Category Archives: France

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

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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.

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.

http://www.noel.strasbourg.eu

Our favorite of the Strasbourg Markets.

Our favorite of the Strasbourg Markets.

The Notre Dame Cathedral.

The Notre Dame Cathedral.

Missteps in Monaco

The Monte Carlo Casino - not worth the fuss.

The Monte Carlo Casino – not worth the fuss.

I’m exhausted!

We docked in Nice instead of Monaco (due to potentially choppy seas); but we figured not a problem, we’d take the train.  We walked forever and never did find the station (or a local person who seemed to know where it was), but did find the bus stop, so we stood in a long line, finally got on a very crowded bus and stood all the way to Monte Carlo.  We ran into a British couple from our ship who had tried to take the train (and had paid 15 euros for a cab to get there), only to be told a strike somewhere else was causing problems and there wouldn’t be a train for at least two hours.   Ah, the perils of travel . . . .

In any case, we got to Monaco minutes before the changing of the palace guard and literally sprinted up the steps to the top of the “rock” to catch the action at 11:55. This is a beautiful, tiny country featuring some Belle Époque architecture and an almost vertical system of streets, stairs and pretty dense high-rise buildings.  Everything is very green and, of course, the centerpiece is the lovely waterfront filled with yachts of every size.

We wandered around a bit, took some photos of the beautiful harbor, and then set off to find the restaurant I had selected and reserved for lunch.  Once again, no small feat in this mountain municipality. Finally, we arrived very hot and bedraggled at Le Saint Benoit, also with a pretty view of the harbor.  Waiters were very good with the ice water and eventually we cooled off enough to order.  I had the special of the day, which was the local fish (Bream), served with small vegetables it was really delicious.  For dessert we shared an amazing chocolate pastry.

Thus fortified, we set off for the famous Monte Carlo Casino.  I was there while in college, not old enough to get in and had been so disappointed.  This time, I was disappointed that I did get in ;-).   We were dressed nicely (pretty much everyone else was your typical tee-shirt and shorts tourist); we were extremely hot, since the day had really warmed-up and we had walked and walked (A/C was minimal); the dealers and croupiers never smiled; you pay 10 euros to get in; and basically you can only go into one room for table games and two rooms with minimal slots.

I played roulette and didn’t like that each chip is valued at $5, so this is not conducive to spreading them all over the table in my usual style of play! My husband played black jack and enjoyed the difference of the dealer taking a single card at the end of each deal (a $25 minimum).  All-in-all we broke even.

We managed to find the bus to Nice quickly and this time got a seat and good A/C for the half hour ride back.

Notes:  The 100 bus travels between Nice and Monaco and is 1.5 euros per person. There are 6 stops in Monaco. The train is a bit more and apparently a bit more erratic. Both the bus and the train run along the beautiful coast. Check the schedules and stops in advance.

FYI – The famous Hotel du Paris, by the Casino, is closed until December 15, 2014 for renovations.

Cannes is a Star

Modest local boats, near elegant villas and gardens, share fantastic views along the Cote d'Azur.

Modest local boats, near elegant villas and gardens, share fantastic views along the Cote d’Azur.

 

Cannes is beautiful.  We tendered in right by the Vieux Port (Old Port) and were met by MoMo, a driver we had contracted for a few hours.  The goal was to get out on the coast and take in the scenery, and that is exactly what made this day so special.

Before we left town, we headed up the famous waterfront on the Boulevard de la Croisette, where the Palais des Festivals hosts the annual Cannes Film Festival and grand hotels like the Majestic, Carlton and Martinez are found.  Among the high-end shops you can find Chanel, with the address Number 5, the origin of the famous perfume name.  The Rue d’Antibes offered even more shops, but without the distraction of the colorful parks and action on the waterfront.

We wanted to drive along the Corniches (roads cut into steep hills) and we started with the lower, Basse, Corniche along the coast to Antibes and Cap d’Antibes. The entire area was extremely beautiful and obviously very wealthy.  In Antibes we also visited a local market, sampled the delicious Socca (made from chickpeas and olive oil) and purchased some Absinthe, the legendary and controversial, potent liquor.  We took in the 13 mega-yachts and one 92’ baby-yacht, all but one with Cayman Island registry, and then drove by stunning villas along the coast.

In the distance we saw the Lerins Islands of Sainte Marguerite (where the Man with the Iron Mask was jailed) and Sainte Honorat.

We did drive on all three of the Corniches, including the Grande (upper) and Moyenne (middle); these roads all follow the coastline, but at various heights along the route. Ah, yes, and more bocce “courts”, which look like large sandy fields in France, where the game is actually called Petanque.

Our drive took us to the hilltop village of Eze, where we enjoyed a quick survey of the shops, cafes and 5-star hotels scattered along the steep, narrow stone pathways.

Once back in Cannes, we visited the Old Town of Le Suquet with its Notre Dame d’Esperance 17th century, Franciscan church and castle ruins.

A final stop at a waterside café for a glace was a perfect ending to the day.

A Surprise Visit to Villefranche

Harbour at VilleFranche.

Harbor at Villefranche.

When we opened our eyes this morning and saw the whitecaps outside, we knew we were not going to be able to tender into St. Tropez.

It wasn’t long before the Captain of the Journey announced he was looking for a more sheltered harbor; and not long after, he broadcast we would anchor off Villefranche.

The crew scrambled to get together some on-shore options, and we chose to take an excursion to St. Paul de Vence, a beautiful, hilltop village right out of a medieval movie set.  It turned out to be a warm sunny day, and the new harbor was nice and calm for the tenders to get to shore.  Villefranche is beautiful, and also has major city walls left from the fortifications built when it was a part of the House of Savoy, and defended itself from the French.

We drove along the coastal La Promenade des Anglais through Nice, and were surprised at just how quaint, picturesque, clean, colorful and interesting it all looked.  St. Paul was absolutely charming, with narrow, winding alleys filled with high-end art galleries and beautiful shops.  Fitting for an area that inspired Matisse, Chagall and Picasso.

We capped it off by sitting in a café at the entrance to the village and watching the local bocce players.  They played on a sandy court with no edging and the traditional smaller balls.  It was amazing to watch them toss the ball in the air for a dead hit on the competitor’s ball, and then nestle their ball right up to the pelota.  They took the game to a whole new level.

I loved everything we saw today, and can see why so many count this part of the world among their favorites.

 

Tip: Train service runs regularly along the coastal route, connecting Monaco with all the cities along the Cote D’Azur and beyond.

Corsica: France’s Mediterranean Island

On Cap Corse.

On Cap Corse.

The Ligurian Sea.

The Ligurian Sea.

The Old Port of Bastia was a quaint starting point for our trip to Cap Corse, the “finger” peninsula of this French Island.

This is a mountainous island with peaks reaching more than 8,000’. Cap Corse offered a glimpse into the past, since this is the last remaining place where agriculture and fishing thrive (although very little fishing these days). Known for their wine, cork and chestnuts, the colorful, lush landscape is untamed and the coastal roads not for the faint-of-heart.  If I wasn’t holding my breath during the hairpin turns, I was surprised by random bulls roaming in the narrow road.  We visited several charming villages, such as Erbalunga, Nonza and Pino, and took advantage of a few scenic photo opportunities along the way.  While under the 500-year Genoese rule, a series of almost 200 watch towers were built around the island; 90 still survive and make a striking visual impact.

Fortunately, we had a beautiful, calm, sunny day with temperatures in the upper 60s and low 70s.  Apparently, much of the year Corsica can be windy with rougher waves hitting the shores.  Ciao from the Azamara Journey.