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Published: October 15th 2016
Canals of Petite Venise neighborhood
As we were finishing up our last few days in Belgium, something unexpected happened that caused quite a bit of excitement. We had booked an apartment with Airbnb in the Alsatian town of Strasbourg, France. We had already purchased our train tickets on the super-fast TGV train and were making last minute departure plans when we got bad news. Our reservation had been cancelled! We have rented nearly 50 apartments during our travels and it was something we expected would happen sooner or later. Because we normally rent apartments for one month, it can be a little bit of a problem to find a place at the last minute. With just a few days left until we move, most apartments have at least a few days rented during the upcoming month, which means we are out of luck without changing apartments during the month. We travel light and moving is not a problem, but to stay on budget we really need to take advantage of discounts that usually apply only when we rent for a whole month vs. just a short period.
Anyway, it made for some excitement as we scrambled to find something new. Strasbourg was completely
booked in our price range. We saw a few apartments in a smaller town about an hour south of Strasbourg. We had never heard of Colmar before, but the town looked cute in pictures and was located closer to the Alsace vineyard region that first interested us in Strasbourg. It would take one extra train ride, but seemed like our best bet on short notice. Airbnb gave us a bit of a credit since we had been cancelled which helped us afford the couple hundred dollar price difference in the two apartments. Off to Colmar we went.
It was our first opportunity to take one of the high speed European trains. The TGV makes a direct run from Brussels to Strasbourg with just a couple of stops in Lille and Paris, France. Part of the ride seemed to be at normal speed, but the rest was very fast. Speeding past the French countryside at about 200 miles per hour really seemed incredible. When we passed cars on the interstate the speed was especially apparent as we literally left them behind as though they were barely moving. While the speed was impressive, the countryside was so gorgeous that
"Little Venice"- Colmar, France
at times we would have liked to slow down to take in the view better. Soon enough we arrived in Strasbourg and quickly caught a local train for the last part of our journey to Colmar.
We made such good time to Colmar that we actually had to hang around in the train station until our scheduled meeting time at the apartment. The taxi made its way along the cobbled road that winds its way from the station through the center part of town. The entire area is generally blocked to cars except for one winding route through the narrow buildings. We felt as if we were getting a complete tour of town as we snaked through the ancient buildings.
The town has many buildings from the 15th
century that have been well restored. They are of the half-timber design that is prevalent in Eastern France and Germany. They have a stone first floor and timber framed higher floors that are visually stunning. Painted pastel colors of red, blue, yellow, pink and other colors, they give an impression of walking through a childhood fairytale. Colmar is popular with French and German tourists
who arrive by car and also with older tourists who generally arrive in groups from the nearby cruise ships on the Rhine River.
After just a few minutes, we arrived at our quickly chosen new house. What a first impression it made. Like a storybook vision, the 16th
century building rises some 6 floors above a picturesque square in the center of the main tourist area. Brightly colored flowers decorated all the window boxes that hung just below the wooden shuttered windows. A bakery occupied the first floor and we were happy to only have to walk up one flight to our spacious apartment just above.
Opening the windows let in the muted, multi-language conversations from the square. A sweet smell of pastry came from the bakery below. A saxophone, accordion or gentle guitars could be heard from a nearby corner at different times of day. It was perfect! We have spent countless hours walking around old town centers in the last 5 years and always wondered what it would be like to live in one of the restored houses that invariably populate the areas. What would it be like if every time you
open your windows, jealous tourists looked from below to admire your lifestyle? It seemed we were about to find out.
We didn’t waste any time getting out exploring the town. Our favorite times were early in the morning before the tourists arrived. The narrow streets and alleys are bathed in warm sunlight that turns the early mist a brilliant golden shade as the sun rises. Church bells ring softly through the cobblestone passages which route the sound in a way that make it difficult to tell which direction it is coming from. Lights are on in the bakeries and coffee shops as early rising residents make their rounds to collect the day’s necessities. Prowling night cats make their way home in the mist after a night’s explorations.
During the day, tourists fill the streets and restaurants. Their excitement and wonder fill the air as they take countless photos of the fairyland visions they encounter. The restaurants fill and musicians entertain everywhere. Soon enough the crowds depart and the streets are again filled with strolling overnight guests who make their way along the beautiful canals of the Petite Venise neighborhood, surely the most beautiful area
of town. The streetlights romantically light the ancient houses which reflect in the slow moving canal and create a scene usually reserved for a Hollywood movie.
We took advantage of the wonderful late summer products available everywhere. The wonderful Marche Couvert (covered market) was located just a block from our house and quickly became a favorite stop. Filled with all the goodness of the French countryside, we could easily find all the ingredients available to create wonderful meals at home. Gorgeous, brightly colored vegetables and gourmet cut meats were purchased daily. We made an effort to try each of the seemingly infinite assortments of to-die-for cheeses and dairy products displayed in the market. Many specialty products were found in tiny jars and containers on tightly packed shelves. When incorporated with the fresh ingredients, we found we were able to create delicious meals, even better than what we saw in the sidewalk cafes along the narrow streets outside.
We took advantage of easy transportation to see the surrounding countryside. Visits by bus to the nearby Alsace vineyard towns of Kaysersburg, Ribeauville and Riquewihr were perfect. The rolling foothills of the Vosges Mountains were covered with
miles of vineyards, ancient castles and dreamlike towns that could not have been more magical. We strolled the tightly woven streets of the tiny walled towns which eventually led to dirt roads through endless vineyards and on to ancient ruins of medieval castles overlooking the stunning countryside. The vines were full and the rich fragrance of the nearly ripened fruit was prevalent everywhere.
Colmar is located in the far eastern corner of France which means we also had access to quick trips to other nearby countries. We took a combination of buses and light rail across the Rhine into Germany to visit the bustling town of Freiburg. We found a massive cathedral in the historic center and enjoyed our walk up the nearby Schlossberg Hill to a beer garden that provided commanding views of the entire Black Forest area that surrounds Freiburg.
Another day we took the train for an hour south to make our first visit to Switzerland. We enjoyed taking a slow walk through the hilly town that is split by the stunning Rhine River. The town is beautiful and obviously wealthy. The buildings and squares are stunning and well preserved. We
enjoyed taking one of the tiny ferries across the river. The small boats are dwarfed by the dominant cliffs of the town that provide spectacular views over the bridges and rivers.
What started as an emergency to find a place to live for a month turned out to be one of our favorite places we have visited since we began our travels. We felt lucky to have found one of the loveliest areas of France by accident. Even if we had planned our visit, it could not have been better. Perhaps a lesson can be learned for our future travels. Maybe less planning and more surprise is what we need in the future.
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