First-class train beats short-haul misery

by
18 January 2007

France is a favourite holiday destination for the English. But forget Provence or Paris, says Joe Jenkins, and discover the appeal of Alsace

Crowd-pleaser: above: Colmar’s art includes Martin Schongauer’s Virgin of the Rosebush (1473) in the 14th-century Dominican church Office de tourisme de Colmar/G. WÜrth

Crowd-pleaser: above: Colmar’s art includes Martin Schongauer’s Virgin of the Rosebush (1473) in the 14th-century Dominican church Office de tourism...

FAR from the Dordogne, a giant leap from Provence, and rather more than a hop and a skip from Brittany, lies unfashionable Alsace.

Unfashionable it may be, but sipping a cool drink in the shadow of the Ancienne Douane, the 15th-century customs house that lies at the heart of Colmar — the principal town of the region — is about as good as it can get during any visit to France.

This outpost of eastern France is a civilised spot, a place that bridges two countries (Germany and the Rhine are just a stone’s throw away). It resounds with history (Colmar was much trampled by the Nazis; its colourful past includes a riot over the price of cucumbers and it dates back to at least the ninth century). It revels in its gastronomic excess, and can boast — but is too modest to do so — some of France’s finest white wines. It is also awash with charming architecture, if you take to the almost Bavarian style of the region.

Almost as pleasing as Colmar itself is the fact that those who cannot abide flying to nearby Strasbourg — when short-haul flights with all their discomfort and pollution are at all avoidable — can reach this great town by train. It takes the best part of a day from London, but the smooth Eurostar experience from Waterloo, the uncrowded SNCF trains, the lush scenery, and the unfamiliar politeness of the taxi driver who meets you at Colmar station make you wish you never had to fly again.

Admittedly, from central London it takes three trains and three taxis to reach our hotel in Colmar. But how many herds of cows do townies like me get to see when in the air? How often is it affordable to travel first class — and in a six-seater compartment of your own, in an old-style French carriage?

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Admittedly, from central London it takes three trains and three taxis to reach our hotel in Colmar. But how many herds of cows do townies like me get to see when in the air? How often is it affordable to travel first class — and in a six-seater compartment of your own, in an old-style French carriage?

Once the journey is negotiated, the pleasures of Colmar lie before you. There are many — not counting the absence of almost any British visitors.

Americans keen to pay their respects to the home town of Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904), the sculptor who rustled up the Statue of Liberty, are much in evidence, while day-tripping Germans flock over the border to see its stunning religious art.

The Issenheim altarpiece, Grünewald’s complex 16th-century masterpiece kept at the Musée D’Unterlinden, is the town’s cultural highlight. (At the risk of sounding disrespectful, see if you can spot the Ann Widdecombe lookalike in one of the altarpiece’s panels.)

Almost as breathtaking is Schongauer’s outstanding and vivid 15th-century painting, The Virgin in the Rose Bush, at the undistinguished Eglise des Dominicains.

The Unterlinden is also home to a knockout array of antique furniture and ironware. Just the briefest of glimpses will leave you in the mood to buy a house of your own in the shadow of the nearby Vosges mountains — home to Vittel mineral water — just so that you can deck it out with repro fittings.

Apart from Bartholdi, Colmar’s other heroes include Hansi, the illustrator who chronicled Alsace’s war years. While his style will not appeal to everyone — it is arguably on the twee side of mainstream good taste — his typical depictions of children, going about their business in the shadow of menacing German soldiers, brilliantly convey how vulnerable Colmar must have felt as the Nazis swarmed over idyllic Alsace. The Hansi shop in the rue Mercière is a great place to pick up presents to take home.

The flower-lined waterways that cut through the old tanners’ district, also known as Petite Venise, make a good spot to settle down for a meal. The cuisine in Alsace is what is usually described as robust, and believe me: real men do eat quiche. To stock up for a picnic, visit the wonderful Vincent Traiteur on the rue des Boulangers for the greatest ever quiche lorraine, studded with the lardiest of lardons.

If you can see off the gargantuan backoeffe stew, or a plate of choucroute garnie à l’Alsacienne (which leaves even German diners looking a little pale), then you may even earn approving looks from your waiter.

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Coq au riesling is the best coq au vin you are likely to experience, while the local Munster cheese and its traditional accompaniment of cumin seeds sounds odd, but works wonderfully.

As unfashionable as eastern France itself, the seven main grape varieties produced in the vineyards of Alsace’s 112-mile Route des Vins include some of the country’s best wines. Some of the younger ones served in restaurants are far from brilliant, but spend seven or eight euros in Monoprix, or visit the superb wine shop, La Sommèliere, in the heart of Colmar, for a really decent drop. The pinot gris — known locally as Tokay — is the most reliable bet.

Colmar is a beautiful town, rich in art, history, fine wine, and hearty food. There is something deeply comforting about it. Standing in one of its squares or main thoroughfares makes you feel you are in the heart of Old Europe.

Travel details

For more information on the region, visit www.tourisme-alsace.com.

The best all-round book on Colmar and the region is the Michelin Tourist Guide Alsace, Lorraine, Champagne (Michelin Travel Publications, £14.99; 978-2-06-711-920-6).

The Hotel St Martin (www.hotel-saint-martin.com) and La Maison des Tetes (www.la-maison-des-tetes.com) offer comfortable double rooms from 90 euros a night. For further hotel and restaurant tips, visit www.viamichelin. co.uk.

For standard-class Eurostar and first-class SNCF seats, expect to pay about £200 per person for a return journey, changing in Paris and again at either Strasbourg or Mulhouse. While it is possible to book your journey in one go, you may find a better-price booking in two stages at www.eurostar.com and www.sncf.com.

Air France (www.airfrance. co.uk) flies to Strasbourg from Gatwick daily from £186 return. Lufthansa (www. lufthansa.co.uk) flies from London City Airport from £203 return.

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