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.
Children are taking dream rides on “chocolate boat cruises” around the River Ill under a sky of fireworks. Everyone gets a chance to return to childhood in this ambience. “People here plunge themselves with conviction into the Christmas spirit,” says one woman, “The mood is rather mischievous and fun.”
The joyful Alsatian spirit dwells no stronger than in one of its celebrated winstubs. The small wood-panelled bars serve up hearty regional dishes and wines: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Noir.
I am plunged into such an atmosphere, through the heavily curtained doorway of Chez Yvonne. An institution, run under the insignia of a golden swan since 1950, its diminutive interior is one of red-and-white checked tablecloths, grape-vined walls and hand-carved chairs.People sit huddled in this candle-lit den dining on tarte a l’oignon, sauerkraut, foie gras, blueberry, pear and greengage tarts.
The same fruits infuse the eau-de-vie of Alsace – a shot of one of these spirits is just what you need to fortify you against the coldbefore leaving this warm cocoon.
As we head outside, soft flakes start to fall. My dreams for a white Christmas are starting to come true. We pass a buskering father Christmas – he is singing La ballade des gens heureux (Ballade of the Happy People), guitar in one hand, bretzel in the other.
The Place de la Cathédrale is packed with gingerbread-house wooden stalls, all sporting a fringe of fairy lights along their a-frame roofs.
The pinkish charcoaled stone of Strasbourg’s Cathedral is bathed in light, streaming up every one of its 142 spindly spires. Windows shaped like angel’s wings form celestial openings in its heavily figurined facade.
Opposite is the Maison Kammerzell, the city’s oldest half-timbered house, or colombage, crooked and shawled in black lace trim. The grand dame of Alsace was built in 1589. Its iron and wood carved walls feature biblical figures, signs of the zodiac, musicians and prophets. Looking into it tonight, at people dining on each of its miniature floors, is like looking into the rooms of a doll’s house. Aprivileged peek into the fairy-book of Alsace.
The Christmas market implodes with fairytale feel. It is something particular to Alsace, fuelled by that inimitable cheer.
That does not stop crowds from Paris to the French Riviera trying to replicate that spirit, with Christmas markets a l’Alsace. But while the rest of France is getting nostalgic about a white Christmas – and all the cosy trappings and tastes that go with them – those in Alsace are busy celebrating one.
Ryanair to London Stansted, then connecting flight to Strasbourg,
Or fly to Paris Beauvais and take the TGV from Paris to Strasbourg. The trip can be done in five hours,
PLACES TO STAY
Hotel Regent Petite France: Historic, hip canal-side hotel in picturesque Petite France. Funky décor, Champagne bar and business centre. From €235 a double with breakfast. 5 Rue des Moulins,0033-388764343, regent-petite-france.com
Cour du Corbeau : Contemporary esprit in an ancient shell, the star-star hotel occupies a characterful 16th century colombage (wooden slatted) Alsatian inn near the river and historic heart of Strasbourg. Doubles from €159. 6-8 rue des Couples, 0033-3900026262636, cour-corbeau.com
Le Bouclier d’Or: Bijoux hotel in Petite France, in an elegant bourgeois residence with 22 rooms, a spa and bar.
Doubles from €252. 1 rue du Bouclier, 0033-388137355,ebouclierdor.com
FIVE MORE CHRISTMAS MARKETS
The most famous Christmas market in a country famous for its Christmas markets. More than two million people a year visit the “Little Town from Wood and Cloth” at the main market square in Advent, with inspectors on hand to ensure nothing so gaudy as a plastic garland or piece of piped Christmas muzak creeps in. Instead it’s plum full of traditional fare from spicy gingerbread and fruit cakes to tree decorations, candles, toys, arts and crafts. christkindlesmarkt.de.
Cologne has no less than seven Christmas markets, each more quaintly atmospheric than the last. Best known is that outside the cathedral, with more than 160 wooden stalls. The oldest is Angel’s market on Neumarkt while the newest is Christmas Avenue, the city’s gay and lesbian market. There’s a fairytale themed one on Rudolfplatz, a harbour market with maritime theme and a handy little train to ply you between them all. koeln.de
The 13th century market square outside the Austrian capital’s Rathaus, or city hall, is transformed by the twinkling lights of 140 stall holders, while the neighbouring park becomes an enchanted forest, with all kinds of Christmas illuminations, decorations and old-fashioned fairground carousels. Look, or rather listen, out for choirs that come from all over Europe to perform carols at city hall.
Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens are a fairy-lit confection of little wooden cabins filled with such treats as hot apple dumplings and lashings of glogg, plus local crafts such as handmade Nisser, the cute Danish Christmas elves made from pipe cleaners. The entire site is decked out only in the official Christmas colours of green and red, with not so much as a strand of tinsel to lower the tone. Well, it is Scandinavia. visitdenmark.co.uk
Since the 15th century Salzburg’s Christmas Market has taken place at the foot of the Hohensalzburg fortress and around the cathedral in the historic city centre. Its 95 stalls are colour coded with Prussian precision into six categories (from floral arrangements to sweets). Don’t miss the carol singing in the Grand Festival Hall, from professional musicians and local school children.
You won’t hear Slade but you can expect more than a few verses of Silent Night, Holy Night – composer, Josef Mohr, was a Salzburger. christkindlmarkt.co.at
– Sandra O’Connell