Predictably the largest market by far is in the region’s capital, Strasbourg, but there is much more to the city’s preparations for Christmas than hundreds of brightly lit stalls. There are concerts for three nights over the weekends, an ice rink and ice garden, and special activities for children including festive boat rides on the city’s waterways.
The Christmas tradition goes back a long way in Strasbourg. It was in 1570 that the Strasbourg Protestants established their own Christkindelsmärik (market of the infant Jesus) to counter the Catholic tradition of the Saint Nicholas market. Today’s market continues the tradition of starting on the first weekend in Advent: 29 November. Even the use of a fir tree as Christmas decoration has a much older provenance than in Britain; this too dates from the 16th century, being covered first in red apples and unconsecrated wafers and later by gilded nuts and multicoloured paper flowers. In the mid-19th century, red glass balls began to replace apples.
To see the city and its markets at their best, try to arrive in Strasbourg in the late afternoon and wait until it is dark to approach the place de la Cathédrale, preferably by rue Mercière or rue des Orfèvres. Both provide a stunning first view of the cathedral’s great cliff of ornately carved pink sandstone on its entrance façade. Though the market surrounds three sides of the cathedral, this is not the largest concentration of stalls; that is found in the elongated rectangle of place Broglie, and there are smaller themed markets in the nearby squares of place Kléber, place des Meuniers, place Benjamin Zix and place du Marché Neuf.
The great delight of the market is that even someone jaded by mass consumerism will find their interest aroused by the astonishing variety and quality of the stalls, naturally dominated by Christmas-related objects and decorations. There are stalls with thousands of painted and unpainted wooden figures, angels and animals; stalls devoted to fairy lights, decorative glass balls, Venetian masques, candles, elongated glass cats, incredibly elaborate water features with working waterwheels, and numerous stalls selling local crafts in leather and pottery.
It is impossible to resist the food on offer. Many stalls sell locally made jams, wine, beers, biscuits and of course foie gras for which the city became famous, thanks to Jean-Pierre Clause, the chef and pastry cook to Alsace’s governor in the late 18th century, Maréchal de Contades. Clause’s confection reputedly so delighted Louis XVI that he rewarded de Contades with land and Clause with money. Clause went on to sell ‘pâté de foie gras de Strasbourg’ commercially.
Stalls are devoted to seasonal fare such as Berawecka, the Christmas cake which resembles a Swiss roll made with a filling of dried pears, figs, prunes, raisins and dates to which are added orange and lemon peel, chopped almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts. Another favourite is the Kougelhopf cake which is available all year. The cake is a symbol of Alsace and looks like a panettone baked in a Bundt tin.
Although the markets are the main reason people visit Strasbourg in the weeks before Christmas, the city is a treasure house of fine architecture, ancient and modern, as well as museums that illuminate the past of this frequently contested part of France. Foremost among the city’s buildings is the cathedral, and everyone wants to see the huge astronomical clock, which dates from 1571 although the mechanism was rebuilt in 1842. The best way to appreciate its finer points is to watch a 22-minute film with English commentary, which shows the moving parts in close-up.
The cathedral’s 142-metre spire made it the world’s tallest building when it was finished in 1439, but the crocket spire was nearly destroyed during the French Revolution when zealots thought it should be reduced to the height of the matching spire-less tower. It was spared when a local man suggested that a red metalwork Phrygian cap – symbol of the Revolution – should be placed on top of its pinnacle. When Goethe was a student in Strasbourg in 1770-1, he used to climb the 328 steps of the tower to the viewing platform to exercise willpower over his fear of heights.
The view from the tower is the best way to appreciate the importance of water to the city and its proximity to the Rhine, reached by the River Ill which briefly divides to create the island on which the old city stands. The quais on the Rhine make Strasbourg the second largest port on the river. Paris-like bateaux mouches take you past Vauban’s imposing defensive dam of the 1680s, its dark inner recesses now stuffed with stored sculpture, and on to the European institutions that make Strasbourg the closest Europe has to a capital – the Palace of Europe, the European Parliament and Richard Rogers’ striking Court of Human Rights.
For most visitors it is the wealth of timber-framed buildings lining the streets of the medieval cité that makes it such a pleasure to wander round. The quarter known as ‘Petite France’ is particularly picturesque. But for those wanting to appreciate the architectural evolution of the city, the tourist office produces an excellent Strolling in Strasbourg booklet with six themed walks and maps. They can be easily cut short by hopping on one of the five tram routes which are much the easiest and cheapest way to get around the city. Trams B and E heading north, for example, take you through the Imperial quarter of the city, built after the siege of 1870; it is now recognised as a fine example of urban planning with a cluster of large civic buildings around place de la République, including the Art Nouveau Civic Baths of 1908.