un noël alsacien
(An Alsatian Christmas)
by Leighton Wilson
When it comes to Christmas, I'm right behind Buddy the Elf in the spirit department. I took my freshman finals in a sparkly reindeer onesie. So unless you have strong contradictory evidence, I believe that I deserve the title of Runner-up for Most Festive Person Ever.
Luckily for my Christmas-loving heart, I'm living in Europe this year and Christmas here is a BIG DEAL. I discovered this during a trip to Vienna in October. The city already had their Christmas decorations up! This risky move would earn more than a few dirty looks in the US, but this American was not put off. Rather, I realized it was imperative to book a Christmas market trip.
After much deliberation, I gave into my friend Sherry’s urging and bought a bus ticket to Strasbourg, also known as the "Capital of Christmas." Despite a dreaded solitary eight-hour bus ride, I needed to go.
Seated in the Alsatian region of France right on the border of Germany, Strasbourg spent centuries caught in a game of tug-o-war between the two countries - only since 1919 has it officially been part of France. As a result, Strasbourg is home to the "Christkindelsmarik," a Christmas market with all the trappings of a traditional German Christmas market and all the charm and cheese of a small French town.
With 11 Christmas markets throughout the city center, Strasbourg promised to be the winter wonderland I was looking for. I had three days to get the most out of it.
Jean-Marie, the concierge at my hotel, greeted me upon arrival. An older gentleman, he became my French grandfather for the weekend. After hearing me speak to the receptionist, he insisted on only speaking French with me for the rest of the trip.
"You must practice," he emphatically reminded me every time I accidentally slipped into English. Jean-Marie proved invaluable, pointing me in the direction of all the gems.
Armed with three maps and Jean-Marie's recommendations, I set off to explore Strasbourg and the Christmas markets.
Above all else, I loved just wandering the city center and the rows of intricately decorated wooden huts, "chalets," that made up the markets. Twinkling Christmas lights and scents of baking cookies filled the streets. For three days, I wandered through this snow globe town. More than the decorations and sweet treats though, Strasbourg captures the anticipation and joy of Christmas. I think I finally found a place that loves Christmas as much as I do.
But as with all good travel stories, unexpected bumps in the road created some unusual experiences. Because Strasbourg is the perfect holiday destination, over 2.5 million Christmastime visitors apparently booked their hotels before I did. I spent the last night sleeping in the hotel lobby!
Though all of the markets are delightful, these were my Strasbourg Christmas highlights:
The Giant Christmas Tree at Place Kleber
Place Kleber, Strasbourg's central square, harbors the city's 30-meter-tall Christmas tree and the Village of Sharing, a Christmas market where all the chalets are charities and humanitarian organizations. Head to the Humanis chalet for soup made by a Michelin-starred chef for about 7 euros. Also, get the mulled wine here- it's cheap, strong, and for a good cause!
Mulled Wine from Chez Mathilde
A regular holiday favorite, Alsace's version of mulled wine is particularly spicy, citrusy and sweet. Almost any chalet serves mulled wine for 2-3 euros, but Chez Mathilde's had the best balance of spices and citrus for me. A local told me you don't need to wear gloves to the markets – whenever your hands get cold, just get another glass of mulled wine!
Bonus: In an effort to be more environmentally-conscious with cups, the Strasbourg markets make you pay a one euro deposit for a reusable (and returnable) souvenir cup. So even though I drank copious amounts of mulled wine, I only used one cup for the duration of my trip!
Pain d'epices from Mireille Oster
Pain d'epices, or Alsatian gingerbread, is much softer and thicker than traditional gingerbread. The Mireille Oster bakery is legendary in Strasbourg for its seven spice version. With a chalet in most of the markets and a permanent location in La Petite France, they are always easy to find.
Glowing with inviting gold accents and the scent of freshly baked gingerbread, it's the most popular chalet at the market. I tasted their traditional seven spices pain d'epices and bought a heart-shaped piece to bring home. It was one of my favorite treats in Strasbourg, and from the way the locals told it, Mireille Oster is the only place you should get it from!
Le Carré d'Or (The Golden Square)
Originally this is where the goldsmiths lived and worked in Strasbourg, but now it's home to the most stunning and extravagant Christmas decorations that I have ever seen. Hundreds of lights, garlands, beads, branches, and more line four streets to make a literal golden square. I walked around the square four times just so I could fully appreciate all of the decorations.
Tarte or Baguette Flambée
A traditional food year-round, tarte flambée is Alsace's response to pizza, only creamier and cheesier. It's just dough slathered with fromage blanc, bacon, and onions, but it is a masterpiece. They were available at all of the Christmas markets, but I still regret that I only ate one during my whole trip.
Bredele is just a general term for Christmas cookies, and the best place to buy them is at the Marché des Delices de Noel (the Christmas Food Market). Various Alsace bakers associations put together the Christmas Food Market to offer the best traditional Christmas foods – from foie gras to bredele. Most Christmas Food Market chalets offer samples of their bredele, so you can make an informed decision about buying your Christmas cookies! My favorite were the cinnamon stars.
La Petite France Quarter of Strasbourg
La Petite France is a historic area in Strasbourg that would feel Christmassy in July. Characterized by white, half-timbered houses, La Petite France is one of the most picturesque parts of the city - it's straight out of a folktale. The Christmas Food Market and La Corde à Linge can be found here.
Duck Thigh with Pinot Noir Sauce from La Corde à Linge
Duck thigh is a lesser known culinary tradition in Alsace, but it is by far my favorite. Hands down the best meal I had in Strasbourg - the duck was juicy and tender, and the sauce super flavorful. Marc, my wine route tour guide, recommended the restaurant La Corde à Linge to me. There was a 45-minute wait time but because I was alone, they sat me immediately!
Alsace Wine Route
Stretching south from Strasbourg, the Alsace wine route is 170 kilometers of tiny towns and wineries. With pastel houses straight out of Hansel & Gretel and views of the Vosges mountains, the wine route is beautiful year-round and especially charming during the Christmas season. Each town has its own small Christmas market. I booked with VinoRoute for their Taste of Christmas in Alsace tour. We stopped in three smaller towns along the route (Colmar, Riquewihr, and Obernai) for their Christmas markets and did one wine tasting. With old-timey carousels and plenty of artisanal crafts, I preferred these smaller markets because they were slightly less commercial.
This tour was maybe the highlight of my trip. Including me, there were only three people on it, and Marc Tritschberger, the company owner and tour guide, was excellent company. He was born and still lives in a small town on the wine route, so he really knows the people, the places, and the wine. At Jean-Marie's insistence, Marc spoke only French with me, but he is also fluent in English and German. The day of my tour also happened to be the first day of snow in Alsace, so it was especially Christmassy and magical. Whether you book a tour or drive yourself, the Alsace wine route is far too beautiful to miss.