First of all, I’ve decided to revive this website as a travel and entertainment blog.
A little late for this year, and probably to be forgotten by next year, I’m reminiscing about a late fall vacation to Strasbourg immediately after Thanksgiving, but just in time for the Christmas Markts. Now I have to admit that I like visiting Europe any time that is not summer. Summer probably is great, but the only thing I remember about summer in Europe is bumper crops of tourists with associated long lines at all of the interesting places. Fall and winter may not be the best weather, but the locals are more relaxed and the crowds are down but not out. Is there any time of the year without crowds in Europe? It seems like the whole continent is a year around vacation destination for the rest of the world. Well maybe Kalin in early March is a good bet for less traffic.
I first read about the Strasbourg Christmas Markts in German Life magazine. One look at the pictures and it was on my bucket list.
So what is a Christmas Markt?
A page in Wikipedia tells us that it is an Advent Germanic festivity which was first referenced in the literature around 1300. I’m going to go out on a limb and say they existed long before that and I’ll even guess, that as with many things we associate with Christmas, the celebrations may have had their origins in the pagan rites of the winter solstice. Now days, they begin about a month before Christmas, and run daily from around noon to late into the night, every day.
Basically it is nonstop celebration, ogling, buying, gathering with friends or anyone who will talk to you, eating and drinking, then finding that even more people who will talk to you- if they have been drinking to, and if not, then move on and enjoy the sights. Better yet, just bring your own built in group of friends. A commonality of the markts is a lot of vendor booths in designated areas where one can shop of Christmas things, food, candy, ginger bread, and did I mention drinks? Another, is ubiquitous holiday lighting and buildings decorated from head to foot, literally from top to bottom with a Christmas theme. Some of these are better to see in the day and others, the lights oriented ones, are better to see at night. So you need to spend the whole day there, or go several days at different times of the day. Don’t just focus on the booths. Some of the best things can be bought or just ogled in the local shops.
So why Strasbourg? Aren’t there many Germanic markts all over Europe. Yes. It has caught on all over Europe, but Strasbourg is considered the biggest and some say best, with visitors from all over the world, and Strasbourg is a beautiful and interesting place, culturally and historically, even without the markt. Called Straßburg by the Germans, it was a free city in the Habsburg Empire until the 1680s when Louis the Fourteenth took advantage of the Empire’s internal strife and also the Hapsburg-Ottoman wars on the eastern side of the empire, and came with 10,000 soldiers to annex Straßburg, Württemberg into being Strasbourg, France, and along with it the Alsace region. Today people there enjoy being French but many still speak German.
Strasbourg and the Alsace have many interesting museums, plus wine and cheese to serve your gourmet predilection, pretty villages, views, buildings, and streets, and rivers for your camera. It’s a UNESCO heritage site, and the home of the EU legislature. You’ll have plenty to do, if you get bored of the Christmas celebrations, which you probably won’t.
So how does one get there? Well Strasbourg has an airport, but I could not seem to schedule a flight that would get me to that airport. That left two reasonable methods to get to there: The first would be to land at Paris Charles DE Gaulle Airport and connect to the Air France flight to Strasbourg. That flight is a train, but you can book it as if it were a flight. The second way is to land in Zürich, go to the downstairs train station and book a train to Strasbourg. We did the later, mainly because the French train system has let me down more times than any other system in Europe. Late at night and after a trans-Atlantic flight, I didn’t want to give them another chance.
It’s just my prejudice, but it worked out fine, and the length of travel is about the same either way. Tired as we were, I got excited when at Colmar, I asked another passenger if we had reached Strasbourg and he excitedly informed me that no we had not, but he was going there too, and was beside himself with excitement to see join in the celebration that night.
At the train station we took a cab to our hotel. We could have negotiated the streets, street cars, etc. more cheaply, but again a trans-Atlantic flight, over an hour train ride, late at night with bags: There are times when you should spend the money for a taxi. You can explore the streets after breakfast, without bags, and in the daylight.
I’ve been told that there are no good hotels in Strasbourg. I don’t know; I’ve only stayed in one: Hotel Okko. Sounds Japanese; I don’t know if it is. It had some nice features, including a snack room at night, which everyone seemed to enjoy. Across the plaza was a small restaurant which produced some very good dishes and offered the best winterfest beer. A few yards from that is Churchill Tram Station, and just a few tram stops down the line is the old town with the Christmas markts. There are vending machines at each tram stop. Ask a local to help you if you have difficulty using them. Everyone seems happy to help out. We got off at the Republic station, but the one before it is also close to the old town area, as are the two after it. They each dump you in a different area of the old town, so if you get tired of walking, you can move yourself about more rapidly, and without weaving through the crowds.
Strasbourg old town is huge and the markets spill over into the new areas too. We took five days to explore Strasbourg, its markts, and its museums, day and night. Wander, get lost, stop for drinks and food, then more drinks. Even if you get lost you can always take a tram to the main train station and there connect with a tram that will take you to your hotel. Or catch a taxi, but not within the markt area, as it is closed to auto traffic, and has security guards at each of its many entry points.
The markts are well patrolled by armed police. Still a fanatic was able to slip in with a gun. Look, it is impossible to catch someone who wants to hurt others, but the police were able to halt this guy quickly, and given the density of the crowds the tragedy could have been much worse.
We were there to explore the streets and booths, visit several museums, and just to settle into the ambience. I’d say we enjoyed all of those. We had hoped that the booths would be replete with handmade local crafts. There were a few, but as one would expect the items there were costly. There were many food and drink booths, along with candy and cookies. There were enough original work booths to meet our needs, although the majority of booths seemed to be selling mass produced articles, at least we saw the same products sold in many different locations.
As you can see from the photos, the street decorations were phenomenal day and night, and indeed, we found many of the local shops more productive for interesting items to purchase than the booths. We took the river boat tour, and felt it gave us a good understanding of the city. Knowledgeable thereafter with a good understanding of the bridges and access points to the old town we were able to use the river walkways more quickly to maneuver around the town and avoid the crowded streets when we wanted to go to specific points. We particularly enjoyed the Alsace Museum, a very nice display of historical life in the region laid out room by room. I always visit the local city museum to get the history of each town we visit, and Strasbourg’s gave its history through time. And there is also the cathedral. The EU has its legislative center up the river on the north side, plus there are many Alsace villages in the region and other interesting places, such as the Verdun Battlefield further out. Many can be reached by train in less than an hour, or you can do as we often do, use a taxi to drop you off, then take another taxi back in the evening. We don’t need cars every day, and if you have one then it must be parked overnight usually in paid parking. Also, when you use it over unfamiliar roads with signs you might not be able to read, it becomes nerve wracking. In the end, we’ve found taking a taxi when you need it is overall cheaper, and way less stressful.
One day we took a taxi from the Colmar train station to Ribeauville. Thankfully, our return taxi was knowledgeable about the back roads because the nearby town of Riquewihr had its Christmas Markt opening day and was swarmed with tourists and cars that were parked along the vinelands for a couple kilometers outside. Ribeauville was only moderately busy, one might think they were mostly locals from other places in the region. Though smaller than either Colmar or Strasbourg was still festive and we enjoyed the day. I was particularly happy to find a house, with writing in German under the eaves that declared it was built in 1640. And yes, you can still hear German spoken here and there in the region although it is not as dominate as it was even 20 years ago.
From Strasbourg we moved on down to Colmar staying at Chez Cécile et Myriam B&B and wine vendor. The B&B is in town, is an Alsace house from the 1600’s and has its own gate to lock out the heathens after dark. Our room was large with our own kitchen, and we cooked one night, mainly because I like to shop local food markets and they have a very nice one. Another night we just ate street food. Colmar, much smaller than Strasbourg is of a medieval town proportion and the crowds were less formidable and the pace less hectic.
From Colmar we returned to Basil for three days, staying in the Spalentor Hotel, near the Spalen Tor (City Gate), and is an easy walk down to the old town, or by tram if you are lazy. There were more handmade things in the Markts in Basil, like blow glass Christmas ornaments at 10 to 80 euros a pop. There are three main Markts, each having its own flavor. We also hiked the Rhein River shoreline, and visited the Printing Museum with a functioning water wheel, a must see. The hotel was super friendly and had no problem with us ordering in food one night. We visited the local botanic garden, just a block away from our hotel, where we found a huge cactus assortment from my native Southwest, and a great bee house, a clone of which I now have in my backyard.
Overall, a visit to European Christmas markts in the month before Christmas is a great way to get into the Christmas spirit and to see Europe from in a different way than the usual perspective.