Soak up the seasonal atmosphere with a Christmas trip to France. Carolyn Boyd and Zoë McIntyre pick six of the best destinations.
28 November to 31 December
While many wonderful markets pop up across France during the winter period, few places so heartily embrace the spirit of the season as Strasbourg, where German and French customs collide to create a market steeped in festive cheer and age-old tradition.
As one of France’s oldest Christmas markets, Strasbourg’s Christkindelsmärik, founded in 1570, has had nearly 445 years to perfect the art of market magic. Every festive season, 300 beautifully decorated stalls are unwrapped across the various picturesque squares of the city’s medieval hub, which resembles some fairy-tale fantasy with its crooked half-timbered buildings and narrow walkways festooned in twinkling lights and lanterns.
In the chilly winter air, constantly laced with a sweet scent of heady glühwein and aromatic pine needles, throngs of visitors (more than a million each year) stroll around the streets, not just to peruse the stalls but to socialise, eat and drink and soak up the celebratory atmosphere that permeates the city.
The most impressive sight is the city’s soaring pink-sandstone Gothic cathedral, with its intricate stonework, brightly lit by the wooden chalets clustered about its base that sell all sorts of delicate decorations and stocking fillers.
Other highlights include Place Kléber, dominated by a dazzling 30 metre-high Christmas tree decked in lights. At the artisan food markets, you can indulge in Strasbourg’s rich gastronomy, with sellers offering various types of bredele, foie gras, Alsatian wines and ring-shaped kugelhopf cakes.
The children’s village at Place Saint-Thomas provides a constant stream of games, live entertainment and decoration-making workshops to keep the little ones busy, so that adults can go for a stroll or book in to one of the classical music concerts taking place over the festive period.
What else to see:
To get your bearings, take a Batorama boat trip along the River Ill for a view of both the European Parliament and the Vauban barrage just west of the Petite France district. Boarding is in front of the Palais Rohan – an opulent 18th-century bishop’s residence now housing the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which has works by masters includingorks El Greco and Botticelli. Art lovers should also check out the eclectic collection of the contemporary art museum, also along the riverbank. After getting lost in the tangle of little streets in the canal-side Petite France district, head to the cathedral where a 330-step ascent to a vertiginous platform will leave you with a memorable view across Strasbourg’s frost-fleeced rooftops.
Where to stay:
Hôtel Beaucour (5 Rue des Bouchers, tel: (Fr) 3 88 76 72 00, www.hotel-beaucour.com) is a three-star boutique hotel in a fully restored 18th-century townhouse a few minutes from the cathedral. Doubles from €107. Book well in advance for stays over Christmas.
Where to eat:
For a real taste of traditional Alsace, Maison des Tanneurs (42 Rue du Bain aux Plantes, tel: (Fr) 3 88 32 79 70, www.maison-des-tanneurs.com) is bang in the middle of La Petite France. Under a low-beam ceiling, expect generous portions of choucroute and coq au Riesling, paired with superb local wines and, if you are lucky enough to snag a window table, views of the canal. Mains from €20; booking essential.
Click HERE to read French Christmas markets: Part Two