Happy New Year everyone! Bonne année! A new year, new beginnings, back to school today…and yet, I’ve still got one more christmassy post for you. Indulge me! I know most of you are probably done with the festivities, but technically it’s still the Christmas period – today is the 11th day of Christmas – and over here in France we’re indulging in gorgeous buttery, almondy galettes des rois for Epiphany. Les Fêtes are not over yet.
What I want to share with you is our day-trip to Strasbourg, self-proclaimed Capitale de Noël (Christmas Capital). It was one of the best things about our Holidays but I didn’t get time to write about it earlier. We visited for the day from Nancy where we were spending Christmas. It was grey, drizzling and cold – certainly not great for photos though I did my best to capture its beauty – but it was possibly the most “christmassy” I’ve ever felt in France…
Strasbourg is the capital of Alsace, a region in the East of France bordering Germany and Switzerland. Owing to its historical and cultural connections with Germany it can appear outwardly more Germanic than French. Reading place names and menus serving local food specialities you could be forgiven for thinking you’d crossed over the border into Germany at times. And for me with an “anglosaxon” idea of Christmas, it is this Germanic touch that gives the town more Christmas spirit than many other parts of France.
Strasbourg has had a Christmas market since 1570 and its 444th edition in 2014 was crowned “Best Christmas Market in Europe” by the organisation European Best Destinations. With 11 different markets mainly spread throughout the UNESCO World Heritage Grand Île area of central Strasbourg, all offering a tempting selection of local crafts, Christmas decorations and traditional food, rather than the tat available at many markets, I could easily see why it won. Add to that the beautiful decorations on the already gorgeous half-timbered building facades and I fell completely under its spell.
As I mentioned above, central Strasbourg is a UNESCO World Heritage area, with its medieval centre and imposing Gothic Cathedral located on an island, the Grand Île, on the Ill river (a tributary of the Rhine). The Cathedral was once the tallest building in the world (until 1874) and even today it is the 6th tallest church. It is certainly impressive. Inside it houses an astronomical clock that draws large crowds every fifteen minutes when its figurines ring bells and parade across the front.
One of the prettiest areas is known as Petite-France. It has numerous canals, covered bridges and brightly coloured half-timbered houses. But its name has a less pretty history. The reason it is called “little France” has nothing to do with patriotic reasons but is somewhat bizarrely a corruption of the old German word for syphilis! A hospice for syphilis sufferers was built here in the 15th century, which back then was called the “French disease” Franzosenkrankheit in German, hence the French connection.
Alsatian food is heavily influenced by German cuisine which made a delicious seasonal change for us southerners. During our one day visit we managed to eat bretzels, flammekuche (thin pizza-like dish made with crème fraîche, onions and lardons), knacks (Frankfurter sausages), bredele (traditional Christmas biscuits) and kougelhopf (marble cake baked in a traditional dome shape), washed down with steaming cups of vin chaud and hot chocolate!
As night fell the illuminations came on and turned the city into a sparkling magical world, but unfortunately most of my photos didn’t work well enough to be published here. One street was sponsored by the luxury crystal manufacturer Baccarat and had amazing crystal chandeliers in gauze boxes hanging across it. Original and beautiful.
Amongst the 11 different markets there was a children’s area, where in a heated tent kids could play hundreds of different traditional wooden board games and take part in craft workshops and magic shows. It was a perfect place to sit and warm up for a while and very well appreciated by both young and old in the cold damp weather.
I’m sure Strasbourg has much more to offer than just Christmas markets and I’d love to go back in the spring, on a lovely sunny day, to explore some more. Have you been? Or did you go to any Christmas markets these holidays? Do tell!