Sunday, 22nd September 2019 – Mulhouse
I started the morning with a run around the very quiet streets surrounding the apartment. The weather was still fine and sunny, despite forecasts suggesting that was about to change (it didn’t) and discovered both the hideous concrete monstrosity that is the nearby church, and also the whereabouts of the nearest tram stop for use later when we wanted to go and take a look at the centre of Mulhouse.
It’s a relatively big city with a population of around a quarter of a million in the metropolitan area, and is the second largest city in Alsace after Strasbourg. It’s not a picture postcard city, and in advance of visiting I wasn’t sure that “the Manchester of France” would prove that interesting outside of its two major museums, the Cité de l’Automobile (the Musée national de l’automobile) and the “Cité du train” (the Musée Français du Chemin de Fer), the largest automobile and railway museums in the world.
It turned out I was wrong and we had a very interesting day once we managed to actually catch a tram (€4.50 for a 24 hour ticket each). There was a major running event on (the les Mulhousiennes 5K) based out of the nearby Palais des Sports which meant the tram schedule was completely out of whack, but it was ending as we set out so eventually a tram appeared and we were soon alighting at the Porte Jeune to seek out the tourist information office. It being Sunday morning there was a possibility it might not be open, but we were in luck and were soon in possession of a map for a self guided walk of the old town. Oh, and for no good reason I could see, the tourist information office also contained this.
Being the people we are, we ended up doing the walk in reverse, which may or may not have made things more difficult than they needed to be, but we didn’t mind. Mulhouse itself is mentioned in legend as having existed since 58 BC but there are no written records before the 12th century when it was part of the Holy Roman Empire as a town in the county of Sundgau. It looms a lot larger between 1354 to 1515 when it was one of the ten Free Imperial Cities in Alsace that were part of the Décapole. In 1515 it joined the Swiss Confederation as an associate and thus avoided being annexed by France in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, unlike the rest of the Sundgau. It was therefore a free and independent Calvinist republic, the Stadtrepublik Mülhausen, associated with the Swiss Confederation until 1798, when its citizens voted to become part of France.
And not long after that the Manchester connection started when the Koechlin family began manufacturing cotton cloth. Such was their success that Mulhouse was one of France’s leading textile centres in the nineteenth century. Another Koechlin, André (1789–1875) built machinery and started making railway equipment in 1842, and chemical and engineering industries also flourished. In fact even now Peugeot’s Mulhouse factory is the largest employer in Alsace. This also explains the presence of the Museum of Electricity (Electropolis) and the Museum of Printed Textiles (Musée de l’impression sur étoffes) though sadly we didn’t have time to visit either of those.
Anyway, the walk. With the help of the arrows on the walls and some small but informative plaques, we located the Maison Vogel, built in 1780 for a financier of the name Vogel on the site of the city’s first hospital and the Maison Loewenfels, which belonged to another financier called Feern who built the house between 1764 and 1770. Neither of these are open to the public.
The next stop on the walk was open, Saint Mary’s Church, which dates from the 13th Century but has had a chequered career since it was built by the Franciscans. It was abandoned during the Reform Movement, served a a warehouse for some time, and then was reconsecrated as a catholic church in 1812. Inside it was clear that it had been extensively remodelled at that point too.
It also contained an incredible collection of photos by Yann-Arthus Bertrand, environmentalist, activist, journalist and photographer. His work is worth a good, long look.
Very close together we next found our way down a very quiet street where the Cour de Lorraine, an 18th Century building on the site of the Wunnenberg stately court, and the Cour des Chaînes, which was the court of the nobles of Tagolsheim could be found. The latter has a 16th Century façade, and underwent a change of use in 1763 when a factory was set up on the site and the name changed to the Kettenhof.
There is also the Schloessle (little castle), which was built in 1796 and used as a house and a factory.
There is a great deal of street art around Mulhouse as well (so much so that the Tourist Information office can supply you with a map to much of it) and it’s not just on walls, it’s on street furniture and postboxes and pretty much anything that’s nailed down!
Showing some of the great and good of the town, one of the more historically relevant works is down this same street.
Also to be seen on the walk are the first known example of a calico printers’ house in the city, dating from around 1760, and the library, which is what is left of a calico printing workshop from the 18th Century.
Oh, and the city also has a lot of statues, some odder than others. This is “Without Stabilisers” which is probably one of less strange works.
Frustratingly, the Chapelle Saint–Jean, built in the 13th Century by the Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem (also known as the Knights of Malta), was another building not open to the public, although it is apparently used for concerts sometimes. It used to be surrounded by vineyards and orchards but the city has encroached on it somewhat and now it’s surrounded by buildings. At the time of building, the order was the wealthiest and most influential order in the town. The chapel was further developed, renovated and refurbished in the 14th and 15th Centuries and is surrounded by a cemetery and the Commander´s residence. After the Reformation it was sold as communal property, converted into a brewery, a smithy and a warehouse, and finally in 1893 it became a Listed Historic Monument and was restored. Not being able to get inside was a shame.
We moved on past Paul Curie’s house where the famous physicist’s grand-father lived from 1825 to 1833, an 18th Century house dating from 1770 – 1780 built on the site of Saint John‘s Knights’ close and an 18th Century manufacturing complex built on the site of the stately court of the Fritschmanns of Illzach. We nearly missed the Passage des Augustins altogether and only found it by coming at it from a completely different angle to the one we’d planned. This is on the site of the former Augustinian monastery (there were a large number of religious foundations in the town at one time) and served as a hospital from 1529 to 1624. In 1763, after the monastery was demolished, a passage was created which is what you can now see.
In need of a break from the sun, and wanting a sit down, we finally found a patisserie that was open, and sat down for half an hour over coffee, an eclair and a Paris-Brest.
Suitably fortified we went on our way by way of the Poêle des Vignerons (the wine growers’ guildhall) which has a splendid 16th Century façade. It’s a very handsome building which is to be expected given that wine was the city’s main source of wealth until the 18th Century.
Passing by the Maison Hofer Mieg, built in 1780 on the site of the close of the Teutonic Knights, we arrived at the Maison Steinbach, built in 1788, undergoing some sort of restoration at the moment, but now home to the Musee des Beaux-Arts and thankfully not only open, but free as well. We decided to go in, and have a good look around. The museum has a collection of works of art from the 15th Century onwards including French, Flemish, Dutch, German and Italian works with the period 1860-1914 particularly strongly represented. Its purpose is to give a glimpse of the history of art, promote French painting and support local artists, and it does just that in a compact but well thought out environment. And they have a Brueghel (“The Skaters” by Pieter Brueghel the Younger)!
It also has some quite strange works (assuming of course that you don’t consider Brueghel at all strange) including this of Samson breaking his chains (which are clearly ropes and not chains) which I find really rather peculiar in its composition.
In a separate area there was a splendid exhibition of photography, our second of the day, this one by Yvon Buchman who was also in attendance. I think it’s safe to say the local tourist board of anywhere he’s photographed won’t be giving him any awards any time soon, but there was some intense work that was well worth a second (and possibly third) look. I love the framing of this, and the general air of deep melancholy. There’s a “warts and all” quality to his portraits too that appealed immensely.
Outside, in the garden, we found some more interesting – though unexplained – sculptures…
And a crocheted tree.
We were no sooner out of the art gallery than we were in front of the magnificently decorated Hôtel de Ville, the 1552 Town Hall which replaced the 1431 version that burned down in one of the many fires that plagued medieval cities. It’s in the Rhenish Renaissance style and is known for its trompe l’œil paintings, and its pictures of allegories representing the vices and virtues. It was also open to the public and contains a small museum, the Musée Historique. Again, admittance was free so in we went.
It contains a mixed bag of everything from archaelogical finds, furniture, costumes, tools, toys, plans, documents, portraits, the famous Klapperstein, and other objects that evoke the life of Mulhouse and its surrounding area, and explain the activity and social organisation of its inhabitants, from the 16th to the 19th Century. There are exhibits such as a reconstruction of a winstub and another of a Sundgau kitchen. The Klapperstein in particular is interesting if unpleasant. It is a “gossip stone”, a 9kg stone which would be hung round the necks of women found guilty of malicious gossip. They would then be paraded before the crowd sitting backwards on a donkey, a practice that persisted until 1781.
The richly decorated council chamber was also open to anyone who wanted to take a look.
I found the archaeology especially interesting, with finds from the Bronze age upwards well displayed but sadly without any text in anything but French yet again (the Beaux-Arts had handouts in several languages and the museums all seem to be under the control of the same body so it seems odd). We maybe didn’t get as much out of it as we might have done, but it’s still a fascinating museum.
Back outside again we stood and admired the large square for a while and debated stopping for a drink and a snack. We decided instead that we’d give up and go back to the apartment once we’d been inside the last major target on our list.
That target was the Temple of Saint Etienne, which is now Saint Stephen’s protestant church. It was built between 1858 and 1868 on the site of the old 12th Century church by local architect Jean-Baptiste Schacre, as a neo-gothic temple which spectacularly illustrates the economic success of Mulhouse. It is the tallest Protestant building in France (at 97 metres), and boasts magnificent 14th century stained glass windows, inherited from the medieval Catholic church of the same name, which are considered to be among the finest examples on the Upper Rhine. Unfortunately there was a rehearsal for some sort of concert going on, which meant access was somewhat restricted, but what we saw made that claim seem pretty solid.
It’s pretty impressive from the outside too, standing as it does in the middle of a massive open square.
It was now 4 o’clock and we both had sore feet from too many cobbles. We quickly located two more buildings on the walking route in the square in the shape of the Tailors’ guildhall (the red painted house) dating from 1564, though significantly altered in the 19th and 20th Centuries, and the Maison Mieg (the white house with a turret attached) on the site of a house mentioned in the records as existing in 1418, though this one dates from 1560. The Mieg family, about whom we had learned much in the museum, lived in the house from 1679 to 1840.
We were almost done. We located the Ancien Presbytère, the former presbytery of Saint Stephen’s Church until the reform Movement (1528), it then became a Latin school from 1550 until the end of the 18th Century, and is now a school.
Last but one item on the list was the house where Jean-Henri Lambert’s, or rather Johann Heinrich Lambert was born on August 26th 1728. He was a Swiss polymath (Mulhouse was part of the Swiss Confederation at the time) who made important contributions to mathematics, physics (particularly optics), philosophy, astronomy and map projections and was one of the most famous scientists of his time.
Being stupidly completest we then spent a few minutes trying to find the last building on the list, the Pharmacie au Lys (the Pharmacy of the Lily). It has been on record since 1464, but it’s current form stems from 1634, and it has served as a Pharmacy since 1649, a mind-boggling 370 years.
I’d liked Mulhouse a lot more than I expected to. It has something of an air of benign neglect about it, as if it knows it can’t compete with other places nearby for the tourist Euro because it’s not as stunningly pretty as they are, but there was a lot to like and a lot to see. And on that note, knowing we would likely be on our feet a long time the following day, we made our way back to the tram stop and went back to le Logis de Hansi to put our feet up, drink crémant on the balcony, watch Netflix and eat a Munster tourte for dinner.