The train from the Swiss city of Basel to the French town of Colmar takes less than an hour. The transition from Switzerland to France is seamless, noticeable only by the change in language on the passing billboards.
As we got closer, the countryside gave way to sleepy, sunset villages, everyone inside their houses enjoying Sunday dinners.
At the train station in Colmar, we got out and started walking along the Avenue de la’Republique in the direction of the hotel (a budget inn actually). It was very warm, and the streets nearly deserted. It felt like a ghost town.
With the help of a woman who spoke French in a Germanic accent, we found our hotel on Rue Stanislaus, checked in and dropped our bags.
The woman was a reminder that we were in Alsace, a French region right on the border of Germany and Switzerland. It was one of those places I had vaguely heard of (from the Morrisey song “Alsatian Cousin”), but had never been able to place.
Indeed, as we found in Basel as well, everyone seemed fluent in German, French and English. You were greeted with “Bonjour,” “Guten tag,” or “Hello,” depending on who you were talking to.
Back out on the Street, we made our way over to the center, to the Place de la Cathedral. All of the shops were closed, and the narrow, cobbled streets empty. The signs in the windows showed the open hours, Tuesday to Saturday.
Just our luck: we were only in town for two days – the two days the town was shut down.
“Guess it’s really true about the French,” my wife and I joked, referencing French work hours.
“Yeah, but it makes sense. Work five days, then have two days off.”
Actually, we really didn’t mind all that much. The past few days had been hectic, flying from Istanbul to Basel, then a cross-country bus ride to the Swiss Alps village of Lenzerheide for our friend’s wedding, a night of feasting, drinking and dancing at the Michelin-star Guardevar hotel, a hung-over, winding trip back down the Alps, back to Basel, followed by our train ride to Colmar. We were tired.
There were a few places open. We found a restaurant in the shade of a tremendous brown Gothic cathedral that served the region’s famousflambée, French-German tortes that look like pizza. The Alsace region’s wines are famous, particularly its Riesling, but it was beer weather. Taking a cue from some local guys sitting nearby, I ordered a tall pint of Colmar, “biere d’Alasce.” The beer was fine, cold, refreshing. Others were enjoying the local wine, served in these small elegant glasses my wife liked. She wanted to take some glasses home for our dining room, but no doubt they would get broken in transit.
The wi-fi was disappointing in many places, as we were to find. But it was good enough at the restaurant that I was able to catch up on the history of Colmar, courtesy of Wikipedia. My wife Özge had been there before, but it was my first time. Over a second pint, I read. So Colmar, population 70,000, was a commune in the Alsace region. Most of the town’s famous Gothic and Rennaissance architecture traces back to the 15th century, when Colmar was a thriving trading post. Seems the towns of Alsace banded together against feudal landlords to form a trading group, a kind of early version of the EU.
“The buildings were taxed at street level,” Wikipdia informed me. “So that is why many of the building were built upward and outward.”
We had seen several impressive townhouses, with intricate carvings and frescos, which apparently were built by local barons in the silver, tanning and hat-making trades.
After dinner (and with me feeling a bit more up to speed), we paid the cheque and walked around. There were other tourists out, mostly Asian, snapping photos of the colorful, charming buildings in the golden hour. We reached a canal near the Tanner District. The canal was draped with lovely flowers along its banks.
Özge wanted some ice cream, so we approached a garcon, who waved us to a seat at a table underneath some trees.
“Ice cream?” The garcon, a tall local boy, smacked his lips in a very French way. “Yes, yes! Please sit!” He came back with a menu. The place was known for its crepes, as well as ice cream. “It is the natural ice cream, not the ice cream you buy in the supermarket.”
Özge ordered a crepe with some chocolate and raspberry ice cream, and I had another pint of local. We asked the garcon about Le Petite Venise, and he pointed us in the right direction. It was just down the street.
“Tomorrow,” my wife and I agreed. It was Sunday evening, so we weren’t likely to find anything else open until the morning.
After we paid, we walked back through the cobbled streets, passing a number of galleries, cafes and museums, all closed. With pride, I noted a couple of Irish bars that were open, a JJ Murphys and a Jamesons no less. (Ah, the Irish! They’ll have the pub open come the Apocalypse!)
Back at the budget inn, we settled in for a good sleep. We needed it. Outside, cars raced along the thoroughfare, so we had to close the windows. We slept to the the Doppler-effect sound of cars in the Colmar night.
In the morning, we asked the concierge about a supermarket, and he gave us directions to Monoprix, the main supermarket chain. We eventually found it, and bought a breakfast of baguettes, brie cheese, fois gras (for me) and some milk and yoğurt. Feeling very economical and sensible, my wife and I walked back to one of the canals in the center, spread our goods out on one of the benches, and had breakfast in Colmar.
Nearby, tourists were loading into a green-and-white train, which offered tours for 6 euros apiece.
“Shall we take it?” my wife asked.
“Nah, that’s not our style – too touristy.”
After breakfast we walked to Le Petite Venise, or Little Venice. We felt much better, rested and clear-eyed. We took our time. It felt good just being out of Istanbul. Along the Grand Rue, the streets were silent, sun-baked, and even though most of the places were still closed, we enjoyed looking in the windows: Ginger bread, macaroons, Pate en Croute, Tourte au Trois, and other delights that we were unaccustomed to seeing. Fresh air, fresh scents, a change of accents, of atmosphere. These are the things a holiday can give. And I was glad that was only me and Özge. Switzerland had been all about the wedding, about rushing here and there, about timetables and rendevous points. Here in our ghost town of Colmar, it was just us, and the quietness of the town, the bright sunlight, the empty wistubs and the verdant canals. We held hands like newlyweds, only consulting the map when we had to, and drifting with the other tourists, what few there were.
It was more crowded in Le Petite Venise, with lots of Asian tourists, but I noted more than a few American accents as well (and a few Turkish families, Özge added). Everyone posed for the same photos, the same selfies, of the boats in the canal, with the brightly colored fishmonger buildings in the background.
We had drinks in a place right next to the canals, just to get out of the sun. I ordered the seasonal beer, which turned out to be something called L’Estivale. It was a pinkish beer served in a short, fat mug. It tasted like a jar of perfume. When the waitress came back, I told her to bring me “normal beer.” So she returned with a pint of Colmar.
Özge wanted to go and see the Bartholdi memorial. Auguste Bartholdi was a 19th Century local sculptor famous for creating the Statue of Liberty. Following the map, we left the touristy center and headed to the south part of the town, through elegant neighborhoods with houses that looked like homes to diplomats, doctors and professors. One of the streets was named Rue des Americains, so I figured we were heading in the right direction.
Eventually we reached a park, where a giant water tower rose high above the trees.
“There he is,” I said, pointing out the Bartholdi statue. It stood on the far corner of the park, looking out at the street. It was a handsome bronze-looking statue, with the sculptor bearing a miniature Statue of Liberty on his shoulder.
The park was cool, shaded, so we just plunked down under one of the trees, took our shoes off and napped for awhile. It felt good to be out of the touristy center, out of the heat.
Later, we walked back through Le Petite Venise, my wife in search of the covered market, where Özge hoped to find some things to buy as gifts. We found it, but of course it was closed. As were a number of Michelin-star restaurants.
“Seriously, how can every restaurant be a Michelin-star?” my wife wondered aloud. “I think the whole system is rigged!”
“Exactly. It’s like, if you open a restaurant anywhere in France it automatically gets a Michelin star.”
By then, heavy grey clouds had gathered, and by the time we reached the St. Matthews cathedral it started to rain, a downpour, and lightening flashed in the distance. We didn’t mind though, a summer rain was exactly what we needed. The streets cooled off, and the air changed so that the colors of the buildings were richer, heightened. We stopped at a Monoprix again, this time Özge bought more baguettes, and some fresh guacamole (yes!), and back at the hotel she made us some sandwiches for the next morning, when we were scheduled to leave.
That evening – our last night in Colmar – we treated ourselves. Down to our last 150 euros (remember, for us, coming from Turkey, the Exchange rate was 6-to-1, so this was a rich holiday for us), we found a patio restaurant near the canals and the Tanner District. It was not a Michelin restaurant, but it was packed anyway. All the places were packed here.
I asked the garcon to recommend a drink. He recommended L’Estivale, that pink shit I’d tried earlier.
“No, no, not that,” I said. He appeared offended.
“Well, you asked me to recommend something, and you say you do not like it,” he sniffed.
“Just bring me a Colmar.”
“Oui, monsieur.” He took our orders, and walked brusquely away.
“I didn’t mean to offend him,” I told Özge.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“I mean, I would have taken any of his recommendations – anything but L’Estivale!”
We tried escargot (something I’ve always wanted to do) and for the main course had roast duck, which was superb. “Magnifique!” I told the waiter. He seemed to have forgiven me by then (I think I won him over by trying the escargot).
“Anything else?” the garson asked.
“Non – la cheque, s’il vous plaît.” It felt good to speak French. Smiling, the garcon seemed to let go of my L’Estivale faux pas from earlier.
My wife just laughed. “What are you doing?”
“I don’t know.”
“When I was here last time it was the weekend,” my wife said. “It was totally different. Everywhere it was crowded.”
“We have plenty of that in Istanbul,” I said.
By then it was sunset, and we decided to just slowly head back to the inn and rest up for our journey to Istanbul in the morning. Out past the center, all around us breathed all these reassuring, ghostly silences, all familiar now. It it was our little ghost town. It was better that way.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul.