Bon Marché

The glow of the Alsatian Christmas markets

By: Mary-Ann Bendel

PARIS I’ve always wanted to visit Alsace Lorraine the picturesque region of France near the German and Swiss borders where my ancestors emigrated from in the 1800s so I jumped at the chance to visit the area’s Christmas markets last December.

On the way there, we stopped in Paris, ostensibly to get over the jet lag, but really, who needs an excuse to detour through the French capital, especially around Christmastime.

The City of Lights lived up to its nickname Paris was magically ablaze in its holiday “fashion.” The trees along the Champs Elysees glittered with tiny white lights and every hour a dramatic light show flashed across the Eiffel Tower.

The windows at the Bon Marché department store on the Left Bank enchanted children and adults alike, and, though the streets were mobbed, they were filled with holiday cheer and a civility that seemed refreshing to an American. There was not even much horn-honking in holiday traffic jams.

From Paris, it’s a quick train ride to southeastern France where each city’s Christmas market has a different flavor.

Our first stop was Metz, the capital of Lorraine, a city that has received accolades for the extraordinary nighttime illumination of its monuments. Add Christmas lights to an already stunning spectacle and the effect is dazzling.

The Metz Christmas market is next to St. Stephen’s Cathedral, where the stained-glass windows some of which date back to the 13th century rival those at the cathedral in Chartres, south of Paris. Marc Chagall designed some of the windows here.

This Christmas market in Metz is notorious for its great food and for the St. Nicholas feast on Dec. 6 when the patron saint of children is celebrated. The market is a great place to watch the parade when St. Nicolas passes out candy to the city’s children.

Nancy is the city where art nouveau was born in the 1890s and some terrific examples of that architectural style can be found there. The stands at the Nancy Christmas market resemble brightly lit chalets, brimming with Christmas cakes, cookies, cheese and grilled sausages for sale.

The food in this region is hearty and wonderful. The Brasserie Excelsior in Nancy, with its art nouveau chandeliers, is a cozy but lively, bistro. In the morning, the sight of the sun coming up over the buildings, with the church bells tolling, was a nice moment to behold.

Colmar is the most romantic city on the Christmas market tour. It has five Christmas markets and a succession of illuminated decors that lead pedestrians through the streets of Old Colmar. The Alsatian-style houses, each glowing with festive displays, give the city an air of romance.

Locals and tourists wander from market to market, sipping hot wine or cider while sampling Christmas cakes, roasted chestnuts and other cinnamon and spice flavored specialties. Master glassmakers, wood carvers and jewelers sell hand-crafted items at an indoor market. Strasbourg is the area’s largest and most famous Christmas market and probably the oldest; there has been a Christmas market situated near the cathedral since 1570.

Nowadays, an 80-foot-high Christmas tree twinkles with 200 different balls, stars, lanterns and snowmen, all made by Alsatian craftsmen.

There are sausages sizzling on the grill, cookies, candies, Christmas breads and a glass blower making ornaments. In the cold, crisp air, a glass of mulled wine goes down smoothly. The atmosphere is festive, and wherever one looks, there are children with red, happy faces. The entire city is lit up streets, houses, church facades, windows and balconies with thousands of colors. Down every street a different vista beckons.

The markets sell lots of commercial Christmas items, but the charm is in the aromas and foodstuffs at the various booths, and in the friendly attitude of the people. The Alsace region has wonderfully preserved old towns filled with traditional houses with half-timber facades, Romanesque chapels and Gothic cathedrals.

This time of year, the Christmas markets are a perfect backdrop for experiencing the history, culture and skilled craftwork of this off-the-beaten-track part of France.


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