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Look into the eyes of the world’s most famous lady

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who chose to vacation in the USA ,won praise for helping to restore an ancient friendship. The fullest expression of that traditional alliance, which cooled during the second Gulf War, is in the Statue of Liberty, and in a museum in a small French town where the world’s most famous lady was born.

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 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, in the Alsace region of France, where you may gaze at leisure into the formidable features of 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 lauds 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 who is believed to have received the very first ticker tape welcome in New York when he came to unveil his creation. Still stuck? Another of his statues inspired one of most familiar car logos in European roads.

Step forward from a century of inexplicable anonymity Frederic Auguste Bartholdi.

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 woman who inspired the universal face going about her daily business in Colmar, popping out to the shops in the town’s tight, pretty streets, with their half timbered buildings in gold brick,and 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 Europe’s 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”. This area, with its tucked-away waterside restaurants, is little changed from when flat bottom boats glided in on the shallow river with fresh produce from the fields.

Mme Bartholdi will 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 today Liberty Enlightening the World has her story told on the cosiest of settings, which still feels like a home.

After cooling around the time of the second Gulf War, Franco-American harmony was revived last year (2007) when French President Nicolas Sarkozy chose to holiday in Wolfeboro NH. But there was a fine and enduring amity in the mid 1800s when Bartholdi met with friends in a French café and first suggested a statue to mark the alliance forged during the American Revolution.

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

There are some remarkable photos of 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 its ongoing claim to the Elgin Marbles (now in London), the French would like her back some day.

There is a model of French frigate Isere. She carried the precious cargo, in 350 pieces packed in 214 crates, to the USA. Top navigation skills were essential. Liberty could not be recast. They had destroyed the mould.

They raised Liberty on Bedloe's Island, New York. After Bartholdi released the tricolour from her face in the unveiling ceremony, on October 28th 1886, the Frenchman received 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'”, reported a newspaper. “In a moment the air was white with curling streamers.'

Bartholdi believed he would now be asked to plaster the New World with statues. In the event his only commission was the sculpture of Lafayette in Union Square, Manhattan, and he returned home disappointed.

France appreciated him, however. His colossal statues are scattered through Colmar and across the squares of Europe. There’s Vercingetorix, Asterix’s side-kick, 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 small town. 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 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 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.

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.

This lion is the most common wildlife in the car parks of Europe. 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.

There is a small footnote to my trip, and it also concerns animals. For many people Alsace calls to mind a strong, often fierce canine. My guide Annie put me right about the Alsatian dog – “It’s the German Shepherd, and not from Alsace at all.” Alsatian is a language, and one in decline. “Not many speakers now. It doesn't do technical words.”

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

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

In the heart of Europe I am privileged to hear the authentic, ancient tongue of these parts. They are speaking Alsatian.


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