What does the Statue of Liberty, pinot gris and a chocolate factory have in common? The lovely city of Colmar.
This past weekend I went on yet another delightful ‘excursion’ out into the Alsatian hinterlands. The eventual goal was to visit the wine capitol of Alsace, Colmar, whose specialty is the pinot gris. Along the way, I visited l’Eglise Ebersmunster, ate a guinea fowl and visited a chocolate factory.
First off, we visited the small village of Ebersmunster, a former religious site that goes back before the birth of christ. This particular village used to be a specifically pagan place of worship for the Gallic peoples, until their eventual conversion to Roman Catholicism. Eventually, the abbey there was turned into a magnificent church at the beginning of the 18th century, in the Baroque style. The creatively named l’Eglise Ebersmunster* is rather unassuming on the outside by church standards, but on the inside features a mind-boggling array of frescos, hand-carved wooden sculptures, and an ancient silver organ (pictured above).
*For the anglophones, l’Eglise = Church. Hence, it’s simply the Church of Ebersmunster.
After that visit, I had lunch at the Restaurant Aux Deux Clefs and stuffed myself full of a gorgeously crafted salad(It looked like a flower. A flower!), a finely cooked guinea fowl, and topped it all off with some locally made ice-cream. I hadn’t been that full in a long, long time.
We eventually made our way to Colmar, the third most populous city in Alsace. A several stories tall Statue of Liberty greeted us on our way into town. Now, this was a bizarre sight to see in Eastern France, let alone the rest of Europe. It turns out, however, that Colmar was the birthplace of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the sculptor behind the Statue of Liberty. Hence, her twin here in Colmar. Small world, huh?
Once in Colmar, we met up with our guide. He was a very professional man, proud, knowledgeable and genial to a tee. Normally, this mobile historian would take people around for hours, explaining the history of Colmar, the Protestant Reformation and what have you. However, due to our limited time, we received the condensed version.
He was not happy about that. The man took pride in his work. I couldn’t blame him.
Still, I learned quite a bit. For example, in l’Eglise Dominicains, there is a preserved masterpiece of art. It’s called the Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-1516) by Grunewald and Nicolas de Haguenau. This isn’t an ordinary painting however. It has three ‘phases’.
The first is the ‘closed’ altarpiece, which shows in the center a massive rendition of the crucifixion of Christ, accompanied on the sides by two panels featuring saints, and below by a panel featuring a scene of the entombing of Christ. However, if one opens the altarpiece and pulls away the first set of panels, one will find a rather surreal rendition of the nativity scene, complete with an angelic band and Lucifer himself. Finally, there is the “ouverture”, which if one opens this panel once more, one can find statues of St. Antoine and his compatriots at the center, flanked by paintings of St. Paul and John the Baptist in the wilds. Finally, when the lower image is opened, the last supper is revealed in sculpture form.
According to our guide, this massive undertaking is important for several reasons. First and foremost, the painting at the time was revolutionary not just in its engineering, but in its rendition of people. It showed realistic pain, anguish, and sorrow as well as laughter, joy and gaiety in people’s faces, along with highly realistic clothing and design, not to mention three-dimensional depth. Apparently, only twenty years before this painting was made, that sort of style simply didn’t exist. Furthermore, the various scenes within it would have been too scandalous to have been made in the past. However, since it was painted at the debut of the Protestant Reformation and the painters were more free to challenge traditional ecclesiastical conceptions.
Final note on this: artists such as Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso came to see this painting specifically. Its surreal images were an inspiration to them, apparently. In short: neat.
After several more stops around the town to hear more about its history, we parted ways with our guide. I was reluctant to leave so soon — we had an appointment at a chocolate factory nearby to get to. Admittedly, I would have preferred to learn more than to get designer chocolate, but that’s just me.
Still, the chocolate factory wasn’t too bad of a consolation. My history geek predilections were quickly assuaged by the glory that is chocolate. The company/old guy that owned the place, Daniel Stoffel, originated in Alsace, hence our visit. It apparently is a premier class chocolate company, popular throughout Western Europe. At least, that’s what the presenter told us. It was hard to tell what was right and what was corporate propaganda in that place. The amount of “Chocolate is Totally Healthy” posters and memorabilia I found was astounding. I don’t know whether they were lying through their teeth or were just in collective denial.
Not that I cared too much. Chocolate rocks.
Chocolate in hand, I ended my day by staring out into the countryside during a long bus ride home. I ended up watching the Vosges Mountains and the villages around them pass by for what seemed like hours. I was in wine country, and if I didn't know better, I could have been in Italy...or Napa Valley. It was an utterly different scene than from where I’m from, gorgeous but quaint.
To be honest, it did also remind me of Kansas — not that I’d ever say that out loud.