Mulling over Museums in Mulhouse

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Cité de l’Automobile, the Mecca of Bugatti lovers (Credit:

The tiny and little-known town of Mulhouse in north-eastern France can keep a tourist busy for long.

Some places live in the past and some off their past. Mulhouse, situated just where Germany and Switzerland meet France, in north-eastern part of the country, is one of the finest examples of a city that has learnt to live off its rich past.

Mulhouse is situated in the heart of the Alsace region, an erstwhile industrial powerhouse that frequently changed hands between Germany and France during the World Wars, and which is now a classic example of the European rust belt.

At the epoch the principal industries thriving in Alsace, besides coal and iron ore mining, Mulhouse and its surroundings were automobile, textiles and heavy machinery manufacturing, notably locomotives. However, since late 1980s, as China progressively entered the global business, industries across Europe, especially Alsace and its surrounding regions began to shut down.

But the memories of the golden era of the region are well-preserved in various museums here at Mulhouse. Perhaps the most famous one is the Cité de l’Automobile, an old textile factory that is now home to some of the most luxurious cars in the world. The Cité is best known for its collection of Bugattis and not just one or a handful. The museum has 400 cars and of which over 100 are Bugattis. There are also other cars including the famous tri-car by Léon Bollée. The cars belonged to the collection of the Schlumpf brothers, owners of the textile factory who had amassed these priceless and ageless beauties in one of their disused mills and were discovered in 1970s when striking workers broke into the mill.

Almost as impressive as the Cité de l’Automobile is the Cité du Train, the biggest locomotive museum in the world. Barely a few minutes’ drive from the automobile museum, the train museum has a variety of its own – from the earliest locomotives of 1840s to the cutting-edge TGVs. The exhibits are organised in a manner to make them modern and interactive, while also serving the curiosity of engineers and hardcore train enthusiasts.

Just next door from the train museum is the EDF Electropolis or the electricity museum, showcasing a steam generator, dating back to 1901, coupled to a Sulzer BBC alternator. The museum traces humanity’s interaction with electricity, including the 17th century experiments conducted by Volta or Tesla. There are also lots of antique equipment including electrostatic machine by Voss, Thomas Alva Edison’s dictaphone and phonograph as well as earliest telephones, radios, televisions and refrigerators.

Handkerchief (corner), wood block printing on cotton, Alsace, by 1790 (Photo:

Another landmark of the industrial era of Alsace was its thriving textile industry. Even though the last textile mills disappeared from the scene at least half a century ago, one visit to the Musée de l’Impression sur Étoffe or the textile museum is enough to leave you in awe with its displays of decorative arts, fashion, local history and industry. Visitors can see the huge machines like the Lefèvre copper roller from 1809, and a whole range of sewing machines and pantographs. Also on display here are dozens of pieces of beautifully-printed fabrics produced by the machines. The museum’s real wealth, at least for textile industry professionals, design students and research scholars are the over 6 million print samples, covering more than two centuries, have been properly documented here.

If you have had enough the industrial glory of Mulhouse and Alsace, go on an architectural tour and make the former city hall or Mairie as your first stop. Dating back to 1552, this is a marvel of Renaissance style typical of the Rhone river valley. The building’s exteriors are covered with paintings of allegorical images of justice, courage, temperance, faith and charity. Outside the building, there is also a 12 kg stone hanging from a chain. The ‘klapperstein’ was hung from the necks of rumour mongers, who would be paraded through the town sitting backwards on a donkey, with the klapperstein hanging from their necks.

Though not many tourists may want to visit zoos while in a foreign land, a quick hop to the Mulhouse zoo is highly recommended as you can see polar bears, arctic foxes, Siberian tigers, Asian Lions (same as those found in the Gir forest in Gujarat) amongst the 170 species that you can discover in the 25 hectares that the zoological park is spread in. There are numerous exotic trees like a giant American cedar and a cedar from Japan, both dating back to 1867.

And those who are spiritually and/or architecturally inclined may want to head to Temple Saint Etienne, a neogothic church from 1866 and which is the tallest protestant church in France with its spire rising 97 m in the sky. Most of the decoration has been taken from an older 11th century church that had been demolished to make way for the modern church. The oak choir stalls here, for example, are in the baroque style and date back to 1637.

Another unique sight in Mulhouse, or actually outside the city is Ungersheim, which has a huge outdoor heritage museum, spread over

100 hectares of countryside and village, with 70 historic houses saved from demolition and transported and rebuilt here brick by brick. One can see how various artisans worked in the 17th century including potters, blacksmiths and wheelwrights.

Fried carp is a local delicacy that dominates most local menus – at home or in restaurants. The freshwater fish is breaded, deep fried and served with chips and mayonnaise. Just as the history and the architecture, the Mulhousian cuisine is a blend of French and central European flavours. One classic example of the mélange is choucroute or fermented cabbage served with sausages and potatoes. People in the region prefer white wines, notably Riesling to go with choucroute and Gewurztraminer to wash down desserts.

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