Colmar, France travel guide: The town that moved countries

If Colmar was a person it'd be neck deep in therapy.

The town of Colmar in northeastern France is essentially ludicrous (of which more later) but it could have been so much worse. Founded in the 9th century, it was initially called Columbarium Fiscum. We know this because a monk called Notker Balbulus mentioned it in his writings.

It's also where, in 884, the Carolingian Emperor Charles the Fat held a legislative assembly also known locally as a diet. Charles the Fat? Diet? Honestly, you couldn't make this stuff up.

(Just as an aside, Notker Balbulus translates as Notker the Stammerer, which as a bit of a stammerer myself I find curiously comforting.)

We arrive in Colmar after a short coach journey from our ship, the Avalon Imagery II, which we've left parked up in Germany. With any luck Germany will stay where it is for the foreseeable future – because if the history of Colmar tells us one thing it's that Germany moves around a lot.

Colmar started off as part of the Holy Roman Empire but in the 800 or so years since has been governed by France and/or Germany, with a couple of years of Swedish rule thrown in for good measure (the IKEA Years). It was taken by France under King Louis XIV in 1673, annexed by the new German Empire in 1871, returned to France after the First World War, occupied by Nazi Germany in 1940 and taken back by France in 1945.

If Colmar was a person it'd be neck deep in therapy. And yet, physically, it's in tip-top shape. Somehow, despite all the depredations, wars, sieges and annexations it's managed to remain quite ludicrously preserved.

Really; it's one of those places you go to and eventually get to the point where you're sure someone's pulling your leg. Flat-bottomed boats plying canals which meander under cute bridges garlanded with flower baskets and drift past pastel-coloured, timbered houses that loom out over twisty, cobblestoned streets? This is a movie set, right? Beauty and the Beast, maybe?

For the first hour or so we follow our guide through the stupefying streets of the old town, getting a wonderfully eccentric history lesson that few of us will remember later (though I do recall that poor old Notker didn't get a look-in).

At one point we swing by the Bartholdi Museum and get the potted history of this most famous of Colmar's sons. No, I'd never heard of him either.

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He's famous enough, though, that his handiwork is spread throughout the town in the shape of little metallic plaques set in the pavements. These mark out a self-guided tourist route that takes in all the major sights and they feature, if one of our group is to be believed, a simple line drawing of the Virgin Mary.

Of course, the more erudite among you will know that Frederic Auguste Bartholdi was the sculptor who designed the original Statue of Liberty (it was built by Gustave Eiffel) and it is she rather than the Madonna who is emblazoned on the plaques.

After the official tour is over we have time to wander the streets au naturel, as it were. This is the time to retrace our steps, forge new paths or simply find a spot to sit and marvel at this beautifully preserved medieval town.

The area crisscrossed by the canals of the River Lauch used to be the butchers', tanners' and fishmongers' quarter. Luckily the malodorous stench of dead animals, fish guts, and the urine and dung water used in tanning is no longer apparent and today this section is stupidly pulchritudinous and rightly popular with tourists who frequent the fragrant cafes and restaurants lining the waterways and streets.

These days you're more likely to encounter the mouth-watering aroma of the bread, cheese, pork lardons and onions that make up one of Alsace's local specialties, the tarte flambee. Also known, in keeping with the region's French/German dissociative identity disorder, as flammekuche, this Alsatian version of the thin-crust pizza is available not only in most of the restaurants but also sliced up to emporter for about €8.

The local covered market (built 1863-5) is worth a look if only to piece together amazingly fresh ingredients for a picnic. Though not the most attractive of buildings in itself (though it does feature yet another Bartholdi statue), still it rivals the local 13th-century Gothic Saint-Martin church in that one has, well, God and the other is stuffed full of Alsatian wines, jams, cheese, foie gras d'Alsace, vegetables, bread and good coffee.

Look, just follow your nose – you're bound to bump into something amazing. Every corner opens up another fresh vista, another fairytale building reflecting 800 years of German and French architectural influence, another captivating wrinkle in the winding sheet of history.

That said, do take the time to search out the 17th century Maison des Tetes (House of Heads), a Renaissance building made of the stones of the first town wall. Today it holds a hotel and restaurant but there's no reason to go inside. Just stand outside and admire the 106 contorted masks/heads that decorate the facade.

TRIP NOTES

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traveller.com.au/france

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traveller.com.au/alsace

FLY

Cathay Pacific Airways flies from all the major Australian cities to Zurich via Hong Kong. See cathaypacific.com

CRUISE

Avalon Waterways' Romantic Rhine cruise from Basel to Amsterdam runs between April and November, in both northbound and southbound directions. From $3705 a person double occupancy. Price includes all meals, daily excursions and beer and wine at lunch and dinner. See avalonwaterways.com.au

Keith Austin was a guest of Avalon Waterways

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