Choosing a Marché de Noël in Alsace shouldn’t be difficult. After all, more than any region I’ve visited, this northeastern section of France knows how to party, with a village fête nearly every weekend celebrating fiddlers, fairytales, choucroute, wine – the list goes on.
Several years after moving to the southern edge of Alsace, my family now craves the region’s Christmas market staples. A vin chaud or spiced biere de Noël for mom and dad; crêpes or bretzels for the kids; and, oh yes, a bag of bredeles – bite-sized, buttery cookies shaped like spirals, checkerboards and anise-flecked stars that the whole family fights over.
Yet finding the perfect market ambiance can be tricky, as it varies mostly with size. And for my taste, bigger isn’t always better.
Our first year, we rushed to the opening day of the Strasbourg market, billed the “capital of Christmas.” Dating to 1570, it ranks the region’s oldest and largest, with a magnificent 31-meter tree this year, some 300 chalets, and lots of ground to cover to reach 12 different staging areas.
But my clearest memory of that gloriously sunny day is of trying to keep a grip on my child as we waded through a huge crowd. Exhausted, we gave up trying to find a children’s choir concert or renting ice skates, and settled for lunch at an organic café. Clearly, we were amateurs. Lesson learned: avoid Strasbourg’s first Saturday, especially if it’s gorgeous weather; study the map in advance; and narrow your field.
Christmas Market Riquewihr
We sought something more intimate, yet grander than the village markets. So we headed to Riquewihr, one of the most touristic towns of Alsace’s Route du Vins, and home to wineries such as Hugel and Dopff Au Moulin.
Old-time Alsatians often sniff that this remarkably preserved medieval town has become too commercial, catering too much to tour bus crowds. In previous spring and fall trips, we had accepted it was the price for views down narrow alleys that frame gracefully terraced vineyards at the base of the Vosges Mountains.
Arriving just before dusk on a Saturday in December, we crossed under the arched gateway of the “Le Dolder” bell tower that dates to the late 13th century. The lively banter of vendors, playing to the crowd within the walled city, instantly set the mood.
At one stall, customers chuckled as a commerçant urged them to try on plush moose, bear and raccoon-face hats. Further down the sloping cobbled road, apronned workers playfully held out samples of dense, golden-brown pain d’épice – cut from rectangular loaves the size of dresser drawers, fragrant with cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg.
As recorded carols blared through speakers, we weaved our way through the throng to stands displaying typical holiday candles, ornaments, wooden puzzles and wool scarves. It was too late to visit the small museum and shop featuring the artwork of Hansi – who patriotically captured daily Alsatian life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. So we browsed stores specializing in the region’s classic red and beige table linens, embroidered with storks or silhouettes of young men and women in Alsatian costumes.
It is a Christmas and souvenir shopper’s paradise.
Susie Woodhams is co-author of The Expat’s Guide to Southern Alsace, available on Amazon.com, find out more: www.xpatsguide.com