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