Catching the Christmas spirit in France’s Alsace region


by Mary Beltran, Associate Editor, ITN

Some years, as the Christmas holiday approaches, I get a definite “Bah, humbug” attitude. I feel overwhelmed by the boxes of decorations, the cards to be mailed and the shopping and baking to be done in preparation for family celebrations. During the 2004 season, I was invited to go to France’s Alsace region to get a taste of how they celebrate Christmas. I decided it would be a good way to get over the “glooms,” and it was an opportunity to learn more about French holiday traditions.

Strasbourg

Our Christmas traditions journey started on Dec. 5th in Strasbourg. October to December is the high season in Strasbourg, and many European visitors come for the Christmas markets that dot the city.

During my visit, almost every building had garlands and arrangements strung along their windows, ledges and doors. Many streets had colorful Christmas lights up — one street even had crystal chandeliers, enclosed in clear lucite boxes for protection, in the middle of the street! The city ws incredibly beautiful at night when all lit up.

The hotel for our group of journalists, the Regent Petite France (5 rue des Moulins; phone +33 [0] 3 88 76 43 43, fax +33 [0] 3 88 76 43 76 or visit www.regent-petite-france.com), with single rooms ranging from €149 to €285 ($180-$344), was located on the edge of the Old City, which is very walkable.

That first evening we walked around to see some of the market stalls, then we went over to Bierstub L’Ami Schutz (1 rue des Ponts-Couverts; phone +33 [0] 3 88 32 76 98 or e-mail info@ami-schutz.com), a restaurant which features traditional regional food. It had a cozy atmosphere, with dining alcoves and private rooms that could be curtained off, and lovely Christmas decorations. The food was excellent and dinner cost around €33 ($40) with wine.

After dinner, I walked around the town by myself and felt quite safe on the main streets. Walking around let me get a leisurely look at the beautiful, old half-timber buildings and shops.

In most of the open squares in the Old City, Christmas markets were set up. The oldest of these is the Christkindelsmärik, located at Place Broglie and rue de la Comédie, where they have lots of crafts and artisan gifts as well as some Christmas decorations for sale. There were booths with hot wine (vin chaud) and others with food, candy, Christmas cookies, cakes and snacks. The taste of spiced gingerbread and hot apple cider mingled with the scents of fir and pine bough to make me feel very festive.

Strolling the markets

At the Strasbourg cathedral, some lovely tapestries from the 17th century were on display. The 14 panels were originally designed for the Notre Dame de Paris but were later purchased for Strasbourg’s cathedral. Depicting scenes from the life of Mary, they are on display only during December.

We did a lot of walking around town and strolling through the Christmas markets. I loved looking at the jewelry, carved wood toys and puzzles, table linens, bright ornaments and handcrafted pottery, most of which were of high quality.

A carousel and ice rink kept children entertained, Christmas songs were playing and every so often church bells would ring.

The weekends here can be tremendously busy and crowded. On the Monday we were there, the markets were busy but not overly crowded. The police circulated on foot to keep pickpockets at bay.

Most booths took cash only — few had electricity for processing charges.

The weather during our visit was very cold, often overcast and gray. I really appreciated my heavy coat, warm gloves, scarf and hat. The breeze picked up in the open squares, but we stayed pretty warm walking around, and sipping on hot drinks helped.

Baldenheim and environs

Our next stop was Baldenheim, where we stayed at Les Pres d’Ondine (5, route de Baldenheim; phone +33 [0] 3 88 58 04 60, fax +33 [0] 3 88 58 04 61 or e-mail message@presdondine.com). This large, comfortable inn has 12 guest rooms (rates start at €80), each decorated differently.

We had an excellent dinner (€30) at the inn, and it was nice to eat there and not have to travel out to a restaurant. The Munster cheese with local honey drizzled on it was delicious.

The hotel manager/owner spoke excellent English, and a friendly black Labrador named Hermes made us feel welcome.

Smoking is allowed inside, so the dining room got a little stuffy by the end of the evening but not unbearable.

The inn is situated out in the country, so after breakfast I enjoyed a stroll around the grounds and along the country road, over the stream and bridge and down along the fields and farmhouses.

From the inn we drove to Mittelbergheim for a winery tour. The Alsace region is famous for its wines, with over 6,000 growers and around 300 wineries. In Mittelbergheim alone there are over 20 wineries to visit!

The owner of Domaine Albert Seltz (21 rue Principale; phone +33 [0] 3 88 08 91 77 or e-mail info@albert-seltz. fr) is a 13th-generation vintner. His 11-hectare vineyard grows all of the seven varieties of grapes grown in Alsace, but Monsieur Seltz’s favorite is the Sylvaner.

Just a short drive away is the village of Barr, where we had lunch at Au Potin (11 rue de Général Vandenberg; phone +33 [0] 3 88 08 88 84). This café was very sunny and not touristy — there were many locals eating there. The portions were generous.

Barr is located on Alsace’s Wine Road, a route that meanders through the foothills that stretch along the Rhine River.

Sélestat

Sélestat is a town that celebrates the origins of the Christmas tree. As we strolled the streets with a guide from the tourism board (Office de Tourisme de Sélestat, Blvd du Général Leclerc; phone +33 [0] 3 88 58 87 20 or visit www.selestat-tourisme.com), we walked from plaza to plaza, each with a special tree decorated with different ornaments to demonstrate the evolution of Christmas tree traditions.

In the Sélestat cathedral, we saw a number of small fir trees — decorated and lit — suspended along the central nave as they are each Christmas season. It was beautiful and very fragrant.

A tradition in Alsatian homes is to suspend a small Christmas tree on Christmas Eve and leave it up till Three Kings Day, Jan. 6, when the children can shake the cookie and candy decorations from the tree and eat them.

Cookies and baked goods are a big part of the Christmas decorations and traditions in the region. There are dozens of special recipes for Bredle cookies, tiny cookies that are served to guests, used to decorate the Christmas tree and eaten as treats. Many are spiced with ginger and cinnamon.

The Bretzel (pretzel) is also a popular decoration and treat for the season.

Another regional specialty enjoyed at the holidays is Kugelhopf. This slightly sweet bread/cake was featured in every bakery, café and restaurant window we passed. The beautifully painted ceramic molds used to make the breads were for sale at every tourist stop.

Be sure to visit the Bread Museum in Sélestat (Maison du pain d’Alsace, 7 rue du Sel; phone 03 88 58 45 90 or visit www.maisondupain-d-alsace.com), housed in the old Baker and Millers Guild Hall. Closed on Mondays (€4.60 adults), the museum features a working bakery on the lower floor, packed with delicious examples of the bakers’ arts, and interesting displays on the history of bread baking upstairs.

The bakery was doing a roaring trade with tourists and locals alike when we were there — even at 7 p.m.!

In Sélestat we stayed at the Abbaye de la Pommeraie (8 avenue du Maréchal-Foch; phone +33 [0] 3 88 92 07 84, fax +33 [0] 3 88 92 0871 or visit www.relaischateaux.com). The rooms (rates start at €139) were lovely, and mine looked vaguely alpine with large, dark, slanting beams. We had a leisurely dinner at the hotel restaurant.

Riquewihr and Ribeauvillé

In the morning we drove along the Alsatian Wine Road to Riquewihr. The medieval village of Riquewihr was very touristy but also very charming. This town still has most of its old fortifications, double walls with gates and even a portcullis. Most of the buildings along the streets date from the 1500s and are still occupied.

The town is surrounded by vineyards and there are several tasting rooms in town, as well as several hotels, many shops and many restaurants. It was a chilly morning, but we strolled around the cobblestone streets admiring the well-preserved buildings and the festive seasonal decorations. There were a couple of street vendor stalls open serving vin chaud, coffee and baked goods, and one even had potato gratin made with Munster cheese. Yum! It was a great late-morning snack to warm up with after our guided tour of the town.

A short drive away was the village of Ribeauvillé where we stopped at Les Foies Gras de Liesel (3 route de Bergheim; phone +33 [0] 3 89 73 3551 or visit www.alsace foiegras.com). Here we met another passionate artisan, one of only 20 master foie gras makers in France. Marco Willmann speaks English and is quite eloquent about his work. If you make reservations, he’ll give you a tasting and a tour as well.

Foie gras is a favorite food for Christmas feasts, and his shop was extremely busy. He is insistent on both quality and careful preparation.

Colmar

For lunch we went to an extremely modern restaurant hidden in an ancient building in the Old Center of Colmar: JYS (17 qual de la Poissonnerie; phone +33 [0] 3 89 215 3 60). The contemporary cuisine and decor were a good contrast to the morning spent roaming medieval villages and sampling traditional foods. I had the prix fixe lunch (€28), which started with a truffle-flavored consommé followed by an oeuf brouillé à truffe (a cooked egg-and-cream mixture with truffles), then a fish entrée with fig-and-tomato chutney. The food was fabulous.

We hired a guide from the Colmar Tourist Board (4 rue Unterlinden; phone +33 [0] 3 89 20 68 92 or visit www.ot-colmar.fr) for €119 and took a walking tour of the Old Town. Like many cities in Alsace, Colmar is along the river and so utilized canals for trade and industry.

The town was very charming and beautifully lit up for the holidays. There were many Christmas markets set up here and we did some browsing before going to visit the Musée Bartholdi (30 rue des Marchands; phone +33 [0] 3 89 41 90 60 or e-mail musees@ville-colmar.com).

Colmar was the birthplace of Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, the sculptor who created the Statue of Liberty. His home is a now a museum with exhibits of many models of his work.

We ended our tour of Alsace with dinner at Le Rendez-vous de chasse, located at our hotel, the Grand Hotel Bristol (7 place de la Gare, Colmar; phone +33 [0] 3 89 23 59 59 or visit www. grand-hotel-bristol.com). The dinner was excellent and so leisurely that we ended our meal around 11 p.m. It was convenient to be able to go directly up to our rooms.

The hotel (€60-€111) is conveniently located next to the main train station in Colmar but was very quiet and comfortable.

The train system allows easy travel up and down the Rhine Valley from Strasbourg to Colmar, stopping at villages and towns along the way. However, the Wine Road is probably better visited with a rental car or a tour guide/driver.

I got over my preholiday blues and definitely got into the Christmas spirit, thanks to the festive atmosphere that prevailed in Alsace.

Ms. Beltran’s visit to Alsace was sponsored by the Tourism Board of Alsace (Comité Régional du Tourisme d’Alsace, 20A rue Berthe Molly, BP 247, 68000, Colmar Cedex, France; visit www.

tourisme-alsace.com).