Small is beautiful

If you’re looking for some festive spirit, head for France’s Christmas capital. Kate Chappell took a short break in Alsace filled with gingerbread, vin chaud and sparkling fairy lights

If you’re looking for some festive spirit, head for France’s Christmas capital. Kate Chappell took a short break in Alsace filled with gingerbread, vin chaud and sparkling fairy lights From the end of November to the end of December, Alsace becomes the French capital of Christmas, enticing millions of festive fans from all over the world with the heady aroma of vin chaud, gingerbread and woody chimney smoke. Each village, town and city has kept its own tradition alive for centuries – whether it be a Christmas market, a Nativity, church concert or colourful procession. As the festive season approaches, the region is divided into seven areas or Christmas lands,’,each with its own speciality. The area around Mulhouse becomes The Land of Christmas Songs and Fine Fabrics, while the heart of Alsace becomes The Land of Christmas Trees. Strasbourg, home to France’s oldest Christmas market presides over The Land of Taste and in the north, Saverne sits in The Land of Christmas Lights. It might all sound a little pretentious, but there is so much to see and do in Alsace at this time of year that dividing it up does make things slightly less overwhelming.

Magical marketsOn our Christmas pilgrimage, my husband and I visited The Land of Christmas Stars, in the lower-middle part of Alsace. Home to Colmar, Riquewihr, Kaysersberg, Ribeauville and Turckheim, and a big chunk of the Alsace wine route. It’s an area strewn with vineyards and beautiful views of the Vosges – postcard-pretty at any time of year. In the winter, a crystal mist descends, swathing everything in a magical blur and providing ample compensation for the years where the snow fails to fall. Every town and village, however small, falls under the spell of Christmas and you never get the sense that this is purely for the tourists’ benefit – the locals seem as excited about the lights, the smells, the music and the food as they would have been before the world cottoned on to their little secret.In The Land of Christmas Stars, Colmar is king and this is where we started our short break, arriving by train from Paris Gare de l’Est. At 4pm, the skies were already dark and the illuminated trees outside the station were enough to send us hurtling into the spirit of things. Our hotel, La Maison des T�tes, built in 1609 and one of the most famous buildings in Colmar, was the perfect place to stay; it looks like something out of a Christmas card all year round, with its ornate roof, covered balconies and lamp-lit courtyard. An enormous Christmas tree in the lobby was the icing on the cake. Colmar has seven official Christmas markets, but in the narrow cobbled streets of the historic old town, everything blends together to make one enormous winter festival. The town is illuminated all year round, with over a thousand computer-driven light sources picking out Colmar’s extraordinary medieval architecture, but on winter evenings the magical lights seem the most natural thing in the world. Around the huge �glise des Dominicains, the market stalls start, circling the church and emitting the most wonderful smells – pain d’�pice, mulled wine and hot caramel. The markets are so large that, even on the busiest days and evenings, the crowds are more bustling than uncomfortable and the buzz of people enjoying themselves is all part of the experience. Despite being loaded with town maps, we soon found that the best (and only!) way to explore was to ditch any thoughts of sticking to a plan and just go with the flow, a non-plan made even easier by countless cups of vin chaud en route. From the �glise des Dominicains, we headed down Rue des Marchants, past the beautiful Renaissance balconies and staircases of Maison Pfister to the Place de l’Ancienne Douane and the covered markets in the town’s former customs house. While the stalls in the Place des Dominicains sold mainly sweets, drinks and decorations, here you could buy pretty jewellery and swirling glass vases – perfect for Christmas presents. Outside, a live’ nativity scene with sheep and donkeys kept the children (and husbands) distracted while the mums shopped inside.Further on from here, the Little Venice’ quarter of Colmar, where tall medieval houses line both sides of the pretty River La Lauch, was lit up in greens and blues, with the dainty bridges twinkling under the weight of hundreds of fairy lights. A quiet respite from the streets of the old town, the little quarter is a good place to catch your breath, accompanied only by an avuncular P�re No�l sitting in a small fishing boat on the river. Before we headed back to the hotel, we stopped off at the Childrens’ Market, next to Little Venice. By this time, the real children had been shipped off to bed, but there were plenty of grown-ups enjoying the carousel where you get squirted with snow on the final turn, and we even spotted a couple posting letters in P�re No�l’s letterbox.

Magical landThe next morning, we headed out into The Land of Christmas Stars, still heady from the vast quantities of gingerbread and wine we’d consumed the night before. In the daylight, the streets of Colmar were no less magical as the markets continued apace and the swirls of warm breath emanating from underneath coats and hats kept things Christmassy. We’d been enthusiastically told by our hotel owner Carmen Rohfritsch of how wonderful the surrounding countryside looks when it’s snowing, but despite haunting grey skies we had to make do with just the freezing temperatures on our visit. Nevertheless, the small roads through the hills, dotted with villages and lined with vineyards made for a heart-stopping afternoon’s exploring as Christmas trees and fairy-lit buildings loomed out of the mists at the very last minute.Our first stop was the walled town of Riquewihr, where we entered through the medieval town gates and were thrown back in time. A steep, cobbled main street rose up in front of us, lined with stone Renaissance town houses and half-timbered shops, with their colourful signs hanging over the street below.

Tranquil toursA small Christmas market at the bottom of the hill made the most of the ancient city walls, while views of the Vosges mountains dwarfes the scene. Even the French Christmas carols being piped out through hidden speakers seemed to fit in perfectly. It was cold – really cold – which made exploring the back streets, ramparts and stunning hidden courtyards a bit of a challenge, but made the steaming sauerkraut and sausage lunch at H�tel Dolder even more enjoyable. Accompanied by a rousing session of accordion playing and surrounded by very cold, but very happy, people, we couldn’t have felt more festive.Next stop was friendly Kaysersberg for a more low-key, but no less Christmassy, town tour. With the feel of an Alpine village, Kaysersberg climbs up past its beautiful half-timbered buildings and pretty town church to the bridge over the bubbling Weiss River, tumbling down from the Vosges. Quieter than busy Riquewihr, the cobbled streets lit by white Christmas lights make for a more serene festive feeling (although the annual Christmas exhibition at the tourist office, complete with moving elves and a very fat P�re No�l is anything but!). We stopped off at a wonderful p�tisserie where we bought a bag of macarons and enjoyed a welcome hot chocolate.The dark was drawing in and the temperatures were dropping as we left Kaysersberg, but Carmen had given us a top tip that she said was a little off the beaten track. The small village of Bergheim was a short drive away and noticeable, as we arrived, for its lack of lights, piped music and market stalls. Instead, the village upholds its tradition for exhibiting Nativity scenes in every conceivable nook and cranny – there are now over 50 on a Nativity trail that winds its way through Bergheim’s maze of streets. Helped by a map that we picked up outside the town’s tiny church, we found Nativities in all shapes and sizes and made from every material under the sun.

Festive spiritThe town’s school children had made a life-size Nativity, while there were Nativity murals, Nativities made from wood and tiny Nativities hidden in house windows. If anyone needed reminding of the true meaning of Christmas, Bergheim is certainly the place to send them. After the lights and noise of Colmar, there could be no better antidote.Our last stop was the town of Turckheim, just outside Colmar. We arrived at nightfall and headed for the town square, where a small crowd was beginning to gather. On one side of the square a huge Advent calendar towered over us, lit by the Christmas trees that twinkled either side. At exactly 5pm, a bell began to ring and the doors of the medieval town hall opened to let a procession of tiny children, all dressed in traditional velvet costumes and led by the town burgher and his lantern, troop out and around the square. All aged under six, the children wriggled and fidgeted their way towards the Advent calendar, stopping every so often to wave at their proud parents or to giggle with the child in front, only to be gently prodded by the burgher. Then two were chosen to open that day’s window before everyone cheered and headed, rather quickly, to the warm town hall for vin chaud and gingerbread. We were made very welcome and a friendly set of parents explained that this goes on every night leading up to Christmas, and has done for many years. Taking part was a bit of a rite of passage for the local children, who all got to take part over the course of Advent.Back in Colmar, the markets were in full swing as we arrived at the hotel. Our desire to get out of our coats, hats, scarves and three pairs of socks, and to run a hot bath had been the only topics of conversation on the journey back from Turckheim. But once we’d heard the carols and smelt the vin chaud we couldn’t help but venture out again. It seems the spirit of Christmas is just too strong to resist.FrancofileHow to get thereColmar is an easy five-hour train journey direct from Paris Gare de l’Est. Kate travelled with Rail Europe. Tel: 0844 848 4064 www.raileurope.co.uk

Where to stayColmarLa Maison des T�tesRue des T�tesTel: (Fr) 3 89 24 43 43www.maisondestetes.comRoom prices start from €91 per nightLa Maison des T�tes is the best hotel in Colmar (it pays to book well in advance for the busy Christmas season).

RiquewihrRemparts de RiquewihrTel: (Fr) 6 08 03 37 52www.i-love-riquewihr.comApartments start from €66 per night.For a real Christmassy experience, try a self-catering apartment in wonderful Riquewihr. You’ll even have your own fireplace to hang your stocking and a cooker for making gallons of mulled wine.

Where to eat Brasserie UnterlindenRue des Unterlinden, ColmarTel: (Fr) 3 89 41 18 73www.unterlinden.comFor a traditional Alsatian spread, this little Winstub close to the Unterlinden Museum is great and excellent value to boot.

Hotel DolderRue du G�neral de Gaulle, RiquewihrTel: (Fr) 3 89 47 92 56www.dolder.frThis bistro has roaring fires and home-made schnapps in lots of flavours. Perfect for comforting Alsatian dishes on a cold day.

More informationThere is lots of information on Alsace’s Christmas markets online. Visit www.tourisme-alsace.com

For information on Colmar and The Land of Christmas Stars, log on to:www.ot-colmar.fr