It's All Marketing: Christmastime in Strasbourg

Special to The Washington Post
During nearly 20 years of marriage, our Christmas decor rollout has grown -- from a single hatbox of ornaments and lights to seven substantial cartons, filled with yuletide stuff that my wife has accumulated on a trail from Vienna through Saks Fifth Avenue to the Texas Hill country.

And every year around the feast of St. Nick (Dec. 6), it is my job to haul these cartons down from a dusty perch in the garage so that she can pick through their contents: ornaments made from glass, fabric, wood and old buttons; hand-sewn stockings; the snowman collection; the "Nutcracker" wooden soldier; wooden and tin Santas; reindeer candle holders; pine-cone art; those German candle-powered carousels that always seem to catch on fire; one angel made from battery casings; a nativity scene built from beach stones in Provence; years' worth of our son's school holiday projects, and more.

Given my wife's soft spot for Christmas objets, I suppose it was our destiny to end up last December on a plane to Strasbourg, the capital of France's Alsace and the self-proclaimed "Capital of Christmas." It's an unquantifiable claim, but this much is true: The place celebrates Christmas like few places on Earth.

Nestled west of the Rhine River bordering Germany and east of the Vosges Mountains that separate it from Lorraine, Strasbourg has turned its annual month-long Christmas markets dating from 1570 into an industry, with enough Christmas crafts and gingerbread to bring Martha Stewart fans to the point of overdose and enough vin chaud (hot wine), Alsatian hospitality and cholesterol-laden cooking to keep the rest of us merry and bright.

Christmas in Strasbourg and the rest of Alsace is officially feted from the last Saturday in November through Dec. 31 in a month full of nonstop markets, concerts, torch-lighted forest walks, parades, live Nativity scenes, storytelling, theater and public aperitifs.

With its history as a crossroads that's been kicked between Germany and France, Alsace is neither French nor German. It is the land where Gaul meets the Black Forest, where escargot meet sauerkraut. And at Christmas, you can throw in a heavy dose of Whoville.

A Jolly Welcome

"In Europe there are three places to be at Christmas: London, Munich and Alsace."

The speaker was a young chef in a bistro near our home in the South of France. He was Alsatian, and like the other Alsatians who had come into our lives -- my tennis partner, my son's piano teacher, our neighbors with the super-organized organic garden -- he was making a concerted effort to be helpful, particularly as the subject was Alsace.

"And in Alsace," he continued, "the three places to be at Christmas are Strasbourg, Colmar and Kaysersberg."

It was a week before our trip, which we'd scheduled for the weekend before Christmas. Our Alsatian network had already provided us with a stack of magazines, books, brochures and news clippings. That evening, after our latest Alsatian acquaintance gave us a half-hour talk on Alsatian politics, cuisine, wines, beer and history, he handed me a piece of paper on which he had meticulously written more addresses to serve as our itinerary.

Just after we touched down in the small airport outside Strasbourg, the first thing we noticed wasn't the machine-gun-toting police or bomb-sniffing dogs, but the beer. Right outside the area where we collected our bags, some cheery Alsatians were offering arrivals samples of their new Christmas brew and bredele, local Christmas cookies. It was barely noon, and from the looks of the crowd at the bar a few yards away, the Christmas party was already in full swing.

The old city in Strasbourg's center is circled by tributaries and canals of the tamed Ill River. In the pedestrian center, the preferred modes of rapid transportation are a network of sleek electric trams and three-speed bicycles. Though this is the eighth largest urban area in France, has a major university and is home to the European Parliament, it has kept a small-town feel with its low buildings with gabled roofs and neighborhoods of half-timbered houses.

The heart of the old town is the pink sandstone, single-spired gothic cathedral of Notre Dame, with its maniacally detailed facades and its 19th-century astrological clock, which every day at 12:30 p.m. comes to life inside the church with a figurine procession of apostles followed by the crowing of a mechanical rooster.

Our first taste of Strasbourg's acres of Christmas markets began on the large square outside the cathedral, where rows upon rows of wooden chalets were selling just about every bit of traditional Christmas you could imagine. There were seas of glittering metal ornaments, Nativity figurines in terra cotta and wood, and every sort of angel depiction, as well as frankincense and myrrh.

But that first evening, the most striking thing for me was the way Strasbourg transformed itself into a town right out of a vintage Christmas shop window. Narrow winding streets were recast by spotlights in shades of green and purple and red. Antique buildings became backdrops for endless garlands and lights, painted winter scenes and fairy-like angels. Suspended above Rue des Hallebardes was a series of Baccarat crystal chandeliers. (Baccarat encases these treasures in sheer protective cages that don't much diminish the effect.) We found dinner inside a building crawling with stuffed polar bears.

Chez Yvonne is a winstub, or wine pub -- the Alsatian answer to the traditional French bistro. At Yvonne, as at most winstubs, you sit at communal tables and exchange toasts or abridged life stories with your neighbors. You eat onion tart or local goose foie gras followed by plentiful portions of sauerkraut covered with an extravaganza of pork, or some other carnivorous concoction like Baeckoffe, a slow-baked stew of lamb, pork and beef marinated in wine.

Yes, the wine. I am not a white wine person, except in Alsace, where you can find some of the most varied, easy-drinking whites anywhere -- from dry Riesling to intensely perfumed Tokay pinot gris to the naturally sweet and elegant late-harvest wines known as vendanges tardives.

Yvonne left us fortified against the cold by a few thousand excess calories, and we walked back to our hotel along the river. As if on cue, swans floated lazily by, and we crossed a bridge into the small enclave known as La Petite France. How romantic, we thought -- a postcard-perfect village with a postcard-perfect name set on an island in the middle of the city. It was only later that we learned the area got its name from the 15th-century German soldiers who were quarantined here for what the Germans referred to as "the little French disease."

Roots of Christmas

Historical accounts tell of Christmas trees being sold in Alsace in the early 16th century and of decorations of apples, paper roses and sweets. Following the drought of 1858, according to the local version of history, there was no fruit for children to hang on Christmas boughs. To compensate, a glass blower in the Vosges Mountains created the first known Christmas balls.

Saturday morning we set out on our mission of crossing the heart of Alsace's Christmasland.

Driving through the countryside, we were struck by the landscape's general sense of order. On farms outside clustered villages there was a notable absence of rural yard trash; firewood was meticulously stacked in rows as long as some city blocks. In front of a bakery, I watched an elderly woman attack a doormat with a broom as though it were a matter of life and death.

The first stop was Colmar, birthplace of Statue of Liberty creator Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, who is said to have modeled Liberty after his Alsatian mother. Colmar is a small affluent town with a canal district known as Petite Venise, or Little Venice (apparently nothing to do with anything contagious). Where Strasbourg is sophisticated, Colmar is pure Hansel and Gretel: The buildings are smaller, the wood-timbered houses more prevalent, the streets more cobbled and the roof gables more fanciful.

The Christmas markets here also had a more intimate feel. Though there are fewer vendors, more of the Christmas crafts seemed to be made by the hands selling them. Out came my wife's wallet as she scooped up a trio of red Christmas balls, then a pair of giant gingerbread hearts decorated with gnomes. Prices for the crafts range from about $8 to $33 each.

My son and I got into the act as well. While I scouted wines in local shop windows, he searched out what we have come to call "weapons of mass destruction" -- replica medieval swords and daggers that act as magnets to little boys all over the world.

From Colmar, we drove west toward Kaysersberg, a village of fewer than 3,000 watched over by the ruins of a medieval castle at the foot of the mountains. The first thing we noticed as we pulled up was a pair of storks nesting atop an old tower.

We were now, I realized, headed into the land of deep-quaint. Most every doorway and window box was draped in garlands and ribbons that lit up with twinkling white lights as the afternoon sun dropped behind the hills. Visitors stood outside bakeries marveling at the windows filled with kugelhopf, airy tube cakes with raisins and nuts, and mannala, little Christmas men made of brioche. In the market by the courtyard of the small church were candle makers and wood toy artisans, silk and marquetry workers and more bread bakers. Out leapt my wife's wallet again. Hot wine in souvenir glasses was everywhere as the population of the little town seemed to quadruple over the course of a couple of hours.

We drove back to Strasbourg along the fabled Alsace wine route, through dormant winter -- bare vineyards and tiny villages with storks on rooftop perches silhouetted in the twilight.

Getting Your Fill

The Alsatian diet pretty much runs counter to everything espoused by modern nutritional science: too much meat, too much butter, too much fat. Around the holidays you can count on too much sugar and alcohol as well. Our attitude going in was "When in Strasbourg, do as the Strasbourgeois." This doesn't mean sitting down to three courses twice a day. A meal here is often a beer and a hot piece of flammekueche, a thin-crusted, pizza-like tart covered with onions, thick cream and bacon.

Of course, an Alsatian meal can also mean lunch at Buerehiesel, the restaurant that commands three Michelin stars from its pastoral nest in the city park known as the Orangerie. Buerehiesel is set in an old groundskeeper's house with a modern atrium near a lake and a small zoo where storks come and go.

This was our choice for the weekend blowout -- in terms of both credit card and calories -- and we reserved a week in advance for Sunday lunch.

From the moment we walked in, we were made to feel as if we were getting our euros' worth. Our coats disappeared, chairs glided in and out from beneath us, and extra appetizers appeared under our noses: a diminutive terrine of foie gras, tiny stuffed dumplings, petite zucchini cakes and a kind of stewed clam, just to name a few. My wife and I ordered wild duck served with baked quince; for our son, they prepared chicken and pasta. After the ceremonial rollout of a cheese tray representing every corner of France, more little extras started appearing: samplings of fruit soups, flan, a tower of chocolate truffles, custard served in an egg shell.

After a taxi ride back to the center of town, we headed to Strasbourg's Place Broglie, where Europe's oldest Christmas market began. We passed rows of fir trees and mistletoe and plunged into the crush of marketgoers with strollers, video cameras and Santa hats with blinking lights. About the same instant, my son and I had the same feeling: We'd just about had our fill of Christmas stuff.

The two of us headed to the river and bought tickets for the next boat ride around the city. But my wife was not finished. She headed in the opposite direction, deeper into the land of Santa hats. It was exactly 80 hours until Christmas morning, and there were marzipan baby angels waiting to come home with us. And gingerbread houses needing a warm hearth. And who knew what else.

Robert V. Camuto last wrote for Travel about Italy's Cinque Terre.

Details: Christmas in Strasbourg

GETTING THERE: Strasbourg International Airport is served by daily flights from major European airports. Around the holidays, fare range from $600 (two-stops on Air France) to almost a grand (one stop, Air France). Usual winter fares, though, start at $450.

From Paris, Strasbourg is approximately four hours by train. Full first-class fares are about $90 one way. For schedules, rates and reservations in France: www.voyages-sncf.com.

GETTING AROUND: Strasbourg's efficient public transit system includes sleek trams and buses. For about $5.25, you can get an unlimited-travel family pass, available through electronic distributors at tram stops, for families of two to five persons in a 24-hour period.

You can also rent bicycles for $6 per day, or see Strasbourg by boat in a glass-topped bateau mouche. Tickets ($8.60) are available at the boat launch along the river.

WHERE TO STAY: Avoid the chain hotels and stay in the old city in smaller local hotels (reserve early for holiday periods). Romantik Hotel Beaucour (5 Rue des Bouchers, 011-33-3-8876-7200, www.hotel-beaucour.com) is what the name implies -- a romantic hotel in the heart of the city. Doubles start at $162. The Hotel du Dragon (2 Rue de L'Ecarlate, 011-33-3-8835-7980, www.dragon.fr) offers modern renovated rooms on a quiet street. Doubles start at $100.

For a pleasant bargain familial hotel (that tends to fill up fast) next to the cathedral, try Hotel Gutenberg (31 Rue des Serruriers, 011-33-3-8832-1715). Doubles start at $72.

WHERE TO EAT: During Christmas season, particularly on weekends, don't leave your hotel without reservations.

For home-style Alsatian cooking and local wines in a convivial atmosphere, winstubs (wine pubs) are the winner at dinnertime. At Chez Yvonne (10 Rue du Sanglier), $37 buys you a plate of escargots and a big helping of sauerkraut and pork sausages, plus some Munster or camembert to finish. Other local favorites include Le Clou (3 Rue du Chaudron), about $33 per person, plus wine; and Le Pont du Corbeau (21 Quai Saint-Nicolas), about $26 plus wine.

It's right on the tourist track in the shadow of the cathedral, but the Maison Kammerzell (16 Place de la Cathedrale) is worth it for its decor -- antique wall murals of country life and winemaking -- and three-fish sauerkraut. Dinner runs about $43, plus wine.

For highbrow dining, Strasbourg's best restaurant is chef Antoine Westermann's Buerehiesel (4 Parc de l'Orangerie), in the Orangerie, a 17th-century park. About $104-$130, plus wine. For lowbrow fun, try the Alsatian signature tarte flambee, also known as flammekueche, and a house-made beer ($10.50 for the pair) at Au Brasseur (22 Rue des veaux). Be warned: The joint fills with cigarette smoke early.

INFORMATION: English-language information and brochures about Christmas markets, wine routes, outdoor sports and a schedule of events in Strasbourg and throughout Alsace are available through the Alsace tourist office, www.tourisme-alsace.com. For more information on visiting France: French Government Tourist Office, 410-286-8310, us.franceguide.com.