If you get a yearning for a concentrated dose of traditional, chill-in-the-air Christmas spirit, head for France's Alsace region in December. The 500-year-old Strasbourg Christmas market, open from Thanksgiving to New Year's Eve, will more than satisfy that longing, even if you spend the holiday elsewhere.
Strasbourg, located halfway between Paris and Frankfurt--and easily reachable by train from either city--is France's holiday central. Thanks to decades of German rule in the 19th and 20th centuries, Strasbourg and other towns along the Rhine River have grafted the best of the German Christmas traditions--including a love of holiday decorations--with French style.
Christkindelsmarik, as the market is called in the native Alsatian language, takes over the city's historic district, an island of 18th century wooden houses and 19th century grand stone buildings, encircled by the Ill River. The stalls, manned by local artisans selling their crafts and by vendors who have brought their goods from all over France, are located in Place Broglie and Place de la Cathédrale. But the whole pedestrian town center is steeped in winter cheer, with white lights strung above the cobblestone streets.
As with flea markets elsewhere, Strasbourg's has its share of stalls brimming with plastic toys and made-in-China ornaments. But you'll find plenty of tradition and authenticity. As you saunter through Place Broglie, nibble on some bredele; these are spice cookies cut like stars and moons, a German invention enhanced in Alsace through the talent of French bakers.
Under the shadow of the 13th century Notre Dame Cathedral, hunt through the huts lined up like alpine cabins and decorated with pine garlands. There are treasures to take home, such as santons, little Provençal figures of bakers and farmers that go into a French crèche. When the brisk air makes you feel as though your blood has stopped flowing, grip a steaming cup of spiced wine between your gloved hands and slip into the Gothic cathedral, built of red sandstone from the neighboring Vosges mountains, for a free organ concert.
If the dense market crowd gets to be too much, explore the rest of the old town. Stroll down Rue Orfèvres, off Place de la Cathédrale. Lined with 18th century timber buildings, it's the most charming street on the center island and a contrast to the modern European Parliament buildings on the outskirts of town. In some years, massive Baccarat crystal lanterns, made in the nearby town of Baccarat, swing from cables strung above the green- and blue-lit pedestrian street. Look out for paintings of rabbits hunting hunters: Saturnalian images of le monde a l'envers, or the upside-down world, decorate the walls of some of the oldest buildings.
You can also hop on a boat when your feet get tired. Starting at the Palais Rohan, where Napoleon dumped Josephine, long glass-roofed bateaux mouches, or river barges, follow a lazy route through the Ill canals. A charming way to take a tour of the city, the trip will take you through the touristy Petite France, with its steep-roofed Alsatian buildings, past the University of Strasbourg, to the bureaucratic-looking European Union buildings. The commentary is in French, English, and German.
No visit to Alsace is complete without sampling local gastronomic offerings, ideal for cold December nights. S'Burjerstuewel, commonly known as Chez Yvonne after the retired chef, is the winstub, or wine bar, where President Jacques Chirac and then-German Prime Minister Helmut Köhl toasted a fruitful Franco-German relationship over dinner. Chez Yvonne dishes up the best choucroute garnie, heaps of sauerkraut blanketed by cuts of pork and potatoes. Or go for something more exotic like roasted pig's head, washed down with a bottle of Riesling. The restaurant is adorned to the hilt with decorations from the Christmas market. Your suitcase will be stuffed full of them, too, so you can bring a Joyeux Noël back with you.
By Christina White