May 23, 2012: Colmar & Neuf-Brisach

Today we managed to get up early, get ready and race out the door. We are getting better about acknowledging that we need to take the early trains or buses and that being lazy and waiting for later ones bites us every time whether we know why or not. Getting moving is important.

So today we needed to catch the 9:06 bus from Neuf-Brisach to Colmar. Colmar was our original intended destination here in the Alsace but we had been unable to get a hotel there which lead us to look further afield and ultimately lead us to Neuf-Brisach. Colmar is the second largest city of the Alsace, after the much larger Strassbourg, and is also the European home to Timkin roller bearing from Canton, Ohio. Colmar is recommended by Rick Steves and is features on his Alsace episode of Rick Steves’ The Best of Europe which we have seen many times. Dominica really wanted to come see Colmar. Colmar is the Alsace’s answer to Belgium’s Brugge (Bruges) with its well preserved old town.

To give a feel for just how small Neuf-Brisach is, the bus station is on the far side of town from our hotel and we left our hotel just six minutes before the bus was supposed to depart from the station. This gave us plenty of time (although we did cut it foolishly close) to walk from our hotel to the bus station and still wait for a few minutes before the bus arrived. We did not have enough time to get breakfast in town, though.

The bus ride takes roughly forty minutes and is quite comfortable. Buses in France are clean and comfortable, much like they are in the United Kingdom and nothing like in the US. Normal people take the bus here and ours was full of high school students. We are a bit baffled by the movement of students that we see on public transportation here. We can’t tell if these are some sort of special students, if the towns have so few children that they are aggregating everyone in the local cities or what. We know that the birth rates in most of Europe are extremely low but what we are seeing appears to be absurd. The population would not be stagnating but crashing from the low number of children that we have seen.

The bus driver spoke decent English and was very helpful. The French countryside here in the Alsace (Elsaβ) is gorgeous. Extremely flat, which I never expected and very warm. Colmar is the second driest city in all of France and this causes it to be often considered the finest maker of dry Alsatian wines. On the German side of the Rhine, not far away, there is much more rain and they are known for their sweet wines of the same varietals. The Finger Lakes wine region in New York is famous for mimicking both regions but leans heavily towards the German, rather than Alsatian, styles.

We got off of the bus in the Colmar Theater district which is directly against the Unterlinden, Colmar’s outstanding museum with some of the most important medieval art on display in the world. The well preserved Old Town and Unterlinden are the two big attractions bringing in nearly all of the tourism.
It was straight in to the Unterlinder for us which was perfect as we arrived right after they opened and the museum was basically empty when we arrived. This gave us an hour or two to explore the museum with no crowds at all and, more importantly, we were not in peoples’ way as we went around with two small children. The museum provides multi-lingual audio guides included in the price of admission which is really nice.

It was nice getting to see a museum and Liesl did very well and enjoyed seeing the paintings. I held her in my arms for much of the museum and she actually looked at the paintings and sculptures. We are very proud of how well she did but there is no doubt that it did not take very long before she was entirely bored with the whole prospect and ready to go. Luciana thought that the whole thing was awful. She did not want to be quiet and she wanted to run around. Not good things for a museum.

The major attraction at the Unterlinden and the reason that we were taking the time to go there ourselves is the world’s most famous alterpiece is there and it is a piece that Dominica studied in college and always wanted to see in person and it is one that I know from my own art studies as well. By the time that we got to the alterpiece, though, Liesl was restless and Luciana had completely had it. So other than just glancing at the alterpiece, I spent the time while Dominica and Liesl looked at walking Luciana repeatedly around the courtyard.

As we went to leave the museum the crowds were coming in force and it was actually hard to leave from the throngs of museum patrons flooding into the museum. We were definitely the only people brave enough, or crazy enough, to do a museum with little children and, in reality, about the only people there at all who were not retired.

I had known that doing a museum, especially an art museum, with little children was a very bad idea but Dominica has been harboring grand visions of visiting all of the art museums that she has always wanted to see (the big ones like Firenze, Madrid and Barcelona are yet to come.) After this morning’s adventure she is rapidly reconsidering that idea and is thinking about skipping Firenze (Florence) completely and saving it for a trip when she can go to the museums. I had been hoping to squeeze in The Praddo in Madrid but that is clearly out of the question. We will probably do no more museums. They are stressful for us, a waste of money and completely unenjoyable for the girls at this point. Some day we will be excited to come do a museum tour of Europe with them but this is not the time.

After the museum we walked to the Old Town to check out the preserved parts of Colmar. Colmar is definitely a beautiful town with tons of amazing buildings. The Old Town is pretty much overrun with tourists, though, and it is all shops dedicated to them. Souvenir shops, candy shops, ice cream, cafes, etc. Tons of really expensive restaurants.

It was actually hard to see Colmar with the density of tourists everywhere. It is a bit like being in Walt Disney World, the same feeling that we got our last morning in Brugge, with every restaurant and shop full of tourists and not of locals.

We walked around a bit but avoided doing one of the tourist tram rides because the price was so high. The old cobblestone streets made pushing the stroller really difficult. At one point we tried to get coffee in a quiet café but the moment that we sat down a tour group took over the seating so we left. The whole town is full of tour groups. It’s terrible.

We went to the local market in Colmar which was awesome. That was way better than going to a restaurant in town. Buying food like the locals is a more valuable experience and the food quality is really excellent.

After the market we took a gondola ride through Colmar’s “Little Venice” down the canals. They are pretty short and probably not something to do with kids but it was nice and we got to see parts of town that we would not have otherwise seen.

By the time that we left Colmar we were pretty tired. Colmar is definitely a town to just come in, see for a day, and zip back to some other base of operations. Colmar is too touristy to be a place to stay for very long.

We had a little complexity figuring out the bus back and ended up having to wait an extra hour because we had read the schedule wrong so we went back into Colmar for a bit, got ice cream and a lollipop for Liesl at a candy shop.

We got back to Neuf-Brisach and I got to work for the office for the afternoon. This is my final week of needing to work before my real vacation begins. We are all exhausted and I can’t wait to be done with work and Dominica can’t wait for me to be free to help out with the kids and for our schedule to be flexible. My working for the office and doing homework while traveling is really taking a toll on us.

Luciana was already asleep by the time that my “lunch break” rolled around and Liesl was just hanging out in bed getting ready to fall asleep and Dominica was exhausted and laying in bed listening to Rick Steves’ Postcards from Europe. So I went out to see if I could make it to all thirty-one points on the historical walk of Neuf-Brisach that is published by the tourist office. We have seen several of these since we got into town yesterday but haven’t attempted to do the “trail.”
My goal for this afternoon is to take pictures at each of the trail stops and along the way. The trail starts at the main square in the middle of town and winds through the streets and leads out of town and all over the defensive structures that define the town. It was quite a walk. A lot of climbing and the mileage really racked up once I started walking back and forth around town. It gave me a really good overview of the town, though, and by the time that I was done I had seen pretty much every inch of town. And I was exhausted.

I got back to the hotel room and was all hot and sweaty as I had been moving very quickly trying to fit everything in to my limited available time. I did it, though. At the end I had covered the entire trail and have pictures of every station. I really like how they set this up. It is a nice way to make the entire town into a free museum since the town does not get enough tourists to justify a tour business.

Dominica had wanted me to bring home dinner but I was so sweaty from all of the exercise (it was quite warm to begin with, I was racing and most of the trail takes place in the “moat” around town where there is little fresh air) so I decided to come home first, change and then go out looking for food. I did discover that there were a lot of restaurants open late which we had not been expecting. We were worried that there would be very little food in this town and that what was there would close early.

We decided to just eat in the hotel again because they were great last night and it would be so much easier. So I went down and ordered us some Rosti Provencal for Dominica and Tarte Flambae (flammenkuechen) for me. We also got some traditional Alsatian ice cream based dessert for Dominica and I to split. Liesl joined us as she had roused herself to be up a while longer and we all camped out on Dominica and my bed and had a bit of a picnic in the hotel room. It was really nice. We had a very nice final night in Neuf-Brisach.

Tomorrow morning we are up early and moving a little ways further south in the Alsace to Bartenheim south of Mulhouse just ten kilometers off of the Swiss border near Basel. This will be our launching point for exploring western Switzerland around Bern.

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