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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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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.

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.