An Alsatian holiday
There is much to enchant and intrigue in France’s Alsace region any time of the year. A reflection of its historical conquests and occupations, the region is a rich blend of Franco-German cultures and gastronomic and artisan pleasures. Visitors also find delight in both an architecturally preserved rainbow of half-timbered homes nestled in villages at the feet of dominating fortresses, and the ever-apparent representation of the people’s quirky love and protection of the local stork population — note giant nests (and if you are lucky, a couple of storks) atop houses and businesses, and the bird’s likeness on, well, everything.
At Christmastime, however, the region is enveloped in even more magical, winsome charm. Dazzling light displays, towering Christmas trees, piles of scrumptious kugelhopf and unique, handcrafted pottery and glass art are all reasons to spend a holiday weekend in the Alsace.
I would, in fact, make that 1.5-hour drive again just for another cup of vin chaud ... indeed the best mulled wine I have had the pleasure to drink. Made from quality regional varietals of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Gewürztraminer, each fresh cup was my new favorite. The non-alcoholic, mulled orange juice was also delicious and satisfying.
Nearly every Alsatian Christmas market offers something intrinsically unique for visitors to experience. The Alsatian Tourism Board recently divided the markets into seven “lands” of interest, called Pays des Noël, highlighting unique specialties, qualities and attractions, such as culinary offerings, illuminations, romantic ambiance, night entertainment, mysteries and more. For detailed maps and descriptions of the Pays des Noël, entertainment schedules and market dates, visit the Tourism Board’s website, www.noel.tourisme-alsace.com/en.
The Alsace region’s largest city, cultural capital and “capital of Noel” hosts the largest market in France, with more than 300 chalets divided among 11 sites throughout the city center. Christkindelsmärik at the Place Broglie is France’s oldest Christmas market and one of the oldest in Europe, dating to 1570.
Designated by the Alsatian Tourism Board as the Pays des Saveurs, or “land of flavors,” Strasbourg’s chalets provide culinary selections that best reflect the region’s blended French and German cultures. Gourmands should head to Place des Meuniers near la Petite France, and to Place d’Austerlitz for the “invincible small producers’ market of Alsace” and the “Alsatian Christmas delicacies market”; both offer exceptional quality fare including organic foie gras, escargot, local honey, jams, eggnog, nougat, spices, candied nuts, dried fruits, brioche and gingerbread men, tart flambeé made a dozen or more ways, row after row of bredele (Christmas cookies), and kugelhopf, my favorite Alsatian classic, the brioche-like cake baked in a crown-shaped crock or tin that is decorated with nuts and currants.
Unusual, high-quality gifts can also be found throughout the city; we were impressed with selections at Christkindelsmärik and the Cathedral Christmas Market — everything from mouth-blown ornaments, Soufflenheim pottery to antiques and furnishings.
The French love their light festivals, spectacular illuminations and light displays; head to the Sharing Village in Place Kléber to see the famous 100-foot Christmas tree and dazzling decorations, plus interactive illuminations along the square. Then, peruse what seems like a never-ending selection of thousands of LED lights and hand-painted ornaments in chalets at Christkindelsmärik. Choose a few new baubles and twinkle lights to bedazzle your personal tree with some Strasbourg sparkle.
More markets to see
Speaking of sparkle, the market in Saverne is designated Pays des lumières, or “land of light”; as the former home of famed glassmaker and jewelry designer René Lalique, the town attracts Europe’s finest jewelry designers and glass artists who offer brilliant displays of jewelry, crystal and glassware at its market.
Even more sparkle can be found just an hour south of Strasbourg at the romantic, enchanting markets of the Pays des étoiles — or “land of the stars,” in the fairytale half-timbered towns of Colmar, Riquewihr, Éguisheim and Kaysersberg. Nestled in town squares, under beautiful canopies of thousands of white twinkling lights are chalets filled with timeless treasures handmade by master cabinetmakers, jewelers, glassblowers, potters and more.
In Colmar’s Petite Venice is a children’s market offering merry-go-round rides, sweets and gingerbread treats, handmade and plush toys, a mailbox to the North Pole, plus the chance to see Father Christmas arrive by boat from the canal.
Visit the medieval Christmas market in Ribeauvillé, one of the most beautifully preserved fortified villages in Alsace. Then, head to Mulhouse for what is considered one of the most colorful Alsatian markets, thanks to its annual Christmas fabric that drapes chalets and displays, while a rainbow of lights illuminates the city’s facades.
So make the Alsace a highlight of your Christmas celebrations. The region’s warm and friendly people, quality produce and artistry, historic architecture and romantic decorations are sure to make a lasting impression. Don’t be surprised if you long to visit more than once.