A couple of days ago, I noticed that reindeer had landed in the square, the first ride of the “Magie de Noël” (Christmas Magic–not Magi like the three guys who followed a star with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh). And today, I shared a laugh with a municipal worker who was rolling giant “snowballs” down rue Trivalle on their way to being hung up.
It still feels like the last days of summer here, with sun-drenched, balmy afternoons around 20 Celsius (70 Fahrenheit), but it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Around this time of year, some folks might be keen to experience maximum yuletide ambience, and for that one should go to Strasbourg and Colmar.
This post will focus on Strasbourg; I’ll do Colmar separately. Strasbourg is a handsome, stately city that has passed hands between France and Germany since forever. For a French resident, it felt deliciously foreign, making a short break seem like a real vacation. My friends like to say, “il faut se dépayser,” which just means that one needs to get away, but the word dépayser breaks down into leaving the country–dé = out, undo + pays = country. Which seems like a bigger deal than, say, a weekend roadtrip.
Don’t look at me for food recommendations in Strasbourg. We ate extremely well, but between being vegetarian and having constant access to excellent French cuisine, what we wanted from the metropolis was everything exotic that we can’t find in Carcassonne. So we had Ethiopian at Abyssinia, Syrian, Indian…very dépaysant. If your idea of wild includes Alsatian, then the local specialties include choucroute (sauerkraut), usually served with a big hunk of ham and sausages; baeckeoffe, a meat stew; tourte, a meat pie; and flammekueche, kind of like a white pizza with bacon and cheese.
We also found an elegant, old-fashioned café/restaurant, Café Brandt, with white tablecloths and super-high ceilings and professional waiters in black pants and white shirts. Top-tier people-watching was to be had from the cozy side of the tall, curved windows. The best show wasn’t on the street but was put on by the other patrons, most of whom were clearly regulars and whom we imagined to be university professors of philosophy or literature or European Parliament bureaucrats of myriad nationalities. The coffee was good, too. Once we found it, we were back every day, sometimes more than once in a day. Short-term regulars.
The combination of gingerbread architecture and oodles of shiny balls and lights makes the center of Strasbourg feel almost unreal. You expect Andy Williams to emerge from the throngs, singing “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Between universities and EU bureaucrats, downtown Strasbourg is all about bobos, the narrow, pedestrian streets lined with a surfeit of high-end shops. Lots and lots of pretty to look at.
Several squares in the center were packed with faux-log cabins selling all manner of Alsatian foods, some for immediate consumption (hot wine, flammekueche, etc.) or for gifting (bottles of wine and beer, seriously big cheese, meat), plus various gift items of the overpriced-and-not-at-all-necessary variety. Strasbourg has tightened vetting of the Christmas market vendors so that products are artisanal and local and all those good things. Lots of jewelry, scarves, gloves, and occasionally clever but superfluous gadgets. I gave some hand-crafted leather wallets a serious look. But we didn’t buy anything. Luckily, I disconnected my happiness from acquisition years ago, so just looking and hanging with the crowd was fun. Covid was still raging, and everybody wore masks even outside, so it was extremely exciting to be around other people at that moment.
I’m realizing this post is going to be a huge disappointment. My restaurant suggestions are all non-French (and I can’t even find most of them now to give you the names), I didn’t shop ’til I dropped, I didn’t even get inside the EU Parliament–a major draw for us–because it had just closed for the holidays. It was kind of last minute, so it was very difficult to find a hotel. We stayed at Hotel Roses, which was enough out of the center that we didn’t have to elbow past crowds of tourists to get in and out, but was only a couple minutes’ walk from all the action (Strasbourg isn’t exactly sprawling in any case, and the tram is very efficient). Hotel Roses was quiet, the beds were comfortable, the bathroom was perfect (good shower, nice tile, very clean), and the staff at the desk were unfailingly charming. Not fancy, but 90% of our time there was sleeping and the other 10% was in the shower, so we rate it 12/10.
We enjoyed walking around the residential neighborhoods beyond the center, where those Café Brandt regulars probably live. Actually, it was very weird. The houses were detached, with yards around them, and the architecture was eerily familiar. I realized the houses (if the lawns were much bigger) resembled the classy older neighborhoods of the Midwestern city where I grew up. Talk about dépaysée! This has happened to me before, where I feel like I’m back in the U.S. and so I start speaking English, only to be whipsawed back to Europe. Oops!
The only thing I must warn you about is the cold. I packed pretty well, and wore everything, all at the same time. Granted, I have gone soft, having lived almost two decades where snow has a half-life of five minutes and falls once or twice, every other year. We can see snow on the mountains, where people ski, and it’s a short drive away. In fact, Carcassonne has a ski club, and the kid was a member and went every Saturday for ski lessons in them thar hills. But snow rarely comes to Carcassonne itself. That said, snow is in my DNA. I grew up in the Midwest, and I lived in New York. Serious snow places. The whole thing about “I had to walk two miles through waist-deep snow to go to school….” I remember the blizzard of ’75 (I WAS IN GRADE SCHOOL) and the radio didn’t declare a snow day before we left, so we were at school, but the snow got so deep so fast that they sent everybody home. Not a big deal–most kids lived a couple of blocks away. We were about the farthest away from school, about two miles, our mom didn’t drive and dad was at work. So we walked home. I made my little siblings hold hands to keep them together (dictatorial big sister). We walked with a classmate of mine who lived about halfway between school and home. When we got to her house, her mother had a fit and made us all come in and called our mom and fed us hot chocolate and we stayed there watching TV in the warmth until our dad got off work and fishtailed his way through the unplowed streets in his big, boxy, baby-blue station wagon to pick us up.
So yes, I know from cold, and Strasbourg is right up there. Tights, leggings, pants. Heattech undershirt, turtleneck sweater, another sweater, another sweater, shearling coat. Huge furry hat, pashmina, gloves. Two pairs of socks (plus the tights). Walking briskly. And still I was frozen. Miserable. The other challenge is that Strasbourg is kind of chi-chi, so you don’t want to just, say, put on a ski jumpsuit. Anyway, forewarned is forearmed.
Enjoy the photos! Colmar next week. Unless I change my mind. Have you started Christmas shopping or decorating? What’s your ideal Christmas?