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Strasbourg: “The Capital of Christmas”

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It’s impossible for words to capture the feeling and quality of the beautiful Christmas Markets in Strasbourg, France. What’s exceptional and unique is the dramatic, over-the-top, décor on the buildings, in the shops, and draped across the streets.  Every corner you turn offers a new visual treat, always something cuter, bigger, brighter or more fanciful. Day and night it’s amazing, and I’m glad I came back. It remains my favorite of the Christmas Markets.

Of course this year, things are just a bit different.  France has heightened security due to the terrorist attacks a few weeks ago in Paris.  They cancelled many public events as well as the Children’s and Three Magi Markets, blocked traffic into the inner city during market hours, cancelled tram stops within the market areas, and literally have police and gun-toting military everywhere.  I don’t think we went five minutes (max) without seeing police. One fellow U.S. visitor witnessed them frisking a Santa yesterday, and today, we were blocked from getting back into our charming hotel, because police found an unattended shopping bag on the street. Thankfully, it turned out to be a false alarm, and we were comforted they were so vigilant.

Our hotel, the Cour du Corbeau, was built in the 1500s and welcomed kings, emperors and princes throughout the years.IMG_4587 Since the Alsace region flipped back and forth between French and German rule, the area is a wonderful mixture of cultures and now home to the European Parliament.  To learn a little of the interesting local history, we took a boat cruise on the L’ill River which runs right through the city, creating an island where the old city is today.

We walked and walked, and then walked some more, visiting Petite France with its half-timbered houses (originally for those with syphilis) and all nine existing markets. The main market is at the Place de la Cathédrale with the backdrop of the beautiful Notre Dame.

IMG_4609The Cathedral Market is really fairly basic, with other, smaller markets featuring more elegant products, the guest country of Luxembourg, local charities, trees along with everything you could possibly need for decorating, and gourmet specialties of the area such as truffles, foie gras, cheese, wine, and pastries.

 

At night, we did it all again to see the lights.  And what a spectacle. Every street different, with thousands and thousands of lights, stars, rings, snowflakes, gingerbread men, balls of color, angels and more. One street features nine Baccarat chandeliers, another can’t run lights across the street because of the electric trams, so they just lit every building in color, and those colors and patterns change continuously.

Weather-wise, it’s been brisk (30s and 40s), but dry.

I can truly say, for this Floridian, it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.

www.noel.strasbourg.eu

Our favorite of the Strasbourg Markets.

Our favorite of the Strasbourg Markets.

The Notre Dame Cathedral.

The Notre Dame Cathedral.

Secrets of European Christmas Markets

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I’ve had the good fortune to make two trips to see Europe’s fabulous Christmas markets.  Once with my Mother on a river cruise and once with a girlfriend. Both trips were kaleidoscopes of super-sized, festive, cold, delicious Christmas overload.

I know from previous experience that Germany is really where many of our beloved Christmas traditions began and the Alsace region of France, enhanced those traditions by taking tree decorating to the next level. Germany alone has 2,500 Christmas Markets.  This entry will give a recap of my market experiences and tips for markets in Germany, France, and Switzerland, listed in alpha order by city. Find out about markets in: Basel, Cologne, Colmar, Frankfurt, Heidelberg, Koblenz, Lucerne, Ludwigsburg, Mainz, Munich, Nuremberg, Rudesheim, Strasbourg, and Stuttgart.

The markets run during Advent, from late November until just before Christmas, and all feature stalls stocked with every imaginable kind of ornamentation and decorative item. About half of the markets are devoted to an incredible array of food, baked treats, and goodies of every description.  Not to mention the famous hot mulled wine, Glühwein, of which I am not a fan – I’ll stick with hot chocolate. I love that the Germany markets sell cute mugs as traditional market souvenirs. They are customized for each location and year. Large and mid-size cities often have multiple markets and many smaller towns are a short train ride away.  They generally open around 11 AM till 9PM in the evening.  But times can vary, so be sure to check the links provided for current info.

Many markets only take cash, so have your Euros ready, and lots of items are easily available in the U.S. with no savings evident, this is NOT bargain shopping. Look for the special, locally made items and know you will pay a fair price. Be wary of anything electrical, it will not work if you bring it back to the U.S.

While you make your way through the markets here is a list of local treats to taste-test:

German Christmas Markets

  • ֎ Chocolate-covered gingerbread
  • ֎ Springerle
  • ֎ Lebkuchen cookies
  • ֎ Weckla – Nuremburger sausages in a hard bread roll
  • ֎ Bredle cookies
  • ֎ Brenton (marzipan) cookie
  • ֎ Snowball

Read the rest of this entry

European Xmas Markets: Auf Wiedersehen/ Au Revoir

 

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Hard to believe the week is over and we are headed back to the USA. It’s been a terrific trip!  Using the MOVES app on my iPhone, it registers we have walked in excess of 110,000 steps, which translates to about 55 miles. We believe it – we never walked so much; basically all day and then, all evening.

Our last stop, in Frankfurt, involved a few uneventful changes on the train and a more eventful trip to actually find the cityIMG_4686 market. Once we did, we were glad to have made the effort.  It was incredibly jam-packed with a well-dressed crowd of all ages and an impressive array of food offerings.  At this market the ratio of food to décor seemed to be about 80/20.  It was beautiful with lots of lights and the section in the historic area was particularly interesting. Lots of fun to people watch and sample of final treats of the trip.

In summary, we are now totally in the Christmas spirit and hope it will last, as we head back to our own pre-holiday chaos.

To all my readers – Merry Christmas!!

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Karen & Sarah, Strasbourg.

Christmas Market Redux

Xmas.Cologne CatherdralMarket

World conditions may not be ideal, but I am going to stick to our plan to visit European Christmas Markets again this year.

My friend and I are headed off to Germany today for a girl’s trip of super-sized, festive, cold, delicious Christmas overload.

I know from previous experience that Germany is really where many of our beloved Christmas traditions began and the Alsace region of France, enhanced those traditions with taking tree decorating to the next level.

Since I have been reading all the global stories about security warnings, I have learned that Germany has 2,500 Christmas Markets.  We will focus on just a couple of dozen.

The markets run during Advent, from late November until just before Christmas, and all feature stalls stocked with every imaginable kind of ornamentation and decorative item. About half of the markets are devoted to an incredible array of food, baked treats and goodies of every description.  Not to mention the famous hot mulled wine, Glühwein, (not my fav, I poured it in a bush the last time I visited); I will stick with hot chocolate. I will also collect more of the cute mugs that are traditional market souvenirs and customized for each different location.

A few interesting hallmarks of early Christmas traditions:

  • Nativity Cribs have been set-up since the year 360
  • St. Nicholas (with brown cape and mitre) was first depicted in the Alps in the 13th century
  • Earliest Christmas markets date back to Vienna’s “December Market” in 1294, followed by many throughout Germany in the 1200s and 1300s, and in 1570, France’s oldest market in Strasbourg
  • First documented tradition of Christmas gifts, 14th century
  • Oldest decorated tree on record was in 1419, on the edge of the Black Forest; baker’s apprentices used fruit, cookies, nuts and paper flowers
  • First Advent wreath (with 24 candles), 1833
  • Colored glass balls were first created in 1870
  • First printed Advent calendar, 1908
  • New York holds the honor for the first electric lights, in 1912 on Madison Square

So we begin in Munich tomorrow, then onto Nuremberg, Stuttgart, and a side trip to Strasbourg in France, before returning to Germany’s Frankfurt.

Large and mid-size cities often have multiple markets and many smaller towns are a short train ride away.  So we will see what the next few days bring and will try to post colorful photos and brief descriptions to help everyone get into the holiday mood (particularly all our warm-weather friends).

Frohe Weihnachten, Joyeux Noël, Merry Christmas.

Xmas on the Rhine: Strasbourg & Petite France

Whimsey at it's best.

whimsy at its best.

Bon Jour!  Well if yesterday was the most dismal, today was the most glorious!
We had sun and NO rain, despite predictions to the contrary.

I have a new favorite: Strasbourg has, hands-down, the best Christmas decorations I have ever seen; creative, colorful, humorous and bountiful are just a few adjectives to describe them.

We started the day with a canal cruise into Petite France, a very historic area with wonderful, half-timbered houses, cobble streets and willow trees along the canals. Strasbourg is considered the “Crossroads of Europe” and houses the 46-nation Conseil De L’Europe (including Russia) and is also the seat of the 27 member European Union Parliament.

Shortly after leaving the quay we saw many of these beautiful modern government buildings – such a contrast for what was about to come.

Once off, we did a short walk to the Place de Cathédrale and the majestic Notre Dame. At this point we took off on our own Xmas Market adventure. There are 12 markets in Strasbourg and we saw at least 6 (maybe a couple more, I lost track). The amazing thing about this city is the incredible decorations on all the buildings; beautiful creations on all the windows and entries, one building better than the next. From street-to-street we were constantly delighted with the variety and ingenuity of the displays.

And the Christmas lights of each street were gorgeous, elegant designs – each street different. Photos don’t really begin to capture the total scope and incredible ambiance. Overall, the holiday feeling here is lush, colorful and fun. White bears, santas, stars, ribbons, multi-colored balls and twig designs are used liberally; lights are still all white. It makes a glorious impact in a very charming setting.

We started with the market around the main cathedral and then visited the Place du Chateau, with its ice rink for adults as well as a small one for the tiniest skaters. During our journey, we found a St. Nicholas chatting with visitors and enjoyed window shopping. We then wandered over to the Swiss Village in Place Gutenberg and stayed in that area for lunch at restaurant Au Gutenberg for delicious quiche and tarte.

Once fortified, we took off towards the Place Kléber to see the Great Xmas Tree & Share Village for local charities. The tree was the tallest we’d ever seen; I tried to take a picture looking up from the base but it was impossible, and from a distance you can see it was casting its own shadow. Around the square were dozens and dozens of flocked firs and when you got close, you could hear the lovely sound of small birds singing; I guess they have found a safe place to hang out for these chilly days.

We also saw the specialty markets in the Place Benjamin-Zix/Place de Meuniers featuring flavours of Alsace. In addition to the markets we ducked in and out of a few of the terrific shops along the way; we could do some serious damage to the bank accounts here. We finished our market visits with Christkindelsmarik in Place Broglie, site of the original local market, since 1570. It was large and festive, with lots of goodies, colorful lights and for the first time, we saw Christmas trees for sale. It was about €70 for the smallest size tree we would buy for our home and they did not have larger trees. We also bought a dark chocolate Bredle Cake to taste-test later (and it was so light and delicious – a real surprise).

If you want to really get into the Christmas spirit – you have to put Strasbourg on your list.

Petite France at it's Xmas best.

Petite France in full holiday mode.

Places Visited

Food & Libations

Who doesn’t love great food and fab drinks? With this page, I will offer some unique or unusual places that I feel are worthy of a visit.  Generally, they are not the most famous or most expensive but all are special. Enjoy.

 

Articles on this page:

  • 5 Dining Experiences to Write Home About
  • Best Instagrammable Bars
  • Quirky & Fun, These Spots Are Worth a Visit
  • Belgian Waffles Just Got a New Fan

5 Dining Experiences to Write Home About

Beijing, China

For dinner, we took the advice of several friends (thanks!) and went to Da Dong for their fabulous Peking Duck. The menu is huge and a bit overwhelming, but we stuck with the famous duck and a variety of other dishes and enjoyed a feast.  The restaurant is modern, service attentive and instructive as we were taught how to put together and eat the duck, condiments and Chinese pancakes.  It was interesting to see the chefs cook the duck in huge fire ovens, and then carve them into small delicate pieces that are reconstructed on the serving platter.  Never knew duck skin put in a little sugar could be so good.

Santa Rosa, California/ Wine County

Second course: Red Wine Braised Duck.

The weather is perfect and we have decided to launch our food, wine and shopping journey with a tasting dinner at the St. Francis Winery & Vineyards in nearby Santa Rosa. And, OMG, what a wonderful way to begin.

Fourth course: NY Strip Loin.

We arrived just in the nick of time (they keep to tight schedules here), tired and hungry. The food and wine pairings were absolutely wonderful. We started the meal with Arctic Char à la Barigoule (with a celery root/Yukon Gold potato purée), paired with a Chardonnay.  Next was a Red Wine Braised Duck with coriander spätzle along with a really nice Pinot Noir, and a Smoked Beet Salad with goat cheese fondant and green garlic purée along with a different red.  Our main course was a Coffee & Cocoa Crusted NY Strip Loin with roasted cauliflower, smoked garlic, and crispy shallots set off with a terrific Cabernet Sauvignon.  For dessert, an incredible cheese selection (almost like a cheesecake) was served with a Mexican Chocolate Pot du Crème and a Port. The meal was perfectly portioned and exquisitely prepared and served.  It was heaven.

Details: You will need reservations for the dinner and wine pairing. $60 pp.  It is a bargain at $60 and less if you join (or are a member of) the Wine Club. Each seating has a maximum of 16 guests. There’s a great gift shop too.

New Delhi, India

After a busy day seeing the sights, we weren’t finished with Delhi yet.  We ended the day sharing both the vegetarian and non-vegetarian Chef’s Tasting Menus at India’s number one restaurant, Indian Accent. A real dining adventure by star chef Manish Mehrotra – we sampled 15 incredible dishes. Foodies take note, they have opened branches in London and New York. I wish the photos could impart just how amazing each dish tasted. Elegant and exceptional.

San Francisco

Through the years, we’ve eaten some fine meals here – from the iconic Tadich Grill to a Moroccan feast, breakfast at Sears Fine Food (best bacon ever) and Tyler Florence’s The Wayfair Tavern. There is a fabulous restaurant around every corner of this great city. And, there are too many Chinese restaurants to count. We had heard great things about R & G Lounge and their Chinese-style Dungeness Crab. We knew things looked promising when the other diners are predominantly local and Chinese. And, on the night we were there, the Japanese Consulate had arranged a private event (since the Prime Minister of Japan was in town). In fact, reception staff initially mistook us for part of the press corps traveling with the Prime Minister.  R & G did not disappoint. One surprise was that this place knows how to make a martini.

We tried one of the four signature Dungeness Crab offerings – our choice was the ginger and scallion seasoning. It was delicious, even if we did have to work a bit for our dinner. Making a mess was worth the effort. The spicy green beans are also terrific. Make a reservation, because it is a popular spot.

Strasbourg, France

Strasbourg Fois Gras.

Strasbourg Fois Gras.

Chez Yvonne served up everything an Alsatian meal should be. I was in Strasbourg for a second visit to their incredible Christmas Markets and it was perfect after a day of walking for miles. It was cozy, warm, and had absolutely divine food I felt like was prepared just for us. Staff at our hotel, Cour du Corbeau, recommended the venue when we requested a restaurant with local, rustic-style fare and were not disappointed. We started with an ample serving of exceptional foie gras served with delicious fresh bread and a nice local wine. Frankly, that was so good, we could’ve stopped there. But we continued sharing dishes so we could try more, including dessert, and loved everything. It’s located in the middle of the old town and was a lovely walk to and from our hotel just on the other side of the I’ill.


 

Best Instagrammable Bars

Philipsburg, Saint Martin

The highlight of our visit had to be stopping in at the Sunset Bar to watch the low-flying planes land over Maho Beach.  The local Princess Juliana International Airport has a very short runway and it starts just behind the beach.  We checked the arrival schedule earlier in the day since our goal was to see a jumbo jet, generally KLM

Flight schedule at the popular Sunset Bar on Maho Beach.

or Air France, land.  We knew the larger planes were arriving between 1:30 and 3, so we staked out a perfect spot along the beach-side edge of the bar, ordered some rum drinks and waited.  It was a blast in every sense of the word!  People on the beach

also get a charge from being blown away as the jets take off, not my idea of fun.  I was just happy not to be directly under the planes. Generally, only one jumbo jet arrives each afternoon, so be sure to check the landing schedule, which you can find conveniently posted at the bar. Get there early to get a good seat and some unobstructed photos.

Singapore

Last one I had? Probably at the original Ruby Tuesday’s in K’Ville.

Time to Cool Off & Try a Singapore Sling at the Long Bar in the Raffles Hotel. Truth be told – I was so hot by the time we got into the Long Bar, I probably would’ve paid anything for a drink. We were lucky and got the only available table.  We, of course, went to have an authentic Singapore Sling. It was $22. I was so dehydrated I guzzled a Coke first. They serve an ample portion of Coke in a small carafe for a reasonable price. Peanuts in the shell are on the table; they are much smaller than our American peanuts. A full menu was available.

The Sling tasted pretty much like others I have had – although that type of fruity drink is way in my past.  First created here in 1915, the Sling is considered the national drink of Singapore. Still, it was fun to have one in the original spot and just in time. The hotel and bar were closing the next week for a major renovation. The Raffles Hotel, including the Long Bar, will reopen August 1, 2019.


 

Quirky & Fun, These Spots Are Worth a Visit

Seattle

For dinner, we headed back to Post Alley, in the Pike Market area and had dinner at The Pink Door.  If you weren’t looking for it, you would have no idea that behind this innocuous, pinkish door is an eclectic spot with retro décor, whimsical flair, a charming outdoor dining patio with views of the Sound, and a different style of entertainment. With an Italian/American menu and tasty food, it’s a winner.

Berlin

We were only in Berlin minutes before we’d found a famous Chocolate Café. Fassbender & Rausch, Chocolatiers am Gendarmenmarkt is the largest Chocolaterie in the world. Their café is located on the second floor over the shop (featuring 300 different types of treats).  We arrived for lunch and decided to skip the chocolate-infused dishes and go directly to dessert, feasting on chocolate with delicious cherries (not like any grocery-store-in-a-jar cherries) and cherry ice cream, as well as dark chocolate fondue and fruit. Everything on the menu is made with chocolate. It was fun and a nice way to start our Berlin adventure. The shop downstairs has lots of yummy items to choose from, but sorry to say, no chocolate syrup for sale. I’d add this as a stop to any Berlin itinerary.

St. Paul du Vence, Provence, France

Le Café de la Place is a great place to stop and have a refreshment after wandering through the streets of the beautiful St. Paul du Vence village. As Bocce players we especially enjoyed watching the energetic Petanque players throwing their smaller balls around the no-boundaries, sandy playing surface. The cafe is very conveniently located at the entrance to the village, so it is a perfect meeting spot. I can’t speak for the meals in this location, just that it is a nice stop for a café or soda and snack while Petanque-watching.

 

New York City, Upper East Side

We heard about Il Vagabondo from several friends who used to live in the area. There are hundreds of Italian restaurants in NYC, but no others with a 1910 bocce court in the bar. We gave it a try with a group of 6 and had a really nice time. It was clean and cozy, with an open kitchen and a surprising wall of windows facing lots of greenery. Everyone enjoyed their meal from the menu featuring traditional Italian fare and our antipasto platter was delicious. We had an uber-attentive waiter and an atmosphere peaceful enough to actually hear one another speak (getting to be a rare treat these days).  After dinner, we tried our hand at bocce – which was bizarrely funny on the old, undulating cement court. Fun was had by all.

Update: Sadly, this spot has closed in 2019, after 50 years of business and the death of its owner. The family now has the property for sale, I hope the bocce court survives. 

Singapore

Finally got to scratch this one off my bucket list, with a visit to Singapore’s Cat Café. Popular in many cat-loving Asian countries, I have missed pop-up cafes in NYC and Miami.

This was fun.  Fifteen kitties of various stripes and colors – mostly asleep when I visited. Admission is $15 (for the cat’s upkeep) and all the residents are rescues.  You remove your shoes, Purell your hands, and can stay as long as you like.  One can of soda comes with your admission and the cafe has an assortment of other drinks, coffees, and snacks for sale. I visited mid-afternoon, which was not a prime time for kitty-play, but it was the only time I had.  Plus, I did not have much time to carve out of our busy travel schedule.

It would be nice to just hang out, read a book or do a little work.  Cats seemed quite comfortable to sleep on the tables, unconcerned with any human interference. The cats all wore cute colors or scarves, had plenty of play towers, lots of kitty-beds and seemed quite content. BTW, it was very warm inside, so it would be smart to dress accordingly.


Belgian Waffles Just Got a New Fan

Antwerp, Belgium

We spent the morning on a walking tour of Antwerp and were ready for refreshments. We asked about the best place to sit down and eat a waffle and headed off to find the café, Désiré de Lille. I don’t even like waffles but wanted to give an authentic Belgian waffle a try, and I’m sure glad I did.  They were so light – delicious; with a little ice cream, whipped cream, powdered sugar, and wonderful sauce.  Now that I write these ingredients – what’s not to like.  We also tried another local specialty, shrimp croquettes, but those tasted pretty ordinary to me (like the croquetas we have everywhere in Miami) and were expensive. Stick with waffles.

 


 

 

Xmas on the Rhine: Heidelberg

One of the small Xmas Markets scattered in the center of Heidelberg.

One of the small Xmas Markets scattered in the center of Heidelberg.

Today had to be our dreariest day. Originally we were going to take a bus from Speyer to Heidelberg, but the low water levels have resulted in the need for a longer trip (2 hours) and later, another 2 hour trip to Strasbourg and our new home, the River Princess. It has rained all day.

Heidelberg is a beautiful city, much of it untouched during the war. It was terrific to see the Heidelberg Castle and reacquaint myself with the fascinating and complex history of the German/English royal family. Fortunately, the rain broke for a few minutes and we were able to see the beautiful views from the Castle looking across the rooftops of the city and across the Neckar River. It reminded me of the views in Florence.

We lunched at the historic (1592) Ritter Hotel and then checked out a few of the central markets, and watched the kids skating on the ice rink. The little ones were so cute pushing around their little ‘training penguins’!

The Christmas markets here are scattered through the squares, but all in a central area and easy to get around from one to the next. Due to time and weather conditions, hard to know if we found them all, but we sure tried.

I would’ve loved to have more time to discover (and photograph) this charming spot on a better day. While at the castle, I did partake of the local legend and placed my foot in the impression of the knight’s footstep left in the stone of the terrace. It is said if you do this you will return to Heidelberg and also live a happy life. So, here’s to returning!

Finally, into France and back on board ship – this time the Uniworld River Princess. The ship is decorated in a beautiful Art Deco style and is very nice. Our room is a bit smaller on this ship – but we managed to efficiently stow everything and were soon off to a wonderful dinner.

PS – News Bulletin: we hear the big bomb of Koblenz has been successfully defused and removed!

:)