Gareth Huw Davies

Everything else

There are two ways to go eyeball to eyeball with the Statue of Liberty.

There are two ways to go eyeball to eyeball with the Statue of Liberty.

One is to hire a helicopter and hope you get close enough to the face of the 151 foot (46m) high statue before twitchy New York security hauls – or shoots – you out of the sky.

The other is to visit a museum in the little town of Colmar, Alsace, where you may gaze at your leisure into the formidable features of perhaps the most recognizable effigy on earth, in the definitive, person-sized scale model.

I’m in the very house where the designer of Liberty Enlightening the World, as she is officially known, was born. But be excused if his name does not immediately leap to mind.

History records Rodin’s Thinker and Michelangelo’s David. But in the age of the personality we hold back on the authorship of she who must have persuaded many worried men among 12 million arriving immigrants that the dames were mighty tough in the USA.

This is the same man believed to have received the very first ticker tape welcome in New York when he came to unveil his creation. Still pondering? Another of his statues inspired one of most familiar car logos on our roads.

Step forward from a century of inexplicable anonymity Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, who died at the age of 105 years.

Romantics insist that Bartholdi’s mother Charlotte was the model for Mlle Liberty (Bartholdi accentuated the lips, nose and cheeks so they stayed strong in the powerful sun, which would have turned softer features in the once-bright copper into a shining blur.)

If true, it’s a charming notion. I like to think of the inspiration for the universal face popping out for a bit of shopping, into the tight, pretty streets of Colmar, with their half timbered buildings in gold brick, balconies crammed with flowers.

Today houses and streets are much as they were, so it’s easy to imagine. Colmar miraculously missed the bombs of three wars in this tempestuous stretch of border land, an 80-mile long oblong west of the Rhine on France’s eastern flank.

Maybe she would amble down for some courgettes or a lettuce to the fruit and vegetable market in “little Venice” – although I prefer “little Bruges”. This area, with its tucked away waterside restaurants, little changed from when flat bottom boats glided in on the shallow river from the fields.

Mme Bartholdi will surely have cast a fond glance at the Little Wine Grower on the corner of the old market building, one of her big gesture son’s smallest and most intimate creations, his homage to this wine-producing region with its pretty hill side villages and vineyards sloping down from under the Vosges Mountains.

Frederic lived in this charming Alsatian town only two years – returning in the school holidays. But the house stayed in the family and became a museum. So Liberty Enlightening the World has her story told on the cosiest of settings, in total contrast to her final home.

Until the recent détente, Franco-American harmony did not exist much beyond the “President’s daughter dates rich French boy” plot line in the West Wing, but…there was a fine amity in the mid 1800s when Bartholdi met with friends and first suggested a statue to mark the alliance established during the American Revolution.

Bartholdi made 35 different models, all intriguing design variants. Five of them are in this museum. They come with and without the famous headdress of rays, and in various poses. In the end he simplified her stance and made it full frontal; her earlier twisted state could have led to structural problems. The star exhibit is that final model.

There is a remarkable photo sequence showing the lady being built in sections in Paris. Craftsmen used repoussé, a method of hammering sheet metal inside moulds. One view shows her briefly raised to full height above Paris. Maybe, as with Greece and the Elgin Marbles, they would now like her back.

There is a model of French frigate Isere. She carried the precious cargo, reduced to 350 pieces and packed in 214 crates, to the USA. Top navigation skills were essential. They had destroyed the mould.

After Bartholdi released the tricolour from Liberty’s face in position on Bedloe’s Island on October 28th 1886, the Frenchman was given a Big Apple parade. “The office boys from a hundred windows began to unreel the spools of tape that record the messages of the ‘ticker.’ In a moment the air was white with curling streamers.”

Bartholdi believed he would now plaster the New World with statues. But his only commission came later, the sculpture of Lafayette in Union Square, Manhattan, and he returned home disappointed. But the colossal statues are still scattered through Colmar and across the squares of Europe. Frederic’s Vercingetorix, Asterix’s side kick, is in Clermont-Ferrand. Basle, Bordeaux, Lyon and Paris have his works. The museum shows plans for a never-realised Liberty-sized statue on the Suez Canal.

There are other good reasons to turn off to this town, the size of Aylesbury. Grünewald’s massive Isenheim altarpiece, dating from 1515, in the Unterlinden Museum, is one.

This starling crucifixion study is a highlight of western art. Plants depicted in it have been identified and their medicinal benefits pinpointed. Yet still it baffles. A Japanese artist has spent 15 years trying to copy it exactly. But he cannot fathom how Grünewald did some of the reds and has had to leave spaces blank.

Another is the Schongauer’s Madonna in the Rose Garden, in the cathedral. Mother and child are set against a whole nature reserve. I spotted wild strawberries, a sparrow and a goldfinch.

Colmar boasts two one-star Michelin restaurants. The Rendezvous de la Chasse opposite the neatly restored Prussian railway station has a fine classically French menu. In the daring JYS restaurant you sit on a stretch Chesterfield to eat. Jean-Yves Schillinger is the US exile who came home, giving up his New York restaurant to concentrate on Colmar. He assumed the culinary mantle of his father, killed in a fire over his restaurant in 1995. J-Y designed the cool, ultra-modern interior himself.

There was one last stop on the Bartholdi trail, out of Alsace at Belfort 40 miles down the motorway. Bartholdi sculpted the huge stone statue, the Lion of Belfort, in the rock face above the citadel, marking local resistance to the Prussians.

Don’t know this lion? I think you do. It’s the most common wildlife in the car park. Peugeot bought the rights, raised it from couchant to upright and put it on its cars. What a way to stay in the public eye.

My guide Annie had put me right about the Alsatian dog – “It’s the German Shepherd; not from Alsace at all.” And she left me worrying about the future of the region’s language. “Not many speakers now. It doesn’t do technical words.”

But shortly afterwards I experienced one of those perfect moments of traveller’s serendipity you won’t find in any guide book.

On my way back to Strasburg I stopped in a village just a few miles from the Rhine. A couple in their 70s were fishing. A man of the same vintage cycled up and they began chatting. It soon became plain that they were conversing in neither French nor German.

In the heart of Europe I was privileged to hear the authentic, ancient tongue of these parts. They were speaking Alsatian. This region may not have a dog, but it proudly clings to its language.