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The Charms of Colmar

July 10, 1988|GAIL BRACCIDIFERRO | Braccidiferro is a staff writer for The Day in New London, Conn.

COLMAR, France — A few miles west of the flat and tranquil Rhine River that separates West Germany from the province of Alsace, France, and set amid the vineyards and gentle foothills of the Vosges, each meandering bend of Colmar's streets seems to reveal yet another picturesque sight.

Less imposing than the provincial capital of Strasbourg 44 miles north, and more cultured than many of the picturesque villages along the Alsatian wine route, Colmar, a city of half-timbered houses, is a perfect place to linger for anyone who has an appreciation of the past.

The charming city's cobblestone squares have a Germanic air, surrounded as they are by tile-roofed shops with heavy wooden balconies awash in colorful flowers.

Its restaurants turn out plentiful and palate-pleasing Alsatian fare such as foie gras and choucroute , the popular spicy sauerkraut that is served in generous mounds with local sausages and pork.

And, of course, there is the wine that is such an integral part of France.

Start at the Museum

Although European tourists seem to be quite familiar with the charms of Colmar, it is not among the main French attractions for many Americans. The building in which to start a tour of Colmar is the Unterlinden Museum.

Visiting the moderately priced museum, in a former Dominican convent dating to 1232, is like walking back through the centuries in Alsace.

Operated as a museum since 1849, one wing of the Unterlinden is a series of rooms with period pieces, tracing the furnishings and trappings of everyday life in the region from the Renaissance to modern times.

A Gothic room contains heavy wood paneling, a crude wooden table and a stone fireplace, while a typical Alsatian bedroom of the early 19th Century displays wooden four-poster beds and brightly painted polychrome wardrobes depicting mountain flowers and geometric designs.

Another display that shows glimpses of earlier life styles is an extensive collection of iron door-knockers, bells, boxes, keys, tavern signs and other items made in the region and dating to the 1400s.

One room is full of 19th- and 20th-Century dolls and toys, a wonderful collection of colorful pottery from Soufflenheim, and several painted and glazed ceramic ovens, many from the 18th Century, that conjure up images of Black Forest beer halls.

There are archeological collections that were unearthed in Alsatian excavations, including shards of metal, bones and pottery dating to prehistoric times.

Mosaic and Paintings

A large and intricate mosaic from the Gallo-Roman era is displayed near a gallery of contemporary art.

Works of the modern era include paintings by Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir, as well as less realistic artists whose works are alive with splashy colors and three-dimensional designs.

Although the Unterlinden shows much local history, its most important pieces are its paintings.

The museum houses an extensive collection of primitives, including the Orlier Altarpiece by Martin Schongauer and paintings by Hans Holbein. By far the greatest work, however, is the mystical and haunting Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald.

The German painter created this masterpiece between 1510 and 1515 for the monastic hospital of the Order of St. Anthony in Isenheim. It has been displayed at the Unterlinden since the middle of this century.

While the great work with its moving rendering of the Crucifixion and brilliant use of light and color to connote Christ's ascension are reward enough for any art enthusiast, the museum's display of the altarpiece also adds to its drama.

Originally a series of painted wood panels that could be opened or closed depending on the season of the religious calendar, each panel stands alone in a bright and lengthy gallery that affords viewing from ground level and a balcony.

Originally, the Isenheim altarpiece was set off by a series of wooden sculptures by Nicholas de Haguenau. Although these are housed in separate galleries at the Unterlinden, there are plenty of diagrams and charts, many written in English, that show the original setup of the altarpiece.

There are also several working models of the panels that visitors can open and close to gain a better understanding of the art's intended display.

Exploring on Foot

While the Unterlinden is reason enough to stop in Colmar, visitors who are not in a hurry to head north to Strasbourg, south toward Switzerland on auto route N83 or to meander leisurely up the Alsatian wine route, can take advantage of other sights.

The narrow, winding streets make it easier to explore the city on foot than by car.

Not far from the museum is a central square called the Place Rapp, with its central sculpture of Gen. Jean Rapp, a Colmar native who served in Napoleon's army. It was sculpted in 1855 by Auguste Bartholdi, best known on this side of the ocean for his work that stands in New York Harbor--the Statue of the Liberty.

On the Rue des Marchands is a small museum that houses some of Bartholdi's lesser works, along with his memorabilia.

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