If there was further proof within my personal life that the worst may be done with COVID-19, we have the reinstatement of Christmas Market trips – which had been an almost annual tradition for some time. I mean, the last trip I took before the world shut down was a trip to Seville for their Christmas times.
This time, we have ventured to Strasbourg – the self-styled capital of Christmas. To make things that much easier, we went there by train – first by Eurostar between London and Paris and then onwards to our final destination via the TGV. It was a post-work trip (even then I managed to pull enough overtime to get an agreement in that I could leave 90 minutes early) which meant we arrived around midnight local time.
So now it’s Saturday and our first full day on this trip. Woke up feeling dehydrated and thoroughly rotten. Breakfast helped a bit, but wow was that a lot of carbs to load up on straight away. Still, the pain au chocolat was nice and it was a good excuse to have some jam without having to get a whole jar.
This is one of those rare holidays where there is no real itinerary for each day, just a vague idea of what major thing I want to do and see. Makes for a different kind of trip than I have done in recent times, but does allow for a bit more meandering. We just knew that over the course of the day we wanted to visit Strasbourg Cathedral and the 13 different Christmas markets.
Everything in this capital of Christmas is located on an island that makes up the beautiful centre of the city. We started our visit on a little set of peninsulas nearby also known as La Petite France. This is one of those classic areas that used to be undesirable due to the presence of industrial processes but has since become a really beautiful and green area as the facilities were moved out of the city centre.
For the a great view of this small area, there is the terrace over the Barrage Vauban – a covered bridge and dam that once formed part of the cities defenses. It was here that I gave in and had a painkiller and was all the better for it because, in the end, I am here to enjoy the Christmas sights.
La Petite France also had the first of the many markets we were going to visit throughout the day. This market also had three live singers and it was just the perfect way to start this Christmassy experience. The setting with all the old timber buildings was similarly darling and something that would repeat throughout the day.
You see, by calling themselves the Capital of Christmas, there is a lot to live up to. With 13 markets that is already a good start (although some are about 2-3 stalls). None of them have the massive wow factor of the main market in Vienna, but they make up for it in variation and some real unique finds depending on the market you visit.
No, what Strasbourg has in spades is local businesses who go for Christmas with gusto. In the daylight, it is already pretty stunning with many buildings decked out with various bits of greenary and (I guess this is a local thing) teddy bears. I will get to nighttime in a bit, but even in daytime this city was already giving many other places a real run for the Christmas money.
There wasn’t really a lunch per se, I mean you cannot walk far without the smell of mulled wine and Munster cheese commanding your full attention. I had to give into this for lunch with, what was essentially a really fancy cheese on toast with bacon and Munster cheese. They also had a stunning looking one with emmental and sausage on it, but I wanted to follow that smell.
We managed out time well so we didn’t have to queue too long to get into the cathedral. If I have to compare it to another I’ve visited, it would be like a smaller Cologne Cathedral. It’s from the same era and with the same architectural hallmarks. The watchword for this is austere. It has such a big presence and, inside, it is not too ornate but rather there is this might.
At the back, there is main thing you come into the cathedral for: the astronomical clock. It is not the original clock, in fact it is the third incarnation and less than 200 years old. However, it is a beautiful and ambitious timepiece. I wish that we could have been here for solar noon too see it in full gear, but I think there was a mass at the time which prohibits entry.
This cathedral also had a pretty extensive nativity display going from conception to baptism. Truly I have seen some pretty elaborate nativity displays in churches, but not sure if I have seen one that is a literal time, this wide and with such a large depiction of an elephant. Whoever made this had a true love of the humble elephant.
After the cathedral, we visited all the other markets we had yet to see. I think that my favourites ended up being at Place Benjamin Zix, Place au Chateau and the Christkindelsmarik at Place Broglie. Nearly all the markets were completely packed with people given that this is the first Saturday in December. I hope that when we go and buy some things on Tuesday afternoon, it’ll be a bit quieter and we can maybe sample some of the spatzel without waiting 15 minutes in line.
By the time we were most of our way through the final market of the city, the sun was down and the lights were coming on. The city was already rather beautifully decked out for the holidays, but with the lights on – things just got kicked up a notch.
Honestly I’ve never known anything quite like it. The density and the variety of lights on display is something truly special. At times you wonder if there is a competition since some some streets and shops got all out on their decorations. Some of those that fall middle of the pack would make a massive impact back home in London, but here it’s another lovely display featuring lights and some kind of winter animal. We spent a very long time just walking around and staring at the lights. Strasbourg after dark in December is truly special.
For dinner, we went to a lovely restaurant called Au Pont Saint-Martin and shared an absolutely massive serving of choucroute garnie. Literally translated this means dressed sauerkraut, but in practice this variety was sauerkraut with potatoes, three types of sausage, ham hock and thick cuts of bacon. There were three of us and it was meant to serve two… in what universe is this the right amount of food for two people. It’s delicious, but too much. Thanks to our waitress who didn’t try to oversell us!
Since we are here for Christmas primarily, tomorrow will see us venture out to a neighbouring city to see their Christmas wares. It is set to be smaller and quieter than what we saw today, but it should still make for a lovely day as long as the weather holds out.