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La Petite Venise, Colmar’s historic district

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Colmar, a historic city with an impressive pedigree

The historic district La Petite Venise turns Colmar into one of the most beautiful cities in France.

This picturesque town, which developed at the confluence of several rivers, is also Alsace’s 3rd largest municipality and the prefecture of the department of Haut-Rhin.

This pedigree is all the more impressive, as the city also boasts an exceptional architectural heritage.

It includes several religious buildings, among which a former collegiate, a superb theatre, countless listed medieval houses and the Unterlinden Museum which exhibits the famous Isenheim Altarpiece.

But this does not end here! Colmar is also nestled in the heart of the vineyards of Alsace, a situation that earned to be known as The Capital of Wines of Alsace.

Finally, Colmar is also the birthplace of Auguste Bartholdi who sculpted the Statue of Liberty that marks the entrance of the port of New York.

Colmar, La Petite Venise

Medieval Colmar developed at the confluence of the rivers Ill and Lauch and tributaries of the latter (Brennbaechlein, Muhlbach, Sinnbach, Gerberbach and Thur).

The inhabitants channeled them to feed the ditches that protected the ramparts of their city, but also to irrigate their lands, turn the wheels of their water mills and to get around.

In the Middle Ages, craftsmen of the same congregation would gather in the same street.

Medieval Colmar gathers three enclaves; Quartier des Tanneurs (tanners), Quartier des Poissonniers (fishermen) and Krutenau, the market gardeners district.

Developed along the network of man-made canals, they today form the historic heart of the city.

Similarly to La Petite France in Strasbourg, La Petite Venise is a protected district that was fully restored in the 1960s-70s.

It has preserved many 14th to 18th century half-timbered houses, with colourful facades and balconies crumbling under flowers.

However, this today tourist district looked very different aspect in the Middle Ages.

The facades were generally fully plastered to isolate and protect them. However, what differentiated it the most were the pestilential odours generated by the activities of the tanners, fishermen and market gardeners!

These districts were not exactly a sought after residential area!


Colmar’s market gardeners and wine makers channelled the Lauch and its tributaries that flowed across the marsh outside their city’s fortifications. They farmed the rich alluvial soil and developed a new settlement, the Kretenau district.

The canals irrigated their market crops and vineyards, but they also served as a means of transport.

The market gardeners transported their productions by barge to the covered on Quai de la Poissonnerie, along the Lauch.

This network of canals earned the district the name of Little Venice.

Kretenau has many similarities with Le Marais in Paris, a vast swamp left by an ancient meander of the Seine and initially used to grow market crops.

Rue de Turenne, which now crosses Krutenau, is a dual-aspect street.

You'll find farmers’ houses on its southern side, the even numbers’ side, and patrician houses on the opposite side.

Quartier des Tanneurs

The tanners district boasts countless 17th/18th centuries tall half-timbered houses built directly along the canals.

This enclave, today so touristy, was once a pretty pestilential area; the tanners indeed rejected their waste in the canals and dried the skins in the lofts of their houses.

This district is reminiscent of the Quartier des Gobelins in Paris, where the tanners set up their workshops on the banks of the river Bièvre, turning the small river into a huge open-air sewer.

Quartier de la Poissonnerie

This third enclave was the fishermen and boatmen district.

This corporation, one of the most influential of Colmar until the early 20th century, however, had strict laws.

It forbade fishermen from fishing on public holidays and at night and from buying fish from non-local fishermen.

It also granted the population the right to fish, but only to the net, at the rate of one person per household and only on Fridays (a day when, according to Christian tradition, meat consumption was forbidden).

The corporation of the boatmen of Colmar also has important similarities with the influential congregation of the Nautes Parisiens, the boatmen of Paris.

Colmar and Paris are indeed two cities where trade and river traffic have always had a major impact on their economy.

The fishermen also sold their fish in the covered market on Quai de la Poissonnerie.

Many local medieval houses were rebuilt after the fire of 1706; this enclave therefore boasts a wealth of early 18th century half-timbered houses, repainted in bright colours.

Medieval Colmar is a stunning ‘floating’ city; the best way to fully discover it is on a barge, or gondola, as in Venice!

Department of Haut-Rhin
Coordinates: Lat 48.074432 - Long 7.359701

Credits photosfrom Pixabay: Bridge by Oliver Voigt - Header by gabeltuerk
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