There are certain places in the world that just give you that same warm and fuzzy feeling that you get from watching a Disney film. They are the kind of places that you think are too good to be true – until you visit them and realise that all that they are missing is a fairy-tale hilltop castle. Oh wait, it has that too. Welcome to Colmar, a small town in the Alsace region of France.
It is hard to believe that I had never even heard of Colmar before I visited it by chance on my drive from Milan to Paris. To call the town quaint would be an understatement. The streets are full of half-timber houses painted in a rainbow of pastel colours. The window boxes are full of flowers and the squares are complete with little bespoke cafes with outdoor patios. As if the town was not fanciful enough, a little green train takes visitors through the colourful streets. It almost feels like the city was built for a fairy-tale theme park – in the best sense.
At the town’s heart is a large thirteenth-century gothic church which towers over one of the town’s larger squares. In Colmar, it is known as the cathedral despite never actually being anything more than an oversized church. Compared to the town’s colourful streets, St Martin’s Church is austere and inside, its cool, dark nave is rather intimidating. But the dark gothic church only adds to the romance of the otherwise whimsical town.
Walking beyond the church, I found what was easily my favourite part of Colmar. They call it Little Venice because of the network of small canals running through the area. Even on a cold and rainy day, I was completely charmed. At the centre of Little Venice there is a large indoor market full of locally produced jams, cheeses, meats, fruits and vegetables. Locals and tourists alike frequent the market and I enjoyed imagining doing my weekly grocery shopping at the various stalls. It would certainly be more fun than shopping at Tesco or Safeway.
About a thirty minute drive north of Colmar is the Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg. A medieval castle that was abandoned in the seventeenth-century and then rebuilt in the early 1900s, the castle stands overlooking the whole Upper Rhine Plain. The view is incredible – it is almost worth driving up for that alone. You can see all the way to the Black Forest.
But more extraordinary still is the castle itself. Since the château was restored only a hundred years ago, it is in pristine condition and unlike most medieval castles, it is built out of red brick. The combination of the red castle surrounded by the greenery of the Alsatian countryside is striking. Even if you have no desire to tour the castle itself, you can make it all the way to the Lower Courtyard with it’s water well, forge, inn and mill. It is a step back into an age of knights, chivalry, bloody battles and daring swordfights. You certainly don’t need to be a history geek to enjoy it.
Alsace is a French treasure. It is no wonder that Hitler was so eager to get his hands on the territory. I have much more exploring to do in the area but even so, I would go back for Colmar alone. It’s magic goes far beyond the imagination of any little girl, myself included.
Photography by Savannah Hayes
Top: Little Venice, Colmar
Middle: Little Venice, Colmar
Bottom: Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg