Traveling in Europe often comes with surprises, especially in countries with rich history and varying landscape. Recently, our mission was to explore the high Alps in France (which we did, and it was a breathtaking experience), but little did we know that we would stumble upon a medieval town in the mountains. Colmars is a pretty and visitor-friendly walled town at altitude of 1300 meters, along the road D908. But why on Earth there is an ancient fortified town practically in the middle of nowhere in the Alps?
Why here – it was the first question in my mind when the beautifully restored walls and towers of Colmars unexpectedly appeared in front of us on the road. Fortunately, parking was easy near the center, and we could walk into the town through one of its massive ports.
The medieval town has its residents, tiny shops and restaurants. Our favorite was the wine shop that had a good selection of local delicacies. Streets are narrow, which means that, fortunately, there are no cars. Clean, cold water flows from the mountain to the taps at small town squares.
There are a number of bistros, cafes, restaurants and bars within the walled area and along the main road that passes through the town. Small hotels and a camp site accommodate visitors in Colmars, but we had reserved accommodation in Antibes, on the French Riviera next to the city of Nice, so in the evening we drove down there.
Places to see:
- Maison musée du Chemin de Ronde.
- Guided visit to the Fort de Savoie.
- Fort de France, Church of Saint-Martin.
- The La mémoire des rues itinerary.
- The Mercantour National Park features some of the highest Alps and plenty of wildlife. Hiking and cycling are the most popular activities in summer.
- The interpretation trail sur les traces du soldat Carlon starts from the Colmars tourist office.
The reason why defensive structures, like walls and towers were built in Colmars
Today, the closest country border to Colmars is France/Italy east of the town. Italy is not far away, but there are plenty of Alps in between. In the Middle Ages, however, there were more regions with their own military forces.
Colmars-Les-Alpes (the official name of the town) was a prosperous place in the Middle Ages because of drapery and wool trade. In 1388, the neighbor towns of Barcelonnette and Allos, both north of Colmars became part Savoy (Savoie in French). Savoy was and still is a region within the Alps, but in the Middle Ages it wasn’t a region of France. MUch later in 1860, Savoy along with the Riviera city Nice joined France.
The first defensive walls were built in Colmars right after 1388 to protect the town from Savoy. In the 17th century, the King ordered the renowned military engineer Vauban to design fortifications for Colmars. In 1691 and 1692 Colmars got its design as we can see it today.
Colmars is not to be confused with Colmar, which is a popular tourist destination south of Strasbourg, in Alsace region.
The tourism information pages of Colmars can be viewed here.