mars bars, Le Comptoir de Mathilde, that looked like it had come off the set of “Les Miserables”. There was also a shop dedicated to selling nougat (a nougaterie?). They gave out free tasters and samples, but these were accompanied by such lengthy, explanatory, monologues that we declined and left in a hurry. Next door was a… well, a business called ‘La Cocotte de grand-mer’, not a restaurant or a bistro, but a ‘Bistrorant’. They’re all charming. See the pictures in the accompanying video. There are also several shops selling dried fruit. I tried some but found it rather sugary and bland to be honest.
Colmar is set up for the tourist market and understandably so. It’s cute beyond belief though, beware, the cobbled streets are a bit hard on the feet so wear comfortable shoes. There were lots of grockles (tourists) and there was some queueing up at key spots because some narcissists took ages posing. It’s a great place to mooch around, eating and drinking. We didn’t bother with the museums. The highlight of the Unterlinden Museum is the legendary ‘Isenheim Altar Triptych’. I don’t want to be dismissive but there’s a shop in Preston called ‘Altar Triptychs R Us’, and we don’t go in a lot. We gave the Unterlinden a miss.
We had a bit of a scare on the way home as we relied on a train to get us back on time for our flight and it didn’t turn up. Signs on the platform tried to reassure us that it was merely late. After an hour or so, we questioned SNCF staff who eventualy admitted there were no trains coming at all. Had they told us the truth earlier, we would have had a few options, but by this time there was only one remaining; it cost £100 in a taxi to get to the airport.
Should I go?
Colmar is worth a weekend trip. Read restaurant reviews carefully, as there would seem to be some poor ones. If you go self-catering, there’s a very good indoor market by the river. There were plenty of visitors even in March and I guess it gets very busy in the summer, certainly with day trippers, and it would be a good idea to stay in the old town itself as it will be less busy in the evenings. It’s a very photogenic spot and charming to stroll around. It’s a great place to sit, get a beer and watch the world go by.
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