Alsace: Europe's cultural hybrid

BY RICK STEVES Modified: September 25, 2012 at 9:26 am •  Published: September 25, 2012
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Alsace is France with a German accent. Its unique mix of cultures offers enchanting cobbled villages, scenic vineyards, gourmet cuisine, and art that's still as vibrant as the medieval day it was painted.

Standing like a flower-child referee between France and Germany, Alsace has weathered many invasions. Once a German-speaking part of the Holy Roman Empire, it became part of France in the 17th century.

After France lost the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, Germany annexed it. It bounced back to France after World War I (although Hitler absorbed it into the Third Reich during World War II).

All these centuries as a political shuttlecock have given Alsace a hybrid culture. And the city of Colmar is a great home base to experience it. Long popular with French and German tourists, this well-pickled old town of 70,000 is often overlooked and underrated by overseas travelers.

During World War II the American and British military were careful not to bomb quaintly cobbled Colmar. So today Colmar not only survives, it thrives with 15th- and 16th-century buildings, distinctive cuisine, and rich art treasures.

Colmar's Unterlinden Museum gets my vote as the best small museum in Europe. It fills a 750-year-old former convent with exhibits ranging from Roman artifacts to medieval winemaking, and from traditional wedding dresses to paintings that give vivid insight into the High Middle Ages.

Matthias Grunewald's gripping Isenheim Altarpiece, showing a gruesome crucifixion, is the museum's most important work. Germans know this painting like Americans know the Mona Lisa.

The altarpiece was commissioned 500 years ago by a monastery hospital filled with people suffering terrible skin diseases — a common cause of death back then. The hospital's goal, long before the age of painkillers, was to remind patients that Jesus understood their suffering.

The many panels led patients through a series of Bible stories culminating with a reassuring Resurrection scene.

Colmar's replica of a more modern icon will surprise many Americans. Colmar is the hometown of Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, the great sculptor who designed the Statue of Liberty — which was a gift from France to the United States on its 100th birthday.

Colmar's Bartholdi Museum describes the creation of Lady Liberty and displays many of Bartholdi's sculptures. One room is dedicated to the evolution and completion of the Statue of Liberty; she was assembled in Paris, then taken apart and shipped to New York in 1886 ...10 years late. If you come on the Fourth of July, the admission is free.

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