As summer turns to fall and we head into winter, the days become shorter, greyer and night comes early. The closer we get to Christmas, the darker it is getting as we walk home from school at 4:45.
When it’s cold and grey, this family of homebodies likes to curl up with blankets, watch movies, burn candles, etc. but there is something so special about being outside during Christmas over here in France. We have loved living in the city during this time of year, because the Christmas spirit is literally palpable. The lights everywhere, the giant ferris wheel, the big Christmas tree in the main city square that we can see the top of from our window in the living room…
With such a long, rich history, tradition is everything to the French. They are committed to it, to preserving the things about their culture that make it so special and unique. One of the most fun and unique parts about living in Europe during the winter is a chance to visit Christmas markets. The Christmas markets have grown in popularity across Europe over the years and are popular all over Europe. There are big, more famous ones, especially up in Bavaria, but many villages have their own version, sometimes lasting for a month, sometimes just one weekend. All the markets typically sell some similar items, but each also sells things unique to their region, especially the food!
I wrote all about the little Marche du Noël in our town last year and it is with anticipation that everyone watches the assembly of all the wooden chalets again, the hanging of the lights under the cathedral….
While we were fortunate enough to travel down into the Dordogne Valley last year to Sarlat to visit a Christmas market, we wanted to visit one of the biggest, oldest and most famous of all, so we headed to Strasbourg, an absolutely beautiful area of northeastern France that sits in the Alsace region, on the Rhine river, bordering with Germany. We had not yet been to this corner of France yet, so we were excited to visit!
Alsace has an interesting history, once known as Alsace-Lorraine, sharing ownership between both France and Germany, depending on who was more dominant militarily/politically in the area at any given time, but it was ultimately ceded to France under the Treaty of Versailles and remains French today.
On a personal level, I was really looking forward to visiting Alsace because my father’s family settled in the US from the Alsace region. My great, great-grandfather was once mayor of a small town in Alsace. Interestingly, everything I remember about my Dad’s family- the pictures, the traditional foods my great-aunt would make when she would come to visit us, the language our ancestors spoke, everything was German, there was nothing French about it!
We had driven to Lyon Thursday night late so that we could wake up and catch an early train to Strasbourg. Typically a 7 hour drive to Strasbourg from Clermont-Ferrand (not counting the incredible traffic to this area during this time of year) makes it hard to squeeze the trip into a weekend. Thank goodness for the train- 3 hour trip and an absolute piece of cake! – it was so much more convenient! And so nice to be able to sit and drink coffee and read instead of sitting in traffic 😉
We arrived to a cold and rainy gray day in Strasbourg, but it made the city feel that much cozier…
We walked out of the train station and onto the tram, which took us to a neighborhood near the University, through the Botanical Gardens… it was a bit off the beaten path, but it was a nice walk from our air b&b into town and much more quiet than to be closer in to all of the markets. Plus, there were some beautiful views of a few of the old churches, on our walk, like this one- St. Paul’s Church.
Plus, it gave the boys plenty of time to get some energy out as we walked toward the markets. These big open wide sidewalks were so different from the old narrow ones in CF, where you are practically having to step to the side often to let people by. Here, the boys could run wild and not get in anyone’s way….
Strasbourg has a cool layout- the center of the city is actually on an island, so there are bridges to cross over the river to access the city center, which is where all of the Christmas markets are, there are actually 11 of them!
From a safety standpoint, each year between the opening of the Christmas markets in November throughout December, all cars are prohibited from entering onto the island/ the city center, it is open only to foot traffic. There are security guards standing at the end of each foot bridge onto the island and you are required to open your bags so they can search…
Immediately, Strasbourg has a different feel to it, the buildings and houses have a different style we have not seen anywhere else in France. The half-timbered architecture had much more of a German feel to it! It felt like we were in Germany!
It was pouring that first afternoon when we were setting out to find lunch, so we had to think quick. We were lucky to tuck into a cozy little pizza place that had a wood burning pizza oven and cute kitschy Christmas decor (think plastic light-up Santas and glass light up Christmas trees).
After lunch, we went out to walk around and explore a market or two near the cathedral. But, first things first…
An absolute MUST to walk around a Christmas market in the cold rain, is … Vin Chaud! This traditional hot spiced wine is one of our favorite winter treats. It is super yummy and fun to drink because many restaurants in France and (especially the Christmas markets!) take pride in creating their own secret recipe….sometimes it’s really sweet, sometimes more dry, sometimes spicier… and often has a bit of brandy or something else to warm you up even more!
Wells loves snow globes and was in heaven at this market!
We bought a few umbrellas to have while walking through the market, but it was pretty pointless… walking through a tight crowd where everyone else also has an umbrella and add in the wind, makes it comical. So we just decided to be ok with being soaked.
It really was the coziest city we’ve ever visited. Despite the rain and cold, its impossible not to feel completely warm and fuzzy when you walk around through this city…and peer in windows like this…
selling all things warm, doughy, sweet, cinnamon-y, etc… Chuck, who might love gingerbread more than about anything else you can eat, was so happy to be in the land of the original gingerbread man and to find them everywhere…
but with all the hundreds of Christmas treats, still no peppermint candy canes….
The Christmas decor was unlike any we’d ever seen. It was literally as if the entire city is completely transformed into a winter wonderland…
The attention to detail is just hard to describe. Surely it takes months of preparation each year to create this! Even these stars hanging from trees that light up at night along the river. It felt a bit like we were in a storybook..
The Christkindelsmärik (market of the infant Jesus) in Place Broglie was the first Christmas market in Strasbourg, held in 1570. It was a small market selling bread, spices and a few other things people would buy in preparation for their Christmas feast the 3 days before Christmas. It’s hard to believe that markets like these have been held each and every year for 450 years!
It is the most well known of all of the markets and selling all things Alsatian Christmas- pottery, spices, pastries, cakes, ornaments, decorations, lights, blankets, and many more things!
Saturday morning meant time to go find good coffee, and as usual, we did some research before heading out. We found this place, Cafe Bretelles which was on our walk onto the L’Isle (where the Christmas markets were) and it was some of the best coffee we’ve had in awhile…. Oat milk lattes are becoming our go-to when we visit coffee shops that serve it…
The boys love it when we find coffee shops where the “breakfast” choices are some kind of cake, or brownie… Charlie opted for almond cake, Wells had one of his favorites- cheesecake 🙂 Owen ordered the “continental breakfast” which included: juice, warm milk and baguette with jam and butter… the perfect French breakfast!
One of our favorite parts of the city was an old historic neighborhood known as “Petite France” (Little France) that was absolutely charming and had a nice market known as the Three Kings Market. We spent the morning walking along the canal and taking in the old, beautifully colored houses that sit along the water.
It was such a beautiful day on Saturday….
Off- Market- As we were walking around, we found one a pretty cool little artisan market getting set up for the day, called the Off Market. It was tucked back in a parking lot between some buildings and they had this cool pop up bar they were setting up with leather couches and big old wooden tables- like a big lounge under this plastic tent!
One unique thing about this market that made it different from all the others was that there were local artists selling their art, jewelry, etc; really unique things that were different from many of the things you would find across all of the bigger markets.
They had several shipping containers that had been converted into lounges and shops.
We didn’t end up buying anything, but it was fun to look!
Check out this menu at one of the food stalls that they were setting up… Fresh Fries cooked in duck fat, open faced sandwiches with ham and cheese, and french onion soup…. mmmmmmmmm…….this was typical of many of the lunch menus at many of the restaurants around…comfort food is their specialty in this region of France.
Place Gutenburg- this village is typically known as the International Market. Each year, a different country is asked to host and feature all things unique to winter in their country. This year, it was Finland.
We didn’t stay at this market for too long… it was so crowded. But it was fun to see them cooking different types of food and selling different jams, spices, and other handmade items. This stall was literally smoking salmon and sticking it into warm brioches and selling them as sandwiches. We were wishing we hadn’t just eaten a sub-par lunch at an overcrowded not very good restaurant (one of the only really bad meals we’ve had!) We picked up a few Christmas gifts and kept moving…
Place Kleber- this is the central and largest city square in Strasbourg, in fact it was even named a Unesco World Heritage site in 1988, the first for a city center (wikipedia). The Christmas tree in this square is brought from the Vosges mountains and it is tradition for locals to deposit gifts for the poor under the tree.
The market in this square is the Village du Partage (“sharing village”) where the booths are made up of 50 charitable organizations who are available to share information about their organizations and selling their wares for charity.
The square was so big there was even an ice skating rink but with rain, it was a no-go. There was only one person on the ice…
Charlie was excited to see this Bugatti sitting outside a restaurant where we ate lunch..
We spent most of Saturday afternoon walking around wandering through the other markets, finding several Christmas gifts and of course, eating our way through!
We even found this Alsatian whiskey with my maiden name- Meyer!
Our most favorite time of the day was around 5:00, the sun had set, it was almost dark, and all of the lights would come on at the same time throughout the town…
Unfortunately, we ran out of time to wait in the crazy long line to go into the Cathédrale Notre Dame, but we wanted to at least spend some time walking around the outside of it before we left Strasbourg. Though the picture doesn’t really show it’s true size, this cathedral was massive! I could NOT fit it into my camera frame. From the mid 1600-1800s it was one of the world’s tallest buildings! There was also a market lining its perimeter, but it mostly had the same traditional items we’d seen elsewhere throughout the city.
It was freezing as the sun went down. We had passed a pub several times that looked so cozy from the outside, so we stopped in to Le Saxo for a warm drink before heading home our last night…
Our trip home the next day was smooth sailing.
We were sad that our short time in Strasbourg had come to an end, but it definitely put us in the Christmas spirit! Let the holidays begin!