A magical tour of the Christmas markets along the Rhine

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In Strasbourg, France, during the Christmas season, teddy bears wearing Santa hats adorn the facade of a restaurant. Stuffed polar bears adorn another. In a Christmas arms race, buildings are adorned with giant gift-wrapped packages, sparkling white deer and oversized gingerbread men. Turning the central medieval quarter into a Christmas labyrinth, curtains of lights shine over cobblestone streets lined with food and gift stalls. And on the central Place Kléber, the lights of a nearly 100-foot-tall Christmas tree twinkle and twinkle, synchronized with Christmas carols.

Across Europe, Christmas markets are popping up as fairy-covered street fairs, with chalet-style pop-up shops selling everything from handmade pottery to mulled wine and hearty food. Visitors wander through the cheerful mazes, holding up their mobile phone cameras.

“The closer it gets to Christmas, Strasbourg really becomes like Times Square,” said Jonathan Frank, a former Broadway cameraman who retired to the city two years ago.

A popular way to visit markets in France, Germany, Switzerland and beyond is to take river cruises on the Rhine, Danube or Main, spending between $2,000 and $4,000 per week. Could I replicate a Christmas pilgrimage for less by using trains to get around?

Along the Rhine, through the Alsace region of northeastern France, trains run continuously between Strasbourg in the north and Basel, Switzerland, in the south, allowing access to cities and market towns in the path. To test my budget and tolerance for seasonal joy, I spent about $300 on trains, splitting six nights between bustling Strasbourg and popular Colmar at Airbnbs that averaged $180 a night. In exchange for convenience, I hoped to gain invaluable control over when and where to stroll.

“If you stay a week in Strasbourg, you'll gain three kilos,” said Pierre Feisthauer, a tour guide who runs Discover Strasbourg, during a two-hour market tour I booked through Airbnb Experiences (about $26).

My first night's tour gave me a hands-on look at the old town terrain on an island in the Ill River, a tributary of the Rhine where, by Mr. Feisthauer's count, more than a dozen markets are clustered in squares and lanes. pedestrian areas, drawing two to three million visitors throughout the season.

It also demystified the food, led by tarte flambée (a thin Alsatian pizza topped with cream sauce, pieces of smoked bacon and onion) and followed by sausages, spaetzle, potato pancakes and soft pretzels, served salty, sugary or covered in cheese (most dishes cost between 2 and 12 euros, or approximately between 2 and 13 dollars). Dessert stalls sold gingerbread, too-pretty-to-eat nougat, and cookies by the kilo.

All this accompanied by white or red vin chaud, or mulled wine (between 3 and 6 euros). The white version with notes of citrus and cinnamon was welcome when hot, but cooled to become cloyingly sweet.

Housed in a half-timbered house dating from around 1600, the Alsatian Museum (€7.50) offers more context on the seasonal festivities founded in 1570, after the city embraced the Protestant Reformation. Toys, gingerbread and roasted chestnuts survive from the original fairs, rooted in Germanic traditions, but the museum attributed the modern image of Père Noël, or Santa Claus, to the 1931 Coca-Cola advertisements.

During the day, before darkness signaled the elaborate light displays, including angels blowing horns that framed the view of the cathedral spire, it was easier to shop. The food, including a stollen baking demonstration and 12-euro foie gras sandwiches, set the Quai des Délices riverside market apart. Stalls crowded around Notre-Dame Cathedral mixing traditional pottery, porcelain votive candles, snow globes and cookie cutters. Original art and recycled gifts, like aprons made from used denim, set the eco-conscious Marché Off apart.

“I love Christmas and it's interesting to see how people do things differently,” smiled Denise Jiménez, who was visiting from Los Angeles. “It's just super, super beautiful.”

An 80-minute train ride from Strasbourg, Basel introduced me to the fondue dog: half a baguette with a hole in the center filled with melted cheese and a frankfurter (10 Swiss francs or $11.50).

Swiss innovation, including filled Toblerone donuts, joined classics like raclette at Basel's two markets on the central squares Barfüsserplatz and Münsterplatz. At Münsterplatz I had fondue (26.50 francs) at the elegant pop-up restaurant Wacker Fonduestübli, with sheepskin-covered stools and chandeliers made from deer antlers.

Basel, the terminal for many cruises on the Rhine River, receives a good number of tourists on vacation. But its markets seemed less commercial, including a fairytale forest filled with Christmas trees, with crafts such as gingerbread decoration (7 francs) and a children's train (3 francs).

The stalls offered a mix of costume jewellery, beeswax candles, wood carvings, tabletop Christmas villages and paper lanterns. In Glas-Hüttli Riehen I saw a glazier make transparent light bulbs with opaque polka dots (5 francs each).

To get to Adväntsgass, a street festival with stalls from almost 30 restaurants, I crossed the fast-moving Rhine in an old skiff tied to a cable across the river and propelled by the current (1 franc).

Throughout the city, a series of 18 free Magic Courtyards trimmed for the season guided me to hidden respites.

One of them was in a courtyard next to the Johann Wanner Christmas House, which is said to be the largest supplier of handmade and hand-painted decorations. I had long felt that trimming a tree was a chore, but after examining the store's extraordinary array of decorations in the form of birds, ice cream, musical instruments and, my favorites, mushrooms, I realized it could be a craft. cheerful.

Because there are only so many hours you can spend eating carbs, drinking mulled wine, and visiting stalls, I began to appreciate market towns for their unrelated diversions. Few were as rich as Colmar.

About 45 miles south of Strasbourg, Colmar is a popular day trip destination with six official markets located in a well-preserved city center that can be walked across in less than 15 minutes. But it leaves a trail of pretzel crumbs in the maze: I stayed there three nights and couldn't find my favorite craft beer stand twice.

Easy to locate next to a giant Ferris wheel, the Colmar Gourmet Market brought together nine food stalls with high tables under a spacious tent. It was a rare place to enjoy a luxury meal, even standing, with options such as oysters (six for €14), cold cuts (€10), truffle risotto (€12.50) and Bouchée à la Reine (€14). euros), a puff pastry filled with creamy chicken and beef.

Between forays into chalets selling three-dimensional wooden puzzles, handmade animal puppets, pineapple wreaths, cured meats and the region's famous Munster cheese, I took a break at Colmar's many museums, including the Bartholdi Museum (5 euros ), dedicated to native son Frédéric. -Auguste Bartholdi, the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty.

One rainy afternoon, waiting for the magic hour when the lights would transform the city from dreary to Disney, I wandered into the Dominican Library (free). His artifacts, which explore printing in the Rhine region, include a 15th-century encyclopedia elaborately illustrated with wood engravings, 16th-century maps, and books of Gregorian chant in a separate vaulted room with a soundtrack of music. The tour ended in a cloister from the year 1300, a few steps from the crowds, but far from the frenzy.

During some weekends, in the middle of the market season, the Navettes de Noël or Christmas buses (15 euros) run from Colmar to several towns on the Alsace Wine Route.

Among the vineyards surrounding medieval Riquewihr, tourist buses created canyons from the main roads. Left by the city walls, I fortified myself with poêlee compagnarde (8 euros), a hearty plate of sausage, onion, potatoes and bacon, and joined the masses moving in wonder along the cobbled streets to a defensive tower of the 13th century decorated with stuffed hearts. .

At the next stop, Kaysersberg, I met Lisa Muller, a ceramist based near Strasbourg, who sold delicate bowls, plates and cups glazed with earthy glazes.

Local trains also serve some of the more remote towns on the Christmas circuit. When my train to Obernai was canceled at an intermediate station in Sélestat, I discovered their party 50 minutes late, time to grab a 1.50 euro pretzel and learn that the oldest written record of the Christmas tree was in Sélestat in 1521.

Between the delay and the pleasure of learning such Christmas trivia, I reached the peak of the slow walk and the wine-drinking spirit at quiet little Obernai, purveyor of the best vin chaud of the trip, a fragrant white blended with spices and served alongside to an emblematic bell tower. .

Too much perfect Alsace is like the vin chaud has gone cold. For a refreshing dose of modernity, I headed approximately 40 kilometers south of Colmar, towards Mulhouse, once an independent country that thrived in textile printing in the 16th century. In homage to its past, each year the city chooses a new pattern as its Christmas print, which is found in its markets as tablecloths and spread on lanterns.

I learned about the city's fascinating history, which involved seeing sections of the old republic's walls and early textile workshops, from Rémy Specker, a Mulhouse native who works in the chemical industry and volunteers his time as a Mulhouse Greeter guiding free tours.

At the end of our two-hour walk, Mulhouse's markets were open, feeding locals with Angus burgers and raclette sandwiches. I met a painter who decorates wood ornaments for 10 months a year to supply her booth, and another whose printed tablecloths seemed to connect to the city's history.

I shopped at both stalls, which is where a Christmas market story jumps the frugal train tracks. From my prized haul of about $250 worth of art prints, ceramics, ornaments and gifts, let it be known that Christmas markets are Whovilles on steroids.

Most of the markets listed here are open until December 24. The one in Colmar ends on December 29 and the one in Obernai on December 31.

It's not too early to make plans for next year, especially when it comes to accommodation. (Markets normally open at the end of November).

I bought the 10-day Eurail train pass for $305, used it for six days, slightly beating the a la carte price. Some French trains, including the high-speed TGV service from Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport to Strasbourg, require an additional seat reservation (12 euros).


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