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.

The sign says “Strasbourg Capital of Christmas”

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.

Perhaps you don’t appreciate it from this perspective, but it was a Very Big Tree.

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– = out, undo + pays = country. Which seems like a bigger deal than, say, a weekend roadtrip.

“Petite France” is a neighborhood in Strasbourg.
German vibes!

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.

One of the best Ethiopian meals I’ve had (and I know my Ethiopian). Vegetarian, too!

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.

Café Brandt. And that little girl with the great hat! All kids should get to wear hats with animal ears! It was SO COLD. Also: I LOVE having well-cushioned armchairs at the table. So civilized.

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.

Lights, baubles. A bit crowded.
Gingerbread vibes.
The BEST French department store (found everywhere). You have to say it, like their great advertising, in a whisper, three times, fast: Galeries Lafayette! Galeries Lafayette! Galeries Lafayette!
Lots of bikes in Strasbourg.
The center of town is bordered by a canal and the river L’Ill, shown here near Palais Rohan.

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.

Hot wine (Vin Chaud), right outside the cathedral!

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.

Every French city/town has a carrousel, usually pretty beautiful.

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 yard would be 10 times bigger, but the white house could be anywhere in the Midwest USA.

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 much interesting stuff.
And intellectual, university stuff.

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.

All the cathedral photos are for my former neighbor, who was very excited for us to visit Strasbourg and to appreciate the insanely elaborately decorated cathedral.

Enjoy the photos! Colmar next week. Unless I change my mind. Have you started Christmas shopping or decorating? What’s your ideal Christmas?

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15 thoughts on “Tinsel Town

  1. Oh I love this! Christmas is my favorite time of the year and I love to travel to Europe around the holidays. The food, the decorations, the people, I love it all. I don’t care about shopping or gifts, just give me the hot chocolate, and sweet treats.
    This trips looks wonderful. I’ve not been to Strasburg but will add it to my list. As for the food, your selections sound delicious. And your photos are beautiful!
    I too am from the Mid-west and probably walked home in the same blizzard. Although in 1975/76 I lived in Alaska.
    The snow and cold in the Mid-west is no joke. Some years there is more snow than others, some years it is colder and then some it is both.
    I’ve turned into a wimp myself because I left there and moved to the South and now if it gets to the 30’s Im bundled up like the stay puff marshmallow man.

    Have a wonderful weekend! Thank you for sharing this beautiful adventure.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As part of the nationwide (and, really EU-wide) effort to reduce energy consumption, Strasbourg this year is turning off the some of the lights at 11 p.m., the rest at 1 a.m. and forbidding outdoor heating. Good for them!

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        1. Carcassonne is shutting off street lights at 11, except in the few blocks of the center. A good idea, I think. As for Christmas, turning off the lights early is a decent way to not waste electricity without canceling Christmas.

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  2. I loved my visit to Strasbourg and the Christmas market. I was just about a week after the attack on a Christmas market in Berlin, so security was very high and there were very few people there. It was absolutely wonderful not being jostled by crowds! I look forward to reading your post about Colmar, didn’t make it there as the railways went on strike…

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  3. I absolutely adored Strasbourg when I visited France. And the church!!!- Had to take 3 photos to encompass it all. Would love to see the shops during the holidays but the crowds would do me in. Such a beautiful, walkable city.
    You mention the blizzard and having the responsibility of the younger ones. Reminded me of the book The Children’s Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin. It was about the blizzard of 1888 with very sad endings for a number of young ones let out of school early for the oncoming storm. Worse yet- the morning was so pleasant, many left homes with no coats. Nevertheless, a good read.

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  4. Your post brought back such good memories of our day spent in Strasbourg. If you’re visiting Paris over the holidays, Strasbourg is an easy day trip (under two hours by train from Gare de l’Est).

    It was an enjoyable walk from the station to Patisserie Christian Meyer (in front of the Cathedral), for a coffee and pastry to fuel our morning. You can download a map of the Marchés from Strasbourg’s tourist bureau. They are all easily walkable while seeing the sights of the historic city center.

    As carnivores, we lunched at Le Gruber near Place du Château. They do Alsatian classics well, without being touristy. Although lunch service was over, they graciously sat us in their elegant (empty) dining room where I had chicken in Riesling with spaetzle, while an oompah band played right outside the tall windows.

    When the lights come on at dusk the city becomes truly magical. Our only purchase at the Marchés was an ornament for our Christmas tree, and of course mugs of hot mulled wine for warmth as we walked. Strasbourg at the holidays is a fabulous destination. Can’t wait for your Colmar post.

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  5. I was in Strasbourg in 2016 but only for the day. I’d like to go back. I’m sitting here in Minnesota reading your post (and I grew up in Wisconsin). I loved your story about the snowstorm during elementary school. Those were the days, huh? Not getting ready for Christmas because Thanksgiving’s up next. It’s one holiday at a time in our house, though you wouldn’t know it from watching TV commercials or going in the stores.

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    1. Minnesota is hard core. I lived there briefly and I remember seeing piles of hard, blackened snow in the shaded corners of parking lots in April, as if winter would never end.
      Yesterday was Armistice day, and a holiday. But Thanksgiving is just another Thursday here. It was always my favorite holiday, too.

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  6. We had just arrived in Carcassonne at the beginning of 1993 and were renting a summer gite for the winter while we set up our vineyard business. On Tuesday March 2nd, we went shopping at Geant Casino and lingered because our gite was very cold. When we came out the car park was covered in snow and we couldn’t find our car. We eventually found it and slithered back to the gite. The snow fell for 3 days, 36cm in all. The A62 motorway was closed for 3 days, the TV weather lady said the “Ville Rose” (Toulouse) was now the “Ville Blanche” and some villages were without electricity for 3 weeks! Our girls (2&4) loved the snow and we all slept together in the big bed to keep warm. We never saw that much snow again in the 15 years we lived in Carcassonne.

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    1. Oh, I bet. I heard about a big snowstorm, maybe it was 1993, where everything was shut down for days and the army used helicopters to get bread from a big, industrial bakery (run by a neighbor) and drop it to people.

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