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Old World Holiday: It's All Marketing

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.

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

_____Christmas in Europe_____
Having a Ball in Bavaria (The Washington Post, Nov 28, 2004)

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.

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