Thursday, December 12, 2013

Strasbourg & Les Marchés de Noël

Christmas cookies at the Strasbourg market
Always eager to immerse ourselves in Christmas cheer, Meike and I took a mid-week trip to the city of Strasbourg, the self-proclaimed "Capital of Christmas."  Home to France's oldest marché de Noël, the
Christkindelsmärik (Market of the Child Jesus), Strasbourg's Christmas markets are a festive holiday tradition begun all the way back in 1570 (2013 marks its 443th year!).  The city is situated about 2 hours south of Forbach and we had been banking on spending a weekend there to enjoy the festivities...apparently everyone else in the area had the same idea! All the hotels in the area were booked for every weekend of December - unless we felt like coughing up half of our monthly salary to stay in a ritzy place - so instead we opted to arrive in the city on a Tuesday night so we could spend all day Wednesday (our day off) wandering the town.

Strasbourg is the capital of the Alsace region of Eastern France, as well as the country's 9th largest city
We didn't arrive until nearly 9pm, a full hour after the markets close for the day, but we wanted to take advantage of the bright moonlit night to explore the city and admire all of the Christmas lights and decorations - we sure weren't disappointed!  

Strasbourg's giant sapin de Noël at Place Kléber
An illuminated model of the city sits below the tree
A modern take on the traditional manger scene: chainsaw-carved statues
The awe-inspiring Gothic cathédrale de Strasbourg
Basically, the entire city looked like a giant version of Bright Nights
Spectacle son et lumière: animations light up Place Kléber with light and sound

After being thoroughly chilled to the bone thanks to our late-night stroll in the sub-zero weather, we headed back to the hotel for the night, eager to see what the city had to offer by daylight...

La Petite France, a section of Strasbourg filled with half-timber houses sitting along the canals of the River Ill
Strasbourg is actually like a giant fairy-tale village, as its streets are lined with half-timber houses, all sporting vibrantly colored shutters and really giving the city a medieval feel.  Add about a million Christmas lights to that and you've got yourself the perfect kitschy Christmas paradise.

As is typical, I couldn't pass up a peek inside the city's cathedral - one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture still standing today.  Soaring an impressive 466 feet into the heavens, it was actually the world's tallest building for 277 years (from 1647-1874) and today stands as the world's sixth tallest church.  That's quite impressive considering the building was begun in 1015 (in a time of rudimentary tools but obviously extremely precise architectural calculations), standing as a testament to the power of faith, perseverance and mind-boggling craftsmanship.  It's hard to put it all into perspective when computer programs today could spit out a blueprint for this edifice without a problem, but when you take a minute to really think about it, it's actually really impressive that people were even capable of creating such beautiful works of art like this 1000 years ago with such basic tools.

The cathedral's amazingly detailed facade
Radiant stained glass windows illuminate the church's interior
The cathedral's astronomical clock, very impressive to watch all its parts whirring around
The cathedral towers over one of Strasbourg's eleven marchés de Noël, serving as an impressive backdrop for the dozens of vendors peddling their wares in the square below.  What can you find at the Christmas markets, you ask? A better question is what can't you find there...

Artisans tempt those strolling through the markets with hand-crafted ornaments, figures for the Nativity scene, fine Alsatian lace, candles, Santa name it, you can probably find it there! 

And then there's the food. Cheap, delicious, made with local ingredients, and cooked to order while you wait. 

My delicious lunch: sauerkraut and spaetzle mixed with bacon, onions, cheese and a white wine sauce, topped off with two bratwursts
Hungry for lunch? How about some local choucroute (grilled sausages garnished with a heaping portion of barrel-cured sauerkraut)? Cheese-covered pretzels? Freshly-shucked oysters with a squeeze of lemon? What about some deep-fried frogs' legs? Pizza? Maybe even a tarte flambée smothered in crème fraîche and topped with all the bacon, cheese and onions you could dream of... 

Quite possibly the World's Largest Pretzel - all for only 3€!
Thirsty? Grab a mug of vin chaud, France's famous mulled wine - you can get it in red or white. Christmas beer is popular here too, thanks to the region's German influence. Or if you don't feel like stumbling home from the markets, try a glass of hot spiced orange juice sweetened with a touch of honey.

One of the many vin chaud vendors with it huge kettles of simmering wine
What about dessert? Crêpes, deep fried beignets filled with Nutella, hot waffles topped with whipped cream, Alsatian nougat, Christmas cookies (of both the French and German varieties), chocolate-dipped your mouth watering yet?

1/3 liter of hot wine for 3€, quite the bargain!
The food portion of les marchés de Noël is a double-edged sword: everything's pretty cheap so you don't feel bad trying something...and then the next thing that catches your eye...and the next. Two hours and twenty pounds later you're rolling yourself back to your hotel wondering where your 20€ went...but it's totally worth it!

The Christmas market at Place de la Cathédrale
You'd think we would have had our fill of Christmas cheer after our shopping/eating extravaganza in Strasbourg, but no! Meike and I headed up to Metz along with one of her friends who was visiting to see what was going on during the Christmas season there...but unfortunately there wasn't much!  In any case, we enjoyed another day of shopping (and eating), and I finally got my Christmas shopping finished up.

In other news: we decorated our little Christmas tree (with popcorn garland and a batch of those amazing smelling homemade cinnamon ornaments) and Santa delivered me a box of presents from home! I couldn't have been more excited to open the box and find my stocking from home as well as some pint-sized presents to put under the tree. All that's left is to wait 2 more weeks to open them...the countdown continues... 

Our little sapin de Noël and some presents from home!

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