Christmas Capital

Strasbourg street with buildings lit for Christmas
Lights along the Rue des Grandes Arcades

There’s good reason for Strasbourg to bill itself as the Christmas Capital (capital de Noël). Starting in late November every year, the city is taken over by holiday decorations, almost a dozen different markets, and millions of visitors.

We arrived in Strasbourg on the first weekend the markets were open and made the mistake of starting at the busiest and biggest market on our first night. It was overwhelming. People pressed shoulder to shoulder, jostling each others’ vin chaud (hot spiced wine), competing to purchase Alsatian snacks, and craning to peer at the variety of Christmas trinkets for sale.

Crowded with competing noises and lights and smells, there was definitely no sense of holiday ‘peace and goodwill’ at Place Broglie!

After a round of vin chaud and a quick bite, we retreated from the Christkindelsmärik and stumbled on the light show at Place Kléber, Strasbourg’s largest square. We struggled to follow the story behind the show, but the lights and sounds were sufficiently impressive for the plot to be entirely unnecessary. The press of the people continued, however, and we called it a night.

We returned to our accommodations somewhat disillusioned, slightly agoraphobic, and more than a little worried that the markets might overwhelm Strasbourg’s charm.

Why did it seem like a good idea to join the more than 2 million tourists who visit la Capitale de Noël over a five week span? What were we thinking becoming part of the holiday hordes? Could this be Christmas overdose?

Christmas market in Strasbourg
The Market Alsatian Christmas Delights

Thankfully, a late night dog walk that first night revealed a quieter, less frantic side to Strasbourg at Christmastime. The markets close relatively early (8pm on weekdays/9pm on weekends) and the city quickly emptied leaving only a few pedestrians and lots of glittering lights.

We found what may be the prettiest, glittery-est little street in the world between Temple Neuf and the Cathedral; strolled along the Ill River while watching the lights flicker on the water; enjoyed the unimpeded views of the half timbered houses of Petite France; and reveled in the peaceful quiet of the decorations.

This was the magic I had hoped for!

On subsequent days, we sought out a few of the quieter markets and Strasbourg’s charm returned. Without the overcrowding, we were able to linger over locally-produced goodies and intricate toys, chat with vendors, and enjoy our drinks without fearing that some stranger’s misplaced elbow would spill them.

Strasbourg proved itself worthy of its self-anointed ‘Christmas Capital’ title, but it was only by getting a little off the beaten path (or the worn cobblestones – ha!) that we were able to really enjoy what the city has to offer.

Ten Capitale de Noël Tips

  1. Get out of the main tourist areas
    Move beyond the Cathedral and Christkindelsmärik and explore the further flung, less crowded markets – which really aren’t that far! The official program has a map of all the markets.
  2. Sample a few beverages
    There are so many options! (Including many non-alcoholic possibilities.) Try vin chaud blanc, the local specialty, with its white wine-base and citrus/spice flavours. The hot beverages also have the added bonus of making everything seem a little warmer 😉

    Laura in Strasbourg with vin chaud and foie gras
    A mug of vin chaud and foie gras – happy eats!
  3. Likewise, explore the food options
    Strasbourg has a fabulous mix of French- and German-inspired chow and there are likely a few things you haven’t eaten before.
    Sauerkraut (choucroute in Alsace) with bacon (lardons) and pasta-like dumplings (schupfnudeln)? Yum!
    Chestnuts – roasted or candied (marron chaud or glacé)? Not my favourite, but I’m glad to have tried them!
    Fresh bread with a large smear of foie gras? Ohhh yes!
  4. Try out your language skills
    No matter how rusty you think your French is, give it a go! The vendors seemed to really happy to start a conversation in French, although almost all of them quickly switched to English.
    Many people in the region also speak German, so if Sie sprechen Deutsch, that also works.
  5. Order quickly and clearly when the markets are busy
    Know what you want beforehand (generally the offerings are well-posted), hold off on the small talk, and save your broken French for later. When the lines are 30 people deep, efficiency is key!
  6. Be prepared to walk a lot
    Strasbourg is flat and all the markets but one are within reasonable walking distance. The easiest, cheapest, and often quickest method of transportation is hoofing it. At least you can take a warm mug of wine for the journey!
  7. Dress warmly
    It’s winter. The markets are all outside. Hot wine can only keep you toasty for so long.
  8. Bring cash
    Many of the high-end stalls selling clothing, art, and decorations take international credit cards (and European bank cards), but food is pretty much a cash only exchange. The vendors really appreciate getting coins or exact change early in the day, but most are fine with breaking 50 € notes later in the day.
  9. Take breaks
    Strasbourg has lots to see beyond the markets: historical churches, chic department stores (Galeries Lafayette and Printemps), EU institutions, and a wine cellar at the City Hospital (link in French). In addition to escaping the crowds, these can be great places to warm up as well!

    Decorations were impressive in daylight - but magical at night!
    Decorations were impressive in daylight – but magical at night!
  10. Stay out late
    Strasbourg was at its most magical after the markets closed. Take an after dinner walk through Petite France to the picturesque Ponts Couverts; stroll under the huge chandeliers on Rue des Hallebardes; or enjoy the changing multicoloured lights that illuminate the buildings on Rue des Grandes Arcades.
    The holiday lights in Strasbourg are fantastic and some of my favourite moments in the Capital de Noël were after market hours.

And a bonus tip: You can return the reusable cups to any drink stall to get your 1 € deposit back; no need to seek out the stall you bought your beverage from. Feel free to stroll between markets with your beverage without worrying that you’ll need to backtrack to return your glass.

The Strasbourg Christmas Markets

Listed in my highly-subjective order of preference 🙂

  • Le village belge – Belgian Village
    Belgium is the featured region at this uncrowded market on place Gutenberg. The beer, chocolates, waffles, and fries are all as delicious as expected and the square lights up beautifully with changing colours at night.
  • Le marché des délices de Noël d’Alsace – Market of Alsatian Christmas Delights
    Located outside the dense historical centre of Strasbourg on the place d’Austerlitz, this market features regional meats (like foie gras and sausage), baked goods (so many cookies!), and wine – including fantastic vin chaud blanc.
  • Le marché des irréductibles petits producteurs d’Alsace – Market of the Invincible Small Producers of Alsace
    Tucked alongside the Petit France region of the city on place des meuniers, this rustic market has local producers promoting their own edible delicacies. The pride the sellers felt in their wares was evident and it was reflected in the quality of the food and beverages. And who doesn’t want to support ‘invincible’ artisans!?!
  • Le marché du Carré d’or
    A lovely smaller market at place du Temple neuf with the standard market fare (vin chaud, sausages, trinkets, toys) along with a large tea stall and the only marrons glacés (candied chestnuts) I saw in Strasbourg.
  • Le Village du partage – The Village of Sharing
    These few stalls next to the giant Christmas tree on the place Kléber are the feelgood section. Home-baked goods and charitable organizations make this a great do-gooder stop.
  • Le marché des Rois mages – Market of the Three Magi
    Perhaps the smallest market, these stalls in place Benjamin-Zix offer gifts, toys, and other mostly non-edible purchases. Great to tie together with a visit to the Market of Invincible Small Producers.
  • Le marché de Noël de la Cathédrale – The Cathedral Christmas Market
    Set up around Strasbourg’s Cathédrale Notre-Dame on the place de la Cathédrale is a fairly standard Christmas market with beautifully lit streets leading up to it and the towering Cathedral spires above.
  • Le marché du Corbeau
    A small market with at place du Corbeau with mostly ornament and decoration stalls. A nice stop on the walk between the Market of Alsatian Christmas delights at Austerlitz and the Belgian Village or Cathedral Market.
  • Le Village des enfants – The children’s village
    Just for kids, this market on place Saint Thomas seemed to really be a tent for holiday crafts. It was closed when we were there so it’s hard to tell what it was liked when filled with children. Cool wooden carvings around the tent, though.
  • Christkindelsmärik
    On the place Broglie, this is the largest (and most overwhelming) of Strasbourg’s markets. There’s the standard assortment of food and beverage sellers along with many stalls hawking souvenirs, art, housewares, and gifts.
  • Le marché de la Gare – Train station market
    We didn’t actually make it to place de la Gare for what is apparently the least-toursity market in Strasbourg.

Christmas mail

Package of tea, tea pot, and addressed/stamped envelopesOne of my favourite things about this time of year is sending Christmas cards. I love picking them out, putting on stamps, listing out recipients, and writing messages of hope and happiness. I imagine that the cards I send add a little sparkle (sometimes literally… I choose a lot of glittery cards!) and hopefully bring some holiday cheer.

This year I sent a few cards to strangers and I’ll likely never know if the correspondence got to them. The Canadian Armed Forces allows people to send cards to random members and after reflecting on Remembrance Day a few weeks ago, it seemed appropriate to send my appreciation to Canadians currently serving around the world.

The cards I sent out this year likely won’t be received in time for Christmas (they go through a central mail station and are then sent overseas, so it’s an early deadline!), but hopefully they still bring some holiday happiness. The Instructions for Mailing Overseas on the Canadian Forces website make it easy to send mail to ‘Any Canadian Armed Forces Member’ and it was interesting to see the Canadian Forces operation names and locations (like OP HAMLET in Haiti and OP KOBOLD in Kosovo).

I was surprised to find that Canada is one of the only countries that enables this kind of contact with troops overseas. Australia has a Postcards to the Troops program that’s somewhat similar; the American Red Cross has a Holiday Mail for Heroes program that doesn’t have a central mailing address and seems pretty patchy; and the UK doesn’t allow any non-personally addressed mail to members of their armed forces. (There are, however, British charities like uk4u Thanks! that collect funds to send holiday parcels to troops.)

One more reason I feel lucky to be Canadian 🙂

Next year, I’ll break out the cards and seasonal tea at the beginning of November (and likely violate my husband’s ‘No Christmas songs before December!’ rule) and make sure the cards for ‘Any Canadian Armed Forces Member’ get to the central depot well in advance!

Martinsmann pudding

Man-shaped pastry with red poppyWhile 11 November is Remembrance Day for Canadians (and Armistice or Veterans Day in other countries), it’s St. Martin’s Day in Germany. St Martin’s Day is the feast day for Martin of Tours and was one last great banquet before the start of Advent fasting in the middle ages.  In modern Germany, St Martin’s Day is known for roast goose (Martinsgans), lantern processions, and, in Mannheim, human-shaped pastries called Martinsmann.

We picked up a Martinsmann from our local bakery and were underwhelmed by its relative flavourlessness. Rather than waste the leftovers, I bumped them up with spices and apples in a bread pudding.

This recipe is modified from one I use for leftover hot cross buns at Easter. It works best with sweeter bread, but would be just fine with regular bread, too, although maybe with a little more sugar.

Partially eaten bread pudding

The bread pudding filled the kitchen with a lovely warm spicy smell, just like holiday baking – but it’s absolutely easier to make than gingerbread men or Christmas cookies 🙂 All the delicious smells with the ease of chopping up bread and stirring together milk, eggs, and spices!

The end result was so tempting that we devoured most of it before I snapped a photo 😉

We ate this bread pudding plain, but it would also be good with ice cream, whipped cream, or bourbon/whiskey sauce. Adding chopped apple keeps everything moist and makes a sweet, buttery, boozy sauce unnecessary – although not any less welcome!

And if you’re interested in the traditional Martinsgans, check out this roast goose recipe from Ginger & Bread.

Bread pudding with apples

Ingredients
  • 450g (1 pound) day old hot cross buns or leftover Martinsmann
  • 700ml (3 cups) milk (or a combination of milk and cream for a richer pudding)
  • 4 eggs, at room temperature
  • 75g (1/3 cups) sugar
  • 1 packet vanilla sugar (or 1 tbsp vanilla extract)
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 3/4 of a large apple, chopped
  • 2 tbsp Demerara sugar (or other coarse sugar)
Method
  • Preheat oven to 180°C (350°F) and lightly grease an ovenproof casserole dish that will fit all the bread cubes
    • A 23cm (9″) square baking dish should do
  • Cut leftover bread into cubes (roughly 1cm square) and place in a large bowl
  • Whisk together milk, eggs, sugar, spices and vanilla; pour mixture over bread and stir until coated
  • Let the milk mixture and bread rest for 15 minutes; the bread should absorb most of the liquid
  • Gently stir in chopped apple and pour into casserole dish, pressing down the bread a bit
  • Sprinkle coarse sugar over top and dust with additional nutmeg and cinnamon if desired
  • Bake until pudding sets and the top is golden brown – about 1 hour
  • Eat while warm and serve with whipped cream, ice cream, or bourbon/whiskey sauce if you’d like

In Remembrance

Travelling through Europe and visiting sites heavily impacted by the two World Wars makes Remembrance Day feel particularly poignant this year.

White grave markers against green grass and rich brown soil
Grave markers at the Adegem Canadian War Cemetery in Belgium.

From cobblestone memorials for Holocaust victims in Berlin to photographs of bomb-devastated German cities at the German National Museum of Contemporary History (Haus der Geschichte) in Bonn; from the massive Canadian Memorial in Vimy to the many roadside memorials in rural France and Belgium, this past year has allowed me to experience war in a highly impactful way.

My first experience with a war cemetery was last January while driving from Antwerp to Bruges. We had taken a minor highway and stumbled across the Adegem Canadian War Cemetery. I was unprepared for the emotions that came up while walking along the rows of grave markers.

My heart swelled with pride, my stomach clenched with horror, my throat choked with the sense of loss, and my eyes welled with tears. I thought of all the people who fought against fascism and Nazism. All the people that didn’t make it home to their families. All the people injured and traumatized. All the grave markers without names. All the freedoms granted to subsequent generations.

We came across many war memorials during the three weeks we spent in a camper travelling across France. Every memorial, marker, and cemetery brought on that same convoluted gut-punch, choked-up sadness tinged with appreciation.

Four flags and a long set of stairs mark the German war cemetery entrance
Entrance to the German cemetery at Mont-de-Huisnes.

And it wasn’t just the Canadian memorials that were emotional.

We stopped at a war cemetery in Normandy (Mont-de-Huisnes) that houses almost 12,000 German dead – from both the First and Second World Wars. I didn’t feel the sense of pride that Canadian or Commonwealth memorials bring on, but the feeling of loss and futility was certainly there.

So many dead. So many families broken. So many loved ones lost. So many stories untold.

War cemeteries are light on context. There might be a plaque explaining the battle or operations that precipitated needing such mournful grounds, but generally the tombstones are left to speak for themselves. Memories of high school humanities and Wikipedia searches filled in some of the details for us, but often emotion took precedence over history.

Visiting the Juno Beach Centre, at the site of the Canadian D-Day landing in Normandy, and the privately funded Canada War Museum (which also had a Polish contingent) near Adegem provided some necessary background. As did the small info centre at the Vimy Ridge Memorial.

Two Canadian grave markers
Dual grave of Canadians who died in the same plane at the Dieppe Cemetery

Sadly, there was no such context for our stop in Dieppe as the 19th August 1942 Memorial Museum is open very limited hours in the winter.

On our trip to France last week, we specifically visited Dieppe to learn more about the predominantly Canadian raid on German-occupied territory that took place there on 19 August, 1942. Almost 60% of the over 6,000 men that went ashore in the Dieppe Raid were killed, injured, or taken prisoner. And the loses in the skies and at sea were calamitous as well.

The magnitude of the operation was clear as marker after marker gave the same date of death – 19 August, 1942. A few pairs of brothers were buried beside each other and there were a number of dual graves with Air Force members who must have gone down in the same place.

Imagining the process of sorting out human remains and respectfully interring them brings up that stomach clench of reality again.

How horrible must that have been. How awful to see your comrades fall. How tortuous to identify the dead. And how dreadful to convey the news to their families.

The limestone Monument at Vimy Ridge
The Vimy Memorial Monument.

After Dieppe, we stopped at Vimy – the site of a major Canadian battle in World War I, which has since come to symbolize Canada’s coming of age as a nation. In addition to the giant limestone monument honouring Canadians who risked or gave their lives in the First World War, the Vimy Ridge site contains graveyards, smaller memorials, and preserved tunnels, trenches, and craters from frontline fighting.

Seeing the proximity of the trenches and the deep craters from shells, bombs, and mines was a harrowing sight, but that distress was trumped when we reached the giant limestone monument erected in the mid-1930s (and pictured on the back of Canadian $20 bills).

The lower walls of the monument are inscribed with the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers killed in France whose final resting place was unknown. Thousands of unidentified bodies buried in nameless graves. Not being able to identify soldiers after their deaths (for whatever reason… all the scenarios I can imagine are simply awful) deeply troubled me.

One of the cemeteries at Vimy has a plaque inscribed “Their Names Liveth Evermore.” But many of the tombstones have no names; they read “A Soldier of the Great War | Known Unto God.” Sometimes a regiment name as well, but often just a country – and occasionally not even that basic detail.

Dieppe Cemetery
Rows of grave markers at the Dieppe Cemetery.

I was more upset leaving Vimy than after any previous war memorial or cemetery. The monument eloquently expresses the grief and sadness felt after the First World War, but yet the Second World War arose out of the reparations of what was presumed to be the only Great War. The sheer volume of tombstones inscribed with ‘Known Unto God’ clearly reflects the chaos and horror of war, but we are unable to stop repeating it.

The scope of all the cemeteries, all the memorials, all the monuments shakes me. It’s one thing to hear the figures (more than 17 million civilian and military deaths in WWI and an astonishing 22-25 million military deaths and 38-55 million civilian deaths in WWII) and quite another to stand amongst the rows of gravestones commemorating the real human sacrifice. The white stones carved with maple leaves mark the final resting places of some of my countrymen – 61,000 Canadian soldiers killed in WWI and more than 42,000 in WWII. Part of the over 118,000 Canadians who have died while serving our country in uniform.

Visiting war memorials, monuments, and cemeteries has really driven home the enormity and incredible loss of war for me. The quiet moments spent walking along the aisles of white stones are among the most profound I’ve experienced in the last year.

Remembrance. Sorrow. Gratitude. Pride. And above all, the fervent hope that war will be no more.

And the walls came down…

Lichtgrenze (light border) art installation commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall
Aerial view of the 8,000 lit balloons tracing the path of the Berlin Wall. Photo from Wired.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and there’s a maelstrom of media coverage about the event. (Sadly, the word maelstrom has Dutch origins, not German ones.) Given that this time last year we were living in Berlin, I’ve been following the celebrations and reading as much as I can about the event itself.

Here are a few of my favourite reads:

Chunnel excitement

Driving towards the Eurotunnel trainAbout this time last year we took a jaunt to Denmark and were aboard a train that was on a ferry (and then got stuck in Northern Germany in a wind storm). We thought that was crazy (trains on a boat!), so when the chance to take the Eurotunnel Shuttle (cars on a train!) arose, we jumped at it.

Not only is the Eurotunnel crossing a lot shorter than taking ferry across the English Channel (about 40 minutes vs at least two hours), their website also promised hassle-free pet travel – and they delivered. Getting Sofie cleared to travel to the UK was easier than I had feared it might be; pet reception was easy to find, the line moved quickly (and we met a gaggle of golden labs while waiting), Sofie’s microchip was scanned and her pet passport was scrutinized… and we were presented with a windshield sticker and bid continue on our way.

The next step was self-check in, where we secured a spot 40 minutes earlier than our reservation, and then on to French and UK border control. The French agent barely even looked at our passports (prompting a little panic that we hadn’t gotten exit stamps and might need them). The British agent made small talk about Dover (where we were headed and he lived) before stamping our passports in the requisite spots and sending us on.

After a short wait and a little cursing at British tourists being idiots (I generally consider the British good at queuing, but the bathroom line-ups were utter chaos!), we proceeded to the loading area.

We had little idea what to expect and were maybe a little too excited when we were directed along a causeway towards a railyard. Though we logically knew that vehicles went onto rail cars, the reality of it was a little surreal. Cars on a train!

While my husband and I were pointing and gasping, rolling our windows down and taking photos, the occupants of the other cars (all with GB plates) seemed totally nonplussed. I suspect it was not their first times 😉

The excitement built as we actually saw cars driving onto the train – and then reached fever pitch as we realized that we would be driving onto the upper level of the rail car. Cars on a train… stacked on top of each other!

Aboard the Eurotunnel shuttleOnce we were settled on the second level (which resembled public transit trains the world over – very Expo Line SkyTrain), the front and back of the train car was sealed off, the legally-required safely notifications were delivered, and our review-mirror-hanging ticket was re-checked. Then we started to move…

The railyard outside the windows was quickly replaced with blackness. We could feel the angle of the car change and knew we were dipping down to the 75m depth of the Chunnel. Cars on a train… stacked on top of each otherunderneath a huge body of water!

The ‘you are approaching your destination’ announcements started well in advance of our actual arrival and their overeagerness, coupled with the distraction of fiddling with the sat nav, dimmed our excitement of arriving in the UK.

But the adventure of travelling by car loaded onto a train was everything we had hoped – and maybe even a little more.

We took the ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe on our way back to the continent and vastly preferred the car/train option. While the ferry was less expensive than the Eurotunnel Shuttle and had amazing views of the southern English coast, it took four hours and we had to leave Sofie by herself on the car deck.

Much more fun to be all together in a car on a train that goes underneath the English Channel!

Pancakes & packing – part 2

All of our stuff... packed!In addition to becoming better at clearing out a kitchen (as I posted about yesterday), moving frequently has also made me better at living minimalistically. All of our stuff (clothes, shoes, toiletries, electronics, reading materials, random housewares, my husband’s beloved road bike) fits into one bike case, two large duffle bags, and a couple smaller bags.

This is almost everything we own.

It all fits into a tiny alcove in our Munich flat and should easily cram into our rental car for the trip to Mannheim, our homebase for the next two months.

When I think of how much stuff used to fill our two-bedroom condo in Canada, I’m shocked (and impressed!) that we’ve condensed so much. We left a few pieces of meaningful furniture and some items we’ll need to stock an unfurnished apartment in a small storage locker, but otherwise we travel with pretty much everything!

We were at the absolute weight limit of our baggage allowance on the flight from Calgary to Frankfurt (and paid an extra bag) and have been paring down since. We moved from Frankfurt to Berlin via train and then between flats in Berlin by taxi; the physical difficulty of moving all our stuff spurred us to keep only essentials.

Sofie's luggageThere are no moving companies, no wheeled dollies, and no family & friends to lift cardboard boxes – just the two of us. And a dog who really can’t carry anything – although she has a fair amount of her own stuff!

Because we’re travelling by car rather than plane this time, we’re transporting Sofie’s stuff in her carrier (where she goes when we fly). Her bed and her black bag are all she needs 🙂

One of the upsides of minimalism is that packing is pretty quick. All our bags were filled in under an hour and there’s limited risk of accidentally leaving something behind!

We hit the road in a few minutes and are hoping for a smooth trip between Munich and Mannheim – and then more adventures as we explore Baden Würtemburg!