Warm drinks & warmest wishes

Christmas market drinksMy favourite part of winter in Europe is the Christmas markets. And my favourite part of the Christmas markets is the food and drink. Okay – really, it’s the warm beverages!

From Eierpunsch (warm, alcoholic eggnog) and Glühwein (mulled wine) to Feuerzangenbowle (a rum-based punch with flaming sugar cubes) and Lumumba (hot chocolate with rum, cognac, brandy, or amaretto) at German markets to vin chaud (hot spiced wine) and bière de Noël (Christmas beer) at French and Belgian markets there’s a drink for every taste. Not only are the drinks delicious, the mugs make excellent hand warmers and they’re a toasty way to warm the spirit.

This is the last day of the Christmas markets around Mannheim and I’ll certainly be taking advantage of one last round of warm drinks. And likely posing with a funny face while holding the mug 😀

I hope your holidays are filled with hot beverages, fun with friends & family, excellent food, lots of time to relax, and warm hearts!

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!

Christmas comes early

Christmas chocolate display that went up in SeptemberMost Novembers I’m annoyed with retailers who slap up Christmas decorations and promote holiday merchandise the second Halloween is over. Turns out Canadian stores are more patient than German ones.

The Christmas treats and product displays started appearing in Munich’s stores in September – before Oktoberfest even started! Festbier (the strong brews created to celebrate Oktoberfest) and Lebkuchen (gingerbread-like Christmas cookies) have been side-by-side on the shelves of our local supermarket for weeks and no one seems to think it strange.

At least I haven’t seen department store Santas yet and the shopping malls haven’t started with the fake greenery, shiny ornaments, and holiday music! And the Weihnachtsmarkts (Christmas markets) won’t be open until the last weekend of November – long after the Oktoberfest tents have been dismantled 🙂