A taste of Christmas
At the Strasbourg Christmas market, or Marché de Noël, you can get a taste of the dual identity of France’s smallest, merriest, most picturesque region
Strasbourg Christmas market
The smell of cinnamon gusts across Place Kleber from buckets of mulled wine. Rich nostril-captivating aromas of roasting chestnuts and coconut, melting chocolate, golden crepes and fritters wrap around me like a cloak.
The stalls of Strasbourg’s Christmas market are stacked with Alsatian Christmas specialties: chocolate-coated bretzels (or pretzels), ginger bread flavoured pain d’epices, aniseed scented pain d’anis, and myriad prettily decorated bredele: small star and moon shaped biscuits.
Others sell Kougelhopf, the festive symbol of Alsace– a large almond-coated brioche macerated in dried fruits and Kirsch liqueur, and Birewecke – another festive gateau soaked in brandy, dried figs, orange and lemon peel, nuts and cinnamon.
These are the festive flavours of Alsace – self-declared “land of Christmas stars” and “capital of Noel” – as well as “capital of Europe”.
The moniker is more than hype. Some two million neighbouring Europeans will descend onStrasbourg over the next few weeks for the market. Its popularity has been fanned by the city’s prominent role in the EU – as part-home to the European Parliament – as much as its cross-border geography. Even its name means straddling cities, Stras-bourg.
Niched between the Rhine and the Vosges mountains, France’s smallest region may well be forgotten at times by the rest of the country, but it resolutely belongs to Europe. Its pivotal location between north and south, west and east has seen it ping-ponged between Germany and France several times over the centuries. That dual Franco-Germanic nature is lived out at the Christmas market, which is equally known as the Christkindelsmärik.
But it is the famed Alsatian conviviality or gemütlichkeit which is the biggest magnet for market-goers. The most petite, picturesque and cheery part of France, the Christmas market has been part of its traditions since 1570. Even the smallest of the region’s 400 villages holds one. The Christmas tree, or sapin de Noel, also has its roots in Alsace.
For six weeks the Strasbourg market spreads through the city’s historic heart – a 3sq km cobble-stoned island enveloped within a figure-of-eight estuary of the Rhine. From its Roman foundations through German occupation to the Renaissance it has never stopped beating.
Tonight it’s a bonfire of soul. Adults and children grin from bell-topped hats, their mouths warmed on hot chocolate and vin chaud.
Electric trams smear red tubular trails through the baubles and bells, and giant hanging stars with wings.
The old city centre is decked in the most fabulous trimmings from head to toe. Trails of illuminations light up streets and embellish the Grimm’s fairytale-like houses with their oriel windows, brown wooden slats and pigeon-winged shingles.
Towering among Strasbourg’s man spires is the grand sapin in Place Kleber, a 35m tree emblazoned in blue and gold.
Every wide shopping avenue, every tiny narrow ruelle is being thawed from its winter freeze by the warmth of the celebrations. From the pretty squares of Place Gutenberg and Place Broglie, along the old Roman market streets of rue de Vieux Marché aux Vins and rue de Vieux Marchéaux Poissons, there are concerts, carols, and pères de Noel playing trombones and harmonicas.