Spoilt for choice in Alsace
Rue de Turrene Bridge in Little Venice. Picture: Richard Pennick

The blending of French and German cultures has fashioned one of Europe's most charming small cities.

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Sitting on the Alsace Wine Route close to the German border, just 62km south of Strasbourg, Colmar has everything we could wish for: beauty, intriguing history, quaint old-world buildings, wide-ranging art and culture, appealing food choices and excellent wines.

Our hotel is in the Champ de Mars Park opposite the narrow Rue Corberon - our "portal" to Colmar's old town. Within minutes, we have entered the fairytale world of steep roofs and high chimneys, shuttered windows, cobbled squares, trickling fountains and bright cafe umbrellas.

On our first evening, we find Pizzeria La Gondola on Rue Grand and order - what else but - Alsatian pizza with two pizza dough layers baked with cheese, onions and bacon in-between - not bad with a half-bottle of dry Alsatian riesling. For dessert, we indulge in one of the many Alsatian variations of apfelstrudel which came with whipped cream and vanilla custard - delicious.

This noted winemaking region offers an assortment of French and German rieslings, muscats, gewurztraminers, pinot gris and pinot noir reds. The wine route runs 170km south from Strasbourg through Colmar, tracing the valleys of the Vosges Mountains, past vineyards and a procession of small but perfectly formed villages. To the east, the Rhine courses through the Plaine d'Alsace.

The next morning, we board the rubber-wheeled White Train in the central Place Jean d'Arc for a 45-minute history tour of the old town. We step off at points of interest: the ancient timber Pfister House (1537), the Maison des Tetes (House of Heads) whose facade is covered with sculptured faces, and the birthplace museum of Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi.

Bartholdi created New York's Statue of Liberty. He first built the 46m-high structure in Paris, then dismantled it, shipped it to the United States in 241 crates, and rebuilt it on Liberty Island in New York Harbour in 1885. There is a full-size plaster model of the Statue of Liberty's left ear and numerous model designs of the statue in the museum.

Alsace: Musée d'Unterlinden, The Cloisters, Dominican Convent. Picture: Richard Pennick

We lunch on the run on croque monsieur at a kiosk in Place de la Cathedral. This popular crunchy toasted sandwich runs with melted Gruyere cheese and locally cured ham.

With a population of about 60,000, Colmar has the comfortable feel of a large market town. Located on France's eastern border, the region of Alsace-Lorraine was twice annexed by Germany, in 1870 and again in 1940. However, time has been kind to Colmar's historical centre, which escaped the ravages of the two world wars and the French Revolution. It is designated a protected area with painstaking restoration ongoing and is considered the best-preserved city in north-eastern France.

The historic centre is pedestrian-only, and the quiet winding streets, narrow alleyways and cobbled squares are lined with colourful half-timbered houses, some of which lean at odd angles.

After dark, coloured lights enhance and highlight the architectural eccentricity. The old town is prettiest from the Rue de Turrene Bridge in Little Venice.

The canals creep silently past pastel-tinted waterfront residences which are a dazzling spring display of floral colour. It is here, on our second evening, that we dine at the rustic, wood-panelled Winstub Brenner Restaurant on fleishschnacka. Spiced minced beef is rolled in noodle dough, sliced, cooked in broth and served with sauerkraut. A glass each of Alsace pinot noir goes well with this. For dessert, we choose another Alsace strudel with apple, dried fruit and nuts rolled in very thin pastry and sip a shared a glass of Alsace muscadet with our coffee.

On our second morning we visit the prestigious Musee d'Unterlinden. One thousand years of European and Alsatian history are preserved in this beautiful 13th-century Dominican Convent. We explore the timbered exhibit halls of this intriguing old building and are pleasantly surprised to see in the Musee's Modern Art Gallery works by Renoir, Picasso, Leger, Braque and Max Ernst.

The museum's extensive weapons collection displays 15th-century armour, shields, military weapons and implements of torture. Other chambers show medieval paintings, engravings, Roman and Gothic sculptures, silver and gold treasures, jewellery and musical instruments from the 12th-16th centuries. Of note is the acclaimed Issenheim Altarpiece, created in 1512 by painter Mathias Grunewald and sculptor Nicolas de Haguenau.

The imposing Gothic cathedral of St Martin (1237) is central to the old town. Among its treasures are beautifully preserved 13th-century stained-glass windows depicting the Last Supper and other biblical scenes, the painting of the Madonna of the Rose Arbor by Colmar artist Martin Schongauer and an external stone relief portrayal of the Last Judgment.

Feeling quite pious after our church visit, we cross Place de la Cathedral to the inviting Cafe Leffe for afternoon tea in lieu of lunch, and are served our third and largest piece of apfelstrudel, thick crusted and adorned with vanilla ice-cream - it comes with two forks. "It's the smallest piece there is," the waiter says with a smile. We sit for a while outside the cafe in the afternoon sun.

Losing ourselves in the labyrinth of ancient streets, we partially walk off the strudel. Ornate wood- carved gables decorate old buildings, some adorned with lovingly preserved murals and others with scary gargoyles.

We peer into courtyards and gardens through arches covered in ivy and then drop into the old Koïfhus or Customs House, the town's oldest public building, completed in 1480.

Alsatian cuisine is a very satisfactory blend of French and German cooking, with pork dishes a specialty.

That evening, we dine at L'Almandine opposite the cathedral on tourte a l'Alsacienne - minced meat pie. It is filled with veal and pork, shallots, onion, mushrooms and a hint of nutmeg, folded into egg and cooked in golden pastry. For wine, we choose a local Alsace edelszwicker white.

Then of course, there are those apfel desserts . . . or you could try the black forest cake?


FACT FILE

• Colmar: ot-colmar.fr

• Musee d'Unterlinden: musee-unterlinden.com

• Alsatian Cuisine: getalsaced.com/alsatian-specialties.html

• Alsace Wine Route: alsace-wine-route.com

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