Home & Leisure

Rick Steves’ Europe: Alsace and Colmar - France and Germany mix it up

Rick Steves on

By the end of the Middle Ages, the walled town was a bustling trade center filled with the fine homes of wealthy merchants. The wonderfully restored tanners’ quarter is a quiver of tall, narrow, half-timbered buildings. Its confused rooftops struggle erratically to get enough sun to dry their animal skins. Nearby, “La Petite Venise” comes complete with canals and gondola rides.

Colmar combines its abundance of art with a knack for showing it off. The artistic geniuses Grünewald, Schongauer, and Bartholdi all called Colmar home. Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, who created our Statue of Liberty a century and a half ago, adorned his hometown with many fine, if smaller, statues. The little Bartholdi Museum offers a good look at the artist’s life and some fun Statue of Liberty trivia.

Four hundred years earlier, Martin Schongauer was the leading local artist. His Madonna in the Rose Garden is sublime. Looking fresh and crisp, it’s magnificently set in a Gothic Dominican church.

The Unterlinden Museum, housed in a 750-year-old convent, holds the highlight of the city — Matthias Grünewald’s gripping Isenheim Altarpiece. It’s actually a series of paintings on hinges that pivot like shutters. Designed to help people in a hospital suffer through their horrible skin diseases (long before the age of painkillers), the main panel — the Crucifixion — is one of the most powerful paintings ever. I stand petrified in front of it and let the vivid agony and suffering drag its fingers down my face. Just as I’m ready to sob with those in the painting, I turn to the happy ending: a psychedelic explosion of Resurrection joy. We know very little about Grünewald except that his work has played tetherball with human emotions for 500 years.

A hard-fought land on the conflicted border of Europe’s two leading powers, Alsace is also a powerful example of the high culture, cuisine, and art that results when two great nations mix it up.



(Rick Steves ( writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio, and organizes European tours. This article was adapted from his new book, For the Love of Europe. You can email Rick at and follow his blog on Facebook.)

©2021 Rick Steves. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.




Marvin Adam Zyglis Jeff Koterba Bill Day Candorville Bizarro