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.
Strasbourg's quiet, snow-dusted enclave of La Petite France is a respite from its busy Christmas markets.
(Alain Kauffmann/Strasbourg Tourist Office)
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.